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December 31, 2007

Booty returns to site of greatest triumph

It was the performance that launched a 1,000-watt Heisman campaign.

The air-it-out calls continued to roll in from the sideline, and John David Booty described his overjoyed mindset as, "You've gotta be kidding me! You've gotta be kidding me!" The Trojans had not been able to establish a running game, but coaches had found a soft spot in Michigan's secondary.

After an efficient-but-unproductive first half, Booty threw for 289 yards during the final two quarters, to finish last season's Rose Bowl with 391 yards (third best in Rose Bowl history) and four touchdowns (tying a Rose Bowl record). USC broke out of a 3-3 halftime tie to drub the Wolverines, 32-18.

"We got in such a zone and rhythm, along with (wide receivers) D.J. (Dwayne Jarrett) and Steve (Smith) and all the other guys," Booty said. "There was no stopping us at that point."

Public wisdom said there would be no stopping Booty or the Trojans in 2007-08 either. Voters and pundits tabbed USC as the nation's No. 1 team. Booty, despite memorable tipped passes near the end of the Trojans' two 2006 losses, became an overnight Heisman favorite.

"If you want to come to SC and play quarterback, you're going to get a lot of pressure put on you," said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian. "You're going to get put on the cover of magazines; you're going to be on Sports Center; you're going to have to do a lot of interviews; you're going to have to understand how to do interviews.

"It's more than just throwing curl routes."

Booty had grown accustomed to expectations. In 2001, he had stepped under center at Louisiana-prep powerhouse Evangel Christian, succeeding a pair of All-Americans. He led the school to consecutive state titles, throwing 88 touchdown passes over two seasons.

At USC, he followed Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.

"I love coming behind great players," Booty, a senior, said last week. "Here at this school, if you're not in the National Championship, or if you're not a Heisman Trophy winner … then your year was not that good. It pushes you to be the best. That's something that I've always wanted to be."

Yet, Booty found his Heisman hopes on life support, even before USC's stunning loss to Stanford on Oct. 6. Without Jarrett and Smith, an inexperienced receiving corps often struggled - deflating Booty's numbers. Then, after throwing a pair of interceptions in the rain at Washington, Booty broke his right middle finger against Stanford and threw four second-half picks, contributing directly to the 24-23 defeat.

Trophy talk lost its foothold, never threatening to become an in-season distraction. Even at its height, though, the hype had not seemed to weigh on Booty.

"There's jokes in the locker room and stuff like that. But you can tell Booty doesn't really care about stuff like that, and it wasn't a big deal to him," said senior left tackle, and co-captain, Sam Baker. "Just look at him. He's just a laid-back Southern guy. … He doesn't get too up or too down."

Booty spent most of October nursing his broken finger and watching Mark Sanchez play quarterback. The Trojans won Sanchez's first two starts, before losing at Oregon - a defeat that effectively guaranteed USC would not play for the national title.

Still, the Trojans managed to win their sixth-straight Pac-10 championship, with an assist from Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon's left ACL. The ligament tore on Nov. 15, setting the Ducks' season-ending three-game losing streak in motion.

Tuesday, Booty and the Trojans return to the Rose Bowl, where they will play Illinois. It's a full circle - literally, if not inspirationally.

Even if Booty departs USC with another virtuoso postseason performance, he is aware that some will view his college career as a disappointment.

"I think, looking back on it 20 years from now, or whatever, this group of guys would say, 'Well, we won three Rose Bowls and won two as a starter,'" Booty said. "Out of your four or five years, that's pretty remarkable."

But is it enough?

"It is for me," he said. "Unfortunately, I didn't reach the goals that some of the guys before me had reached.

"But that's OK. I know I've tried; and I've fought. And who knows what will happen at the next level?"

Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com


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