Beyond the Bush Push: Leinart, Quinn look at current state, future of ND-USC

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The mostly unforgiving twists and challenges in their NFL careers helped forge a friendship between Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart, in the nine years after they faced each other as relative strangers in one of college football’s most epic games.

Probably the most contentious subject these days between the former standout quarterbacks of Notre Dame and USC, respectively, and current FOX Sports college football analysts is why Leinart never practically used the two-hour ballroom dancing class he was taking as his only college credits when the game was played in October of 2005.

“You’d think a gentleman like that would have taken somebody out dancing in all the years since,” Quinn said with a laugh.

“I think it’s fair to let everyone know that I had already graduated,” Leinart countered. “And Mark Sanchez, who was a freshman at the time, was in that same class. And you never hear about that.”

Their most recent tract of common ground is that almost a decade after that dominant, top-ranked USC team overcame a ninth-ranked Irish team, 34-31, in the “Bush Push” game, the 86th rendition of the rivalry being an afterthought in the national view is more hiccup than trend.

“I think next year, you’re going to get a much better measure of what these teams are and where they’re going,” said Leinart, who, along with Quinn, will be part of FOX’s pregame and postgame coverage team (3:30 p.m. EST kickoff).

Saturday’s snapshot, however fleeting, has both teams at 7-4, sodden with regret, unranked and headed to bowls that they both hope will somehow springboard them into 2015 seasons with better story lines.

The prevailing thread at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has to do with which team deals with depletion better.

USC — when you scratch off scholarships lost to NCAA retribution, injured and defecting players, and those the coaching staff has committed to redshirting — has 52 recruited scholarship players available. Irish fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly, 3-1 vs. USC, has a smaller advantage than one might imagine there, with 60.

The area where it has the potential to show up most is USC’s depleted offensive line vs. Notre Dame’s diluted defensive front seven.

The Trojans feature two true freshman, a redshirt freshman, a redshirt sophomore and a junior in the offensive trenches, something UCLA was able to exploit repeatedly in a 38-20 thumping of USC last weekend.

The Irish counter with their second true freshman to start at middle linebacker this season, Greer Martini, a redshirt freshman nose guard, Jacob Matuska, who gained five of his six career tackles last week, and large pockets of inexperience around them.

The long view from both Quinn and Leinart, though, is that most of each team’s problems are fixable — at least by the time 2015 rolls around.

Both believe each team has the right quarterback to build around in 2015, even if it hasn’t always been apparent in 2014 from the chaos around them, and in Everett Golson’s case, some self-induced chaos.

USC junior Cody Kessler has the upper hand statistically. He ranks fifth nationally in passing efficiency, and is on track to set single-season school records in that category and in completion percentage .697 if there’s no fall-off against the Irish.

“He’s smart with the football,” Quinn said of Kessler. “The decisions he makes are somewhat conservative at times. He doesn’t push the ball down the field quite as much as I think he could, given the talent they have at wide receiver.

“He’s accurate. He has those very typical polished passing mechanics and quarterbacking ability that you see a lot from USC quarterbacks, but again a lot of it is the underneath routes, dinking and dunking, high–percentage routes. Getting it down the field more is the next stage of his evolution.”

Kessler ranks 54th nationally in yards per completion. For comparison’s sake, Golson is 25th. And Miami of Ohio’s Andrew Hendrix, who didn’t complete a pass in four attempts last season for the Irish against USC in a relief appearance when the game was in the balance last October, is ninth.

Golson stands fifth nationally in points responsible for per game, eighth in total offense and 20th in passing efficiency, one spot ahead of reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston of Florida State. But it’s his 20 turnovers (nine more than USC has as a team) that has dominated his November swoon from third in the Heisman Trophy odds in Vegas to polarizing figure outside the program.

That perception still largely persisted after last week’s 31-28 Irish loss to Louisville in which the Irish were the first team to complete more than 60 percent of their passes against the nation’s No. 9 pass-efficiency defense (67 percent).

And Golson threw for more yards against the Cardinals (236) than any starting QB this year save Winston. He threw one interception against the nation’s top-intercepting team.

“I think he’s a tremendous quarterback,” Leinart offered, “and his improvement from 2012, really his improvement from sitting out a whole year (2013) and being able to do what he did the first half of the season, was pretty remarkable.

“The turnovers have been his Achilles heel this year, for whatever reason. When he doesn’t turn the ball over, he’s as good as anybody.”

Quinn has heard the grumblings calling for Kelly to make a change and give sophomore backup Malik Zaire a shot, but he sees no upside to it.

“I completely understand why Kelly has stuck with Everett,” Quinn said. “Kelly feels he’s the most talented quarterback on his team at this point. I mean, he knows what he’s got in Malik Zaire.

“When Everett wasn’t there last year, he got to see Malik. And even this spring he was able to see them compete to some degree. I don’t think you go through a quarterback change in the middle of the season. I don’t think a benching helps.

“If he feels that was maybe the only way he could drive home the point to Everett that he’s got to take care of the football, then maybe you use it as a last resort, but you’ve got to be careful. Sometimes a benching, when a guy has a fragile mind-set, is so tough to handle it would be hard for them to ever come back from.”

That’s not to say Quinn doesn’t see the turnovers as a problem. But he also sees solutions.

“Everett needs to look at Marcus Mariota (of Oregon) and the way he takes care of the ball. That’s where he has to get to. And that’s where you start. You start with the mental side.

“You’ve got to get him to understand that the biggest difference in winning and losing games is the turnover margin. You have to drive home that point in the classroom.

“You have to drive home the points on film. ‘Here, just throw the ball away. Here, just take a sack. Don’t try to do anything extra here. We know that you can. But here’s why.’ It’s situational football, and teaching him on film to help drive it home more mentally.”

From there, you work on the physical aspect, said Quinn, who went from 28 turnovers in his first 21 collegiate starts to seven over the next 13 that included the Bush Push game.

“Do drill work with him to help him understand when to secure the football, how to secure it, when not to leave it exposed,” Quinn said. “Not only am I looking at it from a guy who’s played and been around, but I’m also doing it from almost a scouting standpoint.

“I can tell you exactly what coaches and scouts in the NFL are going to say: he’s careless with the football. And there are a lot of coaches who won’t put up with it or they won’t draft a guy or they won’t look at him as their quarterback.

“The margins are thin in college. They’re even thinner in the NFL.”

Quinn said the biggest immediate improvement Golson can make is using the laces on the football — and all the time.

It’s something Golson intentionally chose NOT to do his entire football career before this season, including his 11 starts in 2012. QB guru George Whitfield and ND first-year quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur have tried to break him of that habit, but Golson only throws with the laces intermittently still.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Quinn said. “They’re there to provide you with an advantage for throwing the football.

“I understand if you have to get the ball out quick, you don’t always have time to put your hand on the laces. But for gripping purposes, for accuracy purposes, they’re there to aid in that process, so get used to throwing with them all the time. It’s like pitching and saying you don’t care about using the seams.

“It’s only to your advantage to use them.”

Golson, both players insist, will need it when he climbs back on a bigger stage, which could very well happen when USC and ND clash for the 87th time, next Oct. 17 in South Bend … if not before.

“I think these two programs have the right coaches in place,” Leinart said. “It’s been a funny year with some new teams like Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Baylor and TCU up near the top. These teams have a lot going for them besides tradition. It’s only a matter of time before they come all the way back.''

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Nine years have passed since USC QB Matt Leinart (11) scored the winning touchdown against Notre Dame with the help of Reggie Bush in an epic 34-31 Trojan triumph at Notre Dame Stadium back on Oct. 15, 2005. (AP File Photo/JOE RAYMOND)