Fifteen passes into his first start at quarterback for USC, Mark Sanchez was generating doubts.
One pass later, he was generating boos.
The third-year sophomore had consecutive passes intercepted against Arizona late in the first half Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum, prompting an increasingly antsy crowd to voice its displeasure with a Trojans team that appeared on the verge of another shocking home defeat.
“It looked bad right at the end of that first half,” Sanchez said. “Efficiency-wise, not the best start ever for a quarterback.”
Sanchez had twice thrown passes where none of his immediate predecessors had before -- into the arms of a defender. Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and John David Booty threw a combined 96 passes without an interception in their college debuts.
“People were frustrated,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “We had to kind of get back into a rhythm and just be conservative for a while and make sure he was OK.”
About two hours later, Sanchez was doing just fine, judging from his Lambeau Field-style leap against the railing near the Coliseum tunnel after the Trojans’ come-from-behind 20-13 victory over the Wildcats.
Sanchez helped USC rally with a strong second-half performance in which he completed 11 of 15 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown before helping to secure the victory with a 10-yard scramble on third and seven late in the fourth quarter.
To hear Sanchez tell it, the triumph may have been sealed after his second interception, when he made a promise to himself and his offensive linemen.
“I was like, ‘All right, that’s it,’ ” said Sanchez, who completed 19 of 31 passes overall for 130 yards. “ ‘We’re not having any more mistakes. We’re playing mistake-free football, no penalties, nothing.’ That’s what we did. We played smart, we played the field-position game a little bit and came out with a victory.”
After Joe McKnight returned a punt 45 yards to the Arizona 25 early in the fourth quarter, Sanchez needed only one play to secure the win, hitting tight end Fred Davis in the end zone to give the Trojans a 17-13 lead.
Sanchez then helped USC burn more than six minutes off the clock during a 15-play, 93-yard drive that left the Wildcats needing to move the ball 68 yards in less than a minute. Arizona gained only one yard before turning the ball over on downs.
It was an abrupt turnaround for Sanchez after a shaky second-quarter sequence in which he had a deep sideline pass intercepted by cornerback Antoine Cason -- leading to an Arizona field goal -- and then threw his next pass into the arms of free safety Corey Hall.
Fortunately for Sanchez, receiver Patrick Turner stripped the ball from Hall and center Matt Spanos recovered, averting further disaster as the Trojans preserved a 10-10 tie going into halftime.
Sanchez said Booty, who sat out the game because of a broken middle finger suffered during USC’s loss to Stanford on Oct. 6, reassured him during the tough stretch.
Could Booty revert from cheerleader to leading man next week when the Trojans travel to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame? Not likely. Carroll said Sanchez would enter this week as the starter, with Booty still needing a couple of weeks before his injury fully heals.
Carroll said Booty tried to throw the ball Saturday and “it was really a problem.” The same could be said for Sanchez until the second half.
“At the end all that mattered was the victory,” Sanchez said. “It was so exciting, and I needed to cherish every second of it. I didn’t want to let anything go to waste. I didn’t want to leave anything out there. I hope I showed that.”
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How USC’s last four quarterbacks fared in their college debuts:
Carson Palmer (Fr.), 1998
33-10 victory vs. Washington:
*--* Cmp.-Att. Pct. Yards TD Int. Lg. 18-31 581 279 1 0 57 *--*
Matt Leinart (Soph.), 2003
23-0 victory at Auburn:
*--* Cmp.-Att. Pct. Yards TD Int. Lg. 17-30 567 192 1 0 42 *--*
John David Booty (Jr.), 2006
50-14 victory at Arkansas:
*--* Cmp.-Att. Pct. Yards TD Int. Lg. 24-35 686 261 3 0 44 *--*
Mark Sanchez (Soph.), 2007
20-13 victory vs. Arizona:
*--* Cmp.-Att. Pct. Yards TD Int. Lg. 19-31 613 130 1 2 25 *--*
Los Angeles Times