Kiffin, Sarkisian proved their mettle against ND
USC's baby brain trust came of age with 104 seconds left and the top-ranked Trojans trailing at Notre Dame Stadium, writes Pat Forde.
There were 104 seconds left in Notre Dame Stadium, and it was time for Southern California's baby brain trust to come of age.
Until this golden October afternoon, 30-year-old offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and 31-year-old assistant coach and quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian had been on a joyride in Dad's Ferrari. Their offense scored 63 points at Hawaii and followed that with 70 against Arkansas, sparking Greatest Offense Ever hype. USC arrived in South Bend 5-0, averaging nearly 52 points and 640 yards per game, quelling concerns about how the babes would handle their new duties.
Every call worked. Nobody missed Norm Chow. What was so hard about this job?
Then they got their true indoctrination into pressure play calling, up against green jerseys and Touchdown Jesus and 80,000 fans. The points didn't come in torrents, the passing game sputtered, quarterback Matt Leinart was knocked around -- and now here the Trojans sat, 104 seconds on the clock, in deep trouble.
They were down three to the Fighting Irish, 20 yards from a first down and 85 yards from a touchdown. The end was near -- of the game, the long winning streak, the ownership of the No. 1 ranking, the threepeat national title aspirations.
Did they ever.
Facing third-and-20, crowd going berserk, USC called a timeout. Kiffin, from the press box, and Sarkisian, from the field, laid it out for Leinart. They called a pass for split end Dwayne Jarrett, but told Leinart that if it was covered to check down to running back Reggie Bush underneath.
"Get us into a makeable fourth down," Sarkisian told Leinart.
With Jarrett covered, Leinart coolly did exactly that. His pass to Bush gained 11 yards and USC called another timeout, setting the stage for the Play of the Year by the Team of the Year.
Anticipating Cover 2 defense from Notre Dame, the fourth-and-9 call was a pass to tight end Dominique Byrd. But the coaches reminded Leinart and the entire offense that if the Irish brought pressure and played man-to-man coverage, the audible was a streak to Jarrett.
"We told them that even if it's too loud and they can't hear Matt, that's the call," Sarkisian said.
Eyeballing the defense, Leinart saw Notre Dame poised for a strong-side blitz. At this moment of excruciating tension, he had the guts to check off. Up in the box, Kiffin was far from worried by the audible call.
"I was pretty excited, honestly," Kiffin said. "Because the play we had on was in the 10- to 12-yard range. This play had the potential for big yardage."
History has recorded just how big it was. The play was a breathtaking 61-yard catch-and-run stunner that Leinart lobbed just inches beyond the hands of Irish cornerback Ambrose Wooden and right into the large mitts of Jarrett. Four plays later, Leinart lunged into the end zone on the Play of the Year runner-up, climaxing one of the greatest games in college football history.
It also climaxed validation day for Kiffin and Sarkisian.
"The game might not have gone the way we wanted at times," Sarkisian said. "But the finish, it was gratifying to see it come off."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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