Nov. 27, 2004
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Matt Leinart made a strong pitch for the Heisman Trophy, and Southern California overcame a sluggish start to move within one win of a perfect regular season.
Leinart passed for a career-high 400 yards and a school record-tying five touchdowns Saturday night, leading the top-ranked Trojans to a 41-10 victory over Notre Dame.
The win was USC's 20th straight and 21st in a row at the Los Angeles Coliseum - a new school record. The Trojans haven't lost at home since being beaten by Stanford 21-16 on Sept. 29, 2001. That team was coached by current Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham.
The victory gave the Trojans (11-0, 7-0 Pac-10) their best start since 1972, when they won the national championship with a 12-0 record.
More important, USC's 34th win in 37 games since the start of the 2002 season kept its current national title hopes alive.
Should the Trojans beat UCLA (6-4) next weekend in their regular-season finale, they will almost surely secure a spot in the Orange Bowl for the Bowl Championship Series title.
Pete Carroll has a chance to become the first coach to guide the Trojans to victories over both the Irish and Bruins - USC's biggest rivals - in three straight seasons.
Notre Dame (6-5) leads the series 42-29-5 and had a 15-3-1 record against the Trojans from 1983-2001. But USC has dominated the Irish the last three games, winning each by 31 points.
The Trojans beat the Irish in each of the past two years thanks mainly to terrific passing performances by Carson Palmer and Leinart, who threw for 425 and 351 yards, respectively.
Palmer's big day was the capper in a Heisman Trophy-winning season. Leinart has one more opportunity to influence the voters in a tightly packed Heisman race.
USC was outplayed by the Fighting Irish for about a quarter Saturday night.
Notre Dame gained 165 yards and scored 10 points on its first two possessions. The Irish were blanked and picked up 135 yards after that.
Leinart, a junior, completed 24 of 34 passes without being intercepted. He has thrown two or more touchdown passes in 22 of his 24 starts at USC and three or more 12 times. He threw for five TDs for the second time, tying the school record set by Rodney Peete and tied by Palmer.
Leinart has 66 touchdown passes in his career including 28 this season with only five interceptions.
With a light rain falling, Notre Dame stunned the Trojans and a sellout crowd of 92,611 by moving 92 yards on 13 plays the first time they had the ball for a 7-0 lead. Brady Quinn capped the Irish's longest drive of the season by throwing a 1-yard pass to Billy Palmer on fourth down.
USC's Ryan Killeen kicked a 39-yard field goal late in the opening period, but the Irish responded by moving 73 yards to get into position for a 28-yard field goal by D.J. Fitzpatrick, making it 10-3.
Suddenly, the game turned. Notre Dame had trouble moving the ball, and USC couldn't be stopped, scoring on six of its next seven possessions. The only time the Trojans didn't score during that time was late in the first half, when they ran out the clock.
First, Leinart threw a 12-yard scoring pass to freshman Dwayne Jarrett, capping an 80-yard, seven-play drive. The same combination clicked on a 57-yard play to finish a 73-yard, four-play march, putting USC ahead for good with 2:06 left before halftime.
Killeen kicked a 42-yard field goal early in the third quarter to make it 20-10. After Fitzpatrick pulled a 39-yard field goal try, Leinart threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Bush, and added a 35-yarder to Steve Smith early in the fourth quarter.
Smith played for the first time since breaking his right leg Oct. 9 against California.
Leinart threw a 23-yard TD pass to Jason Mitchell midway through the final period to complete the scoring one play after Notre Dame was called for pass interference on a fake punt.
Jarrett caught six passes for 102 yards and Smith had four receptions for 96 yards.
Quinn completed 15-of-29 passes for 105 yards. Ryan Grant led the Irish in rushing with 94 yards on 15 carries.