Dec. 6, 2005
By Bryan Armen Graham
Assistant Editor, CSTV.com
It came eleven months ago, on Jan. 14, when Matt Leinart -- a sure-fire No. 1 overall pick had he entered the NFL draft -- stunned the sporting world by announcing he was returning to campus for his senior season.
"To me, I think college football and this whole atmosphere of being here with my friends and teammates that I have been with for four years is ultimately more satisfying and will make me happier than any amount of money could make someone happy," said Leinart at the press conference announcing his improbable decision. "I plan on being back here next year and hopefully to be a leader again and win another national championship."
Whether or not Leinart wins his second Heisman Trophy on Saturday, his legacy at USC -- and in the college football history books -- is assured.
That's because the 6-5, 225-pound Santa Ana native, in three years as USC's starting signal-caller, has led the Trojans to unimaginable success -- including 37 victories in 38 starts, a pair of national titles (so far) and a 34-game winning streak entering the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4.
And with one victory more, over second-ranked
Sure, electric junior Reggie Bush is the prohibitive favorite to take college football's highest honor at
It's Leinart who has thrown for 3,450 yards and 27 touchdowns against seven interceptions as the Trojans have extended their NCAA-best winning streak by another 11 games. It's Leinart who converted countless crucial first downs in thrilling comebacks over Arizona State, Oregon, Fresno State and -- of course -- Notre Dame. It's Leinart who made as many headlines on the field with Reggie and LenDale White as he did on the town with Nick and Jessica.
It's Leinart who made, quite arguably, the play of the season on Oct. 15 at
The Trojans trailed the Fighting Irish, 31-28, with 1:32 remaining in regulation and the ball on their own 26-yard line. Down and distance: Fourth-and-nine.
With everything hanging in the balance, Leinart read the defense, audibled, took the snap, and fired a perfect 61-yard pass down the left sideline to Dwayne Jarrett, who was tackled at the Notre Dame 13. Minutes later, Leinart would score the game's winning points on a one-yard scramble.
They didn't stop at Game of the Year. Some pundits have called it the Best Game Ever. And an exhausted, misty-eyed Leinart had willed the victory from the jaws of defeat.
Toiling in a town whose sports fans are oft-harangued for a casual indifference, Leinart has re-established USC football as a matter of cultural importance.
Even if he doesn't join Archie Griffin in the twin-Heisman club Saturday, the uncommon poise with which the 22-year-old has handled the pressure that the ever-growing target on USC's back entails -- defending its back-to-back national titles, maintaining its mounting win streak, taking every opponent's very best shot -- won't be forgotten anytime soon.
Matt Leinart is staring down yet another national championship.