Matt Leinart proved he could seize an opportunity.
Now, he intends to seize the day.
When top-ranked USC plays No. 4-ranked Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Thursday, USC’s quarterback can complete his remarkable emergence this season by leading the Trojans to a share of the national title.
“The season that I’ve had, that the team has had -- I think no one really expected this,” said Leinart, a redshirt sophomore who had never thrown a pass in college before the opener against Auburn. “It’s just kind of been a dream come true. It’s kind of surreal in a way.”
No one -- not Leinart, Coach Pete Carroll, offensive coordinator Norm Chow or any of the Trojan players -- imagined that the 6-foot 5 left-hander would follow Carson Palmer with a performance that in some ways eclipsed that of the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner.
Leinart not only had to win the job, which he did in spring practice, he had to win the respect and trust of teammates.
Ask USC players and coaches how and when that happened, when it truly became Leinart’s team, and the answers are as varied as the Trojan passing game:
* “When he was named the starting quarterback,” All-American wide receiver Mike Williams said without hesitation.
* “Probably the Auburn game, after his first pass went for a touchdown,” senior flanker Keary Colbert said.
* “He did a lot for his image when he threw that big block against Hawaii,” center Norm Katnik said.
* “It really became his team at halftime of the Arizona State game,” Chow said.
Leinart’s limp out of the locker room at Sun Devil Stadium on Oct. 4 was dramatic, and his courageous play in the second half despite an injured knee and ankle went a long way toward helping the Trojans rebound from their triple-overtime loss at California a week earlier.
But Leinart, who finished sixth in balloting for the Heisman Trophy, said there was no turning point or single defining moment in a season full of them.
“I think it’s all those things,” said Leinart, who has passed for 3,229 yards and 35 touchdowns with only nine interceptions.
Leinart, however, acknowledges that the very public support he received from his top receiver made success possible.
Throughout the early part of the season, when Leinart struggled at times against Brigham Young, Hawaii and Cal, Williams adamantly defended his training camp roommate’s every move or misstep. The sophomore from Tampa, Fla., never missed -- and often created -- opportunities to make sure USC fans knew where he stood regarding Leinart.
“Mike had my back from day one,” Leinart said. “He was constantly in the newspapers saying I was the man.
“When one of the best players in the country is saying, ‘This is our guy. He’s going to lead us wherever we go,’ that gives you great confidence.”
Leinart’s self-esteem was high after he led the Trojans to a 23-0 victory over Auburn in the season opener. His five-yard touchdown pass to Williams less than three minutes into the game started the Trojans on their way.
“That set the tempo for the team, it sparked us,” Colbert said. “We knew he could get the job done.”
Leinart’s highlight-reel, crack-back block on a Hawaii defensive back in the third game showed an element of physical toughness that would be displayed in even more compelling fashion three weeks later at Arizona State.
Leinart was knocked out of the game early in the second quarter because of knee and ankle injuries. Junior Matt Cassel finished the first half, and Chow told junior Brandon Hance to prepare to start the third quarter.
But Leinart emerged from the locker room and led the Trojans to a 37-17 victory that started an eight-game winning streak.
“The most important people you have to show your worth to are your teammates,” Chow said. “He showed his worth on that day.”
Said Leinart: “The guys realized I was willing to do everything, even though I was just doing my job.”
During the second half of the Arizona State game, Leinart began a streak of record-setting efficiency. He would throw 212 passes without an interception, a streak that did not end until the regular-season finale against Oregon State.
He became the only sophomore other than John Elway to be named offensive player of the year in the Pacific 10 Conference.
“He’s very comfortable with everything that we’re doing,” Carroll said this week. “Nothing fazes him.”
Leinart watched Palmer handle the demands of growing celebrity last year and wondered what it would be like to walk in his shoes.
Leinart found out when he left the Coliseum locker room after throwing five touchdown passes against Oregon State. It took Leinart and his father nearly an hour to wade through autograph-seekers and well-wishers as they walked a short distance to a nearby parking lot.
The postgame crowd at the Rose Bowl could be even larger if Leinart were to lead the Trojans to victory and help them secure a share of USC’s first national title since 1978.
That’s fine with Leinart.
“When you’re actually doing stuff and playing quarterback, everything changes,” he said. “The stuff that comes along with playing the position is time-consuming and stressful, but it’s all worth it.”