THE STREAK WAS history. The game had ended on a thwarted dash to the goal line, or so it seemed. But after a tense confab, the zebras put seven seconds back on the clock and spotted the ball 18 inches from Notre Dame's end zone. Nobody knew what USC quarterback Matt Leinart was going to do. Matt Leinart didn't know what Matt Leinart was going to do.
"When we got to the line of scrimmage, the ref hadn't signaled for play to start," recalls Reggie Bush, the Trojans' all-galaxy tailback. "It gave us a chance to catch our breath." It also gave them a chance to consider that their grandest ambitions, and the 2005 college football season, would turn on what happened next.
With dusk giving way to darkness at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 15, Fighting Irish quarterback Brady Quinn had driven his ninth-ranked team 87 yards for a touchdown and a 31-28 lead. Now, with the weight of a 27-game winning streak on his shoulders and a tumult of crowd noise in his ears, Leinart had two minutes and four seconds to bring the Trojans back. Which he did, making a series of plays that defied belief and reason. The last, the indelible moment in college football's game of the year, was a quarterback sneak featuring a reluctant hero who had to be pushed to his destiny. First figuratively, then literally.
Sometimes it's easier to follow orders. But with seven seconds left and no timeouts remaining, Leinart had two options. He could accede to the desires of his coach, Pete Carroll, and go for the win with a sneak. Or he could spike the ball to set up a game-tying field goal attempt. In the pregnant moment before the referee resumed play, Bush asked his quarterback, "You gonna go for it?"
December 12, 2005
"You think I should?" replied Leinart, not exactly a portrait in resolve.
"Go for it," rejoined Bush, whose distilled account of what followed--"He did, and it was as simple as that"--glosses over Bush's central role in the play's outcome. As Leinart took the snap and lunged over left guard Deuce Lutui, he bounced off the pile like a bumper car and spun his wheels, his back now to the goal line. With two hands on Leinart's trunk, Bush shoved the quarterback goalward. "It happened so quick," says the tailback, sheepishly. "I'll never know if it really helped or it didn't. I definitely gave him a good enough push, though."
Yes, Golden Domers, the Bush Push was a violation of a rule forbidding one teammate from assisting another "in forward progress." But if Charlie Weis is over it--the Irish coach gamely admitted on Oct. 17 that he'd expect any back of his to have done the same thing--surely you can be too. Rather than marinate in bitterness, try to savor this snapshot. Here is the 2004 Heisman winner, the senior quarterback who turned down millions in order to draw the marrow from college life, to hang out with his boys one more year. And here is the player favored overwhelmingly to win this year's Heisman, the tailback acclaimed as his generation's Gale Sayers. How fitting to see them yoked at the most critical juncture of USC's quest for a third straight national title, these future first-rounders whose fortunes have been intertwined for three seasons.
"Myself and Reggie," says Leinart, assuming the view of a defensive coordinator. "You're gonna have to stop him or stop me."
Implicit in this observation: It isn't going to be both. "You've got to bring people down in there and stop the run, and then they throw it," says Arizona head coach Mike Stoops. "[Leinart] is back there saying, 'You take away this guy, I'll go to this guy.' It's tough to take everybody out of the game."
For 34 games it has been impossible. After his sizzling start this season--10 touchdown passes in the Trojans' first three wins, during which he threw for 1,028 yards--Leinart cooled as opposing defenses became much more exotic, mixing coverages, blitzing relentlessly. "You could tell," says Bush, "that their main emphasis during the week was to stop the pass and not let Matt beat them." The downside of that strategy? "They weren't respecting the run as much."
On Oct. 1 Arizona State linebacker Robert James drew a richly deserved personal foul for driving the crown of his helmet into Leinart's chin, then pile-driving him into the turf. Leinart, whose injury was later diagnosed as a mild concussion, had a wobbly day at the office and did not throw a touchdown pass for only the second time in 30 games. With the Trojans trailing 21-3 at the half, Carroll calmly entrusted the game to Bush and fellow tailback LenDale White, who combined for 318 rushing yards after halftime. The Trojans outscored ASU in the second half 35-7.
So it has gone this season: the tailbacks, Bush in particular, coming up large when the Trojans need them most. In USC's 15-rounder with Fresno State on Nov. 19, a hard-fought 50-42 win, the junior from San Diego slashed his way to 513 all-purpose yards, all but locking up the Heisman in the bargain. He was similarly clutch at Notre Dame. With Leinart periodically befuddled by the schemes of the Irish, Bush was sensational--"the reincarnation of Marshall Faulk," as Weis described him--piling up 265 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. And yet, at the darkest moment of the season, Leinart was on his own.
The Bush Push was but the third in a series of surreal plays, the first of which had come with 1:32 left to play and the Streak on life support. Leinart faced a fourth-and-nine from his own 26. In a display of cool that recalled Joe Montana--who could be seen nervously pacing the Notre Dame sideline--Leinart looked over the defense and, remarkably, changed the play. (He used hand signals, the crowd of 80,795 having rendered audibles inaudible.) Leinart feathered a perfect pass into the arms of Dwayne Jarrett, whose 61-yard catch-and-run gave USC the ball on the Notre Dame 13.
Surreal Snap Number 2: On first-and-goal at the two, a scrambling Leinart was drilled shy of the goal line by middle linebacker Corey Mays, whose monstrous hit popped the pigskin from the quarterback's arms like a cork from a bottle of Mo√´t. Like revelers in Times Square, the Domer faithful counted down the remaining seconds--"Three! Two! One!"--then poured onto the field. Their euphoria was fleeting. The ball had sailed backward, out-of-bounds. After a brief powwow, officials instructed that seven seconds be put back on the clock, setting the stage for....
Well, for what? Until his chat with Bush, Leinart still hadn't made up his mind. Sneak or spike, it made no difference to his hogs. Either way, explained left tackle Sam Baker, "we're coached to wedge it." He and Lutui would fire out and converge on a point, forming an upside-down V, a maneuver that in this case achieved, at best, a stalemate. Caroming off Lutui's ample backside, Leinart spun left and with one final lunge--abetted by that forbidden boost--broke the plane of the goal line. USC 34, Notre Dame 31. On the bench moments later, he broke down.
Leinart buried his face in his hands, his eyes welling with tears of joy and relief. "It was an emotional win," he said, slumped at his stall a half hour later. "I'm completely drained."
It's tough, pulling your team off the precipice. Leinart got by with a little help from his friend.
After Leinart (11) scored on a dramatic sneak that kept the Streak alive, he and Bush made contact again.
The junior's smooth moves against Fresno State made him the likely successor to Leinart in the Heisman race.