Southern California's leading rusher, who spends his early mornings dunking his foot in ice water trying to nurse a severely sprained ankle back to health, is questionable for Tuesday's national championship at the Orange Bowl against No. 2 Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, last year's starting tailback for the No. 1 Trojans tore knee ligaments two weeks ago during one of the team's last practices in Los Angeles, ensuring that he will be on the sideline.
Yet the first 10 minutes of a news conference with USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow sailed by last week without a single reference to the situation surrounding leading rusher LenDale White and 2003 starter Hershel Dennis. When finally asked about the health problems in the backfield, Chow shrugged, saying simply that USC would "just keep rolling."
The reason for the nonchalance: The team's lone healthy tailback is Reggie Bush.
Though Bush started just one game at the position, finished second to White in rushing yards and took handoffs from this year's Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, he nonetheless was voted USC's most valuable player.
"Reggie is like you blow [up] a balloon and then you let it out," USC linebacker Matt Grootegoed said Saturday morning. "He just goes everywhere, and you never know where he is going to end up."
Oftentimes it's the end zone. He rushed for six touchdowns, caught seven more, returned two punts for scores and, for good measure, completed a 52-yard touchdown pass on a tailback option this season. He tallied 2,181 all-purpose yards, averaging 9.9 yards every time he got his hands on the ball. Television commentator Dan Fouts compared him to Gale Sayers. He finished fifth in the voting for the Heisman.
"I did find it kind of ironic, at first, that I beat out the Heisman Trophy winner for the team MVP," Bush said with a grin. "That's just the way it goes."
Despite his flash and dash, Bush averaged a mere 13 carries a game, a number that could double Tuesday even if White is available. Though Bush emphasized that he hoped for White's return, he all but jumped off the small stage from which he fielded reporters' questions when asked about the chance to play a larger role.
"I look forward to any kind of challenge," Bush said. "I love challenges in life and football. I think I'll definitely rise to the occasion. . . . I definitely am curious to see how I could do with 20-25 carries."
As a senior at Helix High in La Mesa, Calif., Bush scored 27 touchdowns and averaged 12.1 yards per carry despite missing four games because of a broken wrist. He said he learned the power of perseverance from his mother, Denise, who works at a correctional facility. Before marrying a minister and security officer 16 years ago, she raised Bush and his brother on her own. At times, Bush said, his mother struggled to put food on the table, but she worked overtime when times were toughest.
"My mother is one of the hardest-working people I've ever known," Bush said. "That's where I get my work ethic from. . . . She was just showing us how to get it done."
If Bush has done nothing else, he has gotten it done, taking advantage of his relatively few opportunities. He caught three touchdowns in the team's opening victory on the road against Virginia Tech. A blazing punt return set up the winning score in a comeback victory over Stanford. At Oregon State, he dazzled teammates and spectators with a punt return for a touchdown in heavy fog. He produced two breakaway touchdowns in a tough victory over UCLA.
"He's such a big-play threat," Oklahoma defensive end Dan Cody said Friday. "Not that LenDale White isn't, but . . . when they give Reggie Bush the ball, they want him to make a big play."
Teammates say Bush's effectiveness helps the team even while occasionally hurting his own production. They say he is a wonderful decoy, as useful without the football as he is with it.
"The impact Reggie has on a game is tremendous," Leinart said. "It's really amazing when he lines up at wide receiver, I swear there's two or three guys [yelling], 'Number five! Number five!' and they double-team him, triple-team him, and that just opens up holes for LenDale."
White collected 985 yards on 188 carries. Bush's total of 833 yards of 137 carries was more than doubled by Oklahoma star running back Adrian Peterson (1,843 yards on 314 carries), yet USC Coach Pete Carroll compared the two of them without apology or disclaimer.
"Adrian has a real classic style," Carroll said. "Reggie has a different style . . . such extraordinary speed and explosion. Reggie has a remarkable ability to change direction at top speed. His lateral movement is just phenomenal. . . . He can see things before they happen, almost."
What does Bush foresee for Tuesday if he gets frequent carries?
"Lots of success," Bush said, smiling broadly. "Lots of touchdowns. Lots of yards. Game over. Checkmate."