It’s Pete Carroll’s program. It’s Matt Leinart’s team. And has been from the moment Leinart took the field as the USC Trojans’ starting quarterback, 38 games (and 37 victories) ago. Thirty-nine consecutive starts. Three consecutive seasons of more than 3,000 passing yards, 10,238 yards total. Ninety-eight touchdown passes against 22 interceptions. A career interception rate of 1.8 percent, an NCAA-record low. All while directing an attack as complicated as any in the nation. Watch USC’s offense tonight. See how often USC lines up in a formation you already have seen. Might never happen. Appreciate how often Leinart has two wide receivers. Then three. Then four and five. Operating from under center, or from the shotgun. Watch how often he changes the play at the line of scrimmage, backing away to shout instructions to teammates. Watch his eyes, his head, as he scans the field, on pass plays. First option, second option, third, fourth, fifth. Knowing where all those receivers are at any split second, and being able to deliver the ball to any of them. That is the sort of intellectual mastery of a complicated offense you normally expect only from the National Football League’s elite. Peyton Manning, perhaps. Tom Brady. Leinart has had help, no question. His coaches. It doesn’t get much better than Pete Carroll, former offensive coordinator Norm Chow, current coordinator Lane Kiffin. His teammates. Reggie Bush has been handy. As have LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith and a standout offensive line that has kept pass rushers largely at bay. But none of those worthies have been the consistent factor in USC’s offensive success as Leinart has been during this 37-1 run. Carroll coaches the defense. Chow left a year ago. Bush and White played behind Hershel Dennis the first half of 2003. Jarrett wasn’t on campus in 2003, and Smith was a backup. No other Trojan will have started all 39 games during this three-year surge. Safety Darnell Bing is closest, at 34 games. Lineman Fred Matua is next, at 31 starts, followed by Frostee Rucker at 29. Meaning Leinart is durable. Gutsy, too. He came back from knee and ankle injuries to lead a rally in 2003 at Arizona State. Same venue, same team, he overcame a first-half concussion on a late hit to lead a rally from 21-3 down to a 38-28 victory last October. Not bad for an upper-middle class kid from Orange County. One who was chubby and cross-eyed as a youth. To examine Leinart’s game-by-game numbers is to begin to get a sense of how important he has been. His worst game in 38 starts? Probably vs. Cal last season, when he was 15-for-24 for 164 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 23-17 victory. Which would be a nice effort for most college quarterbacks. Meanwhile, he has passed for 200 yards or more 35 times in 38 games. For more than 300 yards 11 times. And for at least three touchdowns in a game 20 times. Leinart won the Heisman in 2004. He perhaps should have won it in 2005, as well. In the final weeks of Leinart’s college career, it has became fashionable to criticize him. He isn’t mobile. He doesn’t have the strongest arm in the country. His numbers are the product of a system. Reggie Bush is USC’s real MVP. But without Leinart and the threat of the quick-strike touchdown through the air, how often would Bush have faced defenses stacked against the run? Who is more indispensable? To wit: Is USC better off with backup tailback LenDale White in the game . . . or with backup quarterback John David Booty? Leinart is special. Let’s not forget that. Regardless of what happens against Texas. Had Leinart not spurned the NFL (and millions of dollars) for one more year of college football, we are convinced USC would not be playing for the national title tonight. Or have you forgotten the fourth-and-9 bullet to Jarrett at Notre Dame? We expect he will be outstanding against Texas. He has a 38-game track record to prompt that prediction. But we might not thoroughly appreciate what Matt Leinart did for USC for three amazing seasons – 2003, 2004, 2005 – until next September. When somebody other than No. 11 is lining up behind center for USC. Paul Oberjuerge’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Readers may reach him at [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson Instead, Leinart gave us our first glimpse of his quality. His first pass? For a touchdown. His first-game statistics? Seventeen completions in 30 attempts, 192 yards, no interceptions . . . in a 23-0 USC upset victory. The Trojans hardly have suffered a hiccup since. Leinart concludes his college career tonight in the Rose Bowl vs. second-ranked Texas. One more victory, and he becomes the first quarterback to lead his college team to three national championships. He has been so good, so durable, so dependable for so long, many of us take for granted his sublime skill, talent and polish. His almost unparalleled accomplishments. Aug. 30, 2003. Leinart was a redshirt sophomore who had never thrown a pass in a college game. Playing before 80,000 hostile fans at sixth-ranked Auburn. It was an environment created for rookie jitters. For an ugly meltdown by a green kid taking snaps for the underdog visitors.