NEW YORK — Matt Leinart found a comfort zone this season.
No longer worried about losing his job, the easygoing Southern California quarterback became the unquestioned leader of the Trojans. He performed the job so well in his second year as a starter, he also became The Associated Press player of the year.
"A year of experience opens up so much," the Heisman Trophy winner said. "You've been around. You're a veteran. You've been playing for a year. You can get so much better in a year or so."
Leinart has completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,990 yards and 28 touchdowns, guiding the top-ranked Trojans to an Orange Bowl matchup with No. 2 Oklahoma and last year's AP player of the year, Jason White.
The BCS national title game will be college football's first matchup of players with Heisman trophies. White took home last year's Heisman.
The AP player of the year voting was closer than this season's Heisman balloting, but the final order was similar. Leinart received 17 votes from a nationwide panel of 64 media members. White and his freshman teammate, Adrian Peterson, finished tied for second with 12 votes each.
USC tailback Reggie Bush was fourth with 11 votes and Utah quarterback Alex Smith had nine votes. Texas tailback Cedric Benson received two votes and Louisville quarterback Stefan Lefors got one.
In the Heisman balloting, Leinart easily beat out Peterson, who took second by a slim margin over White. Smith was fourth and Bush fifth.
Leinart is the fifth straight quarterback to win the AP award, following White, Iowa's Brad Banks, Florida's Rex Grossman and Oklahoma's Josh Heupel.
The award was established in 1998, and Texas tailback Ricky Williams was the first to win it.
Leinart became the Trojans' starting quarterback last season, taking over for departed 2002 Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer. He won a four-way battle in the preseason for the job and it took him awhile to stop looking over his shoulder to see if he was about to be taken out of the game.
"This year has been more fun because I haven't felt as much pressure," the junior said.
Playing with two NFL-caliber wideouts and behind one of the best lines in the country, Leinart passed for 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns and led USC to a share of the national title in 2003.
This year, with receivers Mike Williams and Keary Colbert gone and the line retooled, Leinart was key in pulling together the new pieces and helping the Trojans go 12-0.
"I knew going in that I was going to have take on a different perspective," Leinart said.
And he did so without any prompting from coach Pete Carroll or offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
"I took it upon myself just to be the leader," he said. "I really didn't have to change anything, just to carry the guys along until they got comfortable.
"I'm not a real vocal guy, but I can be," he said.
The left-hander's laid-back leadership has set the tone for the Trojans. His poise and patience were invaluable in come-from-behind road wins against Virginia Tech, Stanford and Oregon State. He threw for 761 yards with six touchdowns and one interception in those games.
Leinart's consistency has been remarkable. The Trojans are 24-1 with him as a starter and have won 21 straight, heading into the BCS national title game.
"Since he started playing, he's been spectacular," USC tight end Alex Holmes said.
Leinart has thrown at least two touchdown passes 10 times this season and 22 times in his career. USC's last game, a 29-24 victory over UCLA, was the first of his career without a touchdown pass. He has said he intends to return to USC for his senior year, but it's looking like he's a lock to be a high first-round NFL draft pick. He could even match Palmer again and go first overall.
"I'm aware of the opportunity," Leinart said. "We'll see what happens."
AP Player Of The Year
This year's voting
Player, Team Votes
Matt Leinart, USC 7
Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma 12
Jason White, Oklahoma 12
Reggie Bush, USC 11
Alex Smith, Utah 9
Cedric Benson, Texas 2
Stefan Lefors, Louisville 1
A look at previous AP players of the year:
2004 Matt Leinart, QB, USC
2003 Jason White, QB, Oklahoma
2002 Brad Banks, QB, Iowa
2001 Rex Grossman, QB, Florida
2000 Josh Heupel, QB, Oklahoma
1999 Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin
1998 Ricky Williams, RB, Texas