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Football: Dynasties on hold

Ken Fowler | Friday, October 19, 2007

Notre Dame would have done it again.

The Irish would have stopped another winning streak.

They did it to Army in ’46, Georgia Tech in ’53, Oklahoma in ’57, Texas in ’71, Southern Cal in ’73, Miami in ’88 and then to Southern Cal again in 2005. The final score would have been “Notre Dame 31, USC 28.”

But it didn’t, and it wasn’t. USC’s winning streak went from 27 to 28.

‘A heck of a game’

Truth is, even if they had, no one would have heard those lines. Notre Dame’s play-by-play man at the time, Tony Roberts, said he isn’t a guy who likes to premeditate his calls. His memorable call from the 1988 “Catholics versus Convicts” game would have stayed buried, and he would have simply “painted the scene,” he said.

In a matter of seconds, the scene went from a great awakening to an Irish wake.

What happened? A Heisman Trophy quarterback dropped a deep pass into an impossible place for a 61-yard gain on fourth down, and five plays later a Heisman Trophy running back pushed the spinning, twirling quarterback into the end zone for the game-winning score with three seconds left.

The “Bush Push” will live forever. Even USC’s official game notes call the winning touchdown by its vernacular title. It might be against the rules, but everyone involved in the game calls it by a simple phrase: “a heads-up play.”

“This was two teams going right to the end and them making a gutsy call at the end that ended up paying off,” Weis said. “You’ve got to give it to them. Got to give it to the coach, got to give it to the quarterback, because it was ultimately his decision. You’ve got to give it to the running back for helping aid them in getting in there, a heads-up play.

“I can whine all I want, but it was a heck of a game. I just wish it would have ended the other way.”

The ESPN.com poll question that night was simple: What was the greatest regular-season college football game of the last 25 years?

“USC 34, Notre Dame 31” was the runaway winner.

Thirty million people watched at least part of the game, one Charlie Weis has begrudgingly come to admit was one of the best ever.

“If you’re waiting for me to say it was a good loss, you won’t hear that here,” Weis said after the game. “Losing is losing; there are no moral victories.”

Pete Carroll, coming out of the winning locker room, was a little quicker to classify the game.

“We feel very fortunate to come out of here with a win. This is one of those games you will see on one of those Classic channels somewhere soon,” Carroll said. “It was a tremendous win. I am very happy to come out of here with a win today. Notre Dame played an awesome game and I am very happy with the way my guys played today as well.”

But they might have fallen.

Post-game speculation

After the game, fans and radio hosts were discussing how long Notre Dame’s inevitable post-USC winning streak would be. How many national titles would Charlie Weis win in South Bend? How long could Notre Dame and Southern California be the juggernauts of college football, the way it was meant to be?

The answer: Give or take two and a half months.

USC fans at the time said they thought the Trojans were destined to win the national championship that year. It was fate. No way could they drive the length of the field in 2:04, convert on fourth-and-nine, have Reggie Bush push Matt Leinart over the goal line and win the most dramatic game of football in ages, just to lose later in the year.

Well, they did.

The Trojans had two more games that rivaled the intensity and emotions, the thrills and drama of the Notre Dame-USC matchup by the end of the year. They held off Fresno State, 50-42, but not Texas.

Vince Young and the Longhorns won the Rose Bowl, and the team ESPN ordained the “greatest ever” ended its miracle season with a devastating loss.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame students were ready to anoint Weis. After three 31-point blowout losses to their rival under Tyrone Willingham, the students saw Weis make the game not only competitive, but also historic.

It wasn’t too long until Weis had a 10-year extension and Notre Dame’s recruiting reached its best levels since Bob Davie had left.

All seemed well at the two competing centers of the college football universe.

The two schools battled for recruits the rest of the year, with USC winning a plurality. But that was OK for the Irish. Instead of fighting Pittsburgh, Purdue and Michigan State for prospects, they were fighting the best team in the nation.

Reality check

Notre Dame underperformed in 2006, losing three blowouts – including one to USC – and failing to dominate any game like it was expected to. In Los Angeles, the Trojans over-performed by most accounts, going 11-2 and thrashing Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

But expectations in Southern California had been raised since 2002, and hopes in South Bend were approaching those levels. Neither season was good enough for the fans, and the 2007 editions of the teams have horrified the diehard followers who felt invincible two years ago.

Carroll and Weis have been two of the best recruiters in college football the last two years, and 21 players from the 2005 Notre Dame-USC game are on NFL rosters today. More than a half-dozen others are on practice squads, and one – Jeff Samardzija – is playing professional baseball.

Both teams have lost their leaders. USC offensive guru Norm Chow is now with the Tennessee Titans, and, in case you didn’t know, Trojans Heisman winners Bush and Leinart are the faces of their NFL teams. Brady Quinn is now a Cleveland Brown, and all but one member of Notre Dame’s starting offensive line from that game either is in the NFL, was drafted or was signed by a team at least once.

USC fans believe the Trojans are underperforming. Many want John David Booty, who led the team to that 11-2 record after it lost two Heisman winners, benched.

Notre Dame fans believe the Irish are, in places, inept. Many want coaching changes and wholesale personnel alterations.

One team is 5-1 and No. 9 in the coaches poll. The other is 1-6 and about to start its third quarterback of the season.

By the fans’ demeanor, at least, few would know the difference.

Moving on

But Saturday is crucial for both teams. It’s still a rivalry game of pride and passion.

“If you can’t get up to play USC, then I think you’ve got a problem,” Weis said.

For fifth-year senior Ambrose Wooden, whose hand came inches from knocking away Leinart’s pass to Dwayne Jarrett on fourth down, knows it’s his last time to try to beat the Trojans. One twist of fate from the game is that Darrin Walls, who made his official visit to Notre Dame that day in October, has replaced Wooden as the team’s No. 2 cornerback.

Still, Wooden keeps his trademark smile on when talking about that game – and that pass – from two years ago. He insists the infamous play has made him stronger.

“You learn from situations like that,” Wooden said. “But I honestly think that I’m a better person because of it.”

The game, Wooden said, was a “special moment.”

“I was part of one of the greatest games in college football history,” he said.