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Thursday, January 1, 2009
Sanchez gives his best, but is it his last for USC?

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

 
 Jody Gomez/US Presswire
 Mark Sanchez completed 28 of 35 passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns.

PASADENA, Calif. -- It was supposed to be about a pair of bone-rattling defenses, but USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and his supporting cast rewrote the script and gave themselves starring roles.

Sanchez carved up the Penn State secondary like a holiday bird, completing 28 of 35 passes -- an 80 percent completion percentage -- for 413 yards with four touchdowns in the Trojans' 38-24 victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi. He also ran six yards for a touchdown, so he had a hand in each score.

And, yes, he said, he was a little annoyed that many so-called pundits had described the offense as the runt little brother to the Trojans' big-bad defense.

"We're a silent but deadly offense -- if you think about the defense too much we might just have a day like this," Sanchez said.

The offense scored 24 points in the second quarter, which is double what Penn State had been yielding this season.

"He made some really good plays," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "As a coach, you have to admire kids who do things like that under pressure. He just had a heck of a football game."

Coach Pete Carroll's effusive post-game praise for Sanchez included terms like "phenomenal" and "Favre-like," but the part that would stand out to Sanchez was Carroll placing the junior into the ranks of the previous Trojan quarterback greats.

"He played the same kind of football that Carson [Palmer], and [John David] Booty and [Matt] Leinart played," Carroll said. "There's no doubt that he's just as capable of being the best player in America, given another year."

That other year is in question because Sanchez is considering entering the NFL draft early. He refused to engage the subject directly after the game, and scanning his comments for subtext feels fruitless.

One moment Sanchez talks about a Trojans offense that could welcome back 10 starters in 2009, but the next he's agreeing his Rose Bowl performance should help his draft prospects.

His MVP performance largely redeemed a year in which he put up impressive numbers -- ranking 11th in the nation in passing efficiency and finishing with 34 touchdowns passes -- but also played inconsistently at times and was doubted by a vocal portion of the Trojans demanding fan base.

"The season has been maybe a little up and down for him, but we know what type of player he is and we trust in what he can do for our football team," safety Taylor Mays said.

Part of Sanchez's problem was an offense that leaned toward conservative much of the year because the defense was yielding only a touchdown a game.

But for the Rose Bowl he doffed the knee brace he'd been wearing since a preseason injury -- he repeatedly used the word "free" to describe how he felt during the game -- and the handcuffs came off the passing attack with dramatic results.

Highest completion percentage, Rose Bowl history
2009Mark Sanchez, USC80.0*
1951Chuck Ortmann, Michigan78.9
1986Chuck Long, Iowa 78.4
2006Vince Young, Texas75.0
1935Millard Howell, Alabama75.0
*28-for-35

"I was on today," Sanchez admitted. "My arm felt live. We were clicking."

The downfield focus was by design. It's clear from the post-game locker room that the Trojans felt they could exploit the Penn State secondary and its cover-3 scheme.

"Anytime you play a team that plays cover-3, there's a lot of lanes in the middle of the field and we were able to find the holes with our speed," said receiver Damian Williams, who caught a game-high 10 passes for 162 yards.

Williams added that Sanchez "better come back."

If he does, the Trojans offense would take center stage while the defense rebuilds.

"With everybody coming back on offense, we're going to be a phenomenal group," Sanchez said.

Sanchez almost assuredly would be on the preseason list of Heisman Trophy candidates. If he comes back.

But if he bolts, he could end up an early-round or even first-round NFL pick this spring.

So what's it going to be, Mark?

"It's going to be hard to say goodbye to this place," he said. "I don't think I can do it."

The Trojan nation, back in love with Sanchez, will hold its collective breath.