Victory over USC redeems Notre Dame
By TIM CASEY
Jim Sanson laid beneath a pile of dirty, drained, drenched players late in the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame-USC game. They were fighting, scratching and clawing for every opportunity to strip the ball away from him.
Sanson wasn't about to let go of the ball.
The highly criticized senior placekicer had booted a kickoff to the end zone to USC's kick returner R. Jay Soward. Soward caught the ball at the goal line, brought it back 36 yards and — trying to avoid would-be tacklers — fumbled the football.
Arguably the best return man in the country fumbled while the most highly criticized of Irish players dove on the loose ball.
A week after hearing a chorus of boos from the 80,012 in Notre Dame Stadium for missing a 33-yard field goal, Sanson was now on the other end of the spectrum. For the first time in a while, the crowd cheered for Sanson.
The ultimate goat had become the hero.
"That's redemption," Sanson said following Notre Dame's 25-24 victory.
Redemption. There's not a more appropriate word to describe the feelings of Notre Dame players, coaches and fans following last Saturday's victory.
The victory was redemption for a Notre Dame program that lost its previous three meetings with USC. Twice, in 1996 and again last season, the Irish were denied Bowl Championship Series appearances after losing to the Trojans in their final regular season game. The Trojans had even spoiled the last game of Lou Holtz's coaching career, with a 27-20 victory over the Irish in 1996.
The victory was redemption for a fan base that had seen its team's season marred by off-the-field incidents and last- minute losses.
It was redemption for several players, including Jabari Holloway, David Miller and Ron Israel, whose key contributions late in the game helped the Irish toward victory.
Holloway, who saw his playing time decrease in the past few weeks for missing practice time on Tuesdays and Thursdays due to a conflict with an engineering lab, responded with the game-winning touchdown. The Irish tight end dove on a loose ball in the end zone with 2:40 left in the game, after Jarious Jackson was stripped of the ball on the 2-yard line.
"Jarious made an excellent scramble," Hollway said of Jackson's 5-yard run prior to the recovery. "He came to the goal line, I saw that he lost the ball and I just tried to get it. It was a mad scramble for the ball. There was a lot of punching and kicking but I fell on the ball and that was it."
Israel, best known among Irish faithful for a late hit against Michigan that resulted in a 15-yard penalty that led to the decisive Wolverine touchdown, turned the tide in the third quarter.
With the Trojans on the Irish 38-yard line, Israel came off the corner on a blitz, knocking the ball out of quarterback Mike Van Raaphorst's hands. Linebacker Anthony Denman recovered the ball. On the ensuing drive, the Irish scored a touchdown to narrow the Trojans lead to 24-16.
"It's been a long time [since Michigan]," Israel said. "We're pretty much past that now. We look forward. There's nothing you can do about the past."
Miller, Sanson's replacement, overcame a blocked field goal and extra point to give the Irish their first points of the game, converting a 37-yard field goal with 1:17 left in the first half. The sophomore added a 33-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 24-19.
"It was tough [missing the kicks] especially because it was my first field goal," Miller said. "Sanson came up to me and told me to keep my head in it and I hit the next two. You always want to make your field goals, especially because the fans around here are tough on kickers."
Nobody knows that better than Sanson. Especially against USC.
Three years ago, Sanson attempted an extra point that would have put the Irish ahead by nine points with four minutes left in the game against the Trojans. He missed wide to the left. The Trojans scored on their next possession, converted the two-point attempt to tie the game and went on to beat the Irish 27-20 in overtime. It was Lou Holtz's last game as head coach.
On his home turf two years ago, Sanson missed three of four field goals in the Irish's 20-17 loss.
A year ago, playing without Jackson, the Irish suffered a 10-0 loss in Los Angeles.
The defeat ended any hopes of a bowl appearance.
This year, as Sanson said, was redemption.
"I told myself I'd never watch this game again if we lost today," Sanson said following the game. "I didn't want to be part of the first class to not get a win against them [USC]."
"They [USC] will never, ever be in my thoughts again," he added. "I never have to play them again. I never have to look at them again. The only thing I get to do is come back and watch Notre Dame beat them every year."
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, October 26, 1999