When onetime NFL coaches Pete Carroll of USC and Charlie Weis of Notre Dame were cranking up last week for the football game of the year — college or pro — Weis apparently confided to at least three newspaper reporters: "I own Pete Carroll."

But does he? I don't think so. I'd say Weis blew the game. On a pleasant Indiana day, before USC won dramatically, 34-31, he blew it by recurrently asking his running backs to play ball-control football in a losing effort to keep the Trojan offense off the field.

In pro football, what happened to Notre Dame in the USC game usually happens to running teams relying on ball-control tactics against good passing teams.

Weis learned the hard way that the same thing can also happen in college football.

For, clearly, it's all but impossible to successfully play ball control for 60 minutes against a quarterback like Matt Leinart when his pass offense is as sharp as USC's.

As some Notre Dame fans have suggested, the great flaw in Weis' reasoning is that he underrated his own pass offense. In his first year as Notre Dame coach, he's inherited one of the finest quarterbacks in college football, Brady Quinn, who played well enough against the Trojans to earn the Heisman Trophy if the Fighting Irish had won.

Quinn, obviously under orders to proceed cautiously, opened up but once. That time, after Reggie Bush's third masterful touchdown run had with only 5:09 left put USC ahead, 28-24, Quinn was authorized to come out passing for the first time in 55 minutes. And, shortly, his aggressive response overwhelmed the USC defense with a series of passes that were as spectacular as they were accurate. On a breathtakingly efficient 85-yard drive, Quinn in three minutes regained the lead for Notre Dame, 31-28.

As a pro coach at New England, Weis normally played that kind of aggressive football with quarterback Tom Brady to win three of the last four Super Bowls. And at South Bend, he has a leader who already rivals Brady as a passer. But for reasons that remain unclear, Weis chose to face Leinart the way he played Peyton Manning last year when he beat the Indianapolis Colts by keeping Manning off the field.

Weis' strategic approach in his first USC-Notre Dame game showed that he badly misread the USC quarterback. As of last year, Weis knew that Manning can be rattled. Too late, he knows now that Leinart can't.




Leinart's Winning Sneak Recalls Starr's

LEINART BEAT WEIS with two plays at the end of a grueling day for Leinart in which Weis' team beat him up but couldn't break him. The first of these decisive plays was the 61-yard deep sideline pass to Dwayne Jarrett — thrown on fourth and nine — that moved the Trojans into position for the tying field goal if Carroll had had any interest in that, which he hadn't.

A long pass down the sideline was precisely the right call on that fourth-down play against that team at that moment, and a defining thing about Leinart is that he had the courage and aggressiveness to call it, at the end of a long, difficult game, in the noise and pressure created by a Notre Dame crowd that was there to rattle him.

The call illustrated, once more, that Leinart has an unusual football mind that works in suffocating pressure even when he's exhausted. For to get the right play into the biggest game he's played yet, he had to block out the noise from the Notre Dame fans and change a coach's call from the sideline. And of course Leinart's big pass illustrated that he has the arm to do what he should do and wants to do.

The more celebrated of Leinart's two winning plays was the touchdown-scoring quarterback sneak. It was reminiscent of Bart Starr's game-deciding sneak in the so-called Ice Bowl game nearly 40 years ago, when, like Pete Carroll, Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi played not to tie but to win. To score, Leinart got an illegal but essential assist from Reggie Bush, who stormed up from his tailback position and shoved him across the goal line with both hands. The officials, watching the ball as well as the goal line, didn't see it.

So Leinart and Bush — who was unstoppable on touchdown runs of 36, 45 and nine yards — belong as the 2005 co-Heisman winners, if there's any way to do that. And if there were any way to lift USC's offensive team bodily into the NFL this year, it would improve at least half the clubs in pro football. None of them ever produced a game like Saturday's — most conspicuously when Quinn or Leinart was throwing or when Bush was running.




Steelers Super Team Only with Big Ben

THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS will go into their AFC North matchup at Cincinnati next Sunday in second place (by 1 1/2 games) to the division-leading Bengals, whose new quarterback, Carson Palmer, has done everything he had to do to beat five of the six middle-of-the-pack opponents he has encountered so far.

He couldn't bridge the Jacksonville defense a few weeks ago. Nor, in Week 6, could Pittsburgh — with backup Tommy Maddox at quarterback. When Big Ben Roethlisberger is out of the Pittsburgh lineup, as he was that day, the Steelers are just another parity team this year in the oh-so-even NFL.

The Jaguars not only carried the Steelers into overtime but beat them when an intercepted Maddox pass was returned for the winning touchdown, 23-17. Playing hurt, Maddox threw some sound passes but made some schoolboy plays. There were times in other years when Maddox seemed to be the answer for the Steelers. Not now. It's even less likely that third-stringer Charlie Batch is a savior.