For the first time since Southern California set out to defend the championship it won last season, Matt Leinart failed to show up.
But it wasn't injury, illness or an intimidating defense that kept the Heisman Trophy winner from putting in an appearance alongside Pete Carroll when his coach clearly could have used the help. It was too much partying.
''And let's say,'' Carroll chuckled, ''that he's not the only victim.''
While the USC coach had the luxury of joking about Leinart's no-show early Wednesday morning, Carroll won't be laughing if the junior quarterback is similarly absent by the time spring practice rolls around. Because that will mean that the best passer in the college game has opted to test his skills at the next level, where Leinart would likely be welcomed as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Asked about the possibility a few hours earlier, in the wake of Southern California's 55-19 dismantling of Oklahoma, Leinart acknowledged, ''It's hard not to think about it because so many people are saying this and that, but ... I've stuck true to my word all season. I still plan on coming back. It's going to take a lot for me to leave.
''I know I have a quick decision to make in the next week or so, but it's just something special that we're a part of, and really to have a chance to do a third national championship in a row and at the Rose Bowl next year in our backyard.
''So I can't answer right now,'' he said. ''But like I said, it's going to take a lot for me to leave.''
The easy answer is: Go.
In this case, it's also the right one.
The simple fact is that there's nothing left for Leinart to prove in the college game. Most of the time, the advice from this corner would be to stay. He can get stronger and smarter by staying wrapped in the protective cocoon that just about any elite college program offers, and especially in one as well-designed as Southern California's.
His coach played in the pros and knows the risk-reward proposition Leinart faces better than most. USC quarterback coach Carl Smith likewise did a turn in the NFL and Carroll made clear that preparing Leinart for a pro career has already been part of their development scheme for some time.
And there's no arguing that Norm Chow, the mad scientist who orchestrates the Trojan's offense, has pushed the kid's learning curve at warp speed. Chow, after all, did the same when he was an assistant at Brigham Young and North Carolina State before coming to USC and here are a few of the other quarterbacks who benefited from his tutelage: Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer.
But if it wasn't clear before Tuesday night, it should be now. Leinart is very near the end of the curve, even closer to getting his college turf degree than the bachelor's in sociology he's on track to pick up in May 2006. He makes good decisions, even on the run, he can throw a laser between defenders, or feather a pass to the outside shoulder of a defender racing up the sideline.
During one remarkable stretch in the second quarter, Leinart threw three consecutive passes for touchdowns, and he was just heating up. The only place where it was easy to get a bead on him all night was in the record books. The best argument against Leinart returning to Southern California is that the 49ers have the first pick in the NFL draft, and given the woeful state of the franchise in San Francisco, the kid could get hurt if he gets thrown to the Lions or the Patriots, Steelers or Eagles, for that matter too soon.
So there's that to think about, not to mention the emotional tug exerted by a USC program that Carroll has turned into an extended family. The coach has built a pipeline for talent that is the envy of his rivals in this era of parity, and he pushes underclassmen to compete for every spot on the field. That system rewards players on merit and keeps everyone sharp. Winning as often as USC has during Carroll's tenure takes care of the rest.
''Emotionally, Matt is very, very much in love with this football team and this university, and that's why he said, on and on, 'I'm staying.' But the other side, he has to look at the business side of it and weigh that out,'' Carroll said.
Whatever the decision, Carroll is certain of one thing: Leinart and USC will continue to thrive, whether they're together or apart.
''We expect our people to move on and do well and move up, so that's how we approach it,'' he said. ''And that's no disrespect in regard to anybody that's been in our program. That's just the philosophy I put out there and one I try to hold onto.''
It's easy for Carroll to sound that way, in no small part because a few moments later he was talking about how many prospects USC has stockpiled at every position, including quarterback.
The only subject he ruled out of bounds was the party that sidelined Leinart in the first place.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.
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