Notre Dame pushed the two-time defending champion to a place they had not been during their 28-game winning streak. But as Irish head coach Charlie Weis said after the game, there are no moral victories in this program.
Weis also made a great point after the game. If Notre Dame had won the game against the Trojans, he feared that the stories after the game would be about him. Weis has said repeatedly through the months that the real story is the players. His fear probably would have come true but Weis does deserve a lot of credit for the attitude adjustment and style of play that the new-look Irish display with frequent consistency.
But let's take his advice. Let's look at some of the great performances of the game and the season. Let's start with Brady Quinn. The junior quarterback might have had his defining Heisman moment late in the fourth quarter if it were not for the Trojan touchdown with three seconds left.
Bush had just given USC a 28-24 lead on his third touchdown run of the game with a little over five minutes left in the game. Quinn never flinched, driving his team 87 yards in 8 plays, going 4-for-4 in the scoring march. He capped it off with a four-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown to put the Irish up 31-28 and energize the crowd.
Quinn wasn't perfect on Saturday. He finished 19-of-35 for 264 yards a touchdown and interception each. Quinn was off-target on a few key throws. But the poise shown on that late drive and the ability to give his team the lead is critical in Quinn's maturity to a premier college quarterback.
Jeff Samardzija caught another touchdown on a jump ball from Quinn over a USC defender. The junior's 6'5" frame makes him a hard match up for any cornerback and he has turned that advantage into a windfall of production. Samardzija now has nine touchdown receptions on the year and is the first Notre Dame player with a scoring grab in the each of the first six games of the season.
Mike Richardson was a favorite target of complaints for Irish fans last season. But this year, it's a new Richardson. He picked off Leinart yesterday in the third quarter and now has interceptions in two consecutive games. The other cornerback, Ambrose Wooden, was in the difficult position of having great coverage on USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett on fourth-and-nine but having Leinart loft a perfect pass for a 61-yard reception. That's what Heisman Trophy winners do and Wooden was oh so close to tipping that ball away. These two corners have been playing better than once thought and will continue to improve under secondary coach Bill Lewis.
Chinedum Ndukwe has a nose for the ball and making big plays. He intercepted a tipped ball by Wooden on a fade pass to USC wide receiver Steve Smith. Ndukwe now has been involved in seven takeaways this season and is a main force behind the bend-but-don't-break defensive style. Fellow safety Tom Zbikowki made his mark on special teams with a 60-yard touchdown return to swing the momentum back towards Notre Dame.
The defensive line had some shining moments. Victor Abiamiri recorded a sack and two quarterback pressures. Trevor Laws also had a sack on the last USC drive that some thought would clinch an Irish upset. Derek Landri finished the game tied for the team high in tackles with seven.
Notre Dame did not play a perfect game. The players admitted this after the game and were disappointed in the mistakes they made that could have given the Irish a program-changing win. The fact is this performance has changed a lot of perceptions around the country about Notre Dame football. Everywhere you look, people are giving a lot of love to the Irish and some well-deserved love.
But as Weis said, there are no moral victories. Notre Dame played good. They shortened the game and kept the USC offense off the field. The defense hit Leinart over and over and the group was physical all afternoon. But it's black and white when it comes to victories. This learning experience is a tough pill to swallow and there's no time to think about what ifs or what could have been. BYU comes to town six days from now and the emotional hangover cannot linger in this team. It's one more challenge for Weis and his players in a season that has seen hope and excitement brought back into the Notre Dame football experience.