Leinart threw for a career-high 400 yards and five touchdowns as the Trojans overcame an early deficit en route to cruising past Notre Dame 41-10 in Los Angeles. It was the third straight year Notre Dame lost by 31 points to USC.
"All I can say is there's a reason [Leinart's] a Heisman candidate and there's a reason they're No. 1," Irish linebacker Mike Goolsby said.
The Irish defense shut down the Trojans running attack for most of the game, but couldn't slow USC's talented passing game. Leinart found freshman Dwayne Jarrett for scores of 12 and 57, Reggie Bush for a 69-yard touchdown, Steve Smith for another 35-yarder and Jason Mitchell from 23 yards out.
Leinart's five touchdown passes equal the most ever allowed by a Notre Dame defense. Pittsburgh's Tyler Palko threw for five touchdowns two weeks ago in Notre Dame's home finale loss to the Panthers 41-38.
"They made big plays tonight," Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham said. "We had opportunities in some cases and we didn't live up to them. To me, that was the difference."
Notre Dame hung with the Trojans for much of the first half, claiming an early 7-0 lead after a 13-play, 92-yard drive. Quinn found little-used tight end Billy Palmer on 4th-and-1 for the touchdown, giving Notre Dame an early lead. Ryan Grant rushed the ball four times for 21 yards on the drive, while Quinn was 6-of 7 for 56 yards and the touchdown pass.
Southern California answered Notre Dame's score with an 11-play, 46-yard drive, capped off with a Ryan Killeen 39-yard field goal. The drive was kept alive when on 3rd-and-8, Leinart fired a pass that was tipped by Notre Dame and landed in Mitchell's hands for 15 yards and a first down. On the next play, Irish defensive back Dwight Ellick dropped a would-be interception and the Trojans went on to score seven plays later.
Notre Dame's offense continued to click on the following drive, as the Irish went 73 yards in 12 plays, led by Quinn's passing. D.J. Fitzpatrick 28-yard field goal put Notre Dame ahead 10-3.
After that, USC took over the ballgame. Leinart captained the Trojans 80 yards on just seven plays to tie the game on a 12-yard touchdown pass to freshman Dwayne Jarrett with 5:53 left in the half.
The Trojans took their first lead of the game when Leinart found Jarrett again, this time for 57-yards down the sideline at the 2:06 mark. Jarrett flew through Notre Dame's porous zone defense and Leinart fired a near perfect pass for the score, putting USC up 17-10 heading into halftime.
The Trojans opened the second half with a field goal before putting the game away on Bush's 69-yard touchdown reception.
"[That play] was kind of like taking candy from a baby," Leinart said.
Leinart added a 35-yard score to Smith with 12:27 remaining in the game as the Trojans extended their edge to 34-10. With 6:57 left, USC ran a fake punt at the Notre Dame 39-yard line that resulted in an interference penalty on Irish defensive back Mike Richardson. On the ensuing play, Leinart fired a 23-yard touchdown to Jason Mitchell.
"That's what makes USC so explosive … the ability to generate big plays," Willingham said. "They made big plays in the passing game."
Meanwhile, USC's defense seemed to figure out Notre Dame's offense after the first quarter, containing the Irish for nearly the entire second half. While Notre Dame did run the ball effectively, they could muster any big plays through the air. The Irish finished the game with 195 rushing yards, led by Grant's 94 yards and Darius Walker's 64. Quinn finished the game 15-of-29 for 105 yards and one touchdown.
Notre Dame ends its regular season at 6-5 and will wait to hear about a possible bowl game on Monday. The Irish likely will be offered a spot on the Insight Bowl in Phoenix or The Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte.