Grim realities face Trojans of yesterday

The hype reached its peak around Christmas 2005.

The talk was that this USC squad, with two Heisman Trophy winners in its backfield and two-straight AP national titles on its mantle, could be the greatest college football team of all time.

One game, against Texas in the Rose Bowl, stood between the Trojans and becoming the first team to win the AP national title three years in a row.

But 467 yards of Vince Young offense later, the talk of greatest of all time faded. The Trojans, losers for the first time in 35 games, were knocked off the peak of college football dominance.

But who was to know then how far the stars of that team would fall in the coming years?

As this week’s headlines alone have shown, life has been much less charmed as of late for the protagonists of USC’s last national title-winning team.

The quarterback, Matt Leinart, was the orchestrator of an offense that averaged 50 points per game during the regular season of his senior year. He ended his college career with two national championships and a Heisman Trophy.

Fast forward to this week, when Leinart was cut by the Arizona Cardinals after four less-than-stellar seasons with the team. Plagued by injuries and stuck behind Kurt Warner on the depth chart, Leinart made only 17 starts during his time in the desert.

This year was supposed to be Leinart’s time to shine. With his body finally healthy and Warner retired, the No. 10 pick in the 2006 NFL draft was set to take over the starting job.

Leinart was beaten out, however, by free agent pickup Derek Anderson and the club released the former Trojan on Saturday.

Signed Monday by the Houston Texans, Leinart will serve as a backup again, this time to Matt Schaub.

Leinart’s legendary running back combo, LenDale White and Reggie Bush, ran for a combined 40 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards as juniors in 2005. Nicknamed “Thunder and Lightning,” the duo electrified the Coliseum faithful by averaging more than seven and one-half yards per carry during the 2005 season.

That success hasn’t translated to the NFL.

Let’s begin with Reggie.

Taken second overall by the New Orleans Saints in 2006, the former Heisman Trophy winner was expected to become one of the league’s biggest stars.

During his four-year career in the NFL, Bush hasn’t gained more than 581 rushing yards in a season — hardly superstar numbers.

And when his Saints team improbably won the Super Bowl this February, it seemed Reggie could relax a little over the summer, knowing he and his teammates had achieved the sport’s highest goal.

The NCAA had different plans.

The announcement of sanctions on USC’s football program, centered on NCAA findings that Bush took money from sports marketers during his time as a Trojan, led to a media firestorm and backlash against Bush from his former fans at USC.

This week, a report surfaced that the Heisman Trophy Trust planned to take away Reggie’s award for being the top player in college football in 2005.

Whether the report is accurate and Bush will be stripped of the nation’s top individual prize remains to be seen, but the story confirmed that Reggie’s reputation has been forever tarnished.

His former backfield teammate hasn’t had a better summer either.

White, drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the second round, seemed to have found his niche in the league as a power back, gaining more than 1,000 yards in 2007 and scoring 16 touchdowns a year later.

White failed to maintain his success, however, ballooning up to 265 pounds in 2008 and falling behind emerging star Chris Johnson on the Titans’ depth chart.

It seemed that White’s career would be rejuvenated when former Trojan coach and current Seattle Seahawks boss Pete Carroll traded for him in April.

Then came the news that White would be suspended for the first four games of the upcoming season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy (White later admitted to smoking marijuana). Carroll cut White only a month after he signed him, leaving his former running back miffed.

Said White: “Pete Carroll? The same Pete Carroll who ran out on ’SC?”

White, picked up by the Denver Broncos, tore his Achilles’ tendon Sept. 2 in the team’s final preseason game and will miss the entire season.

Carroll, the coach who led the Trojans to seven straight Pac-10 titles, never quite recaptured the dominance of those teams from 2003 to 2005.

USC hasn’t appeared in a national title game since the loss to Texas, and last year the Trojans posted their lowest win total — nine — since 2001.

Carroll fled north, taking over the helm of the Seahawks, while USC was left to find his successor and sort through the sanctions.

Top wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett has had his fair share of struggles as well at the pro level. The man who set the Pac-10 record with 41 career receiving touchdowns as a Trojan has managed to score only once in three years with the Carolina Panthers.

The idea is not to bash the former heroes of USC football; quite the opposite, let this serve as a lament for what might have been.

Whether through injury, lack of discipline or poor performance, the stars of perhaps USC’s greatest dynasty have become a group of mediocre NFL talent.  Their college successes provide little consolation either — the record books that they rewrote together as Trojans now feature asterisks next to their names.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

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