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Missing It by That Much

Maybe opponents have managed to get smart, or maybe he has taken too many hits; whatever the reason, Leinart has been a tad off his game lately.

October 21, 2005|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Something looks different, slightly off.

After engineering one of the most dramatic drives in USC football history and scoring the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds against Notre Dame, even Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart acknowledged that something was not quite right.

"I don't know exactly what it is -- you can't pinpoint one thing, but I think I can be playing better," the senior quarterback said this week.

The comment came off neither as false modesty nor a rote monologue about his continual quest for improvement.

After a spectacular start in the first two games of the season, Leinart's overall performance has been off -- or at least below the standard he had established.

The sharpness Leinart displayed in routs of Hawaii and Arkansas waned in a comeback victory over Oregon. After he took a ferocious hit, it eroded more in a comeback victory over Arizona State. And it continued at times against Arizona and through the first 50 minutes against Notre Dame.

Coach Pete Carroll this week attributed Leinart's struggles in part to the media crush and burden of expectations that Leinart has shouldered since January, when he announced he would forgo instant millions in the NFL and return to try to help the Trojans win an unprecedented third consecutive national title.

Others cite the number of times Leinart has been hit this season, or the subtle changes in the Trojans' offense under assistant head coach Steve Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

But former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason says Leinart is doing just fine and compares him to the only undefeated quarterback in the NFL this season. "He's not pinpoint and perfect; it looks like he's grinding a little bit," Esiason said. "He had such a fantastic year last year, it's kind of like what Peyton Manning is going through this year."

In 2004, Manning threw an NFL-record 49 touchdown passes; he has only nine this season, but the Indianapolis Colts are 6-0.

Despite a sore left elbow and a hernia, Leinart last season completed 65% of his passes for 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns with only six interceptions.

He had elbow surgery in January and also undertook a rigorous spring conditioning program to strengthen his abdominal muscles. He insists that neither his throwing arm nor the hernia is bothering him.

And as top-ranked and unbeaten USC begins the second half of its season Saturday at Washington, some of the numbers say Leinart is playing better than he was at the same point in 2004.

After six games last season, Leinart had completed 112 of 172 passes (65.1%) for 1,411 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. His highest yardage total was 284 yards.

This season, he has completed 125 of 198 passes (63.1%) for 1,947 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has eclipsed the 300-yard mark five times.

But Leinart struggled with touch and accuracy the last three games.

Against Arizona State, he finished without a touchdown pass for only the second time since becoming the starter in 2003. The next week against Arizona, he missed several throws.

The fourth-quarter heroics against Notre Dame overshadowed that Leinart completed only 53% of his passes -- his lowest percentage in 30 regular-season games -- had two passes intercepted and again finished without a touchdown pass.

It did not help that Trojan receivers dropped four passes.

Pass protection also has been an issue.

Though Leinart has been sacked eight times -- three fewer than at this point last season -- he has been hit more in recent games. He also has been hit more violently.

"He's had two or three statement hits," Carroll said. "Guys are willing to hit him late."

Arizona State linebacker Robert James delivered the biggest blow when he nailed Leinart late on a rollout.

Leinart missed only two plays, but afterward he said, "I don't know if I was all there the whole game." Three days later, he said he had suffered a mild concussion.

"I'm getting hit, but that's just the game, that's the position of quarterback, you're going to get hit back there," Leinart said this week. "You're going to be vulnerable at times throwing the ball and getting hit late, or throwing the ball and getting hit right when you throw the ball."

Notre Dame sacked Leinart twice and also got to him on at least three other plays.

Offensive line coach Pat Ruel said Leinart has been hit too often.

"A lot of it is really correctable," Ruel said. "It's guys paying attention to detail and taking care of their business."

To that end, right guard Fred Matua and right tackle Winston Justice had long post-practice discussions this week with Carroll and Ruel, respectively.

Leinart's struggles also might be attributed in part to the Trojans' more aggressive offensive approach and the way opponents have tried to stop them. For much of the previous two seasons under coordinator Norm Chow, Leinart connected with flankers and split ends on short slant patterns and with running backs on screen passes.

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