Take heed, young Irish fan: it hasn't always been like this. Your Irish haven't always played the part of nail to the mighty Trojan's hammer.
USC hasn't lost to Notre Dame on the football field since October 20, 2001 – a span of more than nine years and eight games. Maddening for the Notre Dame faithful? Certainly…but ask a previous generation of Irish fans to define "winning streak" and they'll likely point to a time span from October 22, 1983 through Thanksgiving of 1996 when this same Trojans program failed to register a victory in the greatest intersectional rivalry in the game.
The Irish won 11 consecutive during the aforementioned stretch; then tied at USC in 1994; won again in South Bend over the heavily-favored Trojans in 1995 before falling at The Coliseum, 27-20 on November 30, 1996 – Lou Holtz's final game as the Irish head man.
And though the series has been marked by streaks, it's the collective personalities of the teams' players and coach that have made the rivalry special.
The Best of the BestFrom footnotes to single-game stars to Heisman Trophy-winning heroes, the ND/USC series has been defined by its individuals as much as it has its legendary teams.
For every 160-yard rushing performance by football legend O.J. Simpson there's been an answer from a mere "program legend," such as Notre Dame's Eric Penick – he of the 85-yard touchdown run that helped snap the Trojans 23-game winning streak in November of 1973.
And while USC faithful can point to the exploits of tailback Anthony Davis (2-1 vs. the Irish) and his remarkable 10-touchdown-in-three-games stranglehold on the series in the early 70s, Notre Dame followers nod and remember late 80s quarterback Tony Rice, who's 3-0 record vs. the Men of Troy is marked by 470 yards of offense, four touchdowns, and more importantly – a National Championship and two victories over the then-No. 2 and No. 9-ranked Trojans during Notre Dame's school-record 23-game winning streak.
When Irish fans remember a flu-ridden Reggie Brooks galloping for 232 yards and three touchdowns in a 1992 Coliseum victory to extend the Irish series winning streak to an even 10 contests, the Trojan faithful can smile and mouth the name of another Reggie, this one of "Bush Push" fame and the day the sublime all-purpose ‘back torched Notre Dame Stadium for 195 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns.
Personalities that are forever etched as pairs are a hallmark of the series as well. Duos that define each other through every era, every season, every game, and in some cases every play.
Each has helped make the annual matchup special, regardless of the stakes at hand as Knute Rockne vs. Howard Jones; John McKay vs. the Era of Ara; Joe Montana vs. Ronnie Lott; Frank Stams vs. Rodney Peete; Scott Kowalkowski vs. Todd Marinovich; Ambrose Wooden vs. Dwayne Jarrett and Golden Tate vs. Taylor Mays are but of few of the head-to-head highlights of the teams' classic meetings.
Of course, when discussing college football royalty, a succession of the sports stars such as all-purpose All-Americans Tim Brown and Rocket Ismail in South Bend to back-to-back quarterbacks turned Heisman Trophy signal-callers Carson Palmer (2002) and Matt Leinart (2004) in LA have helped feed the rivalry's consistent national appeal.
Comebacks and ControversyIn a series recently marked by one-sided victories (the contest's winner has prevailed by more than two touchdowns in 14 of the last 31 matchups), it's noteworthy that two of the game's most memorable battles have been forever highlighted for wild comeback victories:
- 1974: The No. 6-ranked Trojans trailed 24-0 just before the first half gun. But with 10 seconds remaining in the opening stanza, Trojans tailback Anthony Davis gave the home team hope with a short touchdown reception from quarterback Pat Haden. Davis then took the opening kick of the second half 102 yards for a score and USC never looked back, scoring 35 third quarter points en route to a 55-24 victory over the No. 5-ranked Irish and the nation's top-ranked defense.
- 1986: In Lou Holtz's first season at the helm, the unranked Irish trailed No. 17 USC 30-12 late in the third quarter. Irish senior quarterback Steve Beuerlein responded from an early-game benching to throw three touchdown passes (and two 2-point conversions) in a span of 13 game minutes to cut the Trojans lead to 37-35. With just over two minutes remaining, the Irish defense, bloodied all afternoon, stopped the Trojans on three plays and USC unwillingly launched the 1987 Heisman Trophy campaign of Tim Brown, punting to the all-everything ‘back and watching Brown return the offering 56 yards to set up John Carney's game-winning, 19-yard field goal in the 38-37 upset victory.
Said Beuerlein, who threw this touchdown strike to Milt Jackson, of his benching and subsequent redemption:
"Thank God for Coach Holtz having the faith to put me back in. I was thinking how this is the last Notre Dame Game: My family and friends are all here. I knew this was no way to go out. I honestly felt he would give me another chance; I guess it was just a gut feeling I had.
"When he asked me if I was ready to play I said ‘Yes sir, you won't regret it.'"
Two other comebacks have taken a backseat to the '74 and '86 contests. In 1964, the unranked Trojans defeated No. 1 Notre Dame in Los Angeles, turning a 17-0 halftime deficit into a shocking 20-17 upset victory. And in 1999, the Irish erased a 24-3 deficit to defeat the Trojans 25-24 in South Bend to snap a three-game losing streak in the series.
When One Game Means More"From my perspective, again, rivalries are such when they're not one-sided," Kelly offered in deference to USC's eight-game winning streak vs. the Irish. "This one has been one-sided and it's our job to make this a true rivalry and this is winning the football game." – Irish head coach Brian Kelly in his Tuesday press conference.
Some graduating classes, such as those from 1986 through 1993 in South Bend knew nothing but victory in the series. The same is true for the players from the classes of 2005 through the present in Southern California, who continue enjoy superiority over their intersectional rivals. But a few games stand out for the school's rabid fan bases above all others. Each, incidentally, is noteworthy for an announcement or development prior to the game's kickoff:
- 1977: No. 11 Notre Dame vs. No. 5 USC – The Irish took the field for pre-game warm-ups in their traditional blue jerseys and gold pants. Prior to the start of the contest, Irish head coach Dan Devine brought out the school's green jerseys for the first time in 14 years and junior Joe Montana handled the rest, throwing two touchdowns, running for two more, and riding the Irish defense to a 49-19 blowout of the Trojans. The Irish went on to capture the 1977 National Title with a win over Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
- 1988: No. 1 Notre Dame at No. 2 USC – Irish sophomore flanker Ricky Watters (the team's leading receiver and punt returner) and sophomore tailback Tony Brooks (the team's leading rusher) showed up late for Friday evening's team meal. It wasn't the first time, but it was certainly the last, as Irish head coach Lou Holtz sent the pair home to South Bend Saturday morning.
Hours later, the blitzing Irish repeatedly tattooed Trojans Heisman Trophy candidate Rodney Peete, sacking the senior three times, knocking him to the ground on more than a dozen separate pass attempts, and intercepting him twice, the second of which was returned 64 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Stan Smagala in the convincing 27-10 victory over the nation's 2nd ranked team. The Irish went on to defeat West Virginia, 34-21 one month later to capture the school's 11th National Championship.
- 2005: No. 1 USC at No. 9 Notre Dame – First-year Irish head coach Charlie Weis borrowed from Devine (and from his own days as a Notre Dame student), debuting the Irish in their standard blue jerseys for pre-game warm-ups but bursting through the tunnel in green, much to the delight of a delirious home crowd. The Trojans came into the contest on a 27-game winning streak, as defending National Champions, and boasting an offense that averaged 51 points per contest.
For at least 15 seconds, the Trojans machine was officially dethroned as the Stadium clock read: Notre Dame 31 USC 28 with 0:00 remaining. But Trojans (correctly) were given time for one more play and the resulting Leinart touchdown fall (forever known as "The Bush Push") landed the final devastating blow to the Irish faithful in one of the greatest college football games of all time. After USC's 34-31 victory, the Trojans went on to the Rose Bowl to play for a second straight BCS Title but were stopped by Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns, 41-38.
The 34-27 contest won last season by the Trojans, but lost at the goal line by the Irish, pointed to a closing of the gap in what has again become a one-side rivalry. Saturday night in Los Angeles is Notre Dame's best chance to end the Trojans despotic rule.
Regardless, for those involved and for those that love the programs through good times and bad, the series will continue to leave an indelible mark on its participants, its fans, and everyone associated with college football.
Some times the teams play season-altering classics. Others are simply remembered for the competition the rivalry engenders. And sometimes, these games are simply remembered for hits such as this.