Irish Give USC, Maybe Tollner, the Boot : Notre Dame Wins on Last Play, 38-37

Times Staff Writer

The USC-Notre Dame series is a historic one, and thrilling games, improbable endings and controversy have been part of the package over the years.

Place Saturday’s game at the Coliseum in all of those categories.

Notre Dame won, 38-37, on John Carney’s 19-yard field goal as time ran out, capping a surging comeback from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter before a crowd of 70,614 and a national television audience.

The Irish have lost a lot of close games to some of the nation’s best teams this season. Now it was their turn to be the beneficiary.


USC’s players flopped on the turf in obvious dejection after Carney’s game-winning field goal. The kicker was mobbed by his teammates.

Carney might not have been in a position to make the kick if All-American flanker Tim Brown hadn’t returned a punt 56 yards in the final minutes.

This was also a game that some USC players thought was taken away from them by an official’s call when the Trojans led, 37-27, and were on the verge of putting the game out of reach midway through the fourth quarter.

There is also speculation that the loss, regardless of the competitive nature of the game, might have cost USC Coach Ted Tollner his job.

It has been thought that Tollner had to finish the regular season with an 8-3 record and a bowl bid. USC has the bowl bid--an invitation to play Auburn Jan. 1 in the Florida Citrus Bowl at Orlando, Fla.

But the Trojans are 7-4 for the regular season, losing consecutive games to their traditional rivals, UCLA and Notre Dame. Tollner has a combined 1-7 record against those schools in his four years as USC’s coach.


But neither he nor his team can be faulted for the way the Trojans performed against the Irish, a team with the nation’s toughest schedule, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., and a team probably deserving of a better final record than 5-6.

It seemed that Tollner would get his first win over Notre Dame after three consecutive losses when the Trojans lined up on fourth down at the Notre Dame five-yard line midway through the fourth quarter with only inches remaining for a first down.

Quarterback Rodney Peete went over the top of a pile. The Trojans thought they had a first down. An official didn’t.

The Irish gained possession and an extra 15 yards when Peete was cited for unsportsmanlike conduct for disputing the call that denied him a first down.

Notre Dame quickly drove 80 yards to a touchdown, making a big chunk of the yardage on a 49-yard pass play from quarterback Steve Beuerlein to Brown. The Irish then made their second two-point conversion of the game. Another one had been nullified by a penalty.

That put Notre Dame, now trailing, 37-35, in position to win the game later on a field goal, which it did.


“I really don’t get mad at officials’ calls,” Peete said, “but, when you only have this much to go (holding his fingers inches apart), you only have to fall forward.

“I not only thought I had made the first down, but also I thought I made it by about a yard and a half. Then, an official marked it as losing yardage.

“It was a very bad call, the worst I’ve ever seen. They didn’t even measure it. Then, I lost my cool.”

Peete was referring to his arguing with an official that resulted in a 15-yard penalty against USC, taking Notre Dame out of a hole to its 20-yard line.

Referee Bill McDonald issued a short statement, through the USC sports information department, saying: “Peete was short, clearly short.”

It’s believed that head linesman Verl Sell made the call. The officiating crew was split between Pacific 10 officials and ones who work some Notre Dame games.


McDonald, Sell and field judge John Daniels are members of an officiating group called the Collegiate Independent Football Officials Assn.

A Pac-10 official, who was acting as an unofficial observer and didn’t want to be identified, said he thought Peete had made the first down and was surprised that the officials didn’t call for a measurement.

A team captain can ask for a measurement, or the officials can do it on their own if they think it’s necessary. Peete said he asked for a measurement but was turned down.

Tollner didn’t want to detract from Notre Dame’s dramatic victory. But from his vantage point on the sideline, he believed that Peete had made a first down.

“I can’t imagine on a fourth and inches, when the pile goes forward like that, that we didn’t make it,” he said. “I don’t want to make excuses because no football game comes down to one play. The head linesman makes the call. I thought we had made it, but he has a better view.”

Tollner was asked why the Trojans didn’t kick a field goal in that situation. A successful kick would have provided USC with a 40-27 lead with 6:16 remaining.


“I thought about a field goal in that situation,” Tollner said, “but you think you can make two inches. A touchdown puts the game out of reach, a field goal doesn’t.”

Tollner had a hot kicker in Don Shafer, who had kicked a conference-record 60-yard field goal at the end of the first half, and had two other kicks measuring 48 and 23 yards.

Controversial calls have been part of this epic series that began in 1926.

Notre Dame could point to games lost here in 1978 and 1982, when the Trojans got a break in the officiating. In the 1982 game, USC tailback Michael Harper scored a phantom touchdown in the closing minutes. Television replays showed that Harper didn’t have the ball when he crossed the plane of the goal line. Nonetheless, USC won, 17-13.

It was inevitable that someone would ask Tollner if his job was in jeopardy after the one-point loss.

“I have no idea,” he said. “We played a hell of a game. I determine how we play on the field. If it is not good enough, it is not good enough.”

USC Athletic Director Mike McGee had said earlier in the week that Tollner, like all his coaches, will be evaluated at the end of the season.


McGee made a quick visit to the USC dressing room and then left the stadium before any reporters could question him.

Tollner’s face was flushed, perhaps still reflecting the emotion of such a stirring game.

“We played as well as we can play,” he said, “but that’s a kind of game that hurts deep. It may have been entertaining and all that, but the pain is still deep. It had everything you want in a football game, but we lost.”

Traditionally, Tollner introduces his senior players to the USC student-body section after the regular season ends. But he couldn’t be heard over the booing that descended on him and his team from the rooting section. Tollner just waved his hand in disgust and didn’t go through with the ritual.

“We’re supposed to be part of a family,” said Shafer, referring to his fellow students, “but I wouldn’t want them in my family.”

The game had been one of contrasting halves. In the first, the Irish maintained ball control, pounding away at USC’s young defensive line, with tailback Mark Green making most of the yardage.

But the Irish couldn’t convert their dominant possession time into points and had only nine at at halftime on a touchdown (USC’s Tim McDonald blocked the extra point) and a Carney field goal.

Conversely, the Trojans were scoring on big plays. After Shafer kicked his 48-yard field goal in the first quarter, the Trojans outscored the Irish, 17-3, in the second quarter. That was accomplished despite having possession of the ball for only 1:59 in the second quarter. Notre Dame hogged all the rest of the time.


But a team doesn’t need much time if it’s scoring on big plays.

Cornerback Louis Brock intercepted a underthrown Beuerlein pass and returned it 58 yards to a touchdown with nearly six minutes elapsed in the second quarter.

When USC got the ball again, Peete rolled to his left and threw a pass down the middle to flanker Lonnie White. The play covered 53 yards and set up fullback Leroy Holt’s three-yard scoring sweep at 10:39.

Then, with time running out in the first half, Shafer lined up a kick that it didn’t seem he could make--a 60-yarder--eight yards farther than his personal best. But he did make it, the ball just nestling inside the upright with five yards to spare, breaking the school and Pac-10 record. The previous conference mark was shared by Stanford’s Rod Garcia (1973) and Mark Harmon (1981) at 59 yards. Steve Jordan held the previous USC record at 53 yards, set in 1984. The NCAA mark is 67 yards, held by three players.

There was a different tenor of the game in the second half. Neither team could stop the other as the scoreboard was constantly changing numbers.

USC scored on its first three possessions--a 23-yard field goal by Shafer after a Notre Dame fumble, fullback Todd Steele’s 1-yard touchdown ending a 70-yard drive and Peete’s 1-yard sneak wrapping up a 62-yard advance.

The Irish matched USC but were still trailing as Carney kicked a 32-yard field goal, Beuerlein threw a 22-yard scoring pass to fullback Braxston Banks and then teamed with split end Milt Jackson on a 42-yard touchdown. The quarterback was under pressure on the sideline and just managed to get the ball away.


But Notre Dame still trailed, 37-27, early in the fourth quarter and wasn’t catching up fast enough.

Then, Peete failed to make a first down at the Irish five-yard line and Notre Dame rebounded with an 80-yard drive, finished off by Beuerlein’s five-yard pass to Banks. The subsequent two-point conversion pass, Beuerlein to tight end Andy Heck, got the Irish close at 37-35.

Brown and Carney did the rest, although Notre Dame almost let time run out before calling a timeout with two seconds left preceding Carney’s field goal.

Defense for either team in the second half was only evident when the Irish stopped Trojan tailback Ryan Knight for a one-yard gain on third down and three at the USC 27. Brown then took Chris Sperle’s punt and followed a blocking, moving wall down the sideline for his 56-yard return.

USC has beaten Notre Dame with field goals in the final seconds, or minutes, notably Johnny Baker’s memorable kick in a 16-14 game at South Bend, Ind., in 1931 and Frank Jordan’s winner in a 27-25 game in 1978.

Carney gave the Trojans a taste of that last-play medicine Saturday.

Trojan Notes

Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein tied a USC’s opponent’s record with four touchdown passes. . . . USC’s Rodney Peete became the third USC quarterback to surpass 2,000 yards passing in a season. The others were Rob Hertel in 1977 and Paul McDonald in 1979. Peete finished the regular season with 2,025 yards. . . . Irish tailback Mark Green led all ground gainers with 119 yards on 24 carries. USC’s Ryan Knight led the Trojans with 90 yards on 22 carries.