Just Add Water, and Trojans and Their Quarterback Make Irish Stew
You folks in Auburn, thinking you should be playing for a national title despite a nonconference schedule made up of Louisiana hyphens?
Now this was a No. 1 football team.
You folks in Oklahoma, thinking your quarterback is the best player in the country even with a gazillion-yard running back riding shotgun?
Now this was a Heisman Trophy winner.
USC took the national stage in a chilly drizzle Saturday night as it tried to convince voters the team belongs in Miami and the quarterback belongs in New York.
Talk about stinging in the rain.
A huge victory over Notre Dame? Check.
A huge performance by Matt Leinart? Chuck. (And chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck).
The Trojans defeated the Irish, 41-10, their season slowly turning to Orange while Leinart turned bronze with five touchdown passes and 400 passing yards.
In the end, out of respect to the annual USC-Notre Dame game columns written by the late great Jim Murray, only one thing could be said.
“This was a championship game for us,” tight end Alex Holmes said. “And we played like it.”
He stood on a soggy Coliseum field surrounded by soaking wet seats that were amazingly occupied by 92,611 fans for more than three hours.
They sat stunned early in Saturday’s game when Notre Dame jammed the ball down the Trojans chinstraps and took a 10-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
“They came out and gave us a little punch in the mouth,” Shaun Cody said.
But then again, don’t they always? Doesn’t every team that USC has played this year seemingly come out fast, use every trick in the first quarter, expend every bit of effort in the second ... and then disappear?
“Every time,” Cody said, smiling. “We see all their best stuff early. But then we wear them down, we discourage them, and we finally get them.”
Indeed, from the moment the Irish took that 10-3 lead, until the end of the game, the Trojans outscored them, 38-0, and outgained them, 416-135.
Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett through three defenders who look smaller than leprechauns. Touchdown.
Leinart to Reggie Bush, who fakes the golden dome off a dude and outruns raindrops. Touchdown.
And so on.
“We finish games,” Bush said. “That’s what championship teams do, right? They finish games.”
Right. And they do it against decent teams. You hear that, Auburn?
While the Tigers will surely be howling next week if they win the Southeastern Conference championship, and are unbeaten, and are still watching USC play Oklahoma in the national championship Orange Bowl, they should understand one thing.
The SEC East champion is Tennessee.
Three weeks ago, Notre Dame won at Tennessee.
How badly would USC have dominated this year’s SEC?
Last year the Trojans were punked out of a spot in the BCS championship game by an SEC school, Louisiana State, which would have lost to them by two touchdowns.
It’s not happening again.
“Last year they hurt us pretty bad,” Cody said of the college football establishment. “But we had to hold it in. That’s what we do as Trojans.”
But slowly that anger is oozing out, maybe sometimes too much, maybe that is what was happening in the fourth quarter when Pete Carroll called what is arguably the first unsportsmanlike play of his four-year tenure here.
With the Trojans leading by 24 points and about seven minutes left in the game, Carroll called for a fake punt. It led to a pass-interference penalty against Notre Dame, which led to Leinart’s fifth touchdown pass.
It also led to a couple of Notre Dame coaches screaming at USC from across the field, and who could blame them?
The coach said he was just testing a play that had been collecting dust in the playbook.
“I’ve been looking for a chance to do that for weeks, and we finally had a chance,” Carroll said, adding, “We’ve got nothing but respect for [Notre Dame’s] extraordinary program ... and if anybody takes it other than that, I’m sorry for it.”
The thing is, a couple of years ago, the burgeoning USC program needed to run up the score, and Carroll wouldn’t do it. Now they are good enough to impress by simply being themselves.
That includes Leinart, who probably won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, and clearly deserves it as much as Oklahoma’s Jason White deserved it last year.
This was his first 300-yard game of the season, but it’s not about that. This was his career high in touchdown passes, but it’s not about that either.
It’s about how Leinart is the best player on the best team in the country, and has led that team to an unbeaten record even on days such as Saturday, when his team rushed for only 83 yards and he still won by 31 points.
“It’s about more than his stats, it’s about his leadership,” Cody said. “A lot of quarterbacks, they’re soft, but Matt goes out there and dominated.”
Just like this team, this season -- unhittables finally facing the heart of the order, UCLA up, Oklahoma on deck.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Statue of Imitations?
Carson Palmer won the 2002 Heisman Trophy in part because of his big game against Notre Dame. Matt Leinart is trying to follow in Palmer’s footsteps:
*--* PALMER VS. IRISH, 2002 Completion-Attempts...32-46 Yards...425 Touchdowns...4 Interceptions...2 Result...USC wins, 44-13
LEINART VS. IRISH, 2004 Completions-Attempts...24-34 Yards...400 Touchdowns...5 Interceptions...0 Result...USC wins, 41-10
A comparison between Matt Leinart and Oklahoma’s Jason White, last year’s Heisman winner:
*--* YEAR REC GMS ATT COM PCT YARDS TD INT MATT LEINART 2003 12-1 13 402 255 63.4 3,556 38 9 2004 11-0 11 343 227 66.2 2,748 28 5 JASON WHITE 2003 12-2 14 451 278 61.6 3,846 40 10 2004 11-0 11 325 209 64.3 2,707 30 4