Intangibles separate Bush, Leinart

Updated: January 6, 2005, 9:43 AM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Jason White has been an outstanding quarterback for Oklahoma, with a 24-2 record as a starter over the last two seasons. Sooner tailback Adrian Peterson, based on his freshman season, has the size and speed of Eric Dickerson and the instinct of Ray Charles.

White won the 2003 Heisman. Peterson finished second for the 2004 Heisman. Any team would love to have them.

Unless USC's Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush are available, that is. They may not be, if the rumor is true that they have committed to the new Larry Burdine sitcom production -- One And a Half Men.

Leinart and Bush measure up nicely by what can be measured. Leinart is 24-1 as a starter. He has played hurt, winning over a veteran team in 2003 by playing with an injured knee and ankle against Arizona State. He has thrown 28 touchdowns and only six interceptions this season. He has completed two of every three passes and thrown for 2,990 yards.

Bush is averaging 181.8 all-purpose yards on 137 rushes, 41 catches and 42 kick returns. He caught three touchdown passes from three different positions in the opening win against Virginia Tech. He threw a touchdown pass in the rout of Arizona State. He returned two punts for touchdowns.

And for all of those mind-numbing numbers, you can't measure what makes Leinart and Bush so desirable.

With Leinart, it's the intangible of leadership that he has shown from the moment the Rose Bowl ended a year ago. After last season's shared national championship, the Trojans appeared to be a sucker bet to repeat.

The offensive line fell apart in the offseason. Wide receiver Mike Williams chased his NFL dream a year too early. As Burdine, the Sooner defensive lineman, so inartfully said this month, the Trojans offense appeared to consist of Leinart and the playmaking abilities of Bush.

White and Peterson took advantage of the opportunity to play behind the best offensive line in college football in the last several years. Those of us who voted for Leinart for the Heisman, or would choose Leinart and Bush in the Orange Bowl fantasy draft, don't doubt the skills of White and Peterson.

Choosing Leinart and Bush recognizes what they accomplished with an offensive line that learned as the season went along.

Leinart remained patient. He became an older brother to an offense that needed direction. His ability to keep the young players focused and neither to get down on them nor allow them to get down on themselves, allowed USC to get through some difficult early-season games against No. 9 Virginia Tech (24-13) and No. 4 California (23-17).

By early November, when the Trojans trailed in the fog at Oregon State, 13-7, in the third quarter, they never considered panicking. It's what you might expect from a player whose first college pass went for a touchdown.

Leinart's pulse never races.

Leinart doesn't take a false step. Bush takes plenty of false steps. What makes Bush so desirable is the sheer unpredictability of what he may do next. As good as Peterson is -- and he's the first college back in the last two decades to draw serious comparisons to Herschel Walker -- a defense can concoct a game plan for him. He may be too fast and/or too strong. But defensive coaches know with some degree of certainty what he will do.

All defenders know about Bush is that they don't know what he will do. The sophomore slash (tailback/wideout/kick returner) is as close to jazz as college football will ever produce.

If, as coaches are fond of saying, football is a game of matchups, then having Bush on your side guarantees an advantage. No one can match his combination of speed and quickness. He's a Whack-A-Mole player. No matter what a defense does to stop Bush, his talents continue to pop up.

"We played very sound, aggressive defense," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said Wednesday. "We were able to play him in tight pass coverage and disrupt him a little bit."

Bush rushed for 88 yards on 11 carries against the Beavers. He caught two passes for six yards. Yet Bush still found a way to win the game. His 65-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter broke open the game. USC won, 28-20.

"They can kill you on special teams," Riley said. "It was a perfect punt, right on the boundary, everybody on the ball. All of a sudden, we got Reggie Bushed."

Even the English language can't cover Bush.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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