MATT LEINART DOESN'T BELIEVE IN THE INFAMOUS Heisman jinx. Or maybe he just considers himself immune to it. After morphing from a chubby teenager who wore thick glasses into a handsome 6'5", 225-pound occupant of one of the most glamorous positions in college football--quarterback at USC--it's no wonder Leinart thinks that if there is such a thing as luck, he's destined for only the good kind.
Perhaps that's why Leinart, who became the sixth Heisman Trophy winner in USC history in December, managed to avoid the bowl-game misfortune that has haunted so many other past Heisman winners. He seemed to handle the so-called Heisman curse much like he dealt with the Oklahoma pass rush in the Orange Bowl, coolly sidestepping it and flinging touchdown passes with pinpoint accuracy.
Leinart's 332 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Trojans' 55-19 rout didn't just wrap up a second straight national championship for USC, it bucked the recent trend of postseason flameouts by Heisman winners. Since 1990 players who had just won the award were only 7-7 in bowl games before the Trojans' triumph, and quarterbacks in that group were even less successful, with a 3-5 record during that stretch. Before this season the Heisman winner had been a member of the consensus national champion only twice in the last 27 years. If all of those facts weren't ominous enough for Leinart, there were the pitiful performances by the last three Heisman quarterbacks to reach the BCS national championship game.
? In 2001 Florida State's Chris Weinke completed 25 of 51 passes with two interceptions and a fumble in the Seminoles' 13-2 loss to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
? In 2002 Nebraska's Eric Crouch rushed for 114 yards but completed only 5 of 15 passes with an interception and a fumble in the Cornhuskers' 37-14 loss to Miami in the Rose Bowl.
? In 2004 Oklahoma's Jason White completed 13 of 37 passes with two interceptions in the Sooners' 21-14 Sugar Bowl loss to LSU.
That's a combined seven turnovers and zero touchdowns, but Leinart wasn't at all concerned that he would add to that string of sad stats. "I really don't think there is a jinx," he said in December, a week after winning the Heisman. "I think jinxes are for people who believe in jinxes. I'm pretty sure Carson [Palmer] didn't believe in that stuff, either, and he went out and had a pretty good bowl game."
Palmer, of course, won the Heisman after the 2002 regular season and was Leinart's predecessor as the Trojans' quarterback. After beating out Iowa's Brad Banks for the award, Palmer threw for 303 yards and a touchdown in a 38-17 win over the Hawkeyes in the Orange Bowl. Less than four months later the Cincinnati Bengals made Palmer the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. "I think people concentrate so much on the times that Heisman winners didn't have good games that they forget about all the times they played really well," Leinart said. "As far as I'm concerned, Carson is my only frame of reference. The Heisman thing didn't seem to bother him one bit, so obviously it can be done."
Leinart did it with style and grace, standing tall in the pocket and showing just enough mobility to elude the Oklahoma pass rush in picking the Sooners' secondary apart. He spread the wealth among his fleet of talented pass catchers--including true freshman receiver Dwayne Jarrett, junior tight end Dominique Byrd and sophomore wideout Steve Smith--while making the doubters who called him overrated look utterly foolish.
The most notable member of that group was Larry Birdine, Oklahoma's loquacious sophomore defensive end. There might not have been a bulletin board in Miami big enough to hold all Birdine's inflammatory comments a few weeks before the game. He made it clear that he considered multidimensional tailback Reggie Bush to be the Trojans' most dangerous weapon. " Matt Leinart hasn't been driving them, [and] he hasn't been winning games," Birdine told reporters in Norman on Dec. 21. "Up until their last four or five games, Reggie Bush was the difference maker."