So this must be why the kid stayed in college one more year. This is why he signed up for that ballroom dancing class to be eligible for one more season. You get this feeling of exhilaration only on Saturday, only in one of the great and historic football palaces, and maybe only one Saturday in your life. Yes, Southern Cal vs. Notre Dame was indeed the Game of The Century, and probably the 20th century, too.
It's a game whose 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 decision to go for a touchdown inches from the goal line when a chip-shot field goal would have taken the game into overtime, Matt 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 victory that leaves the two-time champion Trojans undefeated and presumably still No. 1 and with their winning streak, now 28 games, alive and counting.
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 in the final five minutes 9 seconds, when you have three or maybe four Heisman Trophy-caliber players alternately taking turns, doing whatever was necessary to win a bitterly contested game.
"That was a slugfest out there," Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis said. "That was a street fight. But losing's losing. It doesn't make you feel any better. You still end up losing. I will not say anything but complimentary things for USC."
These are the afternoons the folks here at Notre Dame believe are assured them by the football gods, if not an even Higher Authority. They want to go through life believing their coach is smarter than the other coach, that their players are more poised than the other guys, and that ultimately the Irish will be back on top under Weis. And perhaps they'll be correct, and sooner rather than later.
After all, Notre Dame has a big-time quarterback in Brady Quinn. Or was that Tom Brady? All the kid did was convert a huge number of critical third downs and demonstrate he could throw it deep, throw it with touch and fire it over the middle when necessary, and complete all four passes in an 87-yard touchdown drive to put the Irish ahead, 31-28, with 2:04 to play.
Brady was better than Leinart here Saturday. Even so, there was Leinart completing that sublime pass for 61 yards to set up the fumble out of bounds, and the touchdown plunge of his career. And to think the game almost ended on a play that everybody would like to have seen replayed -- except Carroll exercised his option to not have replay in this game.
It had more the feel of a big-time prize fight 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 flew to South Bend it looked like McCarron Airport three hours before kickoff. There was a 11/2-hour holding pattern over O'Hare.
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, as did actor Martin Short.
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 crusade.
It was a day that Notre Dame seems to have trademarked: temperature in the '60s, a nice breeze blowing in from the north to remind you it is October, with a sky so blue it must belong to the South Pacific. It was the kind of day when Notre Dame feels it is, to quote Kornheiser, the University of College Football in America. It's the kind of day, years ago, that was reserved for a visit from Michigan or Florida State, a day that sizzled from dawn till sunset. Actually, it started the previous evening, Friday, when more than 40,000 turned up at the stadium for a pep rally. You know Notre Dame means business when they trot out Joe Montana and the green jerseys -- for the pep rally.
And you know Charlie Weis means business when he waves off the punting team and goes for it on fourth and one from his own 29 midway through the first quarter. Weis's game plan was pretty obvious: Smash the Trojans in the mouth. He wanted to attack on offense, keep the USC offense off the field, and he was going to hold nothing back in the effort to do it.
That's the only way to play the Trojans, really. It's not like Notre Dame had the option of playing it conservative, hoping to eek out a 17-14 victory, or something like that. First, Notre Dame's defense is too suspect. And second, Southern Cal has the best offense in the nation playing on Saturday instead of Sunday.
Bush, bless his heart, is on that all-time short list of 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 he touches the ball, running or receiving, Bush is a threat to score a touchdown. His teammate, LenDale White, is a very, very nice player, probably a No. 1 back in the NFL one day soon. The only teams in the country he can't start for are his own and Oklahoma because the Sooners have Adrian Peterson.
But White doesn't have the "Oooooooh" factor that Bush has. Think Curtis Martin to Marshall Faulk. On Bush's 36-yard touchdown run that gave the Trojans a 7-0 lead he quick-stepped past one would-be tackler and high-hurdled another with the form of Renaldo Nehemiah. On the 45-yard run that tied the score at 21, Bush stuttered briefly enough to make the defenders pause, then bolted straight through the hole for a touchdown.
Had Southern Cal lost, the blame would have been dumped in the lap of Carroll. Rarely is the coach of a two-time champ deserving of such blame, but Carroll is. Early in the week he wore that smug, "We're-thechamps-and-they're-not" look on his face. Yet other than the times Bush had the ball, his team looked flat and uninspired. The receivers dropped passes. Trojans committed stupid penalties, including one personal foul which turned a Notre Dame punt on fourth and 20 from its 10 into a first down that led to a score. Leinart looked mostly ordinary. The Trojans' offensive line got pushed around. The play calling was, well, arrogant. Why hand the ball to the best running back in the universe when the coach can show off and order a fade pass into the corner of the end zone for an interception?
But all he has to talk about now is victory, about winning a fabulously contested if error-prone game on the road, in one of the toughest road venues in the country, against a team that feels it's the most poised, most fortunate team, deserving of last-second victories. All USC did is what it has done exclusively since Sept. 27, 2003. Win, baby, win.