USC 34, Notre Dame 31
-- When the game ended after exactly four hours Saturday, much of the crowd refused to leave Notre Dame Stadium, as if the digits on the scoreboard would change even after both teams had departed.
A contest that began in the afternoon ended with a nearly full moon hanging high in a black sky, and given the bizarre events of the final seconds, there was no reason for the 80,795 present to believe top-ranked Southern California's 34-31 victory against No. 9 Notre Dame was actually over.
"It kind of looked like it might be a little history," USC Coach Pete Carroll said, "for all those who watch those classic channels."
Twice, Notre Dame (4-2) was one defensive stop away from victory. And once, Fighting Irish fans and players were so convinced they had won they stormed the field, believing USC's 27-game winning streak was history.
That was before the second of two last-hope runs by USC quarterback Matt Leinart, who demonstrated the poise that helped him win the Heisman Trophy last season. Leinart sneaked the ball across the goal line from inside the 1-yard line with three seconds left for the touchdown that kept USC (6-0) on track for its third consecutive national title.
As USC readied for the play with no remaining timeouts, Carroll did not want overtime, so he motioned for Leinart to keep the ball. Carroll said he also gave a "spike" signal, only so Notre Dame might think Leinart would spike the ball.
Carroll said Leinart, at the line of scrimmage, turned to tailback Reggie Bush with the body language suggesting it was a long way into the end zone. Carroll said Bush responded, "Go for it, dude."
"I was in shock" after the touchdown, Leinart said. "I didn't want to celebrate until the clock hit zero because who knows what can happen in three seconds. It was just a great game, and I'm still really speechless. I would imagine this will go down as one of the greatest games ever played."
One play earlier, Leinart also attempted to run the ball in from the 2, this time to his left, but he fumbled the ball out of bounds. Had the ball gone out of the end zone, it would have been a touchback for Notre Dame.
The clock should have stopped when the ball went out of bounds, but the final seconds ticked off, prompting scores of fans and Notre Dame players to flock onto the field in full celebration mode. Then they all made a giant U-turn.
"We all thought it was over," said Notre Dame senior wide receiver Maurice Stovall, calling the loss the most disappointing of his college career.
Carroll called the game a "volatile" affair. Charlie Weis, Notre Dame's coach, called it a "street fight."
This week, Weis referenced what he called the "magic number" (31), recalling the margin of each of Notre Dame's three consecutive losses to the Trojans. It looked like 31 might be enough after Fighting Irish quarterback Brady Quinn capped an 87-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown scamper with 2 minutes 4 seconds remaining.
In fact, USC faced a fourth-and-nine play from its own 26 with 1:32 remaining. Leinart made a three-step drop and fired deep to wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, who had beaten defensive back Ambrose Wooden. The sophomore caught it almost in stride for a 61-yard reception that brought the ball to the Notre Dame 13, setting up Leinart's drama.
"I actually thought I underthrew the ball," said Leinart, who finished with 301 passing yards.
Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano said: "We had them backed up, fourth down in their own territory. Thought it was over, but it wasn't."
Weis said, "We had the perfect defense, they just made the play."
Weis appeared to have the ideal game plan much of the game. His team controlled the ball nearly two-thirds of the game and converted 10 of 19 third downs. The first-year coach even surprised his team and fans by having his players wear green jerseys, which had not been done since 2002.
A sign held by a USC fan before the game best characterized the matchup: "Charlie vs. The Heisman Factory." Bush, who has emerged as a Heisman favorite, scored three rushing touchdowns, including a 36-yard burst in the first quarter in which he hurdled a falling defender. He finished with 160 rushing yards, his fifth consecutive game of 100 or more yards on the ground.
"He is the reincarnation of Marshall Faulk," said Weis, comparing Bush to the NFL star.
The leprechaun magic appeared to be on the side of Notre Dame when it grabbed a 21-14 lead after Tom Zbikowski scored on a 60-yard punt return that electrified the crowd. USC missed three tackles during the run down the sideline.
But in a game for the ages, USC engineered its third comeback of the season from a halftime deficit.
"By far the best victory, I have ever been a part of, just for how we won the game," Bush said. "We never gave up, and the world didn't think we were going to win this game."