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Randy Harvey

For Now, Leinart Earns Passing Grade

September 07, 2003|Randy Harvey

How good was Matt Leinart in his first home game as USC's starting quarterback?

He was as good as the Trojans needed him to be. He was good enough to win.

That doesn't mean he is ready to make anyone forget Carson Palmer when he was a senior or even Carson Palmer when he was a freshman. That doesn't even mean Leinart will be particularly comfortable this week when reviewing film with the coaches of Saturday night's game against Brigham Young at the Coliseum.

They are not likely to make him blush scarlet with their praise, except perhaps when the middle of the fourth quarter arrives and the Trojans are beginning what would prove to be the decisive series. If Leinart leads them to a score, USC probably goes on to win and protect its No. 4 national ranking. If he doesn't, BYU has an opportunity for a stunning upset.

It was at that point that Leinart took charge, driving the Trojans from their own 43 to a touchdown, the final two plays of the drive producing clutch pass completions of 20 and 18 yards to Mike Williams.

He was Palmer's favorite receiver. It didn't take Leinart two whole games to learn the reasons for that.

The touchdown gave USC a 28-18 lead and, with 4:11 remaining, left BYU with too little time to come back. The Trojans went on to win, 35-18.


Leinart, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't supposed to have to win games for USC, not this soon.

All he was supposed to do was not lose them.

No one was even sure the Trojans needed a quarterback, much less another Palmer, after their first game of the season at Auburn. They went into hostile territory and left with a shutout.

It appeared then that the only reason the Trojans would need an offense at all was to take time off the clock so that defensive stars such as Matt Grootegoed and Shaun Cody and Keneche Udeze could rest.

But there was at least one warning sign before USC's game against BYU began Saturday evening. Earlier in the day, Auburn had scored just three points in a loss at Georgia Tech.

The indication was that perhaps the Tigers, who only two weeks before were considered national championship material, were overrated, particularly on offense.

A truer test of the Trojan defense would come against BYU.

BYU doesn't get shut out. Or at least it hasn't been since September of 1975 -- 352 games ago.

The Trojans appeared as if they might threaten that record for much of the first half. All the Cougars had going for them was Leinart. A quarterback who has been told repeatedly that the Trojans can win if only he doesn't make mistakes was called for intentional grounding from his own end zone for a safety and then was intercepted with 1:22 remaining before halftime to set up a field goal.

Still, the Trojans went into the dressing room with a 21-5 lead even without the offense contributing much. In the 23-0 victory over Auburn, USC's offense had to drive only 14 and 21 yards for its two touchdowns. In the first half against BYU, USC's offense had to drive only 21 yards after the punt coverage team recovered a fumble and the defense scored on a 16-yard interception return by defensive end Omar Nazel.

So who needs a quarterback?


The Trojans do.

USC's capable P.R. machine, the one that made the nation's Heisman Trophy voters pay attention last season to Palmer, has already named the Trojan defensive line "Wild Bunch II," recalling the original from 1969.

But BYU's head coach is Gary Crowton, who is as celebrated for his offenses as USC Coach Pete Carroll is for his defenses. BYU can be a pretty wild bunch when it has the ball.

Crowton made the necessary adjustments at halftime, using the Trojans' defensive aggressiveness to his advantage, and the Cougars drove 80 yards and 78 yards for touchdowns and 43 yards for a field goal that cut the offensively stagnant Trojans' lead to 21-18.

At that point, Leinart, who wasn't supposed to lose games, appeared to be doing just that with his three interceptions and failure to mount a sustained drive since the first quarter. It wasn't entirely his fault. He was getting no help from a running game that had gained 1.3 yards per carry in the first three quarters.

But then Leinart, for at least one very important series, became the quarterback USC needed for at least one night. It was as if something finally clicked in for him. Perhaps it was merely the realization that he should get the ball more often to Williams.

Leinart did that three times on the drive, for 52 of the 57 yards the Trojans drove to score the crucial touchdown.

Williams was wide open on the scoring pass, of 18 yards, because of a masterful play action fake by Leinart.

"That was a beautiful fake and a beautiful pass to Williams," Carroll said.

He added that Leinart appeared to be in a fog during the middle of the game, which Carroll excused by noting the quarterback's inexperience and BYU's unorthodox defense. But the important thing to remember, he said, is that Leinart played well when it mattered most.

That doesn't mean USC has found the quarterback it needs for the future. It did, however, have the quarterback it needed in the fourth quarter Saturday night.


Randy Harvey can be reached at

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