Rare meeting of Heisman winners tonight

Southern California and Oklahoma compete for the national championship.


USC quarterback Matt Leinart, left, is congratulated by Oklahoma quarterback Jason White after being awarded the 2004 Heisman Trophy in New York, in this Dec. 11 photo. White was the 2003 trophy winner. The USC and Oklahoma quarterback will meet again tonight, this time for the national championship.

The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 4, 2005 at 12:45 a.m.

Matt Leinart is an easygoing Californian, who used an NFL-caliber left arm to win a Heisman Trophy for USC this season.

Jason White is a tough kid from small-town Oklahoma, who overcame two devastating knee injuries to become a Heisman winner for the Sooners last season.

Their most common trait is success.

Leinart and White will become the first Heisman winners to play each other in a college game when Southern California and Oklahoma meet in the Orange Bowl tonight for the national title.

``We don't want to make it a battle one-on-one because it's a team game,'' Leinart said.

The top-ranked Trojans (12-0) are looking to become the first team since Nebraska in 1994-95 to win back-to-back Associated Press titles. It would be USC's fifth title overall, but first Bowl Championship Series title.

Second-ranked Oklahoma (12-0) is shooting for its second national championship under coach Bob Stoops. The Sooners won it all in 2000 at the Orange Bowl and played in the BCS title game last season, losing to LSU 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl.

Leinart and White lead offenses that take a slightly different approach, but produce similar stellar results.

``They both execute their offense in a great way,'' Stoops said. ``Our offensive styles are a little bit different, but the quarterbacks do a great job of managing. They are accurate and they can both make all the throws.''

LSU and USC split the national crowns last year, a scenario that is highly unlikely this year no matter what happens in the Sugar Bowl with No. 3 Auburn (12-0) playing Virginia Tech.

``I don't really know how it could come out that way,'' USC coach Pete Carroll said Monday. ``I didn't have any problem with what happened last year. We did everything we could with the season that we had and with the finish and all of that, and the system made a statement.''

``Here again, it does it again. Hopefully, this just continues to generate energy to try and fix the thing,'' he said. ``When you have teams that play great schedules and play great like this, how can you do this unless you keep playing games, and that system isn't intact. This is going to happen again, most likely. That's just the way it is. You can't do anything about it.''

The Sooners enter the BCS championship game in far better shape mentally and physically than they did last year.

Oklahoma had lost 35-7 to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game before the Sugar Bowl and White was aching.

The main difference between this year and last for White?

``I'm not spending as much time in the training room,'' he said.

It's a place White has become far too familiar with during his six years in Norman.

Major knee injuries ended both the 2001 and 2002 seasons for him. The rehab was grueling and at times lonely.

``Some days it felt a little better and I'd try to get some extra in and some days I couldn't because of how sore it was,'' he said. ``As a player you want to be out there playing and if you're not playing you don't feel like part of the team.''

He made his way back and finished his career with two phenomenal seasons. Last year, he threw for 3,846 yards and 40 touchdowns.

But in the final two games he didn't throw a TD and was picked off four times. After putting together one of the greatest seasons in NCAA history, White became a target for critics.

``I think the biggest thing that sticks in my head was the e-mails that I got last year after the Sugar Bowl, just saying that I need to give back the Heisman Trophy,'' he said.

White, from Tuttle, Okla., wasn't thrilled with all the attention the Heisman comes with, anyway.

Oklahoma freshman tailback Adrian Peterson has helped take the focus away from White on and off the field this year, much to the quarterback's delight.

``I'm not a guy who wants to be in the spotlight all the time,'' said White, who has passed for 2,961 yards and 33 TDs. ``I've been able to enjoy this week a lot more.''

Peterson has run for 1,843 yards, 20 shy of Ron Dayne's NCAA record for a freshman.

``Not too many people tackle him one-on-one,'' USC defensive tackle Mike Patterson said.

Coming into this season, Leinart was the Heisman front-runner. He and White chatted before the season about playing in the spotlight and White gave Leinart some more advice after he won it.

``He said my life is going to change,'' said Leinart, who has passed for 2,990 yards and 29 TDs. ``He was right.''

Leinart, a junior from Santa Ana, Calif., who replaced 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer, has seemed more at ease with the fame that comes with the big bronze statue.

``You know it's been fun, been kind of overwhelming at times, but it comes along with success and being at USC, and obviously I wouldn't change anything for the world,'' Leinart said.

There is a chance this could be Leinart's last college game. He's already talked about his future with Carroll, but the quarterback has been saying it's "95 percent'' likely he'll be back at USC next season.

Despite all the BCS controversy over which teams should be playing in the Orange Bowl, it's hard to argue with the star power of Oklahoma vs. USC, two of college football's traditional powers again at the top of the sport.

``The fact that it's two storied programs coming together at a time when they're really on the rise,'' Carroll said, ``you capture all of the people that ever loved Oklahoma football and ever loved USC football.''

  • NOTE:

    South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who guided Florida to a 31-10 win against Syracuse in the 1999 Orange Bowl, was one of three inductees into the Orange Bowl Hall of Honor on Monday.

    Former Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer, who founded the Bowl Championship Series, and former Miami running back Melvin Bratton, who was on the 1984 Hurricanes team that won the Orange Bowl and national championship, also were inducted at a luncheon.

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