My, how time flies.
It seems like just yesterday that USC quarterback Matt Leinart was preparing for his first career start against the Auburn Tigers in 2003.
Today, 37 games later, he'll walk down the Coliseum tunnel for the last time wearing the Cardinal and Gold.
With him will come 16 other outgoing seniors—none of whom have ever lost a home game in their playing careers at USC.
It's a pretty special group, the last that has any memory of adversity at Troy. As a result of their experience, they've been instrumental in providing leadership to a young and talented roster that only knows what it's like to win.
None have been more special than Leinart.
He is simply the most accomplished college quarterback ever. Read on:
His 36-1 record as a starter is the second-best winning percentage for a signal caller in NCAA history.
He has led USC to two-consecutive national championships and has them on the verge of an unprecedented third in a row.
He was USC's sixth Heisman Trophy winner in 2004. He also finished sixth in the voting in 2003 and is a lock to finish in the top three in 2005.
He has passed for more touchdowns (96) than anyone in Pac-10 history. That number ties him for sixth in the NCAA record book.
He has three seasons of at least 3,000 yards passing and his pass efficiency rating is in the top five in NCAA history.
He has led the Trojans on a 33-game winning streak that is one of the longest in the history of college football.
Obviously, numbers can't do Leinart justice. His career has been one of Ruthian proportions, so amazing that one almost runs out of words to describe it. Along the way, he has made some unforgettable memories for Trojan fans.
As a 2003 sophomore in his first start, he calmly led USC to a 23-0 win at No. 6 Auburn. His first career pass was a touchdown. He would go on to toss a Pac-10 record 38 touchdowns that season and help bring the Trojans their first No. 1 ranking in a generation. He placed sixth in the Heisman voting and capped a remarkable year by earning Most Valuable Player honors in the national title-clinching win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Who could forget his touchdown reception from Mike Williams off a snazzy receiver reverse? The image of him crossing the goal line, ball held aloft, will live forever in USC lore.
His junior season may have been his finest performance given the tremendous pressure and expectations that were on the Trojans, not to mention the brand new offensive line and receivers that had entered the picture. No problem for Leinart, though. He threw 33 touchdown passes to lead USC to only the second wire-to-wire finish as No. 1 in NCAA history. As recognition for his fine season, he was named first-team All-American and awarded the 2004 Heisman Trophy, Troy's sixth such honor. Once again, he was the MVP of the biggest game of the year, throwing five touchdowns in a 55-19 triumph over No. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Entering his senior season of 2005, Leinart had acquired a level of fame and celebrity rarely seen in college athletics. His face was everywhere from magazine covers to supermarket gossip rags to late night television. And yet, all he wanted to do was play football. Expected to leave for the NFL draft the previous spring, Leinart shocked the college football world when he announced he would stay at Troy for his senior season. Once again, with the pressure of expectations at an all-time high, Leinart came through, guiding a USC offense that has established itself as perhaps the best ever and, more importantly, leading the Trojans to yet another magnificent season. His finest moment at Troy, though, came earlier this season against Notre Dame in South Bend. How can we ever forget?
Fourth and nine. One minute and 32 seconds to go. Ball on the Trojan 26. No timeouts. The crowd as loud and hostile as can be. A season—and so much more—hangs in the balance.
Cool as a cucumber, Leinart checks out of the called play and delivers to his left a ball with eyes that sneaks just past the outreached fingertips of the defender into the waiting hands of receiver Dwayne Jarrett, who races 61 yards to the Irish 13-yard line. Four frantic plays later, Leinart is once again over center, except just seven seconds remain. The ball is snapped and Leinart attempts a quarterback sneak. Seemingly stopped in the initial surge, he spins off the pile and lunges into the goal line with three seconds left.
A season—and so much more—is saved, thanks to Leinart.
And so here we are today. Leinart has led the Trojans to 33 straight. Once again, he is an All-American and in the Heisman conversation. With one more win, he moves that much closer to football immortality.
This may be his last time playing at the Coliseum, but Trojan fans will always see ol' No. 11 out there, directing the offense, throwing touchdown passes….and winning.
The Senior Class
Collin Ashton—It's rare that a walk on player makes the kind of impact Ashton has. A former USC ball boy, Ashton has shown for the last three years that he has what it takes to be a linebacker Pete Carroll's system. He earned a scholarship in 2004 and entered this season with 47 career tackles. Now, he's been a savior of sorts for the Trojans, stepping in and playing well in a linebacker corps depleted by injury. This year, he's fourth on the team in tackles with 46 and has given the defense some veteran leadership.
William Buchanon—Talk about a team player. The speedy, versatile Buchanon has played on both sides of the ball in his career, getting time at receiver and at cornerback. In the process, he has had to sacrifice many of his personal goals for the good of the team. He has four receptions in his career and two interceptions.
Dominique Byrd—One of the most dynamic tight ends in USC history, Byrd is among the best in the country at his position. He has 71 career receptions, including 37 as a 2004 junior. He will always be remembered for his acrobatic, one-handed grabs last season against Oregon State and against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Though he's been slowed by injury throughout much of his career (a hip problem limiting him to 19 catches so far this season) Byrd's outstanding athleticism makes him a prime NFL prospect. You'll be seeing his talents on display for years to come.
Greig Carlson—Former walk-on Carlson has been hurt and hasn't played much this season, but he was a solid punt return option for the Trojans in the pre-Reggie Bush era. He emerged at that spot as a freshman and was always reliable in securing punts. He even broke a couple here and there—including a 41-yarder against Iowa in the 2003 Orange Bowl. He averaged a solid nine yards a return as a sophomore before giving way to Bush. He finally got in the stat sheet on offense this year when he caught his first career pass against Arkansas. All in all, he's got some pretty good memories to take with him.
David Kirtman—Quick, name the three scholarship recruits from the 2001 class that are still with the Trojans. Kirtman—along with Leinart and John Walker—are all that's left of Pete Carroll's inaugural group of recruits. Kirtman has become a very good fullback for USC, whether blocking or catching balls out of the backfield. He has 37 career receptions, including 16 in 2005. He's a dependable weapon for a loaded Trojan offense and one of the most underrated players in the Pac-10.
Taitusi Lutui—LA Daily News reporter Scott Wolf's recent report that guard Lutui would be a 'surprise' addition to the first All-American team that came out this week actually wasn't a surprise to those who have been watching the Trojan offensive line closely this season. The junior college transfer played all of last season at right tackle and did well, but the return of Winston Justice to the offensive line prompted a move by Lutui to left guard, where he has been a shining star all season. At 6-5, 340 pounds, Lutui is a mountain of man who takes up so much space that defenders lose precious seconds going around him. Of course, going through him isn't an option either. His hard work and dedication in the offseason, when he dropped from 370 pounds to his current weight, has resulted in him being the first All-American guard at Troy since Mark Tucker in 1989. Up next: A long NFL career.
Tom Malone—Malone is simply the greatest punter in USC's history. Though he has been slowed by injury and, frankly, an incredible offense in 2005, he has been a consistent weapon throughout his career for the Trojans. A 2003 All-American, Malone has a chance to break the all-time USC career punting average held by Des Koch for the last 50 years. His best season came as a sophomore, when he averaged a Trojan-record 49.0 yards per punt. He's also a two-time All-Pac-10 performer and Troy's reliable holder on placekicks. Good luck replacing this great Trojan.
Lajuan Ramsey—Good things come to those who wait. Ramsey finally got his chance to start this year and he has been one of the rocks of the Trojan defensive line. He has 33 tackles so far, 4.5 of them for loss, with one sack. He was injured much of his career, but always flashed great potential as a backup to All-Americans like Shaun Cody and Kenechi Udeze. Without his senior leadership and experience, the Trojans defensive line wouldn't have maintained its recently acquired status as an elite unit in college football.
Frostee Rucker—Rucker transferred to USC from Colorado State in 2002 as a linebacker, but quickly grew into a speedy rush end. A key reserve in 2003, he started all but one game in 2004 and has held a starting spot in 2005 as well. After notching 29 tackles, 7.5 of them for loss, as a junior, he has blossomed this season. So far, he leads the Trojans with 11 tackles for loss and is second in tackles (50) and sacks (5.5). He even has an interception to his credit. In other words, he has become a complete defensive end. And the Trojans are much better off because of it.
John Walker—Walker is another player who got his chance to shine this season after being out of the spotlight for a few years. The cornerback was called on to perform following a couple injuries in the secondary and he came up big for the Trojans. His best game came against Arizona State, when he picked off two passes to help staunch the Sun Devil rally. Walker has 30 tackles to his credit, but has missed most of the last few games with an ankle sprain. Now, he's back healthy and ready to close out his career in style. Don't make the mistake of counting him out.
Scott Ware—Scott, we hardly knew ya. The junior college transfer came to Troy last fall and made an impact in a couple games, looking very promising before getting hurt. He rebounded this year to capture the starting free safety spot and is just beginning to show why he was such a highly-sought-after prospect coming out of junior college. He has 42 tackles on the year and one interception, a big one last game against Fresno State. But Ware will probably always be remembered (from as far away as South Bend) for his bone-crushing hitting ability. Not many receivers will miss him next year when they go over the middle, but the Trojans sure will.
Justin Wyatt—Lost in all the calamity over injuries and suspensions to the secondary is the fact that Wyatt has started 24-straight games at cornerback and has become one of the better cover men around. He had 40 tackles and an interception in 2004 and didn't get beat once all season. This year, he has 30 tackles and an interception and has consistently shut down the opponent's top receiver. He's not your typical corner, either. His toughness belies his stature—just ask Oklahoma All-American receiver Mark Clayton, who was upended by a vicious Wyatt hit in last year's Orange Bowl. Wyatt has become a complete corner with an NFL future. Without a doubt, he was the key to the fortunes of USC's secondary in 2005.
It's not always easy being a walk on, but center Ross Burruel, cornerback Alex Gomez, receiver Wil Smith and tailback Andre Woodert made it look like just that. All four of them were vital to the Trojans success the last few years.
One last note: It's certainly possible that a few other Trojans—some juniors—will also be playing their last game at the Coliseum. Be sure to keep that in mind as they trot off the field after the game. We may never see the likes of them again.