Irish do everything -- except close the door on USC
Posted: Saturday October 15, 2005 11:56PM; Updated: Sunday October 16, 2005 6:21PM
By Arash Markazi, SI.com
What We Learned
Matt Leinart's last-minute touchdown made certain Pete Carroll (above) and the Trojans' winning-streak survives.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
USC: The Trojans may have left Notre Dame with a 34-31 win and their 28-game winning streak intact, but they showed once again that they're far from the beyond-all-doubt-clear-cut No. 1 team in the country, as they were previously advertised. After being one of the nation's most lethal teams on both sides of the ball during its first two championship runs, USC looks like it will keep its dynasty alive this season by being a team of destiny.
They often show flashes of being an overpowering team -- a Matt Leinart bomb here, a Reggie Bush ankle-shattering shimmie there -- but for the most part the Trojans are playing like a very good team that has the potential to be the best team in the country this season. Not of all-time, not of this generation, but this season.
There are several holes in USC's once-vaunted defense that have been exposed on a weekly basis over the past month. It has become exceedingly obvious that the Trojans' bend-but-don't-break secondary is -- and will continue to be -- their Achilles' heel. They're vulnerable to giving up momentum-changing plays, whether they be long passes or interference calls. While cornerbacks Justin Wyatt and John Walker are two of the hardest-working players on the team, they aren't the most skilled, and they lack the big-play potential that some of USC's elite players have. Wyatt and Walker are simply hoping that plays won't be made on them.
Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn passed for 264 yards and a touchdown against the Trojans, and looked like he could have had more if it had it not been for a ball-control game plan that was more focused on picking up short chunks of yardage, controlling the clock and keeping USC's offense off the field.
Even when USC's offense does get the ball, it has shown an inconsistency recently that belies the big-play potential it flashed earlier in the season -- when it racked up 63 and 70 points against Hawaii and Arkansas, respectively. Even in the second half against the Irish -- when the Trojans have usually pulled away from their opponents -- USC's offense stalled. Leinart threw an interception on the team's first drive and two of the next three series ended in quick punts.
In the end, however, the Trojans did what they always boast they'll do -- play until the game clock shows all zeroes, or as was the case on Saturday, past that, in order to win and keep their title hopes alive. "We just know if we play to the end, we'll find a way to win," Bush said. "We always do."
Notre Dame: Everything that has been said about Notre Dame this season is true. Charlie Weis is a genius. He took a program that most thought would take years to turn around and did it in a matter of months.
Coming into the biggest game in South Bend in more than a decade, Weis came out with a game plan as magical as the green jerseys donned by his players. After his offense opened the game with a punt and an interception, he calmed them down on the sideline as they found themselves trailing 7-0, and showed the confidence he had in them by going for it on fourth-and-1 back at their 29-yard-line. After Quinn got the first down on a quarterback sneak, the confidence of the team and the crowd seemed to grow as the Irish scored a touchdown on that drive and two of the next three times they touched the ball, including a 60-yard punt return by Tom Zbikowski that gave Notre Dame a 21-14 lead going into halftime.
The Irish did nearly everything a team needs to do to beat the Trojans. They controlled the ball nearly twice as long as USC, picked off two Leinart passes -- one in the end zone -- and minimized the Trojans' big-play opportunities. The problem is Notre Dame didn't capitalize on some key opportunities to put the game away. Tight end Anthony Fasano fumbled the ball inside USC's 20 after a 30-yard pass from Quinn in the third quarter, just when it looked Notre Dame was about to score a touchdown and take a 28-21 lead. Then, with an opportunity to reclaim that lost TD, Quinn overthrew Jeff Samardzija in the end zone when he had beaten Wyatt -- and the Irish had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by D.J. Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick would later miss a 34-yard try in the fourth quarter that would have given the Irish a 27-21 lead.
"We had a chance to ice the game on special teams, offense and on defense," said Weis. "When you have a chance against a team like USC, you better take advantage of it."
Player Who Impressed Me
When a Heisman-winning quarterback passes for more than 300 yards and scores the game-winning touchdown to beat Notre Dame in South Bend, it's hard to bet against him, but anyone who watched the game knows why USC players voted Bush the most valuable player on the team last season and will do the same this year.
Bush ran for 160 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries, and should get extra-credit points for pushing Leinart over the goal line on the game-winning play when it appeared the QB had been stopped.
"I pushed him as hard as I could," Bush said with a smile. "I saw them all bunch up in the middle and I knew I had to help get him over."
Locker Room Confidential
After the game Bush was standing outside the Trojans' locker room and was greeted by Weis, still in his game-day attire. Weis congratulated him on a great game and asked to see Pete Carroll, who was in a press conference. With Carroll gone, Bush walked into the Trojans' locker room and said Weis was outside. As players began to hush each other, Weis walked in and congratulated the team. "Hey fellas, I just want to wish you luck. That was a ... hard fought battle and I hope you win out."
Sights & Sounds during "The Drive": Joe Montana, his eyes nearly tearing up as he looked at the scoreboard, following DwayneJarrett's 61-yard catch on fourth-and-9 ... Desmond Howard jumping up and down as the drive began. "This is were Leinart wins or loses the Hesiman," he said ... The exchange between Leinart and Bush before the game's final play. "Are you going to run it in?" asked Bush. "Do you think I should?" said Leinart. "Sure," said Bush.
The Big Picture
This was supposed to be the game. The one were the streak ended, the dynasty came to a stop and USC finally fell. And it sure looked liked all the hype -- from the stadium-filled pep rally on Friday night, the green jerseys and legends returning for motivational speeches -- was going to come to fruition. The Trojans, however, came through in the end -- again -- and scored their biggest win of the season, and possibly the biggest of their streak. "This is by far the best victory I have ever been apart of, just for how we won the game," said Bush. "We never gave up and the world didn't think we were going to win this game." USC won't likely get tested again until Nov. 5, when it travels to Berkeley to play Cal, the sight of its last loss in 2003.
Notre Dame's chances at a national championship vanished with its second home loss, but the Irish remain in perfect shape to clinch a BCS bowl bid as they close out the season with four of their next five games at home. Besides a difficult matchup with Tennessee on Nov. 5, the Irish look like a solid eight-to-nine-win team, which is probably much better than many predicted Weis would finish in his first season at Notre Dame.