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Probably college football’s greatest cross-country rivalry, USC and Notre Dame have met in some thrillers over the years.
The ending to one of those can be summed up by two rhyming words, “Bush Push”. On this day 15 years ago, eventual Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush gave his quarterback Matt Leinart the boost he needed near the goal line to lift USC past Notre Dame in a 34-31 thriller in South Bend.
Setting the Stage
Reigning national champion USC was riding a 27-game winning streak as it made its way to Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 15, 2005. The Trojans were off to a 5-0 start and ranked No. 1 in the country.
Under first-year head coach Charlie Weis, Notre Dame had the look of an up-and-coming program. The Fighting Irish were 4-1 and ranked No. 9 after three victories over ranked teams. With time ticking away, Notre Dame was one play away from its biggest win yet.
The Decisive Drive
With 1:32 to play, USC faced 4th-and-9 from its own 26-yard-line. The lead had already changed hands three times in the fourth quarter, but the Fighting Irish were determined not to make it four.
Well protected, Leinart sat calmly in the pocket before delivering a perfect strike to Dwayne Jarrett. Jarrett went down the sideline for 61 yards before being brought down inside the Notre Dame 15-yard-line.
After consecutive runs by Bush moved the ball to the 2, Leinart rushed to the pylon, but was met by multiple Notre Dame defenders short of the goal line. The ball came loose, but flew out of bounds. Initially, officials did not stop the clock and time expired.
Notre Dame players stormed the field as if the Fighting Irish had won, but officials put seven seconds back on the clock. With no timeouts, USC had to line up quickly to run a play from the 1-yard-line.
Leinart kept the football. His initial surge was stopped, but with a push from Bush, his running back, the USC quarterback fell into the end zone. With three seconds left, USC led, 34-31. The Trojans stopped the ensuing kick return to preserve the win.
Throughout the contest, neither team led by more than a touchdown. Notre Dame had taken a 31-28 lead with just over two minutes to play on a keeper by quarterback Brady Quinn.
The score came about three minutes after Bush’s third touchdown of the day — a 9-yard run — put the Trojans in front, 28-24. Notre Dame kicker DJ Fitzpatrick’s 32-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter had given the Fighting Irish a 24-21 lead.
USC drew first blood on Bush’s 36-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter. Notre Dame responded with a 16-yard touchdown run by Travis Thomas.
LenDale White scored from three yards out to give USC a 14-7 lead after a quarter. Behind a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, Notre Dame took a 21-14 lead into the locker room.
Following Quinn’s 32-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Samardzija, Tom Zbikowski returned a USC punt 59 yards for a touchdown. Bush scored the only touchdown of the third quarter with a 45-yard touchdown run.
The late heroics of Leinart and Bush would cost Notre Dame its first win over a No. 1 team since 1993. Neither the Trojans nor the Fighting Irish would lose another regular season game.
USC would run its winning streak to 34 games before falling to Texas in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. Notre Dame finished 9-3 following a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. The Fighting Irish did finish No. 9 in the final AP Poll — their first top-10 finish ranking since 1993.
The loss served as the fourth straight to USC for Notre Dame. USC would run that streak to eight before Notre Dame broke through in 2010. The closest and most heartbreaking of those losses came on this day 15 years ago.