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Michael Wilbon

Leinart's Ready for the Next Stage

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page D01


Forgive me for gushing. But having watched the Washington Redskins play all season, I didn't know the forward pass could be completed in so many different ways. You mean it's acceptable to fling it that far down the field to a receiver on your team? Who knew? Is it customary for the quarterback to just stand back behind his linemen and pick out receivers 20, 25 yards down the field the way Matt Leinart did Tuesday night in the Orange Bowl? The Southern Cal vs. Oklahoma game must have been a killer for Redskins fans, to see a quarterback such as Leinart wearing a uniform that close to burgundy and gold.

It's sweet the way Leinart says he's coming back to USC for his senior year. No doubt he believes it now. He's perhaps one of those rare kids who understands a senior year playing for a two-time national champion would be the best time of his life, a freebie of a season, the last without the pressure of win, win, win. But Leinart is done playing college football. There's no encore to 55-19 in the national championship game. There's no encore to five touchdown passes, four in the first half. Hey, I'm a stay-in-college guy. Whenever in doubt, stay in college. But after the way he led Southern Cal on Tuesday night, what doubt? He has to come out. Does anybody think Leinart's stock could be higher than it is right now?

Southern Cal quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart said he's returning for his senior season, but after a five-touchdown Orange Bowl performance, don't count on it. (Chris O'meara -- AP)

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There was a stretch in the second quarter where the kid threw touchdown passes on three consecutive drives. He threw darts, he threw with touch, he threw over the middle deep. Look, I've been saying for weeks I would have voted for Reggie Bush for the Heisman this season. And the USC tailback was pretty much his usual self, carrying six times for 75 yards. But Leinart could have had George Bush -- both of them -- in the backfield and it wouldn't have slowed him down. Did you see the arm on this kid? He throws lasers. After the first two drives of the game, Leinart had passed for 102 yards, which is more than Mark Brunell passed for in entire games this season.

There are those who think the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers, who have the first pick in the 2005 NFL draft, are drooling over Leinart -- which considering how pitifully run the Niners are now is another reason Leinart would rather stay in college. If I were running the Niners, before I attempted to draft Leinart, I'd call Southern Cal and ask to interview Norm Chow, the offensive coordinator.

Chow is to throwing a football what Butch Harmon is to swinging a golf club. You want Leinart to want to join your program? Hire his guru. That Chow hasn't been a head coach in college is yet another indictment of college football and how uncomfortable those doing the hiring are with any man who doesn't fit the 1950s stereotype of "Coach." It's only natural to wonder if churning out pro quarterbacks is enough to overcome being Asian. It's too bad for all the programs who have coaches who don't measure up. You want Chow's résumé? Here's the list of quarterbacks he's developed as an assistant over the years at Brigham Young, North Carolina State and Southern Cal: Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and now Leinart.

Okay, Leinart and Chow didn't do it all themselves Tuesday night. They had plenty of help -- most of it from Oklahoma. After putting together a really nice game-opening drive to stake his team to a 7-0 lead, Sooners quarterback Jason White looked like a second-stringer to Leinart at times, even though he, too, has a Heisman in his trophy case, even though he made some really nice throws at times and moves around pretty well on a surgically repaired knee. White's what-in-the-world-were-you-

thinking-son interception helped USC to a 21-7 lead. Then he threw another. Return man Mark Bradley made a similar play trying to field a punt, which turned into an easy USC touchdown. Kejuan Jones, Adrian Peterson's backup, fumbled which turned into a field goal.

But Leinart, who wasn't nearly as accurate as he has been at other times this season, had passed for 312 yards and five touchdowns midway through the third quarter. It was like a Super Bowl. You know the teams are more evenly matched than the game's action suggests. Nevertheless, one team jumps on top of the other, and a couple of turnovers later, the rout is on.

The Southern Cal defense beat down Peterson something awful, and the Oklahoma defense appeared completely dispirited after falling behind 28-7. It's incredible, though, the firepower the Trojans have. Coach Pete Carroll is crazy if he leaves this for the NFL, where he's had a rather ordinary fling already. Bush is a sophomore. Dominique Byrd, the tight end who made a flying one-handed touchdown grab in the first half, is a junior. Receiver Dwayne Jarrett is a freshman. Receiver Steve Smith, who caught three touchdown passes, is a sophomore. The other featured running back, LenDale White, who rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns, is a sophomore.

As great a team as Southern Cal is, the Orange Bowl was pretty unfulfilling in the final analysis and not just because the game was a lopsided waste of time after the 38-10 first half. It's a rather empty ending to the college football season because there's no real reason Southern Cal shouldn't be playing Auburn in a couple of weeks. Auburn controlled Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Monday. USC controlled Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Now, they should be playing each other in some huge extravaganza in two weeks, probably on a Monday night after Sunday NFL playoff games.

But in the absence of that, Southern Cal should be voted No. 1.

Yes, Auburn has a legit case to make, and a fairly easy one at that. The Tigers beat four teams ranked in the top 10 this season, and they won the best college football league in the country, the Southeastern Conference.

Of course, it would have been even easier to make Auburn's case had both the Trojans and Sooners struggled through the final night of the season. But that's not the impression Southern Cal left us with. The Trojans played too well, slapped too convincing a victory over an Oklahoma team that has played in the championship game three times in five years. Leinart looked like the pro he'll soon be. In fact, Leinart looked better than some of the quarterbacks who drew NFL paychecks all season long. And the reward for that has to be the spoils of a championship and the rare satisfaction of having at least a share of the national championship for a second consecutive season.

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