The first break of the day came midway through the first quarter when Frostee Rucker was able to deflect a pass at the line of scrimmage and Keith Rivers made an over the shoulder catch for the interception and a nice return to midfield. From there it took a 14 yard completion to Dwayne Jarrett and then a 36 yard touchdown dash by Reggie Bush who followed a block by Deuce Lutui and simply outran everybody to the end zone for the 7-0 Trojan lead.
On the following Notre Dame drive the Irish were helped by a pair of USC penalties, one on John Walker and one on Rucker, and they were able to take advantage with a touchdown run to tie the score at 7-7. After the personal foul call on Rucker he came to the sideline and was met by a visibly upset Jethro Franklin who showed a lot of emotion as he let Frostee know what he thought of the play.
Desmond Reed put the Trojans in good field position on the ensuing kickoff with a return to the 40 yard line. Unfortunately, it was the last play we saw from Desmond as he left the game later after suffering a knee injury which seemed to be caused in part by his foot getting caught in the unusually long grass that had grown in the stadium. The Trojans quickly went to the air after the Reed return by hitting Dominique Byrd on a crossing route and the big tight end rambled for 52 yards, thanks in part to a terrific block from Dwayne Jarrett, and that long gain set up a short LenDale White touchdown run to once again put the Trojans up by a touchdown at 14-7.
A pair of Notre Dame touchdowns, including a long punt return that featured some poor USC tackling as well as what looked like a block in the back by the Irish, made the score 21-14 in favor of the home team and the action was just getting started. Leinart tried to drive his team for the tying score but on a first down play from the Irish 11 yard line his pass attempt to Steve Smith bounced up in the air and was intercepted in the end zone by Notre Dame.
With the ball placed on their own 20 the Irish ran two plays that gained one yard and on third down the ball was stripped by Josh Pinkard and a mad scramble took place. Notre Dame was ruled to have possession of the fumble and at some point the referees called Pinkard with a personal foul penalty that let the Irish escape from trouble and hold onto the ball. On that same drive we saw one of the biggest hits of the game when Scott Ware forced an incomplete pass on a throw over the middle when he met the receiver right away with the kind of hit we've been waiting to see this year from Ware. USC eventually held and the half ended with Notre Dame up 21-14.
The Trojans got the ball to open the second half and took a huge gamble on a 4th and 1 play from their own 19 when Leinart snuck the ball for the first down. Sadly for the Irish, that wouldn't be the last big sneak of the day for Matt. The drive eventually ended when Leinart was picked off after getting pressured and trying to hit Brandon Hancock on a wheel route down the sideline.
After the Trojan defense held Notre Dame to three and out on the next series USC got the ball back and quickly scored on a two play drive thanks to a 45 yard touchdown run by Bush. On such a high profile stage, Reggie had the kind of day that can propel a player to the front of the Heisman Trophy race.
With the score now tied at 21-21, Notre Dame seemed ready to answer with another score of their own as Brady Quinn hit tight end Anthony Fasano with a 36 yard gain but as he headed deep into USC territory the Trojan defense came up with their second huge turnover of the day when Darnell Bing stripped the ball and once again it was Rivers in the right spot as he made the recovery at the USC six yard line.
The USC offense wasn't able to do anything with the ball and after a punt the Irish began a drive that eventually ended with a field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter and with the sun dipping down behind the top of the stadium the Irish had a 24-21 lead and the stage was set for a final quarter to remember.
On the next kickoff the Trojans had a penalty and began the possession inside their own 10 yard line. After the offense quickly went three and out, Tom Malone was forced to punt out of his own end zone and he hit a terrific 51 yard punt that, combined with a penalty against the Irish, put Notre Dame back on their own 35. However, they started to drive the length of the field again and it was looking grim for the Trojans because a touchdown at that point would have provided them with a ten point lead. Fortunately, the drive stalled and the 35 yard field goal attempt missed.
With the clock slowly winding down the Trojans put together an impressive ten play drive that included a third down completion to Jarrett, a 22 yard run by Bush and a 12 yard throw to Chris McFoy before Reggie ran it in for his third touchdown of the day. With that it was 28-24 and USC was back in a comfortable position with a lead late in the 4th quarter.
Pete Carroll gathered his defense on the sideline as Troy Van Blarcom (who had a very good day with his kickoffs) put the ball into the end zone before the Irish returner brought it out and only made it to the 13 yard line. Carroll could be seen enthusiastically barking at his troops before they took the field but whatever he said didn't do much good because the Irish proceeded to march 87 yards in eight plays to go back up 31-28. You had to credit Notre Dame for that drive when the game was on the line, not too many teams have been able to do that against a Pete Carroll defense.
When the Trojans got the ball back there were two minutes on the clock and 75 yards of grass between them and the Notre Dame end zone. A first down pass went incomplete and a pass attempt on second down resulted in a sack of nine yards. That left a 3rd and 19 from their own 16 and Leinart called the second timeout of the half. The next play was a pass to Reggie that gained ten and it set up a 4th and 9 situation with 1:32 left on the clock.
The noise in Notre Dame Stadium at that point was at a fever pitch as the home crowd could sense an epic victory was at hand. Surely, they thought, there is no way the Trojans were going to escape from this one and my guess is that thought was shared by plenty of television viewers across the country. When you are the King of the College Football mountaintop there are always those who will look to see you fall and this moment was as dire as the Trojans had faced in a long time.
After calling his final timeout, Leinart brought his team to the line and calmly looked over the defense. In a matter of moments he made the decision to discard the play which had been called and he audibled to a fade pass along the left sideline to Jarrett. The crowd held its collective breath as the ball passed by the fingertips of the Irish defender and landed in the hands of Jarrett who continued to sprint downfield for a 61 yard gain. That particular play was as good of an example as you will ever see of Leinart's grace under fire as he came through when his team needed him in a big way. The good news was, he wasn't done yet.
On first down from the Notre Dame 12 yard line Leinart rolled left and tried to hit Steve Smith but the pass fell incomplete. A pair of Reggie Bush runs gave USC a first down inside the five yard line but the clock had become a major factor with under 20 seconds left.
At that point, we saw one of the strangest turn of events that has ever taken place in this rivalry. Leinart rolled out again and took off for the end zone with a diving attempt that brought back memories of Carson Palmer's leap against UCLA a few years ago. As Matt stretched out for the goal line he was hit at the one yard line and the ball was knocked sideways and out of bounds. The clock operator, who apparently did not see the ball come loose, figured Leinart was down at the one and kept the clock running. As the seconds clicked down from :03 to :02 to :01 and finally :00, the Irish crowd broke into a huge roar and hundreds stormed the field for what they thought was the beginning of a massive celebration.
The officials quickly huddled and began waving their arms to signal that the ball was out of bounds. For a brief few moments there was stunned silence in the stadium as everyone waited for the situation to be straightened out. The refs correctly explained that the ball had been fumbled out of bounds, thus stopping the clock and giving the Trojans the ball at the one yard line. They also instructed the clock operator to put :07 back on the game clock.
While all this madness was going on around them, Carroll motioned for Leinart to spike the ball as Matt was heading back onto the field to call the next play. With no timeouts the Trojans either needed to spike the ball to set up a field goal, get the ball into the end zone or attempt a pass into the end zone before time ran out so that, in the event the pass was incomplete, they would have the opportunity to kick the game tying field goal which would send the game into overtime. Carroll would later say that he had no interest in going to overtime and he wanted to finish the game right then and there. Was his spike motion an attempt to throw off the Irish? Only Carroll knows for sure.
In post game interviews Carroll said that Leinart had the option in that situation to sneak it in if he thinks the play is open. As Matt approached the line of scrimmage he turned to Reggie Bush and in a brief conversation Bush urged him to go for the touchdown. Matt lined up behind Ryan Kalil, took the snap and headed to his left where he was met with a good surge from the Irish defense. Matt continued to twist for the end zone while seemingly receiving a helpful push from Reggie to guide him over the goal line. As he crossed the plane with the ball in his hands the referees hands went up in the air to signal touchdown and pandemonium reigned from the USC fan base located directly next to the end zone. Trojan players and coaches raced from the sideline in a state of pure joy which was not shared by the officials who flagged them for excessive celebration. It was a penalty we will gladly take under the circumstances.
The penalty forced a longer than normal extra point for Mario Danelo, which was missed, but after that we only needed to see a tackle made on the kickoff in order to walk out of the stadium with a victory. The Irish tried a couple laterals on the kickoff but it didn't work and the clock struck :00 to signal the end of this great battle.
There have been many exciting moments in this series and the last few minutes of this game will stack up against them all. For ten minutes after the game was over the vast majority of the crowd was still in place in the stadium. For Notre Dame fans, they simply could not believe what they just saw as what seemed like a victory just moments ago was now a heartbreaking loss. For Trojan fans, it was beyond a sigh of relief, it was a wrenching experience that reminded us once again that this is a team that will fight to the end before accepting defeat. For all fans of college football, it was as good as it gets to see two teams compete like that with the game coming down to the final plays.
The cold numbers for Irish fans show that they held the ball far longer than the Trojans and ran a lot more plays but in the end they lost for the 4th time while wearing the green jerseys and for the 5th time while going up against a #1 ranked Trojan team. If there is a silver lining for the boys from South Bend it would be that they seem to now have a coach who will match wits with Pete Carroll and possibly bring about a golden age to this rivalry in future years.
Those battles will have to wait, however, because for now the 2005 edition of the USC vs Notre Dame series is in the books and it is one that will take its place among the best this rivalry has ever seen. I'm certainly glad I was there to see it.