Monday, October 17, 2005

"What A Way To Spend An Autumn Afternoon."

Any discussion leading up to Saturday’ game against the Trojans brought up the halftime deficits they had faced against Oregon and Arizona State, and how it didn’t matter, because with that offense any lead was susceptible to being overtaken. I adamantly stated I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a lead of any size until the clock struck 0:00 in the fourth quarter.

Little did I realize that even time running out wouldn’t be enough to stop the Trojans.


It started to warm up during the week leading up to the game, my prayer for an ice storm going by the wayside. It wasn’t autumn enough – it wasn’t football weather. USC and Gameday were coming in for the most-hyped game in years, and the trees hadn’t even turned yet. Indian Summer was reigning supreme in South Bend, with the Fates apparently trying to make things comfortable for Matt Leinart and the boys’ campaign.

But come Friday morning, when we were roaming the campus attempting to find Brad Pitt or Kirk Herbstreit, it seemed as if trees that were green the afternoon before had turned a lovely hue of yellow. After a disappointing pep rally – no Bon Jovi/Springsteen duet? –Saturday morning led to a campus where everyone had worked their anticipation into a violent, uncontrollable fervor, and the crimson had joined the yellow, as if USC had taken over even the trees with their presence.

We started filing into the Stadium early, with both teams scattered across the field warming up. The Irish had went with blue over green, and the Trojans had brought both the Song Girls and marching band with them, not to mention about twenty thousand fans in the southeast corner. There weren’t enough of them during the game to really cause that much noise or attempt to overpower our crowd, but there was a definite representation of red on Saturday.

We started scanning for them as they warmed up and left the field. Leinart. Bush. Jarrett. Smith. White. Byrd. The names that ran Oklahoma out of the Orange Bowl last year and were stringing along twenty-seven consecutive victories over three seasons. Weis was in the locker room now, and this game was going to decide not only if the Irish were for real, but if Charlie was for real. The backlash was starting on the internet already, with people tiring of the “genius” label being stuck on the new Irish head coach with only five games played.

The Stadium was at capacity, with a dozen recruits in town to see what was touted as the Game of the Century. Kirk took us, Lee took them. The Trojan captains walked out for the coin toss, the champions linked together as they took the field. Our cheerleaders then headed over towards the tunnel, the crowd getting ready for the Irish entrance. As the buzz started to grow, it grew an extra exponent as people began to catch a glimpse of the number nine team in the nation.

”They’re wearing the green jerseys!!!”

Charlie had down-talked it all week, but it was game time and the Irish had donned the jerseys regarded as either cursed or magical depending on which era you came from. We were crammed into the stands, the anticipation from two weeks of waiting and prognosticating finally coming to a boil in our strange pot of green and yellow.

The game itself will go down as one of, if not the, best of all time. We actually held the Trojans to three-and-out on the first drive, and it was only Brady’s slow start and poor throw on a flea-flicker that staked them to an early lead. But we battled back, with The Mighty Quinn trading blows – like Jeff Samardjiza wasn’t coming up big in this game – with Reggie Bush, who might be the second best football player on the planet right now behind LT.

We powered back from a 14-7 deficit, eventually taking the lead at the half on a Tommy Zbikowski punt return on which he decided to run through people as opposed to around them. With USC set to get the ball back, no one could enjoy the halftime lead. It took them a few possessions, but Trojans eventually tied us up so that we were knotted at 21 going into the third quarter.

The fourth quarter was a blur. There was a field goal, a missed field goal, the heartbreak that came with Reggie Bush ripping off his third touchdown run of the game and the total confidence I had in Brady to lead us back down the field. Chrissy commented that she had hoped that Brady had a little Tommy [Brady] in him, and on that last drive, he did. Darius Walker, bottled up all day, sprung a couple of nice runs and both The Shark and MoSto went fearlessly across the middle of the field on multiple slant routes.

We went ahead as Brady dove out and caught the endzone, putting us up on the Trojans with two minutes to go. Too much time? We didn’t have time to fathom that as we turned the student section into a mashing of humanity. I hugged Patrick as hard as I possibly could and turned to Barcus, shattering my sunglasses between us as DJ lined up for the extra point. I looked down to find a pair of green lenses in my hand, and we immediately attempted to find the remainder of them while push-ups sprang up around us.

The final USC drive is both easy and hard to recall. Leinart getting sacked. Reggie Bush in space (easily the scariest thing I’ll see this month, even with Halloween coming up in a few weeks). That 4th and 9 hanging in the air – God, it hung forever, didn’t it? – before dropping softly into Dwayne Jarrett’s hands, somehow making it past Ambrose Wooden. We probably should have just let him score, but we drug him down in front of the exuberant Southern Cal marching band, just because the drama hadn’t reached its height yet.

In those last few seconds, there’s a couple of points that can be contested, including where the ball went out of bounds and Reggie Bush committing a blatant penalty that’s never called, but I don’t want to linger on something that is already done. Granted, it’s an extra kick to the gut when the clock actually ran out, leading the team and fans to rush the field, but the ball went out of bounds, and the refs made the correct decision to put time on the clock (the spot, however, will always be in contest.) I’d like to see what would have happened if we’d grabbed the squib kick and downed it, taking a shot to the end zone instead of attempting the Cal-Stanford Band Play, but again, to linger on this game in a negative way would be to take away from the excellent effort the Irish put forth. Charlie and Brady were both legitimized as the real deal, and while USC will tie Notre Dame for Heismans this year, we’ll immediately break that tie with 2006’s trophy.


The thing that angered me the most Saturday night, that caused the blood rushing my depressed veins to boil, was how Matt Leinart was on Gameday getting to be the face of the victory.

Leinart should hang his head in shame. He made one nice throw – the 4th down pass to Jarrett- and even that should have been knocked down. He even failed at getting into the end zone on the last play of regulation, and it was only Bush scoring his fourth touchdown of the game that gave USC the victory. Had Leinart not completed the pirouette past the goal line, Carroll’s decision to go for the win and not overtime would have been looked at with the same skepticism of Tom Osborne’s Miami choice.

The crowd had the reigning Heisman Trophy winner completely and totally rattled by the second quarter, and Pete Carroll took the game out of his hands in the red zone after a miserable pass to Steve Smith was intercepted directly in front of us. For the second big game this season, the Trojans completely a comeback on the road against a quality opponent without Leinart having a touchdown pass.

While Reggie Bush validated his Heisman – and last year’s, and next year’s if he wants to come back – Leinart was exposed. The way he cracked, throwing gopher balls and frantically attempting Peyton Manning impersonations at the line, will make me forever doubt him as a quarterback, both on this level and the next. If you take Bush out of that game, we win by two touchdowns. If you take Leinart out, USC probably doesn’t do a whole lot worse.

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I now have turned from respecting USC for their team and winning into hoping I get to see Vince Young versus Marcus Vick in the Rose Bowl, just so people stop talking about this team being so goddamn good and forgetting that the 2001 Miami (FL) team was better in nearly every facet of the game. I hope they lose at Cal and against UCLA, and I hope Leinart gets beat around enough that John David Booty is logging serious time by the time they’re receiving their third loss in a second-tier bowl.

Despite the loss, I’ll never forget Saturday. Sure, it won’t be the defining moment of my college career like it would have been if no time had been put back on the clock, but it’ll be the moment when we realized that the national title was within our grasp. We’re going to win out this season and get the proper hype prepared for both Brady’s Heisman campaign and our Fiesta Bowl march next year, securing a convincing win over Ol’ Rocky Top at home and a nice Orange Bowl victory to close out Weis’s first campaign. Next year, we’re going to get two of our toughest tests out of the way early (at Georiga Tech, home against PSU) and then roll on through the season.

Then we’ll be into Thanksgiving weekend, where I’ll make a West Coast pilgrimage to see the rematch of Saturday’s game. USC’s overall win streak will be over, but they still will have won four straight against us, and that’ll be the final regular season step before I start making reservations for Tempe. Southern Cal may have won this battle, but with Charlie Weis as our new general, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Trojan War is just beginning.

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