What If Reggie Bush Hadn't Pushed Matt Leinart Over the Goal Line at Notre Dame?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 8, 2020

Reggie Bush (5) and Matt Leinart (11) combined for a national landscape-altering touchdown at Notre Dame in 2005.
Reggie Bush (5) and Matt Leinart (11) combined for a national landscape-altering touchdown at Notre Dame in 2005.JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

The 2005 USC Trojans went 12-0 during a dominant regular season, extending one of the longestand since partially vacatedwinning streaks in college football history to 34 games. The Trojans won those 12 games by an average margin of 28.7 points, more or less spending three months in cruise control en route to an amazing BCS Championship Game against Texas.

There was one game they almost lost, though. Were it not for the controversial "Bush Push" at the end of the come-from-behind win at Notre Dame, that national championship game probably never happens, and perhaps we don't have a vacated Heisman Trophy.

For a much-needed break from arguing about whether there can/will/should be a 2020 college football season, we're using part of this indefinite hiatus to play the "What if?" game to help pass the time.

Perhaps you remember the 2005 USC-Notre Dame classic like it was yesterday, but it was 15 years ago at this point. A refresher to set the stage is in order.

First off, USC was an absolute juggernaut. The Trojans won their final nine games of the 2003 season, went a perfect 13-0 in 2004 and opened the 2005 campaign with five consecutive victories. That's 27 straight wins, 23 of which were by double digits.

Led by quarterback Matt Leinart, the backfield tandem of Reggie Bush and LenDale White and the wide receiver duo of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, their offense was virtually unstoppable. They averaged 51.6 points in the first five games of the 2005 season before heading to South Bend to face one of their oldest rivals.

USC had trounced Notre Dame by 31-point margins in each of 2002, 2003 and 2004, but the Fighting Irish were much more competent in 2005. Charlie Weis replaced Tyrone Willingham as head coach, and Notre Dame's offense immediately improved by leaps and bounds.

Despite a Week 3 loss to Michigan State, the Fighting Irish were No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, as they had already won three road games against ranked opponents. Even though the previous three meetings between USC and Notre Dame were blowouts, it was an obvious choice for ESPN's College GameDay to be there that week for what turned out to be an instant classic.

USC scored a pair of first-quarter touchdowns, but a Tom Zbikowski punt-return touchdown early in the second quarter gave Notre Dame a 21-14 lead that held for 16 minutes of game time. USC would eventually reclaim a 28-24 lead on a Bush rushing touchdown with five minutes left in the game, but Brady Quinn and Co. marched 87 yards in three minutes to make it 31-28.

Two minutes was an eternity for that Trojans offense, though. And when Leinart connected with Jarrett on a 61-yard strike on 4th-and-9 to get down to the Notre Dame 13-yard line, a win for the road team started to feel inevitable.

A pair of Bush runs got USC down to the 2-yard line with 23 seconds remaining. Leinart rolled out to his left and tried to scramble for the touchdown before fumbling the ball out of bounds just before the goal line. The clock continued to run and Notre Dame thought it won the game, but USC retained the ball with seven seconds remaining.

Everyone assumed Leinart would spike it to stop the clock and set up the game-tying field goal. Even USC head coach Pete Carroll was adamantly signaling for Leinart to throw it into the turf. However, the senior quarterback took matters into his own hands by trying to sneak it in. He got stuffed at the line of scrimmage, but he bounced off the pile around to his left, where Bush gave him a shove into the end zone. 

Hence, the "Bush Push."

USC won 34-31, emerged victorious (comfortably so) from its next six games to stretch the winning streak to 34 and ended up losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl in what was the greatest college football game ever.

What if the sneak hadn't worked, though—or what if the referees had recognized the push and thrown a flag?

For Scenario A, USC was out of timeouts, so the game would have ended if Leinart had been swallowed up by the mob of linemen. Plain and simple, and we'll explore the butterfly effect of that altered result shortly.

Scenario B is a bit more complicated, but it was an illegal play by the letter of the law. The rules have since changed, and you can now push a player or pile of players all you want. (You can't pull someone forward, though, for what it's worth.) But at the time, the NCAA rule book (Section 3, Article 2b) disallowed grasping, pushing, lifting or charging into a player to assist in forward progress, which Bush did.

Had the referees correctly assessed a five-yard penalty, Mario Danelo—who was 2-of-3 on field-goal attempts at that point in his USC career—would have had to make a last-second, 30-ish yard kick just to tie the game. Maybe he makes it and USC wins in overtime, but I would guesstimate* that the Trojans have a win probability of about 35 percent prior to that field-goal attempt.

*In a similar scenario in the 2018 Rose Bowl, Oklahoma had to make a 33-yard field goal at the end of the first overtime to extend the game against Georgia. Prior to that kick, the Sooners had a 36.6 percent win probability. And it's reasonable to say that No. 2 vs. No. 3 on a neutral field is a comparable difficulty level to No. 1 playing on the road against No. 9.

For argument's sake, let's just say the sneak fails and USC loses.

Now what?

Would the Texas-USC Rose Bowl still happen if the Bush Push doesn't?
Would the Texas-USC Rose Bowl still happen if the Bush Push doesn't?KIM D. JOHNSON/Associated Press

For starters, USC immediately loses its No. 1 ranking, possibly sliding all the way down to No. 6. Each other team in the AP Top Five the following dayTexas, Virginia Tech, Georgia and Alabamawas sitting at 6-0, so they would have jumped USC. And there's a good chance Notre Dame climbs into the Top Five, bypassing the Trojans following that head-to-head victory.

Assuming everything else plays out the same way, USC probably doesn't play its way back into the BCS championship.

Virginia Tech, Georgia and Alabama each suffered two losses and fell by the wayside, but Notre Dame did not lose again and finished at No. 6 in the BCS standings with a 9-2 record. Flip the result of the "Bush Push" and give the fighting Irish a 10-1 record, and they probably edge out the Trojans, who played only one other game against an opponent that ended up in the BCS Top 15 (a 45-13 win at Oregon). Penn State also finished the regular season at 10-1, was No. 3 in the final BCS standings and would have at least had an argument for a BCS championship berth if USC and Texas weren't both undefeated.

If USC doesn't finish in the BCS Top Two, that means no Rose Bowl for the ages. Texas instead faces either Notre Dame or Penn State for what may well have been a boring national championship, at least in comparison to the one we actually got to watch.

Even if USC does end up at No. 2 and we still get the amazing title game, it would not have spent the entire season at No. 1 in the polls. Texas would have held that honor for the second half of the year. And as the unstoppable quarterback of the only undefeated team in the nationand almost certainly the unanimous No. 1 team heading into the postseasonVince Young probably wins the Heisman instead of Bush.

And wouldn't it be fantastic if we didn't have to pretend that Heisman ceremony never happened because Bush was later forced to vacate the trophy?

Alas, we're instead stuck with that permanent asterisk, but it's fun to dream from time to time.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.