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Triple Overtime Thriller

Saturday
August 10, 2002

Hey there... Remember me? Yeah, I'm still here. I've just been absolutely busy with work... and that newly returned PlayStation 2.

Let me go on record as saying that EA's NCAA Football 2003 for the PS2 may be the most addictive game I've ever played. That's a VERY bold statement, given that there are some quality games through the years that have made a run at that prestigious title (Tecmo Super Bowl, Tetris, Madden 2002 and Devil Dice all count in that category). But no game I've played has the depth, or the ability to bring you in, quite like NCAA 2003.

College football is one of those things that you either get or you don't. Most people outside the U.S. seem to look at it with a mix of disdain, apathy and confusion. To give you a little perspective, from August 1998-December 1998 when I was studying abroad at Harlaxton College in Grantham, England, I saw a grand total of ZERO college ballgames. None. No one there cares. They had one NFL game on per week (or two if you were willing to risk oversleeping for Tuesday morning's British Studies class and stay up late night Monday). But college ball... forgettaboutit.

But even with that being the case, I think NCAA 2003 is a game that anyone with even the slightest inkling of interest in sports could get into and enjoy. The attention to detail, the depth of programming, the sheer volume of teams... it's almost overwhelming. At times it can see that way... staring at amazement as the safety who tipped away the ball then decks the wideout with a flying shoulder block. Or how your running back shakes an arm tackle from an undersized cornerback, jukes out a linebacker who bit on the fake to the right, and then takes it to the house down the left sideline, stretching to reach the pylon just in front of the sprinting backside corner. Words can't do it justice. If you own a PS2, you must check out this game.

I'm waiting on my bro Matt to mail me a new memory card with all the rosters completely named (he downloaded it from an internet site via his Sharkport -- no way did he have time to type in all Division I-A rosters). Major props to Matt for hooking me up with that, by the way. Very nice. One downside to the game is the lack of player names, due to the NCAA rules (because then, gee, they might have to PAY the people whose likenesses they're using for free in making tons of bucks from EA Sports and game players like myself). But thanks to the wonders of the internet, and people willing to devote themselves to the brutally mundane tasks of typing in names, the full, true name rosters can be yours.

In the interim, I've been looking online and finding the names for the key players (QB, RB, WR's, high ranked defenders, etc.) and entering them in for the games I play. Without the new card, I don't have room to start a dynasty (multi-year setup where you take control of every aspect of a team -- playing the games, making personnel moves, and the incredibly fun off-season recruiting). But I've been trying to win the grudge match trophies that are in the game. See, many teams have a travelling trophy of sorts that they compete for on an annual basis. Sometimes it gets a bit silly, like with Paul Bunyan's Ax or the Little Brown Jug (Minnesota/Michigan, which I won with Michigan yesterday). But it's fun to have a collection going in your virtual "trophy case" in the game.

Tonight I decided to go Pac-10 and try UCLA at USC. I played as the Trojans (USC), who are surprisingly even-matched with the Bruins in the game. Their travelling trophy is for the "Victory Bell". I'm not quite sure what that signifies, but what matters is that the Victory Bell is at stake. Or something like that.

I played on All-American mode (Varsity was too easy) with 8:00 quarters. AA mode is very challenging, but surprisingly intuitive. It has the most "against a human opponent" feel to it of any game I've ever seen. The PS2 will go for it on fourth down, be sneaky in the playcalling, and even run up the score (as Wisconsin did to me as Minnesota when they pulled away late in our battle for Paul Bunyan's Ax). Even when you lose, it's fun. That's the hallmark of a truly excellent game.

Anyway, the battle this early AM was UCLA vs. USC, in a night game in Los Angeles. If this year's UCLA/USC showdown is half as good as this one was, then the fans of both teams are in for a real treat. And yes, I am going to tell you about it. It was that good. Trust me. If this doesn't interest you... that's fine. I know it might seem horribly stupid to some people. Like I said, either you get it or you don't. If not, then check this site later today for my New Orleans story. But for the rest of you, read on about this classic matchup... And please excuse the we/they mixing and matching with USC. Not to sound like that annoying fan who refers to his favorite team as an "us" (like if I'm discussing the Titans and say "I hope we win on Sunday")... But in this case, it really was me directing USC. So bear with me.

UCLA drove down the field on their first possession... but senior QB Cory Paus made the mistake of trying a QB keeper twice in the same drive. On his second attempt, he ended up being caught mid-stride by 300 pound USC sophomore defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who tackled him with a Big Boss Man-style hard time slam (sidewalk slam, i.e. Udeze picked him up by his waist and slammed him down back-first into the ground). Paus' head hit the ground hard... and the little injury graphic thing popped up (complete with the medic red cross). It said Paus had hurt his neck. Bad news for UCLA. So in came their backup QB, redshirt freshman John Sciarra. My USC defense was salivating.

To Sciarra's credit, he promptly threw a TD pass to freshman WR Jacques Lazarus, making it 7-0 UCLA. But any momentum the Bruins picked up from that quickly disappeared when word from the locker room came in: Paus had a pinched nerve in his neck, and he'd be out for the game. Ouch.

The Trojans then had their first possession, and ran the ball right at UCLA. Senior RB Justin Fargas received the starting nod for the Trojans. Michigan fans might remember that the Wolverines recruited him out of high school in Cali to come play in Ann Arbor. But that didn't work out, so Fargas transferred to USC. And he used his 4.4 speed to take it right at UCLA's front four. Southern Cal drove the ball down the field mostly on the ground. Then the switch came -- Fargas received a breather on the sidelines, spelled by fellow senior RB Sultan McCullough (who might have the best first name of anyone in D-I ball today). On McCullough's second carry, he bolted through a seam and shot like a lightning bolt into the end zone for a 21-yard TD run. McCullough (4.25) is even faster than Fargas, and he showed it there. Seven-all at the end of the first quarter.

Sciarra didn't have much luck on his first possession in his own zone, going three and out. USC had the momentum, and they were quick to capitalize. Trojan QB Carson Palmer used his 6'5" size to peer into the secondary and find open WR Kareem Kelly with a 17-yard TD strike. 14-7 USC, early second quarter.

But UCLA would not be intimidated. Sciarra became more comfortable in the pocket, thanks in part to a strong running game. Junior RB Akil Harris averaged more than six yards a carry on the day, thanks in no small part to some excellent blocking by the UCLA O-line. They moved down the field quickly, and Harris punched it in from the 2-yard-line to tie the game at 14.

UCLA's defense stepped it up, forcing me to punt. Sciarra moved them into the red zone, but my defense answered the bell and stiffed up on them. Senior kicker Chris Griffith hit the FG, making it 17-14 UCLA with less than two minutes to go in the half.

I kicked USC's two-minute-drill into high gear. Two key third down completions by Palmer moved us into striking distance, and then a long pass to junior WR Keary Colbert (who had 109 receiving yards on the day) made it first-and-goal from the nine. A pair of runs made it third-and-goal at the one yard line, and then Fargas ran it in for a touchdown with :11 left on the clock. Halftime score: USC 21, UCLA 17.

USC received the opening kickoff, and a nice kickoff return by Kelly gave us the ball at midfield. But our offense stalled as we neared the red zone. Trojan senior kicker David Davis hit a 34-yard field goal to make it 24-17 USC.

From there, both teams played tight defense for the rest of the quarter. For USC, it was a case of wasted opportunities. Palmer threw a costly red zone interception, and Davis missed a 32-yard field goal (which hooked wide right at the last moment a la Scott Norwood). USC took a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter.

Sciarra's comfort level at the helm was becoming a bit disconcerting for me. He moved UCLA into Trojan territory, but my defense held and the Bruins had to settle for a short FG by Griffith. 24-20 USC... but the momentum had shifted to the Bruins.

As USC started its first drive of the fourth quarter, perhaps my play-calling became a bit too conservative. The Trojans went three-and-out, giving the ball back to UCLA near mid-field.

The Bruins quickly marched down, threatening to take the lead. Sciarra hurled the ball into single-coverage, but not hard enough... Senior CB Miguel Fletcher stepped in front and picked it off for USC at the three-yard-line. Fletcher's momentum took him into the end zone, but the ball was not spotted as a touchback. That would prove to haunt the Trojans, as they were pinned up against the shadow of their own goal post...

A pair of handoffs to McCullough proved unsuccessful. USC faced a third-and-long from its own five. Palmer went back to pass, and the throw was INTERCEPTED by sophomore free safety Matt Ware, who promptly ran it back 28 yards for a touchdown. USC's fans looked on in stunned silence. 27-24 UCLA, 4:29 to go.

The pressure was on Palmer to lead USC. UCLA slipped into a prevent-style mode, and the Trojans were able to throw and run their way quickly down the field, picking the defense apart methodically. A McCullough TD run from three yards out gave USC the lead back at 31-27 at the 2:26 mark of the fourth quarter.

Undaunted, the freshman Sciarra stepped in again and didn't miss a beat. USC seemed unable to stop the run or the pass, regardless of what defense was selected. UCLA moved the ball to the 30, to the 20, to the 12... and then Sciarra connected with sophomore WR Craig Bragg for a TD completion, giving UCLA a 34-31 lead. 1:01 remained on the clock.

Pressure? You bet. But Palmer kept his composure in the pocket, hitting a key third-down completion to Colbert to keep the drive alive. UCLA seemed determined to prevent a TD at all costs, and they did. But USC managed to reach UCLA's 21-yard-line with :11 on the clock, trailing 37-34.

In came Davis to attempt to send it to overtime. Time was ticking down, and Davis calmly booted the ball up and through the uprights (though it did hook a little at the very end, enough to cause some brief panic for USC). But it was good, and we were tied at 34-all going into overtime.

In college football overtime games, each team gets one possession from the 25 yard line. It worked out where I had the first offensive possession, which is a risky position. Turn it over, and you allow your opponent to potentially land a field goal and get the win.

First down, Fargas ran for eight yards. Second-and-2, Fargas up the middle.. brushing off a tackle, and scampering 17 yards for the TD. The extra point made it 41-34 USC.

Lee Corso commented at the pressure this put on UCLA to score. As Montgomery Burns would say: "Well, duh!" With a freshman QB at the helm, no less.

On the first play, UCLA ran a three WR set... and then went long to senior tight end Mike Seidman. And despite tight coverage... Seidman hauled in the catch for the score. The extra point tied it at 41. Going to DOUBLE OVERTIME.

This time, UCLA had to go first. They rumbled to the nine-yard-line. First down, they rushed to the two. Second down... STUFF. Third-and-two... oh so close, to the 6-inch-line... but not in. Now talk about a tough decision... UCLA could've tried to punch it in. But instead, Griffith hit a chip-shot field goal. 44-41 UCLA. But another USC touchdown would mean a win for the Trojans...

USC possession, down by three in double OT. First down, pass batted down. Second down, Palmer hit Fargas with an outlet pass, and he scampered down to the 9-yard-line. First and goal. High drama for the 90,000+ in attendance.

First down, Fargas ran to the five. Second down, Palmer went for the win... UCLA had sophomore strong safety Ben Emanuel in single coverage with USC junior tight end Alex Holmes. Palmer threw the ball to Holmes... but as it arrived, Emanuel reached in at the last second and batted it away. Third and goal from the 5-yard-line.

I decided to "Ask Lee Corso", where the computer suggests a play. He set me up with a shotgun draw to Fargas. And, silly me, I listened to him. That play went nowhere... stopped at the line of scrimmage. I brought in Davis for a chip shot FG, and we were tied at 44... going to TRIPLE OVERTIME.

This time around, USC had first possession again. Keep in mind: under NCAA rules, in triple overtime and beyond, teams are required to go for a two-point-conversion (no easy extra points here). That had the potential to add a little more drama to the setting...

First play I used a three WR set, Palmer back to pass, his short throw INTERCEPTED. Aaaaargh!!!!! UCLA senior defensive end Rusty Williams made the pick. The 6'4", 256 pound Williams tried to run it back for a UCLA TD (which would've been an automatic victory), but luckily USC managed to drag him down. But all the Bruins needed now was a field goal to win. And they started from the 25...

USC's exhausted defense was no match for Harris, who seemed to grow stronger as the game progressed. He made two long runs on consecutive carries, giving UCLA first-and-10 from the 11-yard-line. Easy decision here, bring in Griffith...

The snap was solid, the hold was clean, and the kick sailed through the goalposts. A UCLA win? No, wait, a flag on the play! HOLDING! That moved UCLA back to the 21-yard-line.

First-and-20 from the 21. UCLA came out with their offense in a jumbo set. But before the snap, what did USC do? Jump offsides. Udeze, the guy who knocked Paus out of the game way back in the first quarter, jumped. That moved the ball to the 16. UCLA decided enough was enough, and they brought Griffith back in for another field goal attempt. This time there were no penalites, and the ball sailed through the uprights. Ball game. UCLA 47, USC 44, Final/3 OT. UCLA was ecstatic; Palmer was inconsolable. Wow...

Yes, NCAA 2003 is that good. If you read through all that, and you appreciate it even one-tenth as much as I do, you know this game is one that you must play at least once. Trust me on this. EA Sports struck gold here...

I hope to post a commentary about New Orleans later today.... Until then, it's back to the gameplay...


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