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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

FOOTBALL: Bush, USC avoid Irish upset bid

Reggie Bush made Notre Dame Stadium his personal dance floor, evading Irish defenders all game. But it was quarterback Matt Leinart's rushing touchdown with three seconds remaining that proved to be the difference as No. 1 Southern California defeated No. 9 Notre Dame 34-31 in a game that exceeded all expectations.

Leinart completed a 61-yard pass on fourth-and-nine, on a fade route downfield that Irish cornerback Ambrose Wooden nearly broke up. Instead of sealing a Notre Dame victory, the play moved the ball to the 13-yard line.

"We had the perfect defense - they just made a play," Irish coach Charlie Weis said. "They threw a fade route into a Two-Tampa - you don't throw fade routes into Two-Tampa, but this guy did and he made a play."

Even though the conversion led to the game-winning score, Weis felt the contest could have been won earlier.

"We had the opportunity to ice the game on offense, we had the opportunity to win the game on special teams, we had an opportunity to win the game on defense," Weis said. "I think that if you have an opportunity to end the game, you better do it."

Unfortunately for the Irish, they didn't.

Notre Dame linebacker Corey Mays stopped Leinart short of the goal line on third down, forcing the quarterback to fumble out of bounds. The clock ran out, and Notre Dame fans rushed the field.

But the officials ruled that the ball had been fumbled backwards, out of bounds, and that seven seconds should be put back on the clock, giving the Trojans one last breath of life.

With no timeouts remaining, Southern California had one play and opted to go for it on fourth down from the Notre Dame one-yard line.

And they capitalized.

After being stalled on his first move up the middle by the Notre Dame defensive front, Leinart spun left and backpeddled into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

"I just felt that they did a bad job of talking it through," Weis said of the officials. "I'm not blaming that call for us losing that game, I'm just not going to do it."

USC coach Pete Carroll said after the game that a game-tying field goal was out of the question because of how the Notre Dame offense had played all game long.

"The last sequence there, I did not want to go to overtime," Carroll said. "I thought they were moving way too well on offense. We were going to go for the win if we had a chance to do it."

The Irish had the game within reach when the Trojans had a third-and-19 from their own 16-yard line with 1:32 remaining.

Leinart - who finished the game 17-of-32 for 301 yards passing - completed a 10-yard pass to Bush, leading to the fourth-and-nine first down conversion.

"[Bush is] the reincarnation of Marshall Faulk. That's what he is," Weis said. "Every time he touches the ball, he can possibly score."

Bush proved just that, rushing 15 times for 160 yards and three touchdowns - constantly eluding defenders.

Despite Bush's three-touchdown day, Notre Dame edged Southern California in time of possession, first downs and total offensive plays, keeping the game tight to the very end.

Trailing 28-24 following Bush's third touchdown, Notre Dame had the ball with 5:04 remaining in the fourth.

The Irish drove the length of the field and took the lead 31-28 on a 5-yard Brady Quinn touchdown run with 2:02 left.

Quinn finished the game 19-of-35 with 264 yards and two scores, one rushing and one passing. On the final Irish drive, the quarterback was 4-of-4 for 52 yards passing, including strikes of 18 and 15 yards to Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall.

Samardzija finished the game with six catches for 99 yards and a first-quarter touchdown - his ninth on the season - that evened the score at 14.

"We definitely had the opportunity to put them away, but we didn't," Quinn said.

The Irish dominated time of possession, keeping their offense on the field for 38:40.

"Obviously, I was running the ball a whole bunch because I wanted to keep it away from them," Weis said.

Running backs Darius Walker and Travis Thomas split carries for much of the game.

Walker rushed 19 times for 72 yards, and Thomas rushed 18 times for 52 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown that put Notre Dame on the board with 3:06 left in the first quarter.

The Irish came up with a big play in the second quarter, as safety Tom Zbikowski returned a punt for a touchdown to take a 21-14 Notre Dame lead heading into halftime.

"We thought that we needed some game-changing plays, and we had a couple," Weis said. "When you're playing a game like this, you need a couple big plays or you're not going to win."