Fourth and nine. The Bush Push. An unbelievable finish.
Ten years ago this week, top-ranked USC and ninth-ranked Notre Dame met in a game that produced some of the most iconic plays — and one of the most controversial endings —- in college football history.
USC, led by Coach Pete Carroll, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and Heisman-winner-to-be Reggie Bush, took a 27-game winning streak to Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind., a key stop on the Trojans’ planned return to the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Notre Dame, under first-year Coach Charlie Weis, had awakened echoes of Notre Dame glory with a team that featured quarterback Brady Quinn and many others who would play in the NFL.
This is the story, told through participants’ words and recollections, about USC’s epic 34-31 victory.
DARIUS WALKER, Notre Dame running back
“The biggest thing that really stands out is that there was such an importance for students and, really, kind of the university. They had pictures of Pete Carroll and Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush posted all around campus, but in the worst places. They were in the bathroom urinals, on the floor of the cafeteria. It was absolutely crazy.”
AMBROSE WOODEN JR., Notre Dame cornerback
“On Thursday at practice there was a plane flying over every 15 or 20 minutes. They were all private jets of people coming in. I think at one point the coaches looked at us as if to say, ‘This is going to be a great game.’ ”
TOM ZBIKOWSKI, Notre Dame safety
“It felt like peewee football when you lay out your uniform a week in advance. It’s the reason why you chose the school, and everything about college football you wanted to do was coming up in that game. The best team in the land is coming to your place.”
BRADY QUINN, Notre Dame quarterback
“They were a team coming off a national championship, a team trying to maintain a streak and had the weight of the world on them. For us, we had the weight of the Notre Dame world on our shoulders.”
CHARLIE WEIS, Notre Dame coach
“It was like playing a big playoff game. That’s what it felt like the whole week leading up to it. We normally did pep rallies that had about 10,000 to 12,000 [at the Joyce Center]. We showed up for the pep rally that Friday night and there were 50,000 people [at Notre Dame Stadium]. ... I played into that and brought in all the heavyweights, Joe Montana and all the guys from Notre Dame history.”
MATT LEINART, USC quarterback
“There were a thousand people waiting for us. It was like, ‘OK, these guys are ready to play.’ They were pulling out all the stops. This was their Super Bowl pep rally.”
TODD McNAIR, USC running backs coach
“We get to Notre Dame, it’s like 3,000 people out there. And it was so dangerous, they’re right in your face. I couldn’t believe they didn’t have it roped off or some security. ... It was unbelievable. They’ve got O.J. pictures, old ladies flipping you the bird. ... It was unbelievable that none of our kids took someone and shoved them out of the way.”
STEVE SARKISIAN, USC offensive coordinator
“Just a mob of Irish fans. I don’t think any of us knew they had planned for their rally that night. And there was zero security. I remember walking through all these people and little kids and everybody yelling and I’m thinking, ‘I hope some of our players don’t do something here’. ... I think, at that moment, that started the energy for the game.”
DESMOND REED, USC kick returner
“I just remember [in the walk-through] the grass was tall and long and it was a little, like, soggy. I just laughed because I thought it was childish or antics they had with growing the grass and watering down the field to slow us down. I’d seen it done in high school a bunch but never in college. I laughed it off.”
DWAYNE JARRETT, USC wide receiver
The thing with Notre Dame, with me, it was little bit personal. They gave me a scholarship coming out of high school and they took the scholarship away from me because they didn’t think I was going to pass the SAT. ... It was more personal for me than anyone else, something I was holding onto. ... [At the walk-through] I was like, are we at the jungle? You know how people let their yards grow and don’t have it cut for weeks or months? Everybody was looking at each other like ‘What’s going on?’ ”
COREY MAYS, Notre Dame linebacker
“At the pep rally [later that night], half the stadium was full. It was an amazing opportunity. Coach Weis told me and [receiver] Maurice Stovall we would be speaking. ... I never really knew what to say. I just kind of went up and freestyled at the podium. I said. ‘The last time we played them, we were kind of down. The only thing that should be down tomorrow are these two damn goal posts behind me!’ That was the fun and hype of college football, it was just crazy.”
PETE CARROLL, USC coach
“We saw the rally on the news that night. I told our guys Joe Montana isn’t going to play, Lou Holtz isn’t going to coach and Jesus isn’t going to play, either.”
THOMAS WILLIAMS, USC linebacker
“Our buses get to the stadium, come to a stop and everyone is rocking it, like the Titanic. … And then Keith Rivers jumps out in the aisle and starts going berserk. He’s yelling and he still has his headphones on — you don’t know if he’s singing the rap song or talking to us. Then his headphones fall off and he’s screaming, ‘This is our house! We’ve got to show we’re USC!’ He’s got the whole bus yelling and cussing. [Safety] Scott Ware is in the back trying to break the window to get to the fans faster.”
SCOTT WARE, USC safety
“I was that way for every game: Kind of like a caged animal, just waiting for the door to open. That was just the hallmark of those teams. We were always ready. I don’t think anybody was nervous.”
KEITH RIVERS, USC linebacker
“I guess it was my break-out-of-my-shell moment in college. ... That game happened and it put me in the zone.”
LENDALE WHITE, USC running back
“We thought it was going to be like any other year. ... They talked about how [Weis] was the guru and he was going to be able to shut down Pete Carroll. ... No matter how big the game was, we never changed. We thought, ‘We’re going to destroy this team and get back and party.’ We always had some things going on and we hated to be hanging around Notre Dame and be four hours away. At the end of the day, we needed to get back to Hollywood.”
The teams warm up on the field and then return to their locker rooms. Notre Dame players, who had warmed up in Navy blue jerseys, were surprised to find Kelly green jerseys in their lockers.
I went to Notre Dame. I always remembered my junior year, that was the real Green Jersey Game in 1977, the year we came out in green jerseys and whupped them pretty good that day. [Notre Dame defeated USC, 49-19] I always felt to use them it had to be a really big game. There was going to be the right time to pull that out. I started working on that in the off-season, not knowing if that year there was going to be a right time. I didn’t know if it was going to be a big enough game. We were sitting there at 4-1. The only game we had lost was Michigan State. We were turning into a pretty good football team. ... You already knew what the reaction was going to be.”
“I remember coming back in the locker room, everyone is screaming and yelling. You see the jersey and you’re just like, ‘Ahhhhh!’ It was pandemonium. We were ready to go.”
COLLIN ASHTON, USC linebacker
I was lucky enough to be a captain for that game. Walking out of the tunnel, it was me, Leinart, Reggie and the other captains. The band is playing and you hit the grass. It was like you were in a movie.”
“We came out of the locker room to the field for the start of the game and there’s the song girls and the band, and Reggie goes and snatches a flag. He runs all the way down to the far end zone and spikes the flag in the ground. Pow! I was like, ‘We got this.’ ”
After trading possessions, Notre Dame tries a flea-flicker pass, but Quinn’s arm is hit by Trojans defensive lineman Frostee Rucker and the ball flutters. Rivers intercepts to set up what would be the first of Bush’s three touchdowns. Bush takes a handoff up the middle, sprints past the line of scrimmage and cuts to his left, hurdling Notre Dame defensive back Ambrose Wooden Jr. on his way to a 36-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead. Pat Haden, providing commentary on the NBC broadcast, called Bush “The 1st Amendment with hips.”
GREIG CARLSON, USC return specialist
“Just the Reggie Show, per usual.”
“You think it’s going to be a long day for their defense, and a short day for us.”
SAM BAKER, USC left tackle
“It was one of those Reggie-being-Reggie plays. It was easy to block for that guy.”
AMBROSE WOODEN JR.
“I tried to hit him mid-thigh and the dude just literally jumped over me. ... It happened so fast. I flipped over and look immediately to see No. 5 running to the end zone. Next thing, you’re on the phone with the DB coach saying a holy blessing. We call it an Irish blessing.”
“Reggie scores, I’m thinking, ‘OK, the dam broke, we’re just going to steamroll ‘em from here on out.’ Well, that didn’t happen.”
Notre Dame starts to target tall wide receivers Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija. Fighting Irish running back Travis Thomas rushes for a 16-yard touchdown to tie the score, 7-7, before USC quarterback Matt Leinart connects with tight end Dominque Byrd for a 52-yard pass play that sets up LenDale White’s short touchdown run.
“We really felt like we could put up just as many points as they could. We knew they had Matt Leinart and Reggie but we felt like we could keep up with them in a shootout.”
“I followed [fullback David] Kirtman. It was a walk-in. It was a big thing to give the ball to the ref after the score. I would try to find a way every week to give the ball to the ref a different way. The band was already starting their song. I threw it so far it went over his head.” [On the sideline, White looked into the lens of a TV camera and said, “All day.”]
Notre Dame ties the score, 14-14, early in the second quarter on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Quinn to Samardzija, setting the stage for a game-turning moment: Zbikowski’s 60-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 21-14 Notre Dame lead.
TOM MALONE, USC punter
“I just didn’t get the hang time I wanted. He was able to catch the ball and make the move before he was touched. ... Since we watched it in film the Monday after the game, I have not watched it once. If it comes on TV, I turn it off.”
“When you have someone well over 200 pounds — normally you have the little guys that make you miss. ... He made the first guy miss and then outran everybody. I don’t think they realized how fast he was.”
“I just had too much open space. They kicked it to the left hash and I had the right return. I shot past a guy and then turned the corner on our sideline. Chase Anastasio gets a nasty little peel back and then I break three tackles like it’s nothing. Easy money. I see a couple of white jerseys with some yellow pants but they’re a blur. ... That was one of my best.”
“He wanted it more, to be honest. ... He just went through tackles. The guy was a professional boxer. I guess that’s why he ran that back. I think I tagged him. He definitely would have been down if we were playing flag football.”
“I remember trying to tackle him and cause a fumble, like an idiot.”
LAWRENCE JACKSON, USC defensive end
“The last thing that I thought I would be doing is trying to tackle this guy on a punt return in open space. It was kind of shocking. I’ll never forget that play. And the crowd went crazy.”
“That’s Zibby. That’s one tough guy, one of the toughest teammates I ever had. I literally would go anywhere and bring him with me. If there’s an issue, if there’s a backyard brawl, he’s coming with me.”
“You could really feel, especially on that punt return, a rebirth in us. As in: You know we can play with them on every level. We have talent to play with them on any level.”
“That was all we needed to feel like we could do it.”
“The momentum, the energy that play created, it was like, ‘Oh crap. OK, here we go.’ ”
“I thought we were in command of that game … until we weren’t.”
On the ensuing kickoff, USC return specialist Desmond Reed turns to move backward to catch the ball and suffers a major knee injury.
“I already had a big return. Now it was my time to come and do it again. The great thing was: No one wanted to kick to Reggie, so I knew the ball was coming to me. ... I turned and it felt like I was stepping in quicksand. I heard a loud pop … I truly do think it was the condition of the field. [Notre Dame defensive lineman Chris Frome also suffered a major knee injury in the game]. But I also believe everything happens for a reason. It was God’s plan for me. [Reed came back from major reconstructive surgery in 2006 and returned a punt 43 yards against Notre Dame.]
At halftime, I think [the players] thought they could win the game. ... They believed they were going to win. ... It wasn’t like a lot of hoopla. ... We knew we were going to have to play a very good second half or there was no chance.”
“At halftime, we needed to settle down. We got caught up in the emotion of the game a little too much. ... Desmond got hurt and everyone was mad the grass was long. They thought that’s why Desmond got hurt. And we lost focus of the game, which was right in front of us.”
“There was no rah-rah thing. It was more. ‘We’ve been here before. Look, we’re down, we’ll go out and make a couple plays, we’ll put 40 up and be out of here.’ We believed so much in what we had going on.”
JOHN DAVID BOOTY, USC backup quarterback
“I just remember Pete [Carroll] doing what Pete does: acting like we’ve practiced for this, no big deal, let’s just come out and do what we practiced and what we’ve done a 1,000 times.”
USC receives the kickoff, and quarterback Matt Leinart keeps alive a drive with a fourth-down sneak. But Notre Dame’s Mike Richardson intercepts a pass, Leinart’s second interception of the game. On USC’s next series, Leinart attempts to block for tailback White, who falls onto Leinart and appears to shake up the Heisman Trophy winner.
“That game I didn’t play great. I made some plays, but I also made some poor decisions. ... That play with LenDale dinged me up a little bit. Those freaking guys [Bush and White] would always reverse field on me, especially Reggie. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to block. It didn’t feel good.”
On the next play, Bush takes a handoff and runs off left tackle on his way to 45-yard run that ties the score, 21-21. Bush slows down the final 10 yards and Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski shoves him in the end zone.
I loved running people down, especially super-fast dudes. I had the same play happen to me when I was 6 years old and I had the ball. I was embarrassed and was never going to let that happen again. If you can punch the ball out to the back of the end zone, it’s a change of possession. I’d rather get the personal foul for the late hit that wasn’t called. It was Pac-10 officiating. It wasn’t like a home call.”
“I probably told [Bush], ‘Hey, if you haven’t noticed, we really haven’t put the dagger in them yet. There’s no time for that.’ ”
Notre Dame appears to be on the verge of answering as Quinn completes a 26-yard pass to tight end Anthony Fasano at the Trojans’ 30-yard line. But USC safety Darnell Bing comes from behind and punches the ball toward the end zone. Rivers recovers the ball at the Notre Dame six-yard line.
I saw how loosely he was handling the ball. That was around the time I felt like I was pretty decent at stripping the ball. I just went for it. I didn’t even make an attempt to tackle. Fortunately, Keith Rivers was there because when I did it I came down on my leg and hyperextended it.”
Early in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame goes ahead, 24-21, on D.J. Fitzpatrick’s 32-yard field goal. On the ensuing series, Leinart throws a pass intended for receiver Dwayne Jarrett on the right sideline. Jarrett dives and his head hits the ground.
“The cornerback came over and made a great play on the ball, hitting me at the same time. My helmet fell over my eyes. When I got up from the play my vision was blurry. I was seeing double vision. I was out there playing with one eye. The doctors, they gave me some eye drops, some smell stuff to get my senses back. Nothing was working. I just had to play the game with one eye. I didn’t want to let my team down. Like I said, Notre Dame was personal.
"[Play-caller] Lane [Kiffin] is up in the booth saying, ‘Just put him back in. He’ll be fine. Put him back in, he’ll be fine.’ I said, ‘You’re not down here. He’s not fine right now.’ ”
D.J. Fitzpatrick misses a 35-yard field-goal attempt and USC then begins a sustained drive. Starting at their 20, the Trojans move downfield on passes to Steve Smith and Jarrett and a reverse by Bush. Three plays later, Bush scores on a nine-yard run to put USC ahead, 28-24.
“They earned a touchdown the hard way. They were a West Coast team doing three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust on the super-long grass. It was elite athletes playing old-school, hard-nosed football where you hit each other hard as you can. It was snot bubbles, bad breath and bad attitudes.”
“I remember thinking when we finally took the lead, ‘OK, we’re good now.’ And then, sure enough, Brady was on fire and Samardzija was on fire. I was like, ‘Dang it. OK, here we go again.’ ”
“On our drive after their drive, Brady was rah-rahing us and saying, ‘We can respond the same way.’ ”
Notre Dame starts at its 13-yard line, Quinn completing four passes and Walker rushing three times to set up second-and-goal at USC’s five. Quinn runs, dives and extends the ball over the goal-line to give Notre Dame a 31-28 lead, sending the crowd into delirium.
STEVE SMITH, USC receiver
“It was bananas.”
“We had some things we hadn’t done yet, a designed quarterback counter. In hindsight, you could say maybe you scored too fast. But when you’re playing against those guys, you can’t worry about that. When you have a play that you think you can get into the end zone, you have to get into the end zone.”
“Charlie had once said, ‘You’re going to score on this play to win the game.’ … When he told me that in one of the meetings, I thought, ‘All right, we’ll see if it’s true …' When he called it, I thought, ‘Man, this is it.’ ”
“We felt like we had won the game. … If there was champagne on the sideline it would have been popped.”
“It was a pretty demoralizing feeling. It was like, ‘OK offense. Please, please do something.’ ”
The final minutes
Notre Dame kicks off and Reggie Bush returns the ball to USC’s 25-yard line with 2:04 left.
“It’s on the defense. That’s the way you want it.”
“We just have to stay calm because we have to make them go the long, hard way, make them earn every first down. You don’t have six minutes. You can’t do it against our defense in 1:30, not in two minutes.”
“We knew we had plenty of time. I was just like, ‘Here we go. … This is why we’re champs.’ ”
On first down, Leinart throws a pass intended for receiver Jarrett. It falls incomplete. On second down, Notre Dame defensive lineman Trevor Laws sacks Leinart for a nine-yard loss. The stadium erupts.
“It was right in front of the student section. It’s bonkers.”
“We’re going bonkers too.”
“I tell people that place was never louder than at that moment.”
“‘That’s the first time in the game I’m like, ‘Oh, hell.’ ”
“I don’t ever remember panic. … I’d be lying if I said we were fine.”
USC calls timeout. The Trojans face third and 19 at the 16-yard line.
“We said, ‘Let’s get half of it back.’ ”
“I said to Matt, ‘Listen, let’s not try to get this in one down. Push the ball down the field and look for something vertical. If it’s not super clean, give it to Reggie so we can get half of it back.’ ”
Leinart passes to Bush, who gains 10 yards. USC calls its final timeout. The Trojans face fourth and nine at the 26.
“We’re freaked, completely freaked out.”
“I don’t know if we’re going to pull this one out. And to be honest, I didn’t think we were.”
“I might have been looking to the stands trying to find my parents or some nice young lady. Fourth and nine in their own territory? The game was so over and done with.”
“I’m a fan at that point. We’re a play away from getting a win and on our way to go to play for a national championship.”
Our original call was 60-Sam-Y-Option, a pass to [tight end] Dominique Byrd. But Matt could change it to 82-Stay-Sluggo-Win. I just said to Matt, ‘If it’s not Cover 2, if it looks like anything but Cover 2, audible to this we put in Day 1 of training camp.’ Matt’s got the eye of the tiger. I mean, he’s totally different at that moment than he was an hour earlier when he was sitting on the bench with his hands on his head.”
“They said, ‘If there’s any blitz pressure, if you see anything, check the Sluggo Win. We scored 30 touchdowns on that play over the years with Mike Williams, Dwayne and Keary Colbert.”
My main thing was, ‘OK, let’s get the first down.’ We called two plays. I forgot what the first one was. Matt told me, ‘I’m checking out of it. When I check out of it, I’m coming to you.’ I’m like. ‘Oh gosh! I have one eye.’ I’m just trying to focus my eyes. It’s all on me because if I don’t make this play, I’m done. I’ve never had that much pressure on me. ... It’s the most nervous I’ve ever been. Like, ‘Man, what a great time to have one eye.’ ”
RYAN KALIL, USC center
“It was a strange thing, a contagious thing to look around in the huddle and see [guard] Deuce Lutui with a big smile on his face. He started to yell at everybody, ‘We’re going to get this! We’re going to go and score!’ That was the feeling and Deuce put that over the top.”
“I can remember in those moments between the break from the huddle and getting to the line, pulling my headset off and listening, and the crowd was as loud as 80,000 could be. I said ‘This is as hard as it can possibly be.’ ”
“Do you play Cover 2? Or do you try to bring a little bit of heat on him? We decided to bring a little heat and be in man to man.”
“Never heard it this loud in here, Tom, ever. And that means I think you’ve got to be careful with audibles. I think you have to go with what you called. ... True test for a champion.”
Pat Haden, NBC commentator during the broadcast
“When I check, I see [offensive lineman] Fred [Matua], rest in peace, looking up at me. It was great.”
“I don’t know how honest guys are with you but I’m thinking, ‘What the … is happening right now? Is he really audibling?”
“I’m watching the ball [awaiting the snap] the whole time and trying to hear Leinart’s voice and trying to catch the rhythm a little bit. But it was so loud at that moment you couldn’t hear anything.”
“I just let it go. If anything, I thought it was too low. I didn’t put a lot of air under the ball.”
JOHN DAVID BOOTY
“From where I was it looked like it was going to be underthrown. ... You just held your breath. I was like, ‘Oh, no!’ ”
“My big thing with Matt and Dwayne was, ‘Don’t overthrow him because he was so tall and so long he could jump up and catch it.’ When the ball first came out of [Leinart’s] hand I’m thinking. ‘Oh no, he overthrew him.’ ”
“All it takes is an inch to beat a DB if you have a decent quarterback. I beat him off the ball and the next thing I know the world’s just stopped. I couldn’t see out of my right eye. My left eye went into tunnel vision. I saw the ball coming and it was slow motion. I didn’t hear the crowd or hear or see nothing else. I remember it like yesterday.”
AMBROSE WOODEN JR.
“We were running a defense, Even Mackerel Yellow … I’m playing off … I knew he wasn’t fast enough to just blow by me. ... The next thing you know, I turn around and the ball’s right there.”
“I’m on the other sideline. I looked at Ambrose and he’s running step for step and I’m thinking he’s going to knock the ball down and the party’s over.”
“That pass could not have been more perfect. The defender, all he had to do was turn around and swat it down. I didn’t want to put my hands out because he would have known the ball was coming. I slid out my hand at the last second and caught it with my left hand.”
“He fricking caught the ball. I can’t believe it.”
“I put it in the perfect trajectory. It was great coverage. The guy could not have played it any better. He was just late turning around.”
AMBROSE WOODEN JR.
“I blame my ancestors. I should have been 6-3 with the wingspan of Julius Peppers. … I think I missed the ball by an inch.”
“That was perfect pass, perfect catch, near-perfect coverage.”
“All I was thinking was not to fumble. In high school, in my freshman year, I was in the same situation playing varsity football. ... I was running in the middle of the field and all I saw was end zone and I was going to score. And a guy came from behind and knocked the ball and we lost the game. I was running [against Notre Dame] and all I kept thinking was, ‘Man, whatever you do, just hold onto this ball because none of this is going to matter if you fumble.’ And the grass was so high it was like I was running in quicksand.”
“I think we all figured, ‘There’s no way that anyone’s going to catch him. We have just lost the game in this moment.’ ”
AMBROSE WOODEN JR.
“Luckily, it wasn’t like Reggie. It would have been like Secretariat against Smarty Jones, a race of the century. Honestly, I think I could have caught anybody at that point. ... We were sitting in film the next day and I literally could not believe it. ... I’m so glad social media was not as prevalent then. I did get death threats on Facebook, calls from random numbers. The school took good care of me.”
Wooden tackles Jarrett at the 13-yard-line, saving a touchdown. USC has no timeouts remaining. The clock stops for officials to move the chains. Leinart throws a pass that falls incomplete and Bush rushes the ball twice to give USC a first down at the two-yard line. With 16 seconds left, Leinart takes a snap, drops back looking for an open receiver, and scrambles to his left.
“I was open in the end zone. I ran a crossing route and I was just like, ‘Matt knows to just throw it up.’ I’m going to jump up. I’m waving my hands like throw it up. I guess he didn’t see me.”
“He was supposed to throw to Jarrett and he starts scrambling, the worst thing because there’s not enough time left if he doesn’t score.”
“He’s rolling to his left and I kept yelling, obviously he couldn’t hear me, ‘Throw it away! Throw it away!’ Because I wanted as much time as we could have to run more plays. And, the competitive human being he is, he tries to score a touchdown to win the game.”
“I see him scrambling and it’s, ‘Try to be Superman.'… I couldn’t really take off, but I felt like the green jersey was my cape. I’m just going to try to make sure he doesn’t score, so I lower my shoulder and run through him.”
As Leinart dives toward the pylon, Mays goes airborne and knocks the ball from his grasp. The ball goes out of bounds, but the game clock ticks down to 0:00 and fans start streaming onto the field.
“I’m more mad at myself. I could have at least extended. I just remember looking up and the ref’s marking it out of bounds. OK, we’re good. And then all of a sudden the clock’s ticking and they are storming the field.”
“It goes to zero and I start celebrating.”
“I see zero, zero, zero. Game over.”
AMBROSE WOODEN JR.
It was one of those moments. Game over. Game not over. You knew there would be a ruling.”
“The official comes running up and says the ball went out of bounds and there’s three or two seconds left. So while everyone is going crazy, I’m the epitome of poise because I knew we had a shot.”
My only complaint was that one of the [USC] coaches was down all the way near the line of scrimmage trying to call timeout. Down there trying to call a timeout, which they didn’t have. If the game wasn’t already over, I thought it should have been a penalty. … But the referees were so flustered because of the magnitude of the game.”
“The officials botched that game. That should have been the end of the game. ... I blame the guy who was the announcer on the field at the time. If he didn’t tell everyone to get off the field the refs are saying, ‘OK, let’s just get out of here.’ ”
“I thought it was over. ... I just thought, ‘We were so close. How did it come to this?’ And then … we had life.”
“The best thing I’ve ever heard was, ‘Notre Dame fans, please get off the field.’ I’m like, ‘Yes!’ That was the best thing ever.”
BRANDON HANCOCK, USC fullback
“You go from the depths of despair to, ‘Oh, but wait.’ You’re chewing cuticles to the bone, freaking out. Oh my God, there’s another chance?”
Officials put seven seconds back on the clock and spot the ball at the one-yard line.
“Pete comes on the headset and he goes, ‘We only know one way, man. Let’s go win the game. Run it. Let’s go do it.’ ”
“We had run the fake spike and sneak every Friday in practice. We had done it probably a million times, but you never know if you will do it in a game.”
“I don’t know if it was Steve’s call, Pete’s call or Matt’s call. I don’t how who made that call. But it’s a ballsy call.
“I just remember Zbikowski just watching me the whole time from three yards away. There was no secret about what was going to go down.”
“I locked in on him like a laser beam. Like, ‘I’m going to take your head off as soon as you snap this ball because I know exactly what you’re about to do. So go ahead and do it, please.’ ”
“With Reggie, I go up and say, ‘Hey, dude. What should I do?’ He said, ‘Go for it. I got you.’ ”
“I was just telling myself, ‘You cannot fumble this ball. I don’t care if you block anyone, you have to get this snap.’ I felt like I was in my stance for a lifetime. My hand’s shaking a little bit on the ball and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t screw this up. You can’t screw this up.’ ”
Leinart takes the snap and surges forward. Notre Dame defenders stop him, but he spins to his left before Bush pushes him across the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.
“We didn’t teach Reggie to do that.”
“Thank God for the push.”
To be honest, in hindsight, I probably should have spiked it. They had what seemed like 14 guys in the middle…. At the moment, everything was happening so fast, I just remember spinning and falling in. Less than five minutes after [Bush] said, ‘You’re welcome.’ And I was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ ”
Leinart scored with three seconds left. The Trojans were penalized for excessive celebration and missed the extra point. Notre Dame tried several laterals on the kickoff but USC’s Mike Brittingham made the final tackle to preserve the 34-31 victory.
“You don’t know how historic it is when it’s happening. ... I hadn’t lost a game as a starter. I was kind of naive about losing. We had a very close offensive line. I remember all of us really sitting there and feeling like how special that was, that whole drive and just kind of sharing the moment with those guys.”
“It was like a movie script ending, just for me being able to help the team and give them extra life. You grow up dreaming about things like that. It was like Michael Jordan making the buzzer beater against Utah. That was my Michael Jordan moment. I’m thankful and grateful for it.”
“I’ll show my kids that game. I’ll sit down and watch that game and say, ‘This is a team win. This is when you depend on your guys.’ ”
“For me, it was the most fun I had in a college football game, even though we lost.”
“We really felt like we laid everything we had on the line, and it just wasn’t good enough. In that moment, you have played beyond yourself.”
“I think I have grass from that field, which is now dirt, in my storage room. When I think back, we were living in the moment. It was a reality check, like ‘Wow, that was insane.’ ”
“It was hard for me. That was our second loss of that season. It was tough because, regardless of them, we understood how good we could be. That was our best chance to beat them, when it was the most level playing field. I guess we were playing against the officials as well.”
“I remember coming to the sideline and sitting there with some tears, with my head in my hands. It was one of those uncontrollable things. You’re so mentally and emotionally exhausted, it was like release. Like, ‘Wow, we got out of there.’ ”
“I never felt so exhausted in all my years of playing football. I remember asking [linebackers coach Ken] Norton, ‘Why am I so tired?’ I thought something was wrong with me. I remember Norton looking at me with a smile on his face. He says, ‘That’s because that’s the type of game this was.’ ”
DAVID KIRTMAN, USC fullback
“Other than being the wildest roller coaster of emotions ever in a game, what stands out for me is that you went from, ‘Our season is over’ to ‘Oh my God, that was a miracle.’ ”
“We got caught up in the emotion of the environment from Friday on — and that season was that way. Every game felt like it was the Super Bowl and that game even more. It was heightened because we hadn’t lost in so long. Nobody even knew what it was like.”
AMBROSE WOODEN JR.
“Looking back on it 10 years later, I was lucky to be a part of it. It was probably one of the greatest games ever. You say you always want to be remembered for something. No one who played in it or saw it will ever forget it.”
“Those are the things you cherish. Those are the things you love. Knowing you played in those kinds of games never gets old. But it’s amazing to hear you say 10 years. That’s what’s incredible. You grew up wanting to play in games like this, playing in games you can call classic.”
“They were a great football team with great players and they were well-coached. We played great that day and the game could have gone either way. From my perspective, sarcastically, the good guys lost.”
“It was an extraordinary illustration of that team’s ability to handle the moment and to function at a really high level under the circumstances. That’s the cool thing about that game. In that circumstance, as far down as we were in the most challenging moment, they pulled off the perfect ending.”