A SIGNAL MOMENT
Matt Leinart lay slumped on a table just outside USC’s locker room at Sun Devil Stadium, his right ankle wrapped in ice, his mind a jumble of uncertainties.
It was Oct. 4, 2003.
A week earlier, he had had three passes intercepted against California in a triple-overtime defeat in the Pacific 10 Conference opener. Coaches kept Leinart as the starter for Arizona State, though not with an overwhelming vote of confidence.
“He gives us the best chance to win right now,” Coach Pete Carroll had said of the sophomore. “We’ll stick with him.”
Now, instead of leading his team onto the field for the second half, Leinart was about to be left behind. A hit early in the second quarter had knocked him out of the game. X-rays revealed no major damage, but his right knee and ankle hurt. Especially the ankle.
As teammates filed past in the long, narrow hallway, some offered encouragement. Others stared blankly ahead. The coaches followed, offensive coordinator Norm Chow, quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian. And finally, Carroll.
“He was mad,” Leinart recalled.
Carroll was not angry with Leinart, but he was furious that his starting quarterback was agonizing where every USC player could see him.
“What are you doing sitting there?” the coach barked. “We need you! Get your ... off that table! And if you limp, you’re not playing.”
Carroll walked on, thinking, There’s no chance, but it was worth a shot.
When the coach exited the now silent hallway, Leinart slowly got up off the table.
No one could have known it at the time, but the course of a program changed in that moment.
So did the careers of four quarterbacks.
Matt Cassel had waited more than three years to show USC coaches and fans he was more than a caddie for Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.
Leinart beat the tall, rangy junior for the starting job during the spring and solidified his hold on the spot during fall. But when trainers took Leinart to the locker room after he was sacked with 14:04 left in the second quarter, Cassel got his chance.
“All of sudden, in the blink of an eye, it was, ‘Cassel, you’re going to get an opportunity to go in there in a competitive situation,’ ” he recalled during a telephone interview last week.
The sideline was a flurry of activity during a USC timeout, Sarkisian barking instructions, Chow calling down from the press box. Cassel could barely catch his breath.
“You’re so caught up in the moment that you’re just trying to get your head and everything else focused,” Cassel said. “The last thing you have time to think about is ‘If I screw up, there goes my career, there goes my opportunity.’ You have enough pressure on you.”
Cassel’s first series began at the Trojans’ 11-yard line and went nowhere.
The next series started better, Cassel finding wide receiver Mike Williams on a pass across the middle for a 39-yard gain. The Trojans drove inside the Arizona State 25, but Cassel lost a fumble while being sacked. The next series generated 14 yards; the one after that lost three.
But USC got the ball back with 32 seconds left in the half and Cassel had one more shot. He threw a 31-yard pass into the end zone. The 6-foot-5 Williams grabbed it, but officials ruled he was out of bounds. The Trojans settled for a game-tying field goal.
“If that’s a touchdown, we have the lead at the half and [Cassel] probably comes out and starts the second half for us,” Sarkisian said recently.
As the Trojans trotted toward the locker room, Cassel thought, I can’t wait to get back in there. Everything is going to calm down.
The coaching staff, however, had another plan.
The offense and defense went to opposite sides of the locker room at halftime while coaches huddled in another room.
“We come in and we’re in dire straits,” Sarkisian recalled. "... We knew we had a good football team, but we needed to make a decision on what we were going to do.”
When the coaches emerged from their meeting, Chow and Carroll looked Brandon Hance in the eye.
“Warm up,” they said. “You better be ready to go.”
Of all the USC quarterbacks, the resourceful Hance seemed made for the situation. He was No. 4 on the depth chart, but he had started nine games for Purdue in 2001 and had played in hostile environments at places such as Michigan.
The San Fernando Valley native had transferred to USC in 2002 and sat out the season while recovering from shoulder surgery. He was still regaining strength through spring practice and training camp.
Now, Chow and Carroll were pulling the junior aside, telling him he would start the second half, asking him which plays he was most comfortable with.
“I had confidence and I was jacked up to go out there,” Hance said recently. “It was a situation I would have thrived in -- on the road, team behind, adversity.”
When Hance reached the field, he grabbed a ball and began playing catch with Sarkisian.
“Coach Carroll was standing there telling me how I was going to do it and how it was going to be great,” Hance said. “Guys were coming by, patting me on the butt and saying, ‘C’mon B-Hance.’ ”
He buckled his helmet, ready to go in.
And then, as if in a movie, Hance saw a figure in the distance.
“I was like, “Oh my God. Here he comes.”
Leinart winced as he made his way down the hallway, Carroll’s message ringing in his ears.
Just don’t limp.
Hobbling down the walkway that led to the field, Leinart thought of what Sarkisian had told him at halftime.
“These guys need you. You gotta go. Find a way.”
Warming up Hance, Sarkisian saw Leinart reach the sideline just as the second half was about to begin. Arizona State would have the ball first.
The quarterbacks coach turned to Carroll.
“Well, here comes Matt,” Sarkisian said.
“What do you want to do?” Carroll asked.
“Let’s play him,” Sarkisian said. “Let’s play the guy. I mean, he’s our best chance.”
Arizona State took nearly 5 1/2 minutes to drive 77 yards for a touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
But that only set the stage for Leinart, who would guide the Trojans to 27 unanswered points on a day when freshman tailback LenDale White rushed for 140 yards and two second-half touchdowns.
Leinart finished 13 for 23 for 289 yards and two touchdowns, including a 33-yard scoring pass to fullback Brandon Hancock on fourth down for the go-ahead points. More important, he won the confidence of his teammates who proclaimed him their undisputed leader.
USC’s 37-17 victory started the Trojans on what has grown into a 25-game winning streak. Along the way, they have won consecutive national titles and Leinart picked up a Heisman Trophy.
“We really haven’t been the same since that game,” Carroll said.
Leinart acknowledges the game as a turning point in his career. “Since then, it’s been no looking back,” he said. But he discounts assertions that he did anything more than seize the moment.
“It wasn’t like anything heroic,” he said. “It was, my team needs me. I’ve got to play.”
There was a fourth quarterback there that day.
John David Booty had stunned the college football world by skipping his senior season at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., graduating early, and enrolling at USC that fall.
He thought he could play right away. So did Carroll.
“He has excellent tools; you can’t hide it,” the coach said after one of Booty’s first practices.
But Booty struggled with injuries through most of training camp and after three games he was No. 3 on the depth chart. Still, coaches told the freshman to get ready in case the second-half starter faltered.
“You grow up fast,” Booty said recently. “It doesn’t matter if I would have been ready for it. On the first play I went in, I would have had to adjust.”
However, he never did go in that day. And he still is adjusting.
The following season, Booty redshirted as Leinart became the second USC quarterback in three years to win the Heisman. Booty hoped to take over the offense this season, but those plans were nixed when Leinart decided to return for his final year of eligibility.
Carroll has said the sophomore will receive significant playing time this season.
Of the Arizona State game, Booty said, “Looking back, I definitely think I wasn’t near as ready as I am now.”
Matt Cassel looks back too, but without regret.
He would have liked to finish the game. If he had, the coaching staff might not have elevated Booty to No. 2 on the depth chart the following week and asked Cassel to move to tight end a week later.
“I thought I played well for a first time out,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement. But I don’t look back and say I really blew that performance.”
Things worked out pretty well for Cassel. He was a backup quarterback again in 2004, but the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots took him in the seventh round of the NFL draft.
“It validates things a little bit for me,” said Cassel, who backs up Tom Brady and Doug Flutie. “A lot of people questioned it, but I can definitely play this game. The professional level, you don’t get much better than that.”
Hance sometimes wonders what might have been.
“That would have been a perfect stage and perfect opportunity to step up and do something,” said Hance, who is in the process of launching a music and entertainment website. “That was a massive turning point in our entire program. From that point on, we just changed gears.”
Carroll looks back at the moment Leinart got up off the table as a turning point.
“If you went back and did it again maybe everything is different,” he said. “You don’t know.
“He rose to the top when he had to, when all the odds were stacked against him. It looked like he was done. But he was at his best.
“He’s been that way ever since.”