- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

MIAMI — Southern California’s Matt Leinart is fighting Heisman history.

The BCS has not been kind to the winner of college football’s most prestigious individual award. Three times in the six-year history of the BCS, a Heisman Trophy winner has made an appearance in its championship game. Each time that player has imploded with the whole college football world watching.

When his top-ranked Trojans (12-0) meet No.2 Oklahoma (12-0) Tuesday night in the Orange Bowl, Leinart will try to topple the trend.

“It’s a concern and we’ve talked about it, but you just have to go out and play,” said USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow. “I think what happens is, [the Heisman winner] becomes a marked guy.”

Just ask Oklahoma’s Jason White, who was 13 of 37 passing for 102 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns in last season’s Sugar Bowl loss to LSU less than a month after his Heisman coronation. And while it was later revealed White had broken his foot in the finale, it also was apparent he was playing with a bronze monkey on his back.

“I wasn’t in a very good place emotionally,” said White, who successfully lobbied the NCAA for an extra season of eligibility following the debacle. “I didn’t handle the added demands on my time that come with winning the Heisman very well. I wasn’t as focused on football as I should have been, and it showed in the game …

“I don’t envy Matt [and] what he’s going through right now. There’s definitely added pressure to prove yourself when you’ve got that trophy at home on the mantle.”

The bronze burden also proved too great for Nebraska’s Eric Crouch and Florida State’s Chris Weinke, the pair who preceded White in the recent BCS run of Heisman hiccups. Crouch and his Cornhuskers were mauled by Miami in the 2002 Rose Bowl 37-14, and Weinke’s Seminoles were offensively impotent in a 13-2 loss to Oklahoma in the 2001 Orange Bowl.

All told, the three quarterbacks completed well under half of their passes (43 of 103) in the title games, throwing five interceptions without a touchdown pass.

But the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Leinart has a far different personality from that intense trio. A surfing aficionado with a pulse rate that practically qualifies him as a corpse, the junior quarterback hardly looks gripped by the fear of disappointing.

“I haven’t seen Matt anxious since he was a fat kid wearing glasses back in junior high,” said senior linebacker Matt Grootegoed of his longtime teammate. “Matt’s mellow with a capital M.”

It’s a good thing, because the chatter in Miami has only trebled the pressure on the quarterback who threw for nearly 3,000 yards this season with 28 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.

First, Oklahoma backup defensive end Larry Birdine assaulted Leinart in print last week, questioning his Heisman victory.

“He’s definitely overrated,” Birdine said. “He’s a good quarterback but not a Heisman-winning quarterback. … If anybody should have won [the Heisman] from USC, it should have been Reggie Bush.”

Birdine hasn’t stopped running gassers since popping off about Leinart. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, mortified by his comments, has since declared Birdine off limits to the media and might not play him Tuesday night.

But perhaps there was a shred of truth in Birdine’s rant, as yesterday it was learned USC’s players had voted the versatile Bush, a sophomore All-American flanker, the team’s MVP.

“I’ve said all along that he’s the best player in college football,” said Leinart of Bush, shrugging off any hint of resentment. “I voted for him. I didn’t even hesitate. I put his name right down. Obviously, the whole team felt the same way.”

That doesn’t change the fact that Heisman voters, misguided or not, bestowed the game’s ultimate individual honor on Leinart. And if he doesn’t back up the bronze with a solid performance Tuesday night, there will be no muzzling the masses from voicing the Birdine within.

“I’m cool with the heightened expectations,” Leinart said. “Sure, winning the Heisman has raised the stakes on the field and been a little overwhelming at times off it. But I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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