SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The 27-game winning streak, the No.1 ranking, the national-championship three-peat, bragging rights over USC’s bitterest rival … all of it hung by a thread. USC’s saving grace? Quarterback Matt Leinart held that thread in his hands. If big players play big in big games, then Leinart is about 6-foot-10 about now – and well on his way to back-to-back Heisman Trophies as well as the back-to-back-to-back national championships. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week On fourth-and-9 at his own 26, Notre Dame leading 31-28 with 90 ticks on the clock Saturday, Leinart spun a miracle out of that slender thread – and took a place front and center among USC football heroes. Fabulous Moment No. 1: Leinart changed the call on that fourth-down play, amid the din of Notre Dame fans who knew the Irish were one snap from victory, using hand signals to instruct receiver Dwayne Jarrett to run a slant-and-go. A deep pass, that is. And a low-percentage one. But Leinart correctly had read the Irish defense and saw Jarrett was in one-on-one coverage. Leinart stuck the ball into an opening about 12-inches wide and Jarrett went for a gain of 61 yards, to the Irish 13. Fabulous Moment No. 2: On first-and-goal at the 1, seven seconds on the clock, no timeouts left, Leinart took it upon himself to sneak into the end zone. After his initial surge was checked, he spun left and struggled into the end zone – with tailback Reggie Bush providing a push from behind. To give USC an improbable 34-31 victory over the Fighting Irish in an “instant classic.” Quipped USC receiver Greig Carlson in the locker room: “It’s so ‘instant’ they’re showing it right now.” This was the biggest test yet of USC’s quality. Notre Dame summoned every home-field edge and woke up every echo in the long history of the storied Fighting Irish program. The 40,000-fan pep rally the night before. The ankle-high grass to negate USC’s speed. The “lucky” green jerseys the Irish wore for only the eighth time in school history (in which they were 3-0 vs. USC). A crowd that made so much noise when USC had the ball that the Trojans could barely hear themselves think, never mind hear each other speak. An inspired effort from quality talent, well-orchestrated by Charlie Weis, nemesis of USC coach Pete Carroll. For most of the game, it was Bush who kept the Trojans in it. To the tune of 160 rushing yards and three touchdowns. At the end, it was Leinart who won it. After nearly 59 minutes of often indifferent play in which he was battered, relentlessly pressured and twice intercepted. Said offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin: “There’s nobody in college football I’d rather have out there in that situation. I don’t care what he’d done up to then. He’s a winner. No quarterback in college football makes that throw he did on fourth-and-9.” The TD sneak is still being thrashed out by those involved in it. The story seemed to change with each description of it. Kiffen said Leinart had the choice to run or spike the ball, allowing USC to regroup and try again. Carroll said, “Matt was reluctant, but he had to take (the chance to run).” Bush said Leinart didn’t want to sneak it, but he turned around and Bush told him to run for it. Leinart said he planned to run it all along, and guard Fred Matua backed him on that, saying Leinart told him in the huddle he was going to sneak. Leinart said he feared the clock might run out. “I didn’t know if we had time to spike it.” Botom line: Leinart took the supreme, all-or-nothing gamble at the 1, trusted in his line, his own unwillingness to be stopped short, and gave USC’s its most dramatic last-gasp victory since … ever? Great game. So many memorable moments. Not often do you see the home crowd rush the field, thinking they’ve won because the clock reads 00:00, only to be shooed away because Leinart’s run on the second-to-last play (which may have been a TD) was ruled a clock-stopping fumble out of bounds. The lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame field goal, Bush TD run with 5:04 left, Brady Quinn TD run with 2:04 left, the non-end ending on the fumble out of bounds, then Leinart’s TD. Said Kiffin: “We score and think we’ve won. They score and think they’ve won. Matt gets down by the goal line, and we think we’ve won. Clock hits zero and they think they’ve won. Then Matt’s run.” Leinart didn’t throw a touchdown pass for only the third time in 32 career starts. He was picked off twice for the first time in nearly two years. He competed barely half (17-of-33) of his passes. But he finished with 301 yards in the air, including the ultra-clutch throw to Jarrett, and that decisive streak-stretching, top-rank-preserving, title-hopes-extending sneak with :03 on the clock. And if this isn’t the best college player in the land, who is? Said Leinart: “I would imagine this will go down as one of the greatest games ever played.” Thanks to Matt Leinart, it certainly will. Paul Oberjuerge’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!