Booty keeps eyes on what’s next

Times Staff Writer

USC quarterback John David Booty never worried.

His broken finger? It would heal.

Mark Sanchez’s energetic play? He was happy the sophomore got a starting opportunity that never came Booty’s way during his three years as a backup.

A budding quarterback controversy? Not if you asked Booty.

“For me, there was never any doubt in my mind that if I got back and I was healthy that I’d be the guy,” Booty said.

Four weeks after suffering a broken finger during a shocking loss to Stanford, Booty will return to the starting lineup Saturday against Oregon State.

The last time the fifth-year senior played at the Coliseum, he was a Heisman Trophy candidate. But he suffered a broken middle finger on his throwing hand in the first half and had four passes intercepted in the second half of a defeat that ended USC’s 35-game home winning streak and halted Booty’s Heisman bid.

Last week, USC lost at Oregon, ending the Trojans’ national title hopes.


USC still has a chance to reach the Rose Bowl, but it must win its last four games and hope that the teams above them in the Pacific 10 Conference standings falter.

Booty maintained at the start of the season that he was not focused on following Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart as Heisman-winning Trojans quarterbacks. Winning, he said, was his goal and would remain his primary focus.

“I would like to think that with my experience and with my knowledge and ability . . . we can play good football when I’m in there and, hopefully, we can put a little run here together and win some games,” he said.

USC defeated Arizona and Notre Dame without Booty before Saturday’s 24-17 loss at Oregon. The Trojans were on the verge of possibly tying the score or defeating the Ducks when Oregon intercepted a late pass by Sanchez, the second of two second-half interceptions that doomed USC.

Coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian were criticized for conservative and questionable play-calling during Booty’s three-game absence, strategy both said was necessitated by Sanchez’s inexperience.

The play-calling dynamic is expected to change with Booty’s return. “He has command of all of the stuff, so it does allow us to use all the resources and package in our history,” Carroll said.

Said Sarkisian: “The guy has started [18] games. . . . Naturally, it lends itself to that.”

Booty went 11-2 as Leinart’s successor in 2006, his resume and his own Heisman campaign for this season bolstered by a terrific second-half performance against Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

The Trojans began this season a near-unanimous choice at No. 1 in the polls. They were thought by many to be a lock to play in the Bowl Championship Series title game in New Orleans, a day’s drive from the Booty family’s home in Shreveport, La.

It was clear almost from the outset, however, that USC’s offense would struggle with a group of largely unproven receivers.

The Trojans beat Idaho, Nebraska and Washington State before struggling against Washington, a victory in which they lost two offensive linemen and running back Stafon Johnson to injuries.

Then, on Oct. 6, the Trojans were on their way to a 9-0 second-quarter lead over 41-point underdog Stanford when Booty hit the middle finger of his throwing hand on a helmet.

Sanchez warmed up, but coaches allowed Booty to play on.

“I’m going,” Booty told graduate assistant coach Yogi Roth on the sideline. “I mean, I ain’t made it this far to not go now.”

Booty’s accuracy suffered, however. Stanford returned one interception for a touchdown, another set up the game-winning touchdown and the last sealed the Cardinal victory.

“We made a mistake,” Carroll said this week of the decision not to pull Booty. “It was pretty clear he had a broken hand. I wished I could have assessed that better.

“That’s a game we lost by an inch.”

Sanchez credited Booty for providing enthusiastic and helpful counsel over the next three weeks. Booty, in turn, said he “loved that Mark played great.”

But Booty acknowledged that as a competitor and team captain he struggled watching from the sideline and taking second-team reps in practice.

“There were days that were tough, man,” Booty said. “I got up and I was fighting it just because I felt like I couldn’t do anything with my guys. . . . That hurt me quite a bit.”

After Sanchez passed for four touchdowns without an interception against Notre Dame, columnists, talk-radio hosts and fans on Internet message boards weighed in on one question: Sanchez or Booty?

“It’s just kind of funny it gets blown up so much, but that’s SC and being the quarterback at SC,” Booty said, adding that the debate did not bother him.

Booty’s older brother Josh painted a different picture. “He hated to have to deal with it,” Josh said. “The tough part for him was listening to you guys in the media asking him if there’s a controversy.”

The debate all but ended last Saturday during the second half at Oregon. Carroll made it official Monday when he announced Booty would start if physically ready.

USC players said they did not have a preference. Sanchez is more mobile, but senior running back Chauncey Washington said the only difference in huddle demeanor was that Sanchez was “more antsy” while Booty was “Louisiana drawl.”

After three years of waiting, last season’s highs and lows and several injuries along the way, Booty values each remaining day with teammates.

“I’m just trying to love every moment, good or bad,” he said. “In the long run, it’s something I’m going to look back on and be proud and happy about.

“All I know is when I leave here, I’ll know I put my whole heart into it and did everything I could in trying to take in everything I could.”