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ROSE BOWL | USC VS. TEXAS

Correct Change

Leinart's fourth-down audible against Notre Dame made all the difference in a season that had him fighting frustration against his Heisman Trophy standards

January 04, 2006|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

USC quarterback Matt Leinart jogged determinedly toward a huddle of anxious teammates.

The roar in Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 15 was deafening, a crowd of more than 80,000 Fighting Irish fans sensing the end of a historic run.

USC's 27-game winning streak and the Trojans' quest for a third consecutive national title had come down to one play.

Fourth and nine.

Pressure-packed situations were nothing new to Leinart, a Heisman Trophy winner. He won big games against Michigan in the 2004 Rose Bowl and Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl. The only thing missing from his college resume was a last-minute, game-winning drive.

The last time the left-hander had a chance, two years before at Berkeley, he had moved the Trojans to within striking distance. Coaches went for a game-tying field goal, and USC ultimately lost to California in triple overtime. Leinart and the Trojans had won every game since.

Now, USC was down by three points with the ball on its own 26-yard line. Only 1 minute 32 seconds remained.

The Trojans broke and set themselves along the line of scrimmage, Leinart calmly surveying the defense.

He lifted his left hand to his facemask, and then pointed at a linebacker with his right hand, thinking, OK. Here we go. The noise, already a din, grew even louder.

Leinart stepped forward, bent his knees and crouched under center, turning his head left and, after a beat, turning it right.

And then, with the weight of history on his shoulders, he did something unexpected.

Matt Leinart stepped back.

*

As every college football fan knows by now, on that fourth-and-nine play Leinart threaded a hairline pass to Dwayne Jarrett on a daring fade route along the left sideline. The 61-yard pass play started a sequence that was instantly stamped as one of the most dramatic in college football history.

After fumbling out of bounds at the one, Leinart sneaked into the end zone with a push from Reggie Bush with three seconds left. USC's epic 34-31 victory propelled the Trojans to an unbeaten season and a second consecutive berth in the bowl championship series title game.

But when top-ranked USC and second-ranked Texas play in the Rose Bowl tonight, more than a national championship will be on the line.

Leinart is 37-1 as a starter. He has won the Heisman and two national championships. Another win would cement his status as the most successful, if not the greatest, of all college quarterbacks.

"This is the game I came back to play in," he said.

As he did when he stepped back from the line of scrimmage at Notre Dame, Leinart shocked many when he announced last January that he would pass up instant NFL riches and return for a final season of eligibility.

It was one of the defining moments in a five-year career that has seen Leinart go from sulking backup to national star.

Some of those moments occurred on the field, in packed stadiums and before millions of television viewers. Others, no less affecting, happened in quieter places such as coaches' offices, locker rooms, even dining halls.

For example, Leinart was battling to become Carson Palmer's successor in the spring of 2003 when offensive coordinator Norm Chow summoned him to his office. Carroll soon bounded in and told the still unsure redshirt freshman, "If we were going to have a game today, you'd be the starter."

Leinart's face lit up.

"I'm not going to give it up," he told the coaches. "You're making the right choice and I won't let you down."

Over the next two seasons, Leinart rarely disappointed.

After a three-interception performance in the defeat at Cal, Leinart came back from first-half knee and ankle injuries at Arizona State, guiding the Trojans to a victory that changed the course of the program.

"We really haven't been the same since that game," Carroll said.

Leinart was the most valuable player of the 2004 Rose Bowl, his touchdown catch off a pass from receiver Mike Williams the exclamation point on a 12-1 season that gave the Trojans the Associated Press national title.

He won the Heisman last season and capped a 13-0 national championship season by throwing for five touchdowns and winning the MVP award in the Orange Bowl.

So when he decided to come back for a final season, many thought it would be easy for the fifth-year senior.

It didn't turn out that way.

*

It was Monday, five days before the Notre Dame game, and Steve Clarkson sent the text message at 5 a.m.

"I'd like to get on the field with you for five or 10 minutes."

Leinart responded five minutes later: "When?"

Clarkson, Leinart's personal quarterback coach since he was a gangly 14-year-old freshman at Mater Dei High, was stunned. If Leinart was answering that early in the morning, that meant he wasn't sleeping.

Less than two weeks earlier, Leinart had suffered a concussion on a late hit delivered by an Arizona State linebacker. The helmet-to-chin collision had nearly knocked out the 6-foot-5, 225-pound quarterback and ripped a gash that required stitches.

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