It’s autumn here, going on November
I view the leaves in all their splendor
Is it déjà vu, I just can’t remember
I stop a while and take in the scene
I stop a while and ask a stranger
Is this the place that was once called Memory Lane
I don’t know where I am or what I’m after
I’m stuck here again back on Memory Lane
–from “Memory Lane” by Van Morrison
It’s somewhere in the basement, that 1963 Notre Dame-USC official football game program.
It cost 50 cents and I saved it because I was 8 years old and it was my first time seeing a Notre Dame football game in person.
I would see many more but I don’t recall a single thing about that game, other than that Notre Dame won — and that didn’t happen often that season.
A year later a 9-0 and No. 1-ranked Notre Dame team went to Los Angeles, led USC 17-0 at halftime and lost 20-17. I watched every minute on TV. As I later told Ara Parseghian, I think I cried that night. Maybe he did, too.
My parents eventually bought me a football season ticket (really, now, who calls the ticket office and asks for a single season ticket?) as a combination birthday/Christmas present, and I never missed an Irish home game through 1972.
So no one had to prep me on the meaning of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry (back then more people called it Southern Cal) because I saw it all first hand:
- I watched 1965 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett play in Notre Dame Stadium that season. The No. 7 Irish won in great part because they held him to 43 rushing yards (he came in averaging 177).
- In 1967 I saw O.J. Simpson (he would win the Heisman the following season). The Irish lost that day because they threw seven interceptions and let O.J. score three second-half touchdowns and run for 150 yards. The No. 1 Trojans went on to win the national title.
- Two years later the teams played to a mostly defensive 14-14 tie after Irish kicker Scott Hempel had a makeable field-goal attempt bounce back off the crossbar with a couple of minutes left in the game. That No. 3 USC team never lost.
- In 1971 the No. 6 Irish lost a disappointing 28-14 game to a Trojan team that was 2-4 when it came to South Bend.
That was the last Notre Dame-USC game I saw until I came back to work in the Notre Dame sports information department in 1978. I actually missed that ’78 game in Los Angeles because we had a long list of basketball game program stories for early season home games, so I stayed home to write, edit, proofread and lay out pages and we sent a student assistant to USC in my place. As it turned out I missed maybe the all-time greatest comeback in Joe Montana history (he led the Irish from a 24-6 deficit to a lead with 45 seconds remaining) — except it’s not remembered that way because No. 3 USC came back to win on a field goal with two seconds left.
Starting in 1979, I’ve seen the last 39 meetings between these two clubs. Here are some personal thoughts about many of those games:
- 1979: I’m not sure I remember any game where two running backs on opposing teams were so dominant and productive. USC’s Charles White, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy that year, carried the ball 44 times (still a Notre Dame opponent record) for 261 yards. Vagas Ferguson ran for 185. Both teams gained 500 yards, but No. 4 USC scored 35 second-half points to win 42-23.
- 1980: This was my first time seeing a game in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The sheer magnitude of the place is jaw-dropping. The peristyle, the torch, the white horse (and it saw plenty of action that day because USC won 20-3), the USC band playing “Fight On,” the USC song girls. The No. 2 Irish came in unbeaten, just a few weeks removed from a shutout win at Alabama that cemented a Sugar Bowl invitation. This was a very good USC team that included a long list of future NFL standouts–Marcus Allen, Bruce Matthews, Joey Browner and Ronnie Lott.
It was at this game that I think I first met Jim Murray, the famed longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times. I was admittedly nervous because I was just a kid and he had been a legend in the business for years. Yet he could not have been more gracious. Murray annually wrote his column on the Notre Dame-USC game in an Irish brogue and—whether Notre Dame won or lost—those columns were absolute works of art.
This was the ninth straight year both teams came into the game ranked—and of those 18 rankings 10 were No. 6 or better.
- 1981: Marcus Allen won the Heisman that year and gained 147 yards that season in South Bend in a 14-7 Trojan win in Gerry Faust’s first season at Notre Dame. Phil Carter actually outgained Allen with his 162 yards.
While I was still young and single I had glossy 8×10 photos of some of the USC song girls on the bulletin board in my office (some of them actually taken by a Holy Cross brother who shot for us for many years on a free-lance basis). A few years later those became politically incorrect (plus, I got married) and they headed into a manila folder in a file drawer.
- 1982: The scene was bizarre enough because USC coach John Robinson had announced his resignation earlier in the week. He called the cause “Win one for the fat man.” And I’ll never forget picking up the Sunday Los Angeles Times and looking at the picture of USC back Michael Harper flying over the goal line without the football (Kevin Griffith recovered it on the two after Harper fumbled before he scored). Believe me, Gerry Faust hasn’t forgotten that image either. But there was no replay back then and the officials ruled touchdown with 48 seconds to go and that was enough for a USC win. No one from Notre Dame believes Harper actually scored that day, and no one from USC wants to hear any of that.
- 1983: Gerry Faust sent the Irish out in green jerseys but it probably would not have mattered. It was the first of 11 straight series wins by Notre Dame.
- 1984: Notre Dame beat an 8-2 No. 14 USC team in the Coliseum.
- 1985: This was Gerry Faust’s final season in South Bend, and his third straight win over the Trojans. It wasn’t close (37-3). The Irish wore blue in the first half, then came out in green jerseys for the second half. The motivation was unnecessary, as Notre Dame already led 27-0 at intermission. USC fumbled away the opening kickoff and Notre Dame led 7-0 after 10 seconds.
- 1986: No 5-6 season at Notre Dame has ever ended on such a high note. Lou Holtz’s first season had included five losses by a combined 14 points. This one would be different. Holtz benched (as promised) quarterback (and California product) Steve Beuerlein after he threw an interception — then relented and watched Beuerlein bring the visitors back from a 37-20 deficit. Beuerlein threw three TD passes after that, and Tim Brown set the stage for his 1987 Heisman season with a 56-yard punt return that is the stuff of legends. That left John Carney to kick the game-winning field goal as time ran out. Notre Dame won 38-37, even though the national TV audience on CBS missed that play because the network had gone to commercial. CBS producer Ric LaCivita has been a long-time friend, and I always felt bad that he had to be reminded of that.
I saw Beuerlein at a home football game this fall, and we both laughed at how Holtz is still telling the story of Beuerlein’s exploits that day three decades later. Said Holtz, “I made a commitment that Steve would not throw seven interceptions his senior year (he threw 17 as a junior). Steve said, ‘That’s great. Is it the way you run the routes or read the coverages?’ I said, ‘No, after you throw six you aren’t playing any more.'”
It was about this time that the alumni clubs of Notre Dame and USC began holding a grandiose Friday lunch in downtown Los Angeles to raise scholarship funds for both schools. The event was emceed on a joint basis by Notre Dame’s Tommy Hawkins and USC’s Craig Fertig who traded their respective letter sweaters for the day. Both those men were hugely entertaining. Both head coaches spoke briefly at the top of the program, so I recall making the long drive up and back from Newport Beach where our team was staying—with Lou Holtz and me in the back seat and good friend Joe DeFranco in front. Those conversations were always enlightening.
- 1987: Notre Dame ran for 351 yards that day at Notre Dame Stadium and the Irish won comfortably.
- 1988: With Notre Dame and USC meeting in even years in Los Angeles on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it always prompted a strange scene on campus in South Bend because students all headed out of town for the holidays. So, with both teams unbeaten and ranked No. 1 and No. 2, there was absolutely no pregame atmosphere because there was nobody left on campus except the football team. Back in those days, the team headquartered way south of the Coliseum at the Newport Beach Marriott. There was plenty of down time for the players, and right across the street was the sprawling Fashion Island shopping center. Then Friday afternoon brought high drama. Freshman running backs RickWatters and Tony Brooks were late for a meeting, and Holtz sent them home on a plane first thing Saturday morning. I remember hearing about this just before dinner Friday, and my reaction was, “Are you serious?” In the absence of cell phones and the Internet, that news did not really seep out until game day. But it did not matter.
I never saw so many people squeezed into the Coliseum. Frank Stams and the physical Notre Dame defense knocked USC’s Rodney Peete out of the game. A really class move later saw Peete, with his arm in a sling, congratulating Irish players and Holtz in the tunnel after it was over. Tony Rice had an amazing TD run, and Stan Smagala ran an interception back for a score. Maybe the best part was watching captain Mark Green from nearby Riverside score two TDs. You loved that for him.
- 1989: This was another heavyweight game, with Notre Dame No. 1 at the time. Todd Marinovich took USC to a 17-7 halftime lead (he completed 33 passes that day), then Tony Rice brought the Irish from behind in the second half to win 28-24.
- 1993: John Robinson was back on the scene as USC coach, but No. 2 Notre Dame won 31-13 anyway in South Bend.
- 1994: An earthquake had damaged the Coliseum press box and so a makeshift version was created in the stands far toward the peristyle end. But it was windy and cold that night, and I remember drinking coffee to stay warm (even though I did not drink coffee back then). USC sports information director Tim Tessalone recalls Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray showing up for the game wearing only a sweater, so Tessalone got him a full-length USC parka from his equipment manager and Jim wore it the whole game which ended in a 17-17 tie.
- 1995: USC came into Notre Dame Stadium unbeaten and ranked fifth nationally, but Notre Dame rolled 38-10.
- 1996: Notre Dame lost a 20-12 fourth-period lead and fell in overtime 27-20 in what turned out to be Lou Holtz’s final game at Notre Dame. USC came in 5-6 after a double-overtime loss to UCLA the previous Saturday. USC had gone 13 years without a win in the series, and Holtz lost his only game in the series (he was 9-1-1).
- 1998: This one was tough to watch because the Irish did not score in a 10-0 loss, the first time No. 9 Notre Dame did not score against USC since 1962. Jarious Jackson had been hurt the previous Saturday against LSU, so Eric Chappell started at quarterback for Notre Dame and later gave way to another freshman, Arnaz Battle.
- 1999: Notre Dame came from behind to win 25-24 on a late Jabari Holloway fumble recovery in the end zone on a crazy weather day in South Bend where a strong wind somehow blew in favor of the Irish during the entire second half.
- 2000: Notre Dame turned two blocked punts and two interceptions into scores at the Coliseum in a 38-21 win.
- 2001: In Bob Davie’s final season, his Irish defeated first-year Trojan coach Pete Carroll and Carson Palmer 27-16 in South Bend.
- 2002: Notre Dame got off to a fabulous start that season under first-year coach Tyrone Willingham, but that regular season ended painfully in the Coliseum—thanks mostly to Carson Palmer. He threw for 425 yards (still the record against Notre Dame) and four TDs and No. 6 USC had 610 yards overall, with Palmer winning the Heisman Trophy a few weeks later. The Trojans won 44-13.
- 2003: No. 5 USC again won by 31 points.
- 2004: No. 1 USC won (again) by 31 points in Matt Leinart’s Heisman season.
- 2005: In Charlie Weis’ first season at Notre Dame these teams played one of the all-time most entertaining games in the history of Notre Dame Stadium. The No. 9 Irish, wearing green jerseys, took the lead with about two minutes to go on a Brady Quinn run. Then some amazing things happened in USC’s favor. On fourth and nine deep in Notre Dame territory Matt Leinart somehow completed a clutch 61-yard pass down the USC sideline to Dwayne Jarrett. Leinart eventually tried to run it in but the ball was knocked loose close to the goal line and went out of bounds, the clock ran out and it appeared Notre Dame had won. But there was no replay because Pete Carroll had not agreed to it (both teams in those days had to agree for it to be used in a game), and the officials gave USC the ball at the one with seven seconds to go. Leinart tried to run it again and Reggie Bush pushed him into the end zone — despite that act technically being illegal by rule. And so No. 1 USC won 34-31 and went on to play in the BCS title game. I watched the final few minutes from the tunnel — and it was high drama with emotions that ran the gamut.
- 2007: USC handed Notre Dame its worst series loss in a 38-0 contest. The Irish wore green in recognition of the 30-year anniversary of Notre Dame’s win in green in 1977.
- 2008: In the Coliseum the Irish managed only four first downs and 91 total yards and lost 38-3.
- 2010: Notre Dame won for the first time in nine years, as USC quarterback Matt Barkley missed the game with an injury.
- 2011: Notre Dame got back in the night game business at Notre Dame Stadium in this contest, the first time the Irish had played at night at home in 21 years. USC won in the debut of the shiny new Irish helmets.
- 2012: I remember meeting Matt Barkley in the tunnel before the game while he chatted with Tim Tessalone. For the second time in three years he was unable to play against Notre Dame due to injury. But there was little time for sympathy, given that Notre Dame’s unbeaten record and No. 1 ranking were at stake. It wasn’t easy, but the Irish prevailed 22-13. The scene in the cramped locker room was madcap, with Brian Kelly yelling, “We’re going to South Beach!”
- 2014: This one was ugly for the Irish. Cody Kessler threw six TD passes (no one else has done that against Notre Dame) and USC (with a record 35 first downs) won 49-14.
- 2017: The No. 13 Irish won 49-14 in a dominant effort against Sam Darnold and the No. 11 Trojans in another prime-time game at Notre Dame Stadium.
On a personal note, I’ve loved working all these Notre Dame-USC games with longtime USC sports information director Tim Tessalone. The visibility of these programs (in great part because of their success) always spawned great interest and intensity within this rivalry. I never saw Tim operate in anything other than a first-class, professional manner. He and I for years were the young kids in this business — working for two guys (Jim Perry at USC and Roger Valdiserri at Notre Dame) who were legends in their own right.
I also came to know USC athletics directors Pat Haden and Lynn Swann (both from their days as television commentators) and longtime USC senior associate athletics director Steve Lopes, who also was the Trojan connection to the Sports Management Institute that involved both schools.
More than anything, I’ll always recall that classic photo from ground level at the line of scrimmage of the Notre Dame linemen facemask to facemask with the USC line. Think of all the great players over the years who could have been part of that shot.
There’s no big-name program from the West Coast playing a big-name program from the Midwest every single season. Thank Knute Rockne and Howard Jones for that.
This 2018 edition is likely to produce some more moments to remember.
It almost always does.