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After back-to-back titles, USC commands rivals’ respect

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, October 12, 2005

USC quarterback Matt Leinart was a top recruit out of high school but never once considered playing for his university’s rival.

“[Notre Dame] didn’t recruit me out of high school,” Leinart said in a Tuesday afternoon teleconference. “[Former Irish coach Bob] Davie was there, and they ran the option. That’s not really my forte.”

As if he had to clarify. The option-less Trojans have created plenty of offensive options behind Leinart’s Heisman Trophy-winning arm.

“He’s one of the more flawless quarterbacks that I’ve ever seen,” Notre Dame free safety Chinedum Ndukwe said.

USC has averaged just over 51 points in its first five games. Leinart is completing 65 percent of his passes and has 12 touchdown tosses to three interceptions. The Trojans have not appeared dominant in many first half showings, but their record, their statistics and their final scores point to an incontrovertible fact.

“They are the best team in the country right now,” Notre Dame defensive end Chris Frome said Tuesday. “They are the most talented team in the country. But any team is beatable on any given day, and USC has shown some weaknesses on offense as well as defense.”

Those weaknesses include failing to put teams away early.

In a Sept. 24 road meeting with then-No. 24 Oregon, USC fell behind 13-10 at half before rattling off a 35-0 second half for the 45-13 victory. The next week, against No. 14 Arizona State, the Trojans succumbed to a 21-3 halftime deficit and then rallied to win by 10 points.

But for every one of those slow starts, there is also a 42-10 halftime lead over Arkansas on Sept. 17 that continued to turn into an embarrassing 70-17 rout.

USC coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday he is more concerned about the end result than how his team arrives there.

“You can’t win in the first quarter,” Carroll said. “You can’t win in the second quarter. It takes you a while to get these games won. We’d like to play perfectly, and we’re working on it. But of all things I want to finish [games] well.”

Though the Trojans’ offense has seen stagnant stretches, Leinart, running back Reggie Bush and company average 640 yards per game – “unheard of,” Leinart said. That number is higher than the NCAA record of 624.9, set by Houston in 1989.

And as Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis sarcastically described USC’s firepower in his Tuesday press conference: “[LenDale White] only averages 7.6 [yards] a carry. So there is a big drop off from that 8.5 that Reggie [Bush] averages.”

The Trojans bring weapons, but it is USC’s defense that gives its offense the ball, the time to accumulate such statistics and the ability to turn first-half close games into second-half blowouts.

The defense has 13 takeaways on fumble recoveries (3) and interceptions (10), turnovers that immediately result in points or long drives by the USC offense.

“We’re playing good football teams that know us well,” Carroll said. “Nobody’s rolling over and letting us just go. We play good teams in this [Pac-10] conference. They can move the ball like crazy on offense. The challenges are huge.

“We’re just trying to get by. I can’t do anything about the style points. It ain’t easy. This is an enormous matchup with a very, very well-coached [Notre Dame] football team. I love that we have this match right now.”