Give your most memorable USC quarterback battle or situation that involves two or more quarterbacks.
There were high hopes for the USC Trojans in 1989. The program was on an upswing under new coach Larry Smith and had risen to No. 2 in the polls in 1988 before a late season loss to eventual national champion Notre Dame.
The Trojans were loaded with experience in 1989 at pretty much every position except quarterback, where Rodney Peete had graduated after finishing as the Heisman runner-up. The favorite to step into the QB spot was strong-armed junior Pat O’Hara, but in the days leading up to the season opener he was injured in practice with two torn knee ligaments and a fractured fibia.
In O’Hara’s place, redshirt freshman Todd Marinovich was thrust into the starting role. The Trojans were upset in the opener against Illinois, suffered a tough loss on the road against the Fighting Irish and a tie against UCLA before beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
O’Hara was never able to regain the starting job and was eventually drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 10th round of the 1991 draft. Marinovich had some bright moments with the Trojans while battling with Smith and he ended up leaving USC after his sophomore year to be a first-round pick of the Raiders. Smith struggled to get the program back on track and was fired after the 1992 season.
How much would have been different if the veteran O’Hara had not been injured for a team with national title hopes? How much would that have helped a young quarterback in Marinovich who could have benefited from the maturity gained by watching from the sidelines? And how different would it have been for a program that spent the next decade trying to get back to the top of the college football mountaintop?
I hate to sound like an old-timer, but since I go back a bit farther than some of the others, I have to mention my favorite quarterback battle. It was in 1962, John McKay's first national championship team, and it featured Pete Beathard and Bill Nelsen. McKay platooned with units back then, and Beathard had one, Nelsen the other. The third quarterback on that team, by the way, was a young Craig Fertig.
Beathard, bigger and stronger, was the better athlete and a big-time runner, so he was terrific on the quarterback rollout/option type plays. Nelsen was a prototype drop-back passer with a big arm. Together, they were a devastating combination, and their talent was even more evident when they moved on to the next level and both wound up as starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
I still regard Beathard as the most underrated quarterback in USC history. He's never mentioned on any of the lists, but all he did was win. His best moment came in the 1963 Rose Bowl when he and Wisconsin's Ron Vander Kelen put on one of the more spectacular passing duels in the history of that great event.
The battle between Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne at the quarterback spot has been drama-filled and entertaining to say the least, but it has nothing on the competition that took place a decade ago between another trio of talented Trojans signal callers -- Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel and Brandon Hance.
With the departure of Carson Palmer to the NFL following the 2002 campaign, USC head coach Pete Carroll declared the starting job open for the taking entering the spring of 2003, with each of the three candidates bringing their own unique skill-set to the table.
In Cassel, the Trojans had a team leader with a big arm and an NFL physique. Hance, a Purdue transfer who had shown promise as the Boilermakers’ starter in 2001, had more game experience -- and in a big-time setting -- than either of his counterparts. And then there was Leinart, who like Cassel, had the prototypical height that you look for, to go along with a strong football IQ and an uncanny ability to direct the offense downfield at times. But the former Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei standout wasn’t a finished product by any means and always seemed to lack a certain aura of confidence -- that is until he was named the starter for the spring game.
From that point on, Leinart was a different player. Firmly taking the reins of what he now considered to be his team, he produced on a much more consistent level than he ever had before. Never looking back, Leinart would go on to become one of the Trojans most prolific offensive performers of all time, ultimately leaving with a Heisman Trophy and two national titles under his belt.
Mike Rae/Pat Haden (1972) -- Quarterback duels for the starting position at USC are nothing new, but this particular one eventually led to a national championship. The Trojans were coming off two consecutive 6-4-1 seasons and no bowl games, and head coach John McKay was starting to take some heat. The Trojans had been led by the exciting but inconsistent Jimmy Jones the previous three seasons.
When the 1972 season rolled around, future College Hall of Fame coach John McKay had a critical decision to make between Rae, a senior backup, or heralded sophomore Haden, a former prep legend at La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat. Fans were giddy with the concept of seeing Haden take command of the Trojans because he had been such a superstar in high school, often connecting with gifted wide receiver J.K. McKay, the son of the Trojans head coach. Haden to McKay just seemed like such a natural and fan-pleasing fit.
Since freshmen weren’t eligible during that era, Haden had no “varsity” experience, having been required to play for the star-studded 1971 freshman team. Given the fact the McKay was under fire, The Silver Fox decided to go with experience and selected Rae. The decision to start his senior turned out to be a fateful one, as the former Lakewood (Calif.) High star directed the Men of Troy to a perfect 12-0 season, winning the national title with a 42-17 demolition of Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and will forever be remembered as the quarterback of arguably the greatest college football team of all time.