No fate for Irish fans

This is the second piece of a five-part series on college football. This week provides a glimpse at a college with a Division I football program.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Saturday morning, a few hours before kickoff, one of the residents of Notre Dame's Morrissey Hall entered the first floor common room a bit beside himself because he could not find his rosary.

No one knew where it was, but everyone wanted to know why he was looking for it.

So he explained that in 1572, Pope Pius V introduced the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mother of Victory to commemorate the Christian Armada's Oct. 7, 1571 victory over the Turks. The triumph was attributed to the praying of the rosary.

The day's opponent, Southern California, is nicknamed the Trojans and Troy is located in what is now Turkey.

Jesus "might not have favorites," he said, as he walked out the door to continue his search. "But his mother does."

Notre Dame fans thought it was their team's destiny to snap USC's 27-game winning streak. In the week leading up to the nationally televised showdown, a frequently forwarded e-mail pointed out the similarities between Saturday's game and Notre Dame's upset of Miami in 1988.

The games were played on the same date (Oct. 15), the golden dome on the Main Building had been regilded a few months earlier, and the Irish had lost to its top-ranked opponent by a combined 93 points in the previous three meetings.

The university was also trying to relive the Oct. 22, 1977 game in which Joe Montana led Notre Dame to a 49-19 victory over then-No. 5 USC. Just like 29 years ago, the Fighting Irish wore their traditional navy jerseys during warm ups. The team returned to the locker room prior to kickoff and when it re-emerged, the players were wearing green jerseys. In the original green jersey game, Notre Dame students built a Trojan horse and wheeled it into the stadium when the students took the field. This time a Trojan horse was wheeled out onto the field during the Friday night pep fest at Notre Dame Stadium.

But for all its customs, coincidences and Catholicism, No. 9 Notre Dame could not make up for a previous transgression.

As a high school senior in the fall of 2002, Reggie Bush had been leaning towards Notre Dame. But after watching USC devour the Fighting Irish behind Carson Palmer's 425 yards in the season finale, he chose Pete Carroll's program instead.

Bush became the hands-down Heisman favorite after he rushed for 160 yards on 15 carriers, and had a career-high three touchdowns in leading USC to a 34-31 victory.

He should have received credit for a fourth score.

When Matt Leinart was thwarted on his first goal-line crossing effort by a surging Notre Dame defense, Bush pushed his quarterback into the end zone for the game winning touchdown with three seconds to play.

None of that would have happened if the clock operator was correct. On the previous play, Leinart scrambled towards the end zone, but a jarring hit from linebacker Corey Mays, who at the previous day's pep fest had urged the 40,000 present to tear down the goal posts in the event of a Notre Dame win, popped the ball loose. The clock wound down to 0:00. Fans snapped pictures of the scoreboard. Zealous students rushed the field.

But the referees put seven seconds back on the clock, forcing the students to congregate in a corner of the north end zone and watch helplessly as Leinart scored on his second effort.

Just a quarter earlier that outcome did not seem possible. Notre Dame took its first lead of the game, 21-14, midway through the second quarter when Tom Zbikowski returned a punt for a touchdown, sparking pandemonium in the student section. The students, who stood on the wooden bleachers at Notre Dame Stadium for the entire game, fell over each other in excitement and generated so much noise that the echoes will be reverberating in fans' eardrums for weeks to come.

It was because of moments like these that Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon called it the "Game of the Century" and Leinart said, "I imagine this will go down as one of the greatest games ever played."

For Notre Dame fans the accolades did not mean anything, because in the end, the Irish still lost.

This article was published in The Marquette Tribune on October 18, 2005.