USC Is Ground Down, 28-24 : Rice's Run, Defensive Stand Keep Notre Dame Unbeaten

TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC receiver Joel Scott, lying stretched out in the end zone at Notre Dame Stadium, stared at the football, sitting motionless on the grass a few feet away.

"I thought I would go down in history," he said.

Instead, he just went down.

As did his Trojans, 28-24, when quarterback Todd Marinovich's desperation fourth-down pass in the closing minutes to Scott, thrown into triple coverage, was batted away.

But Saturday's game, if not Scott, will surely be given a prominent spot in the historic rivalry between the schools.

No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Notre Dame, trailed ninth-ranked USC in the fourth quarter before pulling out a victory on Tony Rice's 15-yard touchdown run with 5:18 left.

Before the game started there was a fight. At the end, there was a battle in the end zone. In between, there was 60 minutes of high drama.

Raghib (Rocket) Ismail fizzled at the launching pad but came back with a long return and a crucial catch.

Marinovich sizzled all day only to fall short at the finish.

There were fumbles and interceptions and a controversial play that may simply be remembered as The Spot.

But the difference ultimately was Notre Dame's running game, which butted heads with the nation's top rushing defense and just kept going.

USC had not given up a rushing touchdown all season and was giving up only 36.7 yards per game on the ground.

When it was over, Notre Dame had four scores on the ground--runs of seven and 15 yards by Rice, a 35-yarder by Anthony Johnson and a two-yarder by Ricky Watters--and a total of 266 yards rushing.

USC took the opposite approach.

Never mind that Marinovich is a redshirt freshman.

Never mind that he was playing only his seventh collegiate game.

Never mind that he was thrown onto the national stage in the den of the defending national champions.

USC Coach Larry Smith gave him the ball and he didn't disappoint.

Marinovich, throwing in the face of the Irish, not to mention USC tradition, went to the air 55 times, completing 33 for 333 yards and three touchdowns.

Marinovich also had three passes intercepted.

The Fighting Irish had their own problems in the turnover department, fumbling the ball away four times.

Also, Rice was intercepted once.

"I didn't believe it was possible to win a game with five turnovers," Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz said. "It was unbelievable. I have never seen the ball on the ground that much, even in a soccer game, let alone a football game."

When this one started, it look more like a rugby match.

Both squads left the field at the same time after the pregame warmup only to clash at the tunnel leading back to the locker rooms.

Taunting led to shoving. Shoving led to blows.

When order was restored, the only thing bruised were some feelings.

"I am deeply distressed and disturbed," Holtz said. "I am going to get to the bottom of this. It should have been avoided by Notre Dame at all costs. I sincerely apologize to Southern Cal."

The game began just as explosively.

After a week of speculation about how to keep the ball out of the hands of Ismail, who has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns, including two this season, USC kicked it to him anyway and got the ball right back.

Hit by David Webb, Ismail fumbled the ball into the waiting arms of Brian Tuliau.

Given his first shot at the Notre Dame 40-yard line, Marinovich came out throwing and finished the drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Larry Wallace.

"We went against our tendencies by throwing on first down, but it went pretty well," Marinovich said.

USC, however, quickly learned how easy it is to get burned by the Rocket.

After the touchdown, the Trojans went back to him on the ensuing kickoff, and, this time, Ismail returned it 58 yards to set up Notre Dame's first score.

That came on Rice's seven-yard run. The Irish quarterback appeared to be stopped at the three when defender Cleveland Colter wrapped himself around one of Rice's legs. But Rice kept going into the end zone, dragging Colter along.

The next USC drive went nowhere, forcing a punt.

Again, Ismail was waiting.

Again, he got the ball.

And, again, lost it just as quickly.

The ball bounced off his face mask into the arms of onrushing Junior Seau.

"I thought it was coming down into my hands," Ismail said. "All of a sudden, it hit my face mask. I was just upset with the angle I had on it."

Given the ball at the 15, Marinovich took only two plays to score, hitting John Jackson on a slant-in from the 15.

The Trojans padded their lead to 17-7 by the half with a 28-yard field goal from Quin Rodriguez, but two other opportunities in Irish territory were killed on interceptions, one picked off by Pat Terrell, the other by D'Juan Francisco.

"At halftime, I told the players to take a gut check," Holtz said. "And the coaches, too. We needed to find out about ourselves.

"I had to convince the defense 17 points would not win the football game."

At the start of the third quarter, USC lost the chance to get more on a controversial play.

Faced with a third-and-seven at his 14-yard line, Marinovich hit tight end Scott Galbraith with a ball he caught in the vicinity of the first-down marker, only to be pushed back and out of the bounds.

The ball was spotted on the 20-yard line, leaving Galbraith a yard short. The television replay showed he reached the 22 before being thrown back.

Forward progress is a judgment call. Galbraith, still steaming afterward, offered his own judgment.

"You don't have to be astute to figure out what happened," Galbraith said. "I was well over. By two or three yards. I turned my head around and saw the stick. The guy was biased or something."

The Trojans punted and the Irish put together a drive that got them back in the game, Watters going in untouched off right tackle on a two-yard pitch.

Down 17-14, the Irish, however, attempted to give the game right back. Their next two drives ended on turnovers, Mark Carrier intercepting Rice on the first and Rice fumbling on the second.

But a Marinovich pass also was intercepted and, suddenly, the game of the year was turning into the giveaway of the year.

Notre Dame finally surged into the lead in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Johnson exploding off right tackle for a 35-yard scoring run.

But no score was safe this day.

The next time the Irish had the ball, Johnson fumbled it away and USC responded with a 34-yard drive, culminating with Marinovich's 16-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Gary Wellman.

Which would prevail, Marinovich's arm or Rice's legs?

It turned out to be Rice's.

On Notre Dame's next possession, Rice, who ran Holtz' high-tech, multi-dimensionsal offense with precision, drove his team to the USC 15, the big play a 40-yard pass to Ismail.

From the 15, Rice took off left, faked a pitch, cut back in and was caught by defensive back Dwayne Garner from behind at the four.

They were frozen for an instant, Rice straining for the end zone, and Garner hanging onto Rice's leg for all he was worth.

Rice hopped. One step. Two. And fell forward into the end zone.

Notre Dame was back on top, 28-24, with 5:18 left.

Marinovich's turn.

Back he drove the Trojans to the Notre Dame seven-yard line where he had a second-and-five with about two minutes to play.

Run or pass?

Smith went with what had been successful all day.

Marinovich went to Jackson on a play-action pass on second down.

Incomplete.

He rolled right and went to Wallace in the end zone on third down.

Incomplete.

And then he faded on fourth and looked for a friendly face.

He spotted Scott.

"I could see Todd for an instant," Scott said. "And then it closed up."

Three defenders converged, Francisco batting the ball away.

Marinovich got one more shot in the closing seconds, but, by then, it was desperation time.

When it was over, USC defensive back Tim Ryan took the verdict hard.

"This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my life," he said. "I've got to pick myself up, but I'll never forget it."

Neither will Marinovich, but he had to admit, even in defeat, that he loved being in the middle of it all.

"There's no other place I would rather have been," said the quarterback, whose father, Marv, and uncle, Craig Fertig, had played for the Trojans.

Was this just the way he dreamed it would be, Marinovich was asked.

"No," he said, "I dreamed we'd come out winning."

USC Notes

The victory was Notre Dame's seventh of the year and 19th in a row. USC falls to 5-2 in losing seven in a row to Notre Dame, the first time the Trojans have lost that many in a row to one team. . . . Todd Marinovich set personal records for pass attempts, completions and yardage. . . . USC rushed for 119 yards, led by Ricky Ervins' 64. . . . Tony Rice was Notre Dame's leading ballcarrier with 99 yards gained in 18 carries.

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