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Chris Dufresne ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Injured Leinart Earns Big Points

October 05, 2003|Chris Dufresne

TEMPE, Ariz. — This might not have been Matt Leinart's team at daybreak but it was his at sunset, not long after the USC redshirt sophomore quarterback hobbled back from first-half injuries to lead his team to a win, from behind, in the heat, on the road.

Leinart not only won a Pac-10 bake-off against Arizona State, 37-17, he won hearts, minds and the all-important locker room.

"To sack up and play with an injury like that?" defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. "He was in a lot of pain, I saw it. To sack up when he knows we needed him out there as the leader of our team ... it makes all the other guys around want to fight for him."

Leinart answered the questions every USC player and fan has asked since he took over for Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer: Was this guy going to take the Trojans places or was he keeping the spot warm for the three or four prospects ready to take his place?

How would he respond in a tough situation?

With the USC bar now set at winning a national title, the school doesn't have time to suffer consecutive losses as it grooms Palmer's successor.

After last week's three-interception game against California, USC needed answers about Leinart ... and got them.

"He could have easily packed his bags and got changed," guard Fred Matua said of his quarterback.

"But he knew we needed him. When things were down, he was there."

A mini-drama unfolded Saturday the moment Leinart limped off the field with 14:04 left in the second quarter and USC down, 10-7.

In a weird way, you wondered whether Leinart would ever be back, what with USC backup quarterbacks waiting in the wings like a line of Radio City Music Hall dancers.

If backup Matt Cassel led a Saturday comeback, would he get the nod next week?

Would USC Coach Pete Carroll have taken a long look at Brandon Hance or, the big question, pulled the redshirt jersey off freshman John David Booty and announced, "The future is now."

Leinart never allowed those thoughts to percolate. A halftime X-ray revealed that knee and ankle injuries were not serious. If he could stand the pain, Leinart could play.

USC quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian challenged Leinart to step up.

"I said, 'This team needs you,' " Sarkisian recounted. "I said, 'We need you, can you do it?' "

Leinart responded, "Let's go."

Leinart limped back onto the field after Arizona State scored on its first second-half possession to take a 17-10 lead.

Leinart drove the Trojans 80 yards in six plays for the game-tying score, then, after an Arizona State punt, took USC 75 yards in five plays, capping the drive with a 33-yard scoring pass to Brandon Hancock on fourth and one.

Leinart engineered scores on five of USC's first six second-half possessions to turn a close game into a rout. And the Trojans should have scored on the possession they didn't, receiver Keary Colbert dropping a perfect pass from Leinart on his way to the end zone.

On a bum knee and ankle, Leinart completed seven of 14 second-half passes for 158 yards.

"I toughed it out," Leinart said. "I knew my team needed me, so I just went out there and got the job done."

Sarkisian said Leinart played better after he was injured.

"Sometimes when you're hurt like that it calms you down and you're not as excited and are able to play better football and make better decisions," Sarkisian said.

Leinart could not have come bigger at a bigger time.

A loss to Arizona State, coupled with last week's Cal defeat, would have killed USC's national title hopes and all but eliminated the Trojans from the conference title race.

No team has ever bounced back from an 0-2 start to win the Pac-10.

This was the kind of game USC had to win if it fancied itself among the nation's elite.

It was the kind of game Ohio State comes from behind to win, and Oklahoma too.

On Thursday night, Miami pulled out a 22-20 victory against West Virginia thanks to an incredible catch by Kellen Winslow on fourth and 13.

Until Saturday, though, you didn't know whether Leinart was capable of fabulous feats.

He entered the season not having thrown a pass at USC. Teammates started to get a sense of what he was about against Hawaii, when he threw a lead block after a pass to Reggie Bush.

But who really knew?

His wobbly effort against Cal last week rekindled doubt, but Leinart reversed field at Sun Devil Stadium.

Trojan players were effusive in their praise.

"As to the question about who needs to be the quarterback on this team, I hope nobody asks me," receiver Mike Williams said. "I think it's obvious at this point."

Football locker rooms are like this.

Guys want to know if their leaders really have heart.

It's a sensitive dynamic, the difference between chemistry and division.

And you never really know what's going to happen until push comes to shove.

Leinart needed a game that would define him under duress.

"This is his," Matua said. "This is Matt Leinart's day."

As much as football is about first downs and touchdowns, it is also about establishing credentials.

And what did Leinart prove?

"That's he's a warrior," Cody said. "I want to fight for the guy. I just want to go to war with him."

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