Irish luck runs out

USC's TD with three seconds left stuns Notre Dame

USC 34 Notre Dame 31

College football


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Southern California seemed on the brink of joining a rather elite list last night, one that included the Oklahoma team of the 1950s that still holds the longest winning streak in college football history and a bunch of other unbeaten and top-ranked teams that all had something else in common.

Losing to Notre Dame.

The Trojans won't be added to a group that somehow lost to the Fighting Irish despite being favored, because somehow they won.

In one of the most bizarre, confusing and exciting finishes in recent memory, top-ranked USC beat ninth-ranked Notre Dame, 34-31, before a crowd of 80,795 that went from ecstatic to stunned in a matter of seconds.

"We feel really fortunate to come out of here with a win," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "This is one of those games you'll see on one of those Classic channels somewhere soon."

Only moments before USC quarterback Matt Leinart scored on a twisting 1-yard run with three seconds left to put the Trojans ahead, the fans were celebrating what they thought had been an Irish victory and the end of USC's 27-game winning streak when Leinart fumbled after being hit near the goal line.

That Leinart fumbled out of bounds stopped the clock, and after the first wave of students who had come out to celebrate was cleared from the field, USC (6-0), which was out of timeouts, got a chance to run another play. Leinart was given the option to either spike the ball to set up a potential tying field goal, or go for the score. After some hesitation, Leinart turned to teammate Reggie Bush.

Bush, who carried the Trojans with 160 yards and three touchdowns, told Leinart to go for it.

"You're on the 1-yard line, it's man on man, you either get the touchdown or you go home," Leinart said later. "Either you go for the win and be the hero or you don't. I trust my [offensive line]. We got a little surge in there."

Said Bush, who helped push Leinart into the end zone after he was stopped initially, "Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. Those are the plays you'll remember for the rest of your life."

The play by Leinart - and the play call - helped him forget one of the worst games of his career.

The reigning Heisman Trophy winner who until yesterday had been the favorite to repeat, completed 17 of 32 passes for 301 yards, but failed to throw a touchdown pass. He did throw two interceptions for the first time since USC's last loss, at Cal, during the first month of the 2003 season.

Leinart credited Notre Dame's defense - sort of.

"They played exactly how we thought they would," Leinart said. "They did pressure us a little more than we thought, and that can get you off rhythm a little bit, but they did what we thought, and I missed some easy throws that would have been big plays."

After the Fighting Irish (4-2) had taken a 31-28 lead on a 5-yard run by quarterback Brady Quinn with 2:04 remaining, it appeared Leinart was going to finish the game either flat on his back or overthrowing a receiver after being hurried, as he had been all game.

On fourth-and-nine from the USC 25, Leinart called an audible at the line of scrimmage and found wide-out Dwayne Jarrett streaking down the near sideline.

Jarrett, a sophomore All-American, had beaten Notre Dame cornerback Ambrose Wooden, who managed to chase down the 6-foot-5 Jarrett after a 64-yard catch and run.

"He made a great play," said Wooden, a junior from Baltimore. "Great players do that."

As expected, it was a game of great plays, particularly by Bush.

The junior tailback started with a 36-yard rush in which he ran left, cut back to the middle and leapt over Wooden's semi-prone body to break free for the game's first touchdown. After Tom Zbikowski scored on a 60-yard punt return to help Notre Dame to a 21-14 halftime lead, Bush helped tie it with a 45-yard run in the third quarter.

With his team trailing 24-21 after a 32-yard field goal by D.J. Fitzpatrick, who later missed a 35-yard attempt that proved crucial in the outcome, Bush tied it by scoring from 9 yards out to cap a 10-play, 80-yard drive. And after Quinn put the Irish ahead with a little over two minutes left, Bush gave Leinart the push for the final score.

As much as Leinart will remember his winning touchdown, Wooden will remember getting beat by Jarrett. It didn't matter that he ran faster than he ever has to bring down the wideout before he scored. As he stood outside the stadium last night, the pass to Jarrett was still in his head.

"I gave up the biggest play of the game," said Wooden, who had taken part on one of Leinart's interceptions earlier in the game. "I've made my share of plays, but this one will come back to haunt me. They say that cornerbacks have a one-play memory. I need to because we have the rest of the season to play."

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