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Chow is the brains behind USC's offense

LOS ANGELES -- With equal doses of smarts and guts, USC quarterback Matt Leinart has transformed from unknown quantity to All-Pac-10 in the course of one season. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Leinart threw 35 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He threw for 3,229 yards.

The 20-year-old from Santa Ana, Calif., became only the second sophomore to win Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. The first was John Elway.

The reasons why are Leinart achieved so much in so little time could be illustrated with statistics, or by breaking down videotape, or by describing his ability to zip the ball where it needs to be zipped.

Or it could be illustrated by saying that Leinart is coached by Norm Chow. Say no more.

At age 57, in his 34th year of coaching, Chow has broken through the anonymity that comes with an assistant's job. When he walks through the hotel lobby at the American Football Coaches Association convention next week in Orlando, younger coaches will follow him with their eyes. They will hang on his every utterance.

Chow has coached two Heisman Trophy winners (Ty Detmer, BYU, 1990, and Carson Palmer, USC, 2002). He coached Jim McMahon and Steve Young, two quarterbacks that went on to win Super Bowls. And he has taken a third-string quarterback in Leinart and shaped him into the leader of one of the most prolific offenses in years.

Another indication of the sway that Chow holds will be on the field at the Rose Bowl on
Thursday -- when Michigan has the ball.

"Quite frankly, we have studied the USC offense for a couple of years," Michigan offensive coordinator Terry Malone said. "We get a lot of ideas from what they try to do. When we get a chance, we get their tape and study it. If you really study the two offenses, we get a lot of the passing stuff we do from the pro level. The pros get a lot of stuff they do from Coach Chow."

If Chow hears such talk, or sees the influence he has had on the game, he doesn't show it. In a group known for ego and guile, Chow projects neither. Other coaches and his players have to blow his horn.

"Watching Norm's teams over the years," former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler said, "they are very innovative and very unpredictable. That's what the Michigan defense is up against. When you can do that, and your team is so talented that you can execute those things, it's tough. A lot of times, it will blow up in your face because you're not talented. Those guys can do it."

Chow agrees with Schembechler in one regard. His quarterbacks must be smart and they must make the right decision. Last spring, when Leinart began as a guy considered to be "also receiving votes" in the battle to replace Palmer, he showed a better grasp of the offense than either junior Matt Cassel or junior transfer Brandon Hance. True to form, Chow admits he is surprised by Leinart's performance.

"Oh, yeah," Chow said. "No question, I thought this season that maybe we were a year away."

The hold that a quarterback takes on his offense can be tenuous, especially for a young player plucked from down the depth chart. In 1994, injuries forced Tennessee freshman Peyton Manning into the game. Manning ran into the huddle and began exhorting his team to move down the field.

"Shut up, freshman," a senior offensive lineman said, "and call the (colorful adjective) play."

Leinart appeared tentative as preseason practice began in August. Chow continued to pump him up, telling him the job belonged to him as long as he continued to do what he had been doing.

"He got the respect of the others once he was named quarterback," Chow said. "It came. It was after people realized that he was the guy. There were so many questions in the spring, the players didn't want to take sides. They just backed off. It was never the mental part. It was the physical part. The windows get narrower to throw into. As teams get better, you have to throw the ball better. We wondered whether he had the arm
strength. He proved us totally wrong."

The first pass that Leinart threw, the first of his college career, was a five-yard touchdown to Mike Williams on the third snap of the season against Auburn.

"Everyone figured out what type of player he would be. That was the spark," senior wide receiver Keary Colbert said.

Five weeks later, on the heels of the 34-31 triple-overtime loss at California, Leinart went off the field early in the game at Arizona State with a tweaked knee and an ankle sprain. In the third quarter, after the Sun Devils took the second-half kickoff and scored to go ahead 17-10, Leinart gimped his way back onto the field. The Trojans scored 27 unanswered points. Every leadership question had been answered.

"We fed off that as a team," Colbert said. "Everyone let him take the leadership role and jumped on his coattails."

The following week, USC scored 41 points and racked up 413 yards of total offense against Stanford -- in the first half.

"With the Stanford game, having the confidence of your teammates only makes you want to play better. You get more confidence in yourself. I could tell that they want to go to war with me. Hearing your defense say things, reading stuff in the papers, that meant a lot. They just saw it in me. They knew I wasn't a freshman."

The 44-14 victory over Stanford began a seven-game streak of scoring at least 43 points per game. Chow opened up the entire playbook to Leinart. Chow discovered that the student tracks the teacher page by page.

"The kids complain that we call plays in paragraphs," Chow said. "You can give him half the play and he'll walk off because he knows the rest."

Leinart has become one more entry on a résumé that stretches from goal line to goal line.

"It's fun to play for him," Leinart said. "His system is very quarterback-friendly. He calls the play and lets me go do my thing. Just get the ball to an open receiver. The system is not very complex. It allows for the quarterback to be efficient. There is a lot of high percentage plays there. You just have to play smart."

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