Leinart happy under radar

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- As defensive coordinator at Auburn, Gene Chizik saw the genesis of Southern California's current dynasty. Chizik also witnessed the roots of quarterback Matt Leinart's maturation into a Heisman Trophy winner last season and the unquestioned leader of the Trojans.

It came in the 2003 season opener at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, one of college football's toughest home fields, with the Tigers highly ranked and the Trojans in transition, having to replace another Heisman-winning quarterback, Carson Palmer, with the unproven Leinart. USC won easily, 23-0.

"He really managed the game well," Chizik, now in his first season as the defensive coordinator at Texas, recalled yesterday. "And that's what he's been doing ever since."

With a 37-1 record as a starter, including 34 straight victories and back-to-back national championships, Leinart will lead top-ranked USC (12-0) against No. 2 Texas (12-0) in the Bowl Championship Series title game, the Rose Bowl on Wednesday in nearby Pasadena, Calif.

Much of the attention going into the game has focused on Leinart's teammate and Heisman successor, junior tailback Reggie Bush, as well as Leinart's counterpart for the Longhorns, junior quarterback Vince Young. It is a far different setting than the one Leinart faced at the end of last season.

A year ago, rumors were swirling around Leinart that the Orange Bowl matchup against No. 2 Oklahoma was going to be his last college game, despite his insistence that he was likely going to return. Leinart had been mentioned as a possible No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

"This one is a lot easier," Leinart said yesterday. "It was probably more crazy last year by far. The whole time I wanted to come back. I wasn't lying to anybody. That's what I really wanted to do. Then I starting playing good [against Oklahoma], and I could go out on top, it just made it a lot harder on myself."

After throwing five touchdowns in a 55-19 rout of the Sooners, Leinart told USC fans at Pro Player Stadium that he would try to lead the Trojans to an unprecedented third straight championship. What Leinart also did with the way he played last season was raise the expectations when he returned as a senior.

Raising the bar

Though his 2005 statistics are not quite what they were in 2004 -six fewer touchdown passes (27 to 33), one more interception (seven to six) and only three-tenths of a point below his completion rate of 65.3 percent last season - the perception is that Leinart had not played nearly as well.

"I think USC as a team was looked at as every week was never good enough," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said after watching the Trojans practice last week. "Individually Matt Leinart's bar was set so high. That's one of the aspects of coming back for your senior year, and I think Matt handled that very well."

Said Leinart: "I feel like the bar was raised about as high as you can go. Those first two games, getting off to a start like that [the Trojans outscored Hawaii and Arkansas by a combined 133-34], even for me personally and for the team, [we thought] can we keep it going? I just tried to drop as much stuff as I could and concentrate on having fun."

Leinart seemed out of sync early in the season, as well as in the regular-season finale against UCLA when a normally emotional player struggled with the prospect of playing his last home game, but he also showed his grit and propensity for greatness in the team's toughest moment.

Faced with a late fourth-and-nine at the Trojans' 25 and trailing the Irish in South Bend back in mid-October, Leinart called an audible at the line of scrimmage that led to a 64-yard catch-and-run by All-American wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett.

It set up Leinart's winning 1-yard run with three seconds left in a heart-pounding 34-31 win.

It also demonstrated Leinart's coolness and confidence under pressure.

Facing Young

Leinart is looking forward to his showdown with the Longhorns, calling them "the best defense we've played against this year." And he can't wait to see what Young can do in a real game rather than in a video game.

It seems that Young - along with Virginia Tech's Marcus Vick - is one of the more mobile quarterbacks Leinart pretends to be when his hands are on a game controller rather than taking the snap from center. "I love watching quarterbacks who can run. I'm not one of those guys," Leinart said.

Leinart does see a significant similarity between the two distinctly different quarterbacks.

"He's a great leader," Leinart said of Young. "You can see how the team really responds to him on the football field. Just the way he runs. He's so big, but he's so shifty and so fast. He's almost like a Reggie [Bush] at quarterback."

Young, who at 6 feet 5 and 233 pounds is the same height and 8 pounds heavier than Leinart, is perhaps the most dynamic college quarterback since Michael Vick led Virginia Tech to a national championship game in the 1999 season. Young will take a 29-2 record and a 19-game winning streak into the Rose Bowl.

Watching last year's Orange Bowl game on television after leading the Longhorns to victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl, Young noticed how Oklahoma fell apart early against USC and there was no one - particularly quarterback Jason White, a former Heisman winner himself - to pick up the Sooners.

"I felt like they just gave up," said Young. He realized then that he had to be more of a leader.

From workouts last summer, when Young posted notes reading, "If you want to play in the Rose Bowl, be at the practice field at 7:30 [a.m.]", the Longhorns have followed their quarterback's lead. Texas coach Mack Brown has also noticed a change in Young's personality.

"He's matured so much over the last 2 1/2 years," Brown said. "I remember at the Holiday Bowl [his freshman year] where he got his feelings hurt and didn't play very well and pouted. He laughs about that now. Now he throws an interception and before he gets to the [sideline] boundary, he's trying to figure out why he threw it, what happened."

Despite an awkward throwing motion that still makes him a question mark among some pro scouts, Young has made great strides as a passer, spending more time watching film and working on using his arm - and his head - rather than just his feet. He finished second in the nation in pass efficiency.

In a season in which Young led the Longhorns to a dramatic 25-22 win at Ohio State and a cathartic 45-12 win over border rival Oklahoma in Dallas, the only disappointment for Young came when he finished a distant second to Bush for the Heisman.

It led to Young making an interesting statement after the award ceremony in New York last month and could lead to Young returning next season for his senior year.

"Right now, I feel like I let my guys down," Young said at the time. "Right now, I feel like I let my family down."

Come Wednesday night in Pasadena, Young and the Longhorns will try to do something that no team has accomplished in more than two seasons - beat USC. That last USC loss - an overtime defeat at Cal - came a few weeks after Leinart and the Trojans began their ascension as college football's latest dynasty.

"It was huge," Leinart recalled yesterday of the Auburn game. "That was probably the most hostile environment you can go into. They didn't ask me to do a whole lot. That was just about me maturing as the season went along and bringing me along slowly. There were a lot of questions about a new quarterback. I think I answered them."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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