Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Push plus 10

Joe Montana, remarkably slight and unimposing in the flesh, was off to my right, five feet away. Andy Reid stood a little further down the way. And between me and Matt Leinart were a thicket of heads and shoulders, all of us wedged along the sideline as night came down hard and every howling son of Erin was on his or her feet, shaking down enough thunder to make your ears bleed.

Welcome to Notre Dame Stadium, 10 years ago, No. 1 USC backed up against the wall with the blindfold on and the cigarette burning.

Welcome to what would go down in the lore as the Bush Push game, and what would also go down, in retrospect, as a loss that cost Notre Dame far more than it appeared that night. In 38 years as a sportswriter, USC-Notre Dame 2005 remains, along with Purdue-Ohio State in 2000 and Notre Dame-Florida State in 1993, the most momentous college football game it was ever my privilege to cover. And it portended so much none of us could see in the roaring cauldron of the moment.

Down there on the field that night, with Notre Dame leading and the clock getting skinny, Leinart reared back and threw a prayer into the night, and somewhere a bunch of yards downfield, Dwayne Jarrett reached into the sky and pulled it down.

First down, USC. A slight banking of the 747 noise. And then, full stop, as what was fated to happen next happened: The Trojans driving to the shadow of the goal, Reggie Bush pushing Leinart into the end zone (or not), USC hanging on to win.

The Trojans come back to Notre Dame Stadium again today, and, 10 years after the  Bush Push, the residue of it lingers. Because of that night, Notre Dame is still paying Charlie Weis, perhaps the first coach in history to parlay a loss into a 10-year contract. Turns out it was his signature moment at ND, and it compelled the school to not only pay up but, as a consequence, to stick by him longer than it should have as Weis led the Irish into slow eclipse.

Brian Kelly has largely reversed that -- the Irish will enter today's game a sizeable favorite against a USC squad reeling from Steve Sarkisian's dismissal earlier this week -- but you wonder how much further along the revival would be if that night in 2005 hadn't transpired the way it did. You wonder, if then No. 1 USC had marched into Notre Dame Stadium and thoroughly ball-peened the Irish, if Weis would have been gone from the scene and Kelly had arrived much sooner.

Then again ... maybe Kelly wouldn't have been ready much sooner. Maybe the Irish would have gone in another direction. Maybe they find this other guy named Kelly, first name Chip, coaching the offense at tiny New Hampshire, and decide, what the heck, let's give him a shot ...

And instead of landing in Oregon, Chip Kelly lands in South Bend.

And he never goes to the Eagles because, come on, it's Notre Dame.

And consequently, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin don't get traded.

And as a result of all that, the Eagles go on to win the Super Bowl, the Fighting Irish win a national title, and their quarterback, Marcus Mariota, wins Notre Dame its first Heisman Trophy since Tim Brown.

What the hey. Coulda happened, right?

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