By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, October 16, 2005
SOUTH BEND, Ind. So this must be why the kid stayed in college one more year. This must be why Matt Leinart signed up for that ballroom dancing class, to be eligible for one more season that might provide the thrill of an athletic lifetime. You get this feeling of exhilaration only on Saturday, and maybe only one Saturday, after doing something dramatic and defining in one of the great and historic football palaces. Yes, Southern Cal-Notre Dame was indeed the Game of the Century, and probably the 20th century, too.
The game's breathless drama easily obscures the flaws -- the dropped passes, the penalties, the bizarre play-calling and confusing rulings. It's a game that will be remembered for Reggie Bush's brilliance, Brady Quinn's emergence, Coach Pete Carroll's unthinkable decision to go for a touchdown when a chip-shot field goal would have taken the game into overtime and finally, Leinart's late-game fumble, followed by that twisting, leaning touchdown to end it.
It will be remembered for the back and forth, the push and pull, the Notre Dame students storming the field when they thought their Irish had prevailed, and Southern Cal ultimately celebrating a 34-31 road victory that leaves the two-time champion undefeated, presumably still No. 1 and their winning streak, now 28 games, very alive.
There aren't many afternoons when both teams think they've won the game in the final seconds. Then again, there aren't many afternoons when you have three touchdowns scored in the final 5 minutes 9 seconds, when you have three or four Heisman Trophy-caliber players taking turns trying to win a very bitterly contested game, when you complete a high-risk pass for 61 yards on fourth and nine from your 26, as Southern Cal did to keep alive that final drive. There aren't many afternoons where a coach tells his team, playing on the road, that overtime isn't good enough.
There was Carroll on the game's final play from scrimmage (second down), emphatically pointing to the ground, hoping USC's coaches and players would expect Leinart to spike the ball, while all the time telling his quarterback to run it in and win the game. It would be nice if USC's final play was launched by some daring or funny line from Leinart, the Heisman Trophy winner, but it wasn't. Leinart, on that final play, turned anxiously to Bush, worried he couldn't score by sneaking it in. And Bush said to his quarterback, "Go for it, dude." That was that.
Carroll explained that he did not under any circumstances want to go into overtime. Notre Dame had played too well, particularly on offense. In fact, the Irish had moved the ball in the style of Charlie Weis's old team, the New England Patriots, which is no coincidence. Very quickly under Weis, Quinn has grown certain of how to use wide receivers Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall and tight end Anthony Fasano. Carroll liked his chances of using all his firepower to punch the ball in from the 1.
You cannot imagine the emotions of 80,795 people turning on a dime like they did after Leinart's fumble on first and goal, a play that was finally called dead with seven seconds left. Because he fumbled it out of bounds, USC retained possession. Had he fumbled it forward, say, out of the end zone, it would have been a touchback and a Notre Dame victory and one of the most triumphant days for a program that feels football triumph is a birthright.
From the time the Irish walked onto the field in their green jerseys, they felt they could do anything, and nearly did.
"The green jerseys and the whole thing . . . it's something we'll never forget," an appreciative Carroll said. "It was just very dramatic . . . exciting as it can be."
There was so much drama, in fact, it's possible to forget entire chapters of this game in the retelling. Probably forgotten will be that both coaches were so hellbent on winning they each went for it on fourth down inside their own 30-yard lines.
Weis wanted to control the ball, and did, mostly by running. Notre Dame held the ball nearly 39 minutes to USC's 21. The USC defenders probably didn't have it in them to play overtime. And Notre Dame certainly wanted the chance. Who wouldn't when you have a big-time quarterback such as Quinn? All the kid did was convert a huge number of critical third downs and demonstrate he could move the team by any means necessary. He completed all four of his passes in that 87-yard touchdown drive that put the Irish ahead 31-28 with 2:04 to play.
It's not often these Games of the Century justify the hype. USC vs. Notre Dame went even further. It exceeded the hype, which was considerable. It had more the feel of a big-time prizefight in the 1970s or '80s than a football game. Celebrities, which usually reserve their private jet time for NBA playoffs, the Final Four and championship fights, somehow found their way to northern Indiana, even from as far away as Hollywood. So many private jets descended on South Bend it looked like McCarron Airport in Las Vegas three hours before kickoff. There was a 1 1/2 -hour holding pattern over Chicago's O'Hare Airport, despite the wealth and fame of those holding tickets for the game.
Coach Andy Reid, whose Philadelphia Eagles have the week off, stood on the sideline. Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Falcons owner Arthur Blank watched from the press box. Every NFL team seemed to have at least one representative in the house, and they were B-list celebs when considering Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas attended.
You wouldn't think the ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Rooney, or the ambassador to Luxembourg, Peter Terpeluk, would necessarily be interested in a college football game . . . then again, it really was more like a cause than a game.
They found that Bush is worth the price of admission all by himself. This kid is the best football player in the country. Weis called him Marshall Faulk.
It's appropriate. Bush already is on that short list of all-time great college football running backs. He can spin out of a tackle like Barry Sanders, explode through a hole like Gale Sayers, catch the ball in open space and make a tackler miss like Marcus Allen and run away from the pack like Herschel Walker or O.J. Simpson. Every single time Bush touches the ball, running or receiving, he's a threat to score a touchdown. Against Notre Dame, he needed only 15 carries to rush for 160 yards and three touchdowns. He scores without being challenged, running by defenders, or hurdling them.
The only thing wrong with Bush is that Carroll doesn't give him the ball enough. The Trojans wouldn't have faced fourth down or been in such dire straits on that final play had Bush gotten the ball more in that final drive.
Carroll seemed off his game at times Saturday, which might have been exaggerated because Weis was so aggressive, so bold, and his gambles all seemed to work to perfection. But even if Carroll were off or even if he didn't give Bush enough carries or played into Notre Dame's hands on a few occasions, Carroll was right when it counted, when it came to winning the game and keeping hope alive for a third straight national championship.
"We took all day long to get this win . . . took every second," he said. "I just love this team. They will not let it die. They will not call it over."