4th down and 9, 1:32 left on the clock. Top-ranked USC trails ninth-ranked Notre Dame 31-28, with the ball and no timeouts. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Matt Leinart, steps up to the line of scrimmage with Dwayne Jarrett split out to his left and the game in his hands.
But how did we get here? Let’s rewind.
Riding a 27-game winning streak through the first five weeks of the 2005 season, Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans traveled 2,000 miles to face first-year head coach Charlie Weis and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in front of a crowd of 80,795.
With the goal of returning to the Bowl Championship Series title game, the Trojans, led by Leinart and Heisman-to-be Reggie Bush, needed to make a statement against the highly-touted Brady Quinn, who would later receive the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation’s top passer of the 2005 season.
With the Notre Dame pep rally broadcasted nationally on ESPNEWS the night before and ESPN’s College GameDay live from campus, the eyes of the nation were on South Bend. In pre-game warm-ups, the Irish donned their traditional blue jerseys, but came out wearing green kits for kickoff.
“It was like playing a big playoff game,” Weis later said to the Los Angeles Times. “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. We showed up for the pep rally that Friday night and there were 50,000 people.”
The national stage was set. It was to be the game of the century.
With neither team able to advance the ball on their first possessions, Notre Dame’s second possession was cut short by a Keith Rivers interception. Bush would hurdle a would-be tackler and score from 36-yards out on the next drive to open the scoring.
It was a battle through the remainder of the first half, highlighted by a 52-yard completion to Dominique Byrd that set up a LenDale White touchdown, and a 60-yard punt return touchdown to give Notre Dame the lead and momentum. Just before the break, Leinart led a 69-yard drive before being intercepted in the end zone. The Trojans went to the locker room down 21-14.
Though both teams traded blows in the third quarter, Bush was able to run in from 45-yards out to tie the game at 21 with 15 minutes left to play.
To start the fourth quarter, Notre Dame kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick went 1-of-2 on field goal tries, and gave the ball back to Leinart with five minutes left, down three. USC would drive 80-yards to take a 28-24 lead.
On the following Irish drive, Quinn completed four passes for 53 yards and scampered in from 5-yards out for a touchdown. The Trojans would take over 1:54 to play, down three.
After a quick incompletion, Leinart was sacked for a 10-yard loss to set up a 3rd down and 20. A completion to Bush over the middle left a 4th down and 9; with a Notre Dame stop able to win the game. At this point, USC’s win probability sat at disheartening seven percent.
That’s when Jarrett solidified his name as a Trojan legend.
Leinart steps up to the line of scrimmage with Jarret split out to his left and the game in his hands. The senior signal-caller looks to his left and motions to Jarrett that he had single coverage on the outside. Off a quick five-step drop, Leinart delivers a short fade to the 6-foot-5 receiver streaking down the sideline. The pass lands just beyond the reach of the Irish defender and Jarrett races 61-yards before being tackled, taking only 11 seconds off the clock.
“You just have to throw it up and hope he gets it,” Leinart said in a post-game press conference. “I’ll take my chances with [Jarrett] against anyone in the country. He made a play.”
The Trojans would have a fresh set of downs at Notre Dame 13-yard line, and the rest is history.
But that’s a story for another time.