Rodney Peete had the star power and Carson Palmer had the Heisman Trophy. But neither had a national championship ring. Matt Leinart brought together all three as he embarked on one of the most successful college careers in the history of the game.
He won 37 of the 39 games he started across three seasons, beginning in 2003 when he took on the monumental task of filling Carson Palmer’s shoes.
Leinart threw a touchdown on the first pass of his career, but it was what he did in the fourth game of the season against Arizona State that really set his legend in motion. After limping off the field with a bum knee and ankle in the first half, the quarterback returned in the second half with his team trailing 17-10. He went on to lead the Trojans to scores on five of their six second-half possessions as they ran away with a win.
“He’s a warrior,” Shaun Cody was quoted in the Los Angeles Times after the game. “I want to fight for the guy. I just want to go to war with him.”
And USC did go to war with Leinart. As the quarterback put up numbers to rival Palmer’s, the Trojans won their final nine games that season, including a memorable Rose Bowl victory over Michigan to claim the national title.
They went on to win another 13 after that, going wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the land en route to a second national championship. Leinart, who had been crowned the Heisman Trophy winner that season with 3,332 yards and 33 touchdowns, put a bow on it all with a 55-19 rout against Oklahoma. Knowing that a Sooner player had called him out as “overrated” before the game made it all the more satisfying when he tossed five touchdowns.
With two national titles in two years as a starter, Leinart went searching for more by coming back for his senior season. He added another 12 wins to USC’s streak which stood at 34 in-a-row before a heartbreaking last-minute loss to Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl.