In 1925 the wife of Notre Dame's football team approached her husband about spending the Thanksgiving Holiday with their friends in Southern California. A football coach's wife is more like a widow during the season and therefore the trip would be a much earned and appreciated break from the lonely, cold Chicago winter. Unfortunately the college football season is peaking this time of the year, and therefore would make such a journey impossible. That's when the wife phone her good friend in Southern California, whose husband happened to be the head coach of the USC Trojans. One year later USC and Notre Dame kicked off against each other to begin the greatest rivalry in college football now known as - The Game.
You can't be a fan of college football and not have a favorite moment or matchup between the Trojans and Fighting Irish. For me, as a little boy, it has to be the famous comeback - 55-24. Anthony Davis high-stepping his way for touchdown after touchdown as he had done against Notre Dame, so many times before - beautiful to watch, impossible to tackle. When I thought of USC, it was that image that always came to mind. That was until SC finally broke "the streak" against the Irish at the Coliseum - the missed extra point, goal line stand and interception - absolute jubilation. Not since 1988 have the Trojans and Irish come in ranked in the top ten. Not since then has the game meant so much.
Big man on big man. This is the way it used to be when SC and ND squared up. It's upon us again. Two head coaches, Tyrone Willingham and Pete Carroll have reinstated the tradition that has made this rivalry great. Both are intelligent, forward thinking coaches who care little for stats or rankings if their teams aren't winning. And much in the same way their two famous predecessors did during the introduction of this game, these latest competitors could coach themselves into the league of legends.
Willingham has done more in one year at Notre Dame than any coach before him since Ara Parseghian. Back in 1964, Parseghian took over an Irish squad that had just gone 2-7 and went undefeated. Before Parseghian left the university, there were a pair of National Championships and a few Heismans. To be around South Bend right now, it isn't hard to find a fan that thinks the Irish are only a year away from climbing to the top of the mountain, once again. With young players in key positions and another top recruiting class in the making, there is little reason to doubt that greatness could once again reside in the open palms of Touchdown Jesus.
Pete Carroll and God, because they're both Trojans, might be the greatest thing standing in Notre Dame's way. Even if God hesitated, not wanting to be too partisan, considering his son's affiliation Marv Goux is up there with Him now and won't let the Big Man be anything, but Trojan.
Carroll and his staff, now in their second season, have resurrected a program most gave up for dead. Just as Willingham has enjoyed a winning season, so has Carroll. After going just 6-6 last year, the Trojans are 9-2 and looking forward to the Notre Dame game so they can collect their 10th through a schedule ranked tops in difficulty by the nation's sportswriters. Carroll has a love for the game that has spread like goodwill throughout the entire Trojan ball club. This USC team is playing with passion and talent - a hard combination to overcome, even for the Irish.
Every matchup between the Trojans and the Irish is a sold-out affair and is on more televisions in America's homes than any other college football game. It is the definition of "rivalry" and always a war. So, with both programs on a hot streak and back near the top of the national rankings, how might this version of "The Game" fall out?
When opportunity has knocked, the 2002 Fighting Irish have answered. With a team whose offense didn't score a touchdown through their first three victories and has remained near the bottom of the rankings in total offense, it is turnovers and defense that have provided their 10 win season. As the Trojans experienced last week in their game against cross-town rival Ucla, you don't have to put up a tremendous amount of offensive statistics to win a ball game when your defense gives you the ball. Notre Dame's defense has been nearly impenetrable. Through the 2002 season they are ranked in the top 20 in every defensive category. This may not sound that impressive, but they are in the top 5 in some of the most important areas, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. That Irish defense, however, has yet to face an offense that is as balanced or as electrifying as that of the USC Trojans.
Thanks to Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow, USC's offense has never been better. With Heisman candidate Carson Palmer at the helm, the Trojans have put together six straight wins averaging 33 points per game. Their greatest statement and perhaps the best overall performance of their outstanding season came just last week against the Ucla Bruins. In a game normally decided by 7 points or less, the Trojans dismantled the Bruins putting up more points than had been seen since the Great Depression - a state the Ucla program will surely remain for a long time to come. Featuring three senior tailbacks, the nations best receiving corps and without question the top quarterback, it is no wonder the Trojans are on a roll.
So the key matchup will be the USC offense against the Notre Dame defense. If the Trojans can protect the ball, keeping the Irish defense from pumping the lifeblood into their squad with turnovers, then it should be a Cardinal and Gold day. USC's offense is incredibly versatile. They are the poster child for taking what a defense gives you and making it work. If an opponent tries to take away the deep ball, SC goes underneath. If they stack the line to shut down the run, SC dumps to the flats using their backs or tight ends. It's an offense that just keeps getting better. Thankfully for the Trojans, the running game has adjusted much like its passing counterparts. If the middle is immovable, then the SC backs are fast enough to get outside. Having that flexibility with both the pass and run have made it nearly impossible to contain the Trojan offense.
Willingham and his Domer offense has attempted to show a little of the same dimension through their last few games. After being shutdown by Boston College and only putting up 7 points, the Irish have gone to the air. Last week against Rutgers, Carlyle Holiday passed for 272 yards, putting four scores on the board through the air. He did the same against Navy. He's also thrown just two interceptions through the entire year. Couple all of the above with his ability to scramble and it quickly becomes obvious the Irish are anything but one-dimensional. This Notre Dame squad will be the toughest SC has faced since Kansas State. That's saying a mouthful when you consider the level of opponents the Trojans have gone up against. SC has dominated teams that only featured one aspect of an offense, but not faired as well when an opponent can both pass and run with equal aplomb.
SC's greatest hope at victory will lie in Coach Carroll's ability to take away the Irish run and then cover the deep pass. The majority of Notre Dame's scores through the air have been for twenty yards or more. This is Notre Dame's singular weakness. Being a team that relies heavily on the run, they are forced to go deep when they do pass. Their pounding offense sponsors a greater commitment to the run by their opponents. With more players on the line, that leaves their wide receivers in a lot of man on man. Senior WR Arnaz Battle has had an NFL type season because of these matchups. He is the key offensive weapon for the Irish air-attack and it will be up to him to keep Notre Dame on pace with the explosive USC Trojans. If SC can go up early, like they did against the Bruins (wasn't that beautiful) then it will force the Irish to abandon their strengths early and go to the pass. Holiday could be up to the challenge, but currently Notre Dame is 83rd out of 117 teams in passing offense. However, their defense is third in the nation for scoring, allowing only 13 points per game, so the idea of jumping on the Irish early will not be an easy task.
The other aspect of the Irish offense that has given the Trojans fits in the past, is the option. Carroll, however, isn't convinced Notre Dame will go to that gameplan this coming Saturday. That's a big gamble on Pete's part, but thus far this year he has schemed better than any defensive coordinator/head coach in the nation. Let's hope he can keep that up for two more games. Carroll has proven to be a perfect fit for USC. Unlike a Pied Piper, he is a man that leads by example. His players are following his example or getting out of the way. There has not been one voice of dissension through a very challenging year. Despite the number of stars on this year's Trojan squad, the team has been focused on just one thing - winning. That will be Carroll and Company's greatest legacy - turning stars into team players and team players into champions.
Tyrone Willingham mirror this mentality. He is one of America's most respected college coaches, rescuing Notre Dame from mediocrity. Ty inherited a very talented team, despite last season's record and he has them playing disciplined ball. SC will not see the sort of sloppy play that came from cross-town rivals, Ucla. For SC to win this game, they will have to earn it. Most think the Trojans are more than up to the challenge. If they are, they'll complete one of their best seasons since the 1988 squad and could find themselves in a BCS bowl. The seniors on the USC football team want this game more than any other this season. They have maintained their composure and kept their eyes on the prize - that could very well be the Rosebowl. If Notre Dame is a team of opportunities, then perhaps the USC Trojans are one of destiny. Despite an early loss to Washington State, things have fallen into place for USC to be on top of the Pac come the end of the season. For Ucla to win against a well coached Cougar team, the Bruins would need a major break - they got it when Jason "Houdini" Gesser went down with a severe high ankle sprain. Considering the swelling hasn't gone down enough for doctors to thoroughly evaluate the injury, it looks doubtful the senior quarterback will play in next week's game. Coach Carroll has challenged SC's faithful to fill the Rosebowl and support a Bruin victory. The fans should return that challenge and ask the coach and his staff to lend a helping hand to a rubber-legged Ucla coaching unit.
No matter what happens in the Bruin game, the USC Trojans are co-Pac Ten Champions. They have run the toughest gauntlet in college football and come out better than most predicted. Testimony to this in the national rankings. Despite having two losses, USC is ranked 6th nationally and looks to move up even further after the victory over the Irish.
Most "experts" who have seen the Trojans play of late, realize they are playing the best football in the nation. Ty Willingham is one of those men. He's got a very solid Irish squad but he knows he very well could be bringing his team to their end against a re-invented Trojan football team in a home they've renamed with their outstanding play from the Coliseum to... "The Slaughter House."
SC will win, but perhaps struggle to cover the 11 point spread. Look for the Trojans to rely heavily on Carson Palmer with short and midrange tosses to set up the ground game in the second half. If SC does everything right, the Irish will be forced to play a game they aren't accustomed to - using their offense and not their defense to set up scores. SC puts up three touchdowns and two fieldgoals. The Irish manages just two of each.
SC 27 ND 20