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The Bush Push - Revisiting the best game ever played between USC and Notre Dame

Hank Greene

USC at Notre Dame

“The Bush Push”
October 15, 2005
Notre Dame Stadium
USC: 34 | Notre Dame: 31

Last week, we covered USC vs. Notre Dame from 2010 - a game that, while an instant classic that went right down to the wire, found the two rivals at a down moment for each program. 

And it got us thinking…

USC and Notre Dame are two of the proudest college football programs of all time, and their rivalry is arguably the most important cross-country rivalry game we have, dating all the way back to 1926. The Tojans and Fighting Irish have a combined 39 national championships, 14 Heisman Trophy winners, 181 All-Americans, and 87 NFL draft picks over their illustrious histories.

So if we’re going to cover a game from this storied rivalry, we can’t just do a hidden gem when each team could barely crack eight wins.

We have to couple it with a classic… and of all the games these two have played, one immediately comes to mind as the most famous one in recent memory.

Notre Dame Stadium. The “Bush Push” game.

Where our story begins…

Every so often, college football has a team whose dominance defines an era. It doesn’t mean they win every year - but some combination of victories, charisma, and the “it” factor of a program makes it so that they become the focal point, so that in the story of a season all roads - in some fashion - lead through them. As of late, it’s been Alabama and Nick Saban. In the 80s it was a resurgent Miami program. In the 90s it was Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles. 

But in 2005, it was the USC Trojans led by Pete Carroll.

The Trojans seemed to have everything: a flashy team in the country’s flashiest market, a roster oozing with NFL-ready talent - including, perhaps, the greatest offensive threat college football had ever seen in Reggie Bush (we’ll get there), along with another Heisman winner in QB Matt Leinart.

And oh yeah, they won

They won a lot.

From 2002 - 2009, Carroll’s Trojans went 91 - 13, won the 2004 national championship (and will continue to argue that they won in 2003, as well), and, from their sunny perch in Los Angeles, dominated the college football landscape. More important than all of that, however, was that they reignited a semi-dormant blue blood program - one that had seen just a single 10-win season over the previous two decades before Carroll’s arrival.

And while it didn’t have the same flash, a similar resurgence was being attempted across the country in South Bend. In Charlie Weiss’ first year at the helm for the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame had climbed from an unranked outsider to, suddenly, 9th in the country behind star QB Brady Quinn. They had wins against #23 Pitt, #22 Purdue, and an enormous win over #3 Michigan, and by the time the Trojans - defending national champions and #1 team in the country came to town - this was must-see TV. 

How it happened…

The early parts of the game drew a stalemate - with both offenses looking a bit erratic and trading punts through the first two possessions. But then things really picked up when Notre Dame tried to force the issue with a flea flicker on their second drive… resulting in an ugly interception.

From there, the USC offense went to work. Leinart finally started connecting with his receivers, but it would be Bush who began what would become a spectacular night with a dazzling 36 yard run that got the Trojans in for the first score of the game, putting them up 7-0.

When Notre Dame got the ball back, the difference between these two teams immediately became much more stark; whereas USC was built on a fast-acting, flashy, big-play style that even extended to the pressure they would try to get on Quinn and the Notre Dame offense, the Irish were slower, and more methodical. When it appeared as though the passing game wouldn’t be getting it done early, they gave the ball to Darius Walker and Travis Thomas, who were able to find daylight and consistently run the football through the first quarter. 

This particular drive, though, was helped by two crucial penalties from the Trojans: a pass interference and a blow to the head. Without those two infractions, this drive goes nowhere.

But both of those penalties put the Irish in striking distance, and from there, Thomas punched in a 16 yard run that tied it up at 7-7.

Then, we were off to the races.

On their next drive, USC took the ball 61 yards on just three plays - including a pass to Dominique Byrd that the TE took 52 yards, deep into Notre Dame territory. LenDale White would take it the rest of the way for the touchdown to get USC back in front 14-7. A few drives later, the Irish would answer back with a 32 yard touchdown pass to Jeff Samardzija. Then after another defensive stand from Notre Dame, they would quickly get seven more on a punt return from DJ Fitzpatrick. And when Leinhart threw an interception of his own on the next possession, suddenly it was the first ranked Trojans who looked to be shaking in the spotlight. 

The teams would go into halftime with the Irish up 21-14.

Out of halftime, things appeared to be a bit more promising for the Trojans. Leinhart completed a huge 40 yard pass to Steve Smith on a rollout, and suddenly USC looked to be in business. But then Leinart was intercepted again by Mike Richardson, marking the first time Leinart had thrown two interceptions in a game since two years earlier against Oregon State.

Luckily for Leinart, Notre Dame wouldn’t be able to capitalize on the turnover and would be forced to punt. Luckier still, he had Reggie Bush in the backfield.

On the Trojan’s next drive, Bush turned on the jets for an absolutely blistering 45 yard touchdown to even the score back up at 21. It would be one of Bush’s best performances, as the junior rushed for 160 yards on just 15 carries (10.7 yards per carry) - and for as much talent as USC had, this was the kind of game that reminded you that he was just in a class by himself.

The Irish then got away with a huge fumble from Anthony Fasano, and after getting the ball back on an uneventful drive from the Trojans, were able to take a three point lead…

The score would remain 24-21 until Bush punched in his third touchdown of the game with just five minutes left to play - and now it was the Irish who needed to get back on top. 

But it all started coming together for Notre Dame, who, led by Quinn, began quickly moving the other way. With the USC pressure ramped up, Notre Dame combatted it by using quick slants and draw plays to take advantage of an aggressive Trojans defense. Quinn completed four straight passes to start the drive, and then it was Walker, who had been so good all night, who broke free on a draw play for a 20 yard run to set up a Brady Quinn touchdown run of his own to pull the Fighting Irish up by three, 31-28… leaving only two minutes for the Trojans to keep their hopes of back-to-back national championships alive.

But as more than 80,000 fans shook Notre Dame Stadium... USC dug themselves into a hole on a 10 yard sack on Leinhart. And even after Reggie Bush got 10 yards back… they faced a 4th and 9, with their season on the line.

But then, after struggling the entire game, Leinhart finally hit Dwayne Jarrett on an absolutely perfect pass along the outside that ended up going for 61 yards down the sideline… and Notre Dame Stadium was silenced.

Snap by snap, the Trojans inched closer… and the most pivotal play of the game might not actually be the one that gets remembered most. Instead, it was the play just before it, when Leinhart bootlegged to the left side and leapt into the endzone - but was clearly stopped short. The clock began to wind down, and USC never seemed to indicate a timeout. As the clock ticked to zero, the stadium came alive again. Ballgame.

Or was it?

Upon further review, the ball had popped out and gone out of bounds, stopping the clock with just seven seconds to go… and then, the play.

Leinhart snuck left and was stopped short again, and, in perhaps the most symbolic moment of the game, it was Bush who came to his rescue with a clear push into the endzone, putting USC up 34-31 with only three seconds left.

They would miss the extra point, but it wouldn’t matter - the Irish failed to do anything with the kickoff return, and that would be that. 34-31… USC. Ballgame.

Instant reaction to the rewatch

Was “The Bush Push” legal?

According to the rulebook, "[t]he runner shall not grasp a teammate; and no other player of his team shall grasp, push, lift or charge into him to assist him in forward progress." Uhhh…

 

Look, he clearly pushed him into the endzone. There’s no doubt about it. I am never one for officials inserting themselves into the narrative at the end of big games (see: Miami vs. Ohio State from 2003), but this was… a pretty cut and dry call looking at it again. 

How much did he actually help? Would Leinart have gotten in anyway? Even if the penalty gets called, it would have only moved them back five yards and the Trojans still would have had one more play anyway - what then? 

I don’t have any of the answers for these questions, but this simply should have been called! Ugh. Whatever.

Jeff Sarmadzija was an offensive force

Time and time again in this game, when the Notre Dame offense needed a big play, Jeff Samardzija was there. Though he only caught six passes on the day (still a game high), two of those came to start the Irish’s final drive for back-to-back first downs - along with making the game’s most impressive offensive play for the Irish on the 32 yard jump catch in the second quarter.

And just when you look at the eye test, on a night when Notre Dame’s biggest obstacle was the size and speed of the Trojans - especially in the secondary - this game isn’t close without Samardzija. He was consistently an issue for USC, and clearly opened everything else up for the Notre Dame offense throughout the game.

I forgot how bad this game was for Matt Leinart

Matt Leinart had a sensational college career: over 10,000 yards passing, 99 touchdown passes, a career QB rating of 159.5, and a Heisman trophy.

But this one was one to forget. Even though he racked up 301 yards through the air, he threw two interceptions, was just 17-32, recorded his third-worst QB rating at 119.6 and this was one of just three games in his college career without a passing touchdown. 

Whether it was the environment, the Irish defense, or just a little bit of everything - this was a tough one for Leinart.

What’s stood the test of time…

Reggie Bush’s show-stopping ability in college

Card on the table: I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun watching a college football player than I had watching 2005 Reggie Bush. He was a force - like some kind of a Create-A-Player I used to make when I played the NCAA football video game. He would finish the year with 1,740 yards, 16 touchdowns - but his legacy lives off the stat sheet, instead residing squarely in highlight reels that helped launch us into the YouTube era.

I mean just watch this…

 

During the broadcast, Pat Haden makes the observation that whenever Bush got the ball, you held your breath - and even on the rewatch that was true. The moments when he was able to break free, you could just see how much more dominant he was than everyone else. It was… something we may never see again.

Of course, his career - along with the Pete Carroll era more generally - would end with controversy, and he never quite had the pro career we all expected. But this game reminded me that for one, brief moment in time… Reggie Bush was, justifiably, at the center of the football universe.

Jeff Samardzija, Professional Athlete

We’ve already talked about how good Samardzija was in this game, but still… if I had told you back in 2005 that the player who had the longest pro sports career of anyone on the field would end up being Jeff Samardzija, you might not have believed me. 

If I had told you that Jeff Samardzija never played in the NFL and still had the longest pro sports career of anyone on the field you would have logged off the Zoom call and said I needed some sleep.

But it’s true - Samardzija proved that his illustrious football career was just a detour to the MLB, where’s amounted a solid pitching career with the Cubs, White Sox, Athletics and Giants over a 12 year career. He’s 25th among all active pitchers in WHIP, 48th in WAR, and 23rd in innings pitched, and at 34, is about to finish up a 5-year, $90m contract with San Francisco.

The USC-Notre Dame rivalry

We mentioned it at the beginning, but let’s bring it full circle, because consider just how unlikely it was that these two programs would be able to continue this game almost every year (with a three year gap during World War II), for a total of 91 seasons. Consider also the conference shake-ups, the Irish remaining independent, the scheduling concerns of cross-country travel, and everything in between - and the fact that this game has continued, nearly unstopped, for almost a century is incredible.

And, like any great rivalry, it’s remained remarkably competitive in the grand scheme of things, with the Irish leading just 47-36, with five ties mixed in. Since the Jeweled Shillelagh was added in 1952, the series is even closer, with Notre Dame still narrowly leading 32-29, with three ties.

So where does this game rank amongst all those games between the Trojans and the Fighting Irish? I’m so glad you asked...

Why this game?

According to Athlon Sports, this one still ranks as the best rendition of this match-up ever played, and, writing for the Washington Post, Michael Wilbon said succinctly:

“You get this feeling of exhilaration only on Saturday, and maybe only one Saturday, after doing something dramatic and defining in one of the great and historic football palaces. Yes, Southern Cal-Notre Dame was indeed the Game of the Century, and probably the 20th century, too.”

Hyperbole? Maybe. USC played a more critically acclaimed game just a few months later back in Pasadena against Texas… that, however, is a story for a different day.

But the great thing about rivalries is that they can capture a moment in time for both teams. And of course, this was just a moment in time. 

The win was vacated by the NCAA in a controversial decision that still is argued about to this day - and the USC program was never quite the same. Carroll went back to the NFL, Bush and Leinart started their own pro careers, and since then every Trojans team since has tried chasing the limelight the 2005 team left behind. None of those teams have quite been able to find it yet.

But it was also just a moment for Notre Dame, too. After a promising start to his tenure in South Bend, which saw the Irish go 19-6 over his first two seasons, Weis would slide to 3-9 in his third season, and would win just 13 games over his final two years before being fired in 2009. Brian Kelly would succeed him, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So what are we left with in this game? A game that, for the winning team, didn’t actually stay a win - and for the other, became a memory of potential that was never quite met under Weis? A game whose consequences don’t age with any real stakes… or is it defined by the fact that none of that even mattered when I was rewatching this?

Wilbon would note later in his piece, “It's not often these Games of the Century justify the hype. USC vs. Notre Dame went even further. It exceeded the hype.” To me, it was the game that proved the importance of this rivalry, even as it almost became bigger than the century’s worth of history these teams shared. 

Even with everything that came down the line you can’t write up a list of the best games of the 21st century and leave this off; the fact that that’s still the case despite everything that happened in the aftermath makes it all the more true.

 

What do you remember from this game? Any other games you'd like to see me include in our Football Film Room series? Email me at hank@rentlikeachampion.com and let me know!

NOTE: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said that Darius Walker's 20-yard run resulted in the touchdown that put Notre Dame up 31-28. It has since been updated. Thanks to our loyal readers for pointing it out!

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About Author

Hank Greene
Hank Greene

Hank Greene is the Content Strategist for Rent Like A Champion, where he writes about travel, college football, and RLAC's offerings across the country. He believes every college football stadium should sell footlong hot dogs, and that every tailgate should include pulled pork sandwiches.

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