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Two quarterbacks share one goal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI - They come from different parts of the country, throw with different arms and have taken different paths to tomorrow's Bowl Championship Series national title game in the Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium.

Oklahoma quarterback Jason White and his Southern California counterpart, Matt Leinart, share one significant achievement that has become something of an albatross for many in the same position.

A year ago, White became the latest Heisman Trophy winner to fail in his quest to win a national title game that season, joining a list that includes Miami's Gino Torretta and Vinny Testaverde, Florida State's Chris Weinke and Nebraska's Eric Crouch.

Leinart, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, hopes to avoid this dubious distinction when the top-ranked Trojans meet the No. 2 Sooners. White, who finished third in the voting this year behind Leinart and Oklahoma teammate Adrian Peterson, hopes to make up for last year's loss to LSU in the BCS championship game at the Sugar Bowl.

"We don't want to make it a one-on-one battle, because it's a team [game]," Leinart said yesterday during Media Day. "I think I speak for Jason when I say we need to play well and do what the coaches ask of us."

As for the fact that, since 1974, reigning Heisman winners have won only four of 13 national championship games in the year they were selected for college football's top individual award, Leinart said: "I don't think there's a jinx. For whatever reason, they haven't won."

Winning is something Leinart has done since taking over as the unlikely successor to another Heisman winner, Carson Palmer, last season. Leinart, a 6-foot-5 left-hander with the mop of perpetually unkempt hair, has lost only to California last season, and the Trojans are on a 21-game winning streak.

It all began with a steady, if unspectacular, performance in 2003's season opener, a 23-0 win at Auburn, a team picked by some to win the national title.

"That game prepared me, obviously," Leinart recalled. "I just remember hearing a couple of weeks before the game how I was going to get killed. That game prepared me playing before 90,000 in a hostile environment."

After completing 17 of 30 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown against Auburn, Leinart emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the country last season. He finished the 2003 season completing 255 of 402 passes (63.4 percent) for 3,556 yards. He threw 38 touchdowns with only nine interceptions.

Faced with a mostly new set of wide-outs this year after All-American Mike Williams declared himself eligible for the NFL draft and Keary Colbert, who finished second in receptions last season, didn't qualify academically, Leinart produced overall numbers that weren't as eye-popping.

But he was certainly good enough to lead the Trojans to 12 straight victories this season.

"Matt really has been in the spotlight all year," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "If you look back to the buildup of the first game against Virginia Tech, he went in built as a Heisman Trophy hopeful and all that kind of stuff. He had that to live with that for the entire year and has done it very well."

Starting with his performance against the Hokies - he completed 19 of 29 for 272 yards, throwing for three touchdowns with no interceptions - Leinart emerged from a pack of Heisman contenders and became the favorite after throwing for five touchdowns in a 41-10 rout of Notre Dame on Nov. 27.

Leinart finished the season with 28 touchdown passes and six interceptions, completing 251 of 377 passes for 2,990 yards. Since Leinart won the Heisman, there has been much speculation he will make himself available for the NFL draft, and what happens tomorrow night could factor into his decision.

"I hate answering that question, because everyone [says], 'How can you come back? What else do you have to do?'" Leinart said. "For me, in my eyes there's a lot for me to get better at, statistically and all that. Physically and mentally, I can grow. Really, this whole year I haven't been 100 percent. I want to be physically and mentally ready whenever I leave."

White can relate to what Leinart has gone through the past month. A season ago, the 6-3 junior was the most dominant quarterback in the country until some of his physical ailments caught up with him. Having already come back from major surgery on both knees, White was banged up headed into the Big 12 championship game against Kansas State.

Despite his throwing for 298 yards, what most remember about White from that game were his two interceptions, including one for a touchdown in a 35-7 defeat, and his limited mobility. White was still not healthy in the BCS championship game against LSU, finishing 13 of 37 passing.

Asked about the criticism White received after that game, including some nasty e-mails from disappointed Oklahoma fans, Sooners coach Bob Stoops said yesterday, "It was unfair, because he had a lot of help losing that game."

Fully recovered from his injuries and granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA because he missed two full seasons because of the knee surgeries, White was in many ways better this season than he was in winning the Heisman.

While his touchdowns fell, from 40 to 33, as did his yards (from 3,846 to 2,961), his interceptions dropped (from 10 to six) and his completion percentage went up (from .616 to .653).

In this season's Big 12 championship game, a 42-3 rout of Colorado, White completed 22 of 29 passes for 254 yards, and became the school's all-time passing leader. Given his physical condition going into this season's championship game, White said he is better prepared to succeed.

"I feel better now than when the season began," White said. "No nicks, no bruises. Last year at this time, I was hurting, I was struggling. I can really feel a difference this time."

One more thing: White has one advantage over Leinart, being one year removed from winning the Heisman and headed into the national title game.

QB comparison

Jason White

Oklahoma

Year: Senior

Height: 6-3

Weight: 226

Age: 24

2004 passing: 231-354, 33 TDs

Heisman winner: 2003

Matt Leinart

USC

Year: Junior

Height: 6-5

Weight: 225

Age: 21

2004 passing: 251-377, 28 TDs

Heisman winner: 2004

Bowl schedule

Sugar

No. 3 Auburn (12-0) vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech (10-2)

Data: 8 tonight, New Orleans, chs. 2, 7

Line: Auburn by 5 1/2

Orange

No. 1 Southern California (12-0) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0)

Data: 8 p.m. tomorrow, Miami, chs. 2, 7

Line: Southern California by 1

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