Leinart establishes himself as an all-time great QB
LOS ANGELES — Southern California was in deep trouble. The Trojans trailed Notre Dame, 31-28, with 1:32 remaining, were stuck at their own 26-yard line and had just used their final timeout.
It was fourth-and-9.
The crowd of 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium was going nuts, sensing the Fighting Irish were about to snap USC’s 27-game winning streak and end the Trojans’ hopes for an unprecedented third straight national championship.
USC’s Matt Leinart never thought about that stuff because he had a big play to make. He would make the biggest play of his life.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner called an audible before throwing deep downfield. Dwayne Jarrett was well-covered, but caught the perfectly thrown pass in stride and raced to the Notre Dame 13, completing a 61-yard play.
Leinart would later score on a sneak from inside the 1-yard line with three seconds to play, and the Trojans were winners in one of the most memorable finishes of the season.
No. 1 USC (12-0) has won seven games since, giving the Trojans a 34-game winning streak entering the Rose Bowl, where they’ll face No. 2 Texas for the national title.
If USC wins, the argument can be made that Leinart will finish his career as the best quarterback in college football history for one simple reason — the Trojans’ incredible record with the 6-foot-5 left-hander from Santa Ana at the controls.
Right now, it’s 37-1, with the lone loss a 34-31 triple-overtime setback at California on Sept. 27, 2003.
“If just feels like we can’t lose with him,” USC offensive tackle Winston Justice said. “He’s just so poised. When other quarterbacks would probably freeze up, Matt doesn’t freeze up.”
Leinart hadn’t thrown a pass at USC when he became the Trojans’ starting quarterback in 2003. He passed for 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns with nine interceptions as a sophomore; 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns with six interceptions last year, and 3,450 yards and 27 touchdowns with seven interceptions this season with one game left.
Although teammate Reggie Bush appears to be the front-runner to win this year’s Heisman, which will be awarded Saturday in New York, Leinart believes he’s much better now than he was last season.
USC coach Pete Carroll agrees.
“There is no doubt,” Carroll said. “How many 300-yard games did he have last year?”
The answer is two. This year, Leinart has passed for 300 or more yards in six games.
“That’s just one barometer,” Carroll said. “He’s much more controlled. Everything about him is better, every single aspect. He is stronger, faster. His arm is great, his understanding, his confidence, his speed, his quickness, and his ability to make decisions and get rid of the football, and his ability to audible.”
Leinart passed up the opportunity to become an instant millionaire last January by deciding to return to USC for his senior year rather than making himself available for the NFL draft.
“This is everything I dreamed of coming back,” he said after USC’s 66-19 triumph over crosstown rival UCLA last weekend. “It’s been a perfect season.”
Leinart struggled at times early in the season because, he said, he was putting too much pressure on himself.
Perhaps there were other factors.
“There is a tremendous burden for him, and he’s just a young pup trying to make it,” Carroll said after the Notre Dame game.
Several weeks later, the coach said he and Leinart spoke about the player’s outlook.
“Just shooting the breeze, but we talked about the buildup and the hype and the pressure and the expectations,” Carroll said. “It was really simple, the conversation went to remind him about how great of a football player and a competitor and factor he really is. There are going to be ups and downs, and you are going to have to deal with it.
“Fortunately, what is notable is that Matt was able to regain his composure and his confidence the way he has wanted to, and his performance has been rolling ever since.”
Even when times got a little tough, Leinart said he never regretted his decision to return to USC instead of turning pro.
“I’d rather be here than there right now,” he said last week, referring to the NFL. “I never think about the money, what I could do in the NFL. That time will come.”