Leinart, Young legacies on the line

Getting No. 1 and No. 2 together on the same field, thanks to the BCS, is a given. Getting the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks on the same field is not. That's why the matchup of USC senior Matt Leinart and Texas junior Vince Young in the Rose Bowl is an answered prayer for college football fans.

Leinart, the 2004 Heisman winner, has a 37-1 record as a starter. Young, an elusive runner who has honed his passing game well enough to lead I-A in passing efficiency, is 29-2 as a starter.

It should be a dream matchup. However, the recent history of quarterback battles in marquee bowl games is that one of the quarterbacks doesn't make history. He makes a mess.

It may be the weight of expectations, built up during a month of hype interrupted by award banquets. More likely, it has been the weight of the defensive line landing on the quarterback. Teams that get to the top usually arrive with outstanding defenses.

Last year, for instance, Leinart -- the Heisman winner -- threw for 332 yards and five touchdowns. Oklahoma's Jason White -- who followed his 2003 Heisman victory with a third-place finish in 2004 -- threw for 244 yards and two scores, but also threw three interceptions. He hasn't been able to set his feet yet.

In 2002, Heisman winner Carson Palmer of USC threw for 303 yards and a touchdown in the Orange Bowl. Heisman runner-up Brad Banks of Iowa completed 15 of 36 passes for 204 yards and an interception. In 2001, Ken Dorsey of Miami outplayed Heisman winner Eric Crouch of Nebraska in the Rose Bowl (although, in Crouch's defense, he didn't get a lot of help from his Huskers teammates).

History might be against Leinart and Young, but experience isn't. Young has been a playmaker in the Longhorns' biggest games. He proved unsolvable for Michigan in the Rose Bowl last season, rushing for 192 yards and throwing for 180 in Texas' 38-37 victory.

In Leinart's favor, he has played for at least a share of the national championship in his last two bowl games. He played superbly against Michigan two years ago, throwing for three touchdowns and catching the other in a 28-14 rout of the Wolverines, before doing a number on the Sooners last season.

Leinart said the X's and O's stuff has gone more smoothly this season because of the experience around him. However, he feels as if the Trojans have paid a toll staying on top.

"Every year, it gets harder," Leinart said after the 66-19 defeat of UCLA this month. "For me, personally, it's been harder. For the team, it's been harder. We showed what kind of team we are. We showed what kind of heart we have. It's been a great year, everything we could have ever expected."

Neither quarterback will shrink from the task before him. Leinart and Young haven't cowered, going all the way back to their childhoods.

Young survived the allure of Houston gangs. Leinart survived the allure of Oreos. Young overcame a brief flirtation with the street life. Leinart overcame being the overweight, cross-eyed kid. These experiences endowed the quarterbacks with tough hides, an integral part of their leadership.

"Whether we're leading at halftime, leading at the fourth quarter or, like Notre Dame, waiting all the way until there are three seconds left, we never have any doubt," Leinart said.

Young flips a switch the minute he walks into the locker room. He is a camp counselor, spreading joy throughout the bunk. He wants his teammates dancing, singing, carrying on to the extent that pressure can't enter the team's space.

"He's the best at laughing and dancing and then competing when it's time to take the snap that I've ever seen," Texas coach Mack Brown said.

One arrived on the scene with everything but a Hollywood marketing campaign. Young came to Texas in 2001 as the top recruit in the nation. His profile lowered briefly during his redshirt year, but the expectations of him never dipped.

Young met those expectations head on. It took offensive coordinator Greg Davis the better part of two seasons to connect with Young, but once those two did click -- in the second half of the 2004 season -- Texas began its 19-game winning streak. There's nothing like a few 6 a.m. skull sessions with the position coach to persuade a player to focus.

The difference, Young said, is "knowing where the ball should go. That helps out a whole lot. Understand why you are doing this."

One languished in the shadows for two seasons. Leinart began the spring of his third year at USC no higher than third string, behind Matt Cassel and Brandon Hance. At the end of spring practice in 2003, offensive coordinator Norm Chow talked about the possibility that one of those two would replace Carson Palmer. Then Chow said, making it sound almost like an afterthought, "We've got this other kid, Matt Leinart … "

Young proved he could run, and he learned how to throw so well that he achieved that passing-efficiency lead.

Leinart proved he could throw right away, yet he can escape the pocket when he must.

"He will definitely be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play," Trojans tailback Reggie Bush said.

Young is the greater talent. Leinart has the greater talent around him. Both know how to win. Both have faltered when they failed to cap their emotions. Leinart struggled in the first half of his last home game against UCLA. Young came off as immature and ungracious when Bush won the Heisman.

Both cases remind us that, despite what we are used to seeing from Young and Leinart, they are young. But there will be no place for youth at the Rose Bowl. Their teams and their legacies will depend upon how Young and Leinart respond. We have the great fortune to see the two best quarterbacks in the nation lead their teams against each other with the national championship at stake. Enjoy.

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