The Notre Dame game was the turning point of the season. Each of the past three seasons has had one, after which the team never looked back. In 2002, it was the Cal game. USC lost the previous week in overtime at Wazzu. Trailing Cal by 21-3, USC scored 27 consecutive points to win the game 30-28. USC blew out its remaining 7 opponents, including Iowa in the Orange Bowl. As Leinart crouched under center, he said he saw a Notre Dame player to his right, "Kind of bluffing, but coming. Whatever. And I'm like, 'OK [shoot], here we go.'"
In 2003, it was the ASU game. USC lost its previous game in three overtimes to Cal (the Trojans’ last loss to date). USC was down 17-10 at halftime. Matt Leinart had been knocked out of the game in the first half with knee and ankle injuries. With Brandon Hance warming up to start the second half, Leinart asked to be put back in. The Trojans scored 27 unanswered points to win 37-17. The team won its remaining eight games by an average of more than 26 points, including a Rose Bowl win over Michigan to win its first national championship since 1978.
In 2004, it was again the Cal game. With USC leading by six, Cal advanced to first and goal with less than two minutes remaining. The Cal QB, Aaron Rodgers, had earlier in the game set the NCAA single-game record for consecutive completions. The USC defense held, sacking Rodgers on second down and forcing three incompletions. The Trojans won their remaining eight games. Only the UCLA game was close, but USC rebounded from that game to destroy Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl.
The Notre Dame game was also a turning point for Leinart. The pressure of maintaining a school-record winning streak and leading the team to an unprecedented third national title was weighing heavily on the fifth-year Heisman-trophy winning QB. He had suffered a concussion and required stitches two weeks prior in a comeback victory over ASU. He had his worst game of the season at Notre Dame, completing only 53% of his passes with two interceptions and zero touchdowns. But, he led the most exciting game-winning drive of the season, including the amazing fourth and nine toss to Dwayne Jarrett from the USC 26 with 1:32 to go. Reading about that play today still gives me shivers.
After Notre Dame, the pressure lifted from Leinart’s shoulders and he started enjoying playing football again.
Kiffin could see that Leinart recognized the coverage.
"He's got it. He's got it!" Kiffin said into the headset.
Sarkisian started mouthing the audible to himself.
Carroll did the same, thinking, It's there, it's there, is he going to? Jarrett, wide to the left, had double vision from a fall earlier in the game, but clearly saw what everyone in the stadium and millions of television viewers saw too.
Leinart had stepped back and was changing his call.
"I was like 'Wow, I'm going to have to make a play.'" Jarrett said. "I just tried to open my eyes as wide as possible."
Leinart turned and pointed right with a closed hand. Then he turned and did the same to the left.
And then Matt Leinart stepped forward to start a play that will forever define him.
There has been some speculation that the pressure of securing his legacy as the greatest college quarterback in history and winning an unprecedented third-consecutive national championship will be too much pressure for Leinart. He let his emotions get the better of him in the UCLA game, the final home game of his career. I don’t see that happening. I expect a performance more like the one following his emotionally-draining experience at Notre Dame, after which he threw for four touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 77% completion rate at Washington.
As Leinart crouched under center, he said he saw a Notre Dame player to his right, "Kind of bluffing, but coming. Whatever. And I'm like, 'OK [shoot], here we go.'"