PASADENA, Calif. – How tough is it to face a defense that causes as much havoc as Michigan's front seven?
The Wolverines found out Monday.
No. 8 Southern California (11-2) whipped No. 3 Michigan 32-18 in the Rose Bowl by beating the Wolverines (11-2)at their own game.
The team with the nation's top run defense couldn't run the ball itself. The squad that ranked second in the nation with 41 sacks watched its quarterback run for his life all day long.
USC sacked Michigan quarterback Chad Henne six times and forced him into two second-half turnovers that helped the Trojans take command of the game. USC also limited Michigan to 12 net rushing yards on 27 carries while forcing All-America tailback Mike Hart into his worst performance of the season.
"We have good players on defense, too," said USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson, who set up two touchdowns with an interception and fumble recovery.
"We came out and showed that. For everybody who doubted us, I think we erased a lot of doubts."
They made a believer out of Henne.
"I pretty much knew where their blitzes were coming from," said Henne, who went 26-of-41 for 309 yards with a pair of touchdown passes. "We just didn't get it done. Their speed overcame ours."
USC's plan of attack should have looked awfully familiar to Michigan. That same formula helped the Wolverines win their first 11 games of the season.
They harassed Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn often enough to force the Heisman Trophy candidate into his worst performance of the last two years.
Then they knocked Penn State quarterbacks Anthony Morelli and Daryll Clark out of the game this fall while holding the Nittany Lions to negative rushing yardage for the first time in Joe Paterno's 41-year coaching tenure.
And they allowed only two teams all year – Minnesota and Ohio State – to exceed 60 rushing yards against them.
Michigan's run defense was as solid as ever Monday while holding USC to 48 yards on 23 carries, but the Wolverines didn't put much pressure on John David Booty. The junior quarterback who was under pressure throughout a 13-9 loss to UCLA last month had enough time Monday to pick Michigan apart with four second-half touchdown passes.
While Booty stayed on his feet for most of the day, USC put on the kind of pass rush that made quite an impression on Michigan defensive end and Lombardi Award winner LaMarr Woodley.
"They definitely brought heat and they definitely got in there," said Woodley, who recorded Michigan's only sack of the game in the fourth quarter. "Their defense stayed fired up because they were always putting pressure on Chad.
"When any defense puts pressure on a quarterback, sometimes the quarterback makes bad decisions on any team. That's what happens sometimes."
That's what happened early in the second half.
Henne was sacked five times in the first half without making any critical errors, which allowed Michigan to enter the locker room in a 3-3 tie despite having minus-9 net rushing yards on 16 carries. But that all changed in the third quarter.
The junior quarterback was about to attempt his first pass of the second half when he found linebackers Dallas Sartz and Keith Rivers homing in on him. Henne tried to throw it away and instead sent the ball right into the hands of Jackson, whose interception gave USC the ball at Michigan's 38-yard line.
Michigan's first turnover of the game set up Booty's 2-yard touchdown pass to Chris McFoy, which put the Trojans ahead for good with 8:43 remaining in the third quarter.
"We know we're – if not the best – one of the best defenses in the nation," Sartz said. "Everybody was confident in what we could do and in our schemes and our coaching. There was a lot of talk about Michigan - their front seven and how they were going to shut down the run - but we're pretty good, too. A lot of people overlooked us."
Later in the third period, USC defensive end Brian Cushing entered the backfield and knocked the ball loose from Henne. Jackson recovered the fumble at Michigan's 32-yard line to set up a 26-yard field goal that extended USC's lead to 19-3.
That represented the biggest play in a breakthrough performance for Cushing, who collected 2 ½ sacks and four tackles for loss. Cushing wasn't even sure he'd be able to play Monday because of a deep bruise in his left knee.
"I was concerned in pregame because I wasn't feeling that well," Cushing said. "But once the game went into effect, the anxiety and emotion just took over everything."
By the end of the day, Cushing and Co. had Hart and Henne feeling anxious.
The Rivals.com first-team All-America tailback gained 11 yards on the Wolverines' first play from scrimmage, then he mustered just 10 more yards on his next eight carries. Hart finished with 47 yards on 17 carries after gaining at least 91 yards in each of Michigan's regular-season games.
Hart traditionally gets stronger in the second half, but Henne's two turnovers forced Michigan to abandon the running game and try to pass its way back into contention.
"They just got a lot of penetration on us," Hart said, " so I had to make my cuts earlier than normal."
This loss ended any debate over whether Michigan could stake a claim to the national title.
Although the winner of next week's Ohio State-Florida game automatically wins the national championship in the coaches' poll, a convincing Rose Bowl victory by Michigan coupled with an uninspired Florida triumph conceivably could have caused the Associated Press voters to put Michigan atop their final ballot.
The Wolverines can stop holding out hope for that unrealistic scenario.
Michigan's inability to run helped knock the Wolverines out of the running.