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Trophy Isn't Special Case for Trojans

January 04, 2006|J.A. Adande

Maybe the reason Heisman Trophy winners are as prone to bowl flops as triumphs can be found in the line Reggie Bush delivered when he went on David Letterman's late-night show and read the top 10 perks of winning the Heisman:

"Now, when Coach gives me a pointer, it's fun to say, 'And how many Heismans have you won?' "

And maybe the reason USC's recent winners fall into the "success" category is because of the attitude Pete Carroll displayed the next time he saw Bush.

Instead of yukking it up like Paul Shaffer, Carroll said, "I jumped him right after that and said, 'You didn't write that one, did you?' "

It was a subtle reminder that Bush still had to answer to Carroll and the USC coaching staff. And it's another example of one of the program's hallmarks: the ability to get players to perform consistently amid all the hoopla that surrounds the team.

After Carson Palmer had won the Heisman in 2002, he threw for 303 yards and a touchdown in USC's victory over Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Last year, Matt Leinart capped his Heisman-winning season by throwing for 332 yards and five touchdowns as the Trojans whacked Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Palmer's passing yardage was right on his season average; Leinart beat his by 83 yards.

That made them two of the seven Heisman winners since 1990 who met or exceeded their season averages in the ensuing bowl games.

But college football's top players are just as likely to come up small. It could be the hype clogging their heads. It could be the added attention defenses pay to them.

Some guys seem to play as if they have the 25-pound statue tucked in their hip pads. Eight of the last 15 haven't lived up to their standards at bowl time. There were notable letdowns by Oklahoma quarterback Jason White (102 yards passing, two interceptions in the 2004 national championship Sugar Bowl) and Gino Torretta (no touchdowns, three interceptions in the 1993 Sugar Bowl).

Carroll's method for getting top production from his newly anointed stars is "to make them be a normal part of the team, to get after them and critique them and coach them and demand that they do everything that they're supposed to do. Treat them like everybody else."

Because they sure don't get normal treatment anywhere else.

"It was kind of weird," Leinart said of his first few post-Heisman weeks. "It felt like a lot more eyes were on me."

Now the eyes of the media -- and, oh yeah, Texas too -- are upon Bush. Leinart must have felt like the old Miss America the moment she hands over the tiara. There were twice as many cameras and reporters waiting at Bush's podium than there were for Leinart at Rose Bowl media day Monday. Bush has become not only the talk of college football but the NFL.

And Leinart knows Bush will be hearing more talk during the game. Not about him, but at him.

"Guys were talking more," Leinart said of his first post-Heisman game. "That's also just having respect for someone too. Myself and Reggie, being the last two guys to win the trophy, it's a rare opportunity that's never happened before.

"I'm sure there's going to be some talking. It'll be fun."

Last year most of it came from Oklahoma defensive end Larry Birdine, who called Leinart "overrated" and USC an "average team."

"That one guy was running his mouth all month," Leinart said. "He had some words for me [in the game], but I couldn't really make out what he was saying. That's football. You have fun, you talk. At the same time you respect each other."

Bush insists he won't let the added attention change him. And he credits the man in the huddle next to him for showing him how it's done. Just like Bush, Leinart spent the run-up to last year's bowl game dealing with the aftermath of his Heisman win and facing questions about whether he would leave school after his junior year.

"I'm always going to play my same game, day in and day out," Bush said. "I'm going to practice the same. I'm going to work hard, practice and lift weights. No trophy is going to dictate to me who I am and how I play.

"Just seeing Matt going through it last year, what he did, how he handled it, was enough for me to do the same this year."

The first thing was to get back from the banquet circuit and into football mode again. Bush said it took him about a week and a half to feel up to speed on the practice field after a whirlwind tour that took him to an awards show in Orlando, Fla., the Heisman presentation in New York, plus stops at multiple TV studios -- with more cameras following him between tapings to chronicle the experience.

For Bush, the problem might not be a Heisman hangover as much as his personal history of unspectacular bowl games. In his first Rose Bowl game, against Michigan in 2004, he ran for 41 yards and caught two passes for 42 yards. In the Orange Bowl last year, he had 75 yards rushing and 31 yards receiving.

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