This is why we put up with it--the interminable halftimes and incessant stoppages of play, the frat boys with megaphones telling us when and what to yell, a system for determining the national champion that only Stephen Hawking could love. We put up with it because once in a great while college football delivers a day like last Saturday, when you needed a satellite dish and a bank of TVs to keep track of the outrageous, heart-stopping finishes. There was Wisconsin, keeping possession of an oversized ax thanks to a fumbled snap by the Minnesota punter, to whom the Witness Protection Program probably looks pretty good right now. There was Michigan's quarterback, a Pennsylvania native who'd spurned Penn State, sliding the shiv into the Nittany Lions yet again, on the last play. On a day featuring more dramatic endings than a Shakespeare anthology--Alabama beat Ole Miss as time ran out; West Virginia and UCLA came back from 17-point fourth-quarter deficits to win in triple overtime and overtime, respectively--no denouement was more cardiac-arresting than the one in South Bend.
USC's 27-game winning streak was history. The scoreboard showed a 31--28 Notre Dame lead and zeros on the clock. The game had ended with a valiant goal line stand by the Irish: Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart had scrambled to his left, only to be walloped a foot shy of the end zone by middle linebacker Corey Mays--who, looking back on it, may have done his job too well. So hard did Mays hit Leinart that the ball flew out of bounds.
While the line judge clearly waved his arms for time to stop, the game clock continued to bleed seconds until none remained, and a wave of delirious Notre Dame fans breached the yellow line of ushers and stormed the field. Then the zebras convened. The Golden Domers were shooed off the grass. Seven seconds were put on the clock, and USC was given the ball inside the one-yard line. The Trojans had no timeouts, but they were not without experience in such situations. Once a week USC's offense practices this precise goal line play. "I have a two-way go," Leinart later explained. "I can spike it or sneak it."
While coach Pete Carroll and some of his assistants motioned for Leinart to spike the ball--to stop the clock and give them time to think about what play to run or whether to kick a tying field goal--those gesticulations turned out to be so much playacting. Carroll, who as coach of the New York Jets in 1994 had been burned on a last-minute fake spike by the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino, had made it clear to Leinart that he wanted him to go for it while officials discussed how much time to put on the clock.
Leinart's resolve was stiffened by tailback Reggie Bush, who asked the quarterback before he stepped under center, "You going to go for it?" Standing at his locker afterward, Bush recalled Leinart's reply: "You think I should?"
"Man, just do it," replied Bush, who later reasoned, "He had the O.K. to do it, but it didn't hurt to have a little extra reassurance."
Trying to run over left guard, Leinart was repelled on his first effort, but, displaying a sprightliness befitting an undergraduate enrolled in ballroom dancing class (Life of Reilly, page 148), he spun to his left. Thrusting the ball in the air and twisting backward as Bush provided a forbidden shove, Leinart fell forward and broke the plane--and an untold number of Domers' hearts. While the quarterback and several of his teammates wept for joy over their 34--31 victory, some of their opponents merely wept.
This depth of emotion--on display not only in South Bend but also in Saturday's other fantastic finishes (box, right)--is college football's greatest advantage over the pro game. In college there is no sliding into the postseason with a .500 record. There is a dire need to win throughout September and October. In the NFL there are no triple overtimes, just as there are no pep rallies that draw 45,000, like the one last Friday night at Notre Dame Stadium, where a leprechaun emerged from the belly of a plywood Trojan horse. True to his reputation for bluntness, first-year Irish coach Charlie Weis informed his audience that it had a reputation around the nation as a "quiet" crowd. To the boos that followed, he rejoined, "You can deal with it however you want." If the fans did intend to raise hell the next day, the coach asked that they pick their spots: "Make noise when they have the ball." Weis finished by reminding the congregation of what he had told the Irish faithful at a basketball game last February: "On Oct. 15, when that team from California comes in here, I hope they're undefeated."
"Well," he said on Friday, "they are."
That the Trojans remain so is no fault of this disciple of Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, both of whom Weis spoke with in the days before the game. Controlling the clock, battering Leinart, torching USC's overmatched cornerbacks and making game-changing plays on special teams, Weis and his ninth-ranked Irish inked in every box on the how to beat the trojans checklist.
Except one. Most of the day it was as if Reggie Bush had a big S on his chest. He netted 160 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries, and added another 105 yards on pass receptions and kick returns. "Every time he touches the ball, he can score," noted a chagrined Weis afterward. "He can, and he did."
Emotionally and physically drained after the game, Leinart lamented over and over that he "wasn't on" and that he'd "missed some easy throws," both of which were true. But with the season and the streak on the line, Leinart showed what he was made of. On fourth-and-nine at the USC 26, with 1:32 left and the Weis-coached crowd making so much noise that Trojans left tackle Sam Baker said he couldn't hear the signals, Leinart surveyed the defense and--this is the stuff of national champions--checked out of the play he had called. Instead, he lofted a pass 24 yards down the left sideline, just beyond the reach of Notre Dame cornerback Ambrose Wooden and into the waiting hands of wideout Dwayne Jarrett, who'd injured his right eye while diving for a ball earlier in the quarter and whose vision was still blurred.
"We had the perfect defense [called]," said Weis. "They threw a fade route into our Two Tampa [scheme]. It's complete by an inch. I mean, you don't throw fade routes into Two Tampa, but this guy did."
A squinting Jarrett was brought down after a 61-yard gain, at the Irish 13. Four snaps after that, Leinart fumbled the ball out of bounds. If he holds on to the rock, the streak is over. If he fumbles anywhere but out of bounds, the streak is over.
But the streak lives. Afterward, in a display of sportsmanship that characterizes what is undoubtedly the coolest intersectional rivalry in the country, Weis entered the visitors' dressing room. "I just want to wish you guys luck the rest of the way," he told the Trojans. "That was a friggin' hard-fought battle. I hope you win out."
You think Notre Dame is good now? Fourteen blue-chip recruits were on hand to see this game. The next day Weis met with each of them for a half-hour. Of course he hopes the Trojans win out. Just as he hopes that, when the Irish travel to California next year, USC is still undefeated.
"Every time he touches the ball he can score," a chagrined Weis said of the electrifying Bush. "He can, AND HE DID."