A football game between unranked Notre Dame and USC teams generally rates way above average on the scale.
A game with the 5-6 Trojans fighting for bowl eligibility?
A game with No. 3 Notre Dame (11-0) trying to finish off a so-far-remarkable unbeaten season?
That’s all any fan could expect in terms of high drama.
And that’s why a national audience on ABC Sports will be watching.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and his staff will do everything they can to make this a normal week—and make it all about standard preparation for a rivalry game. It won’t be easy—in part because his Irish caught the eye of plenty of observers with the caliber of their play a week ago in Yankee Stadium. On a Saturday when some of the other top contenders muddled through their games, the Irish sparkled.
“Our kids were highly spirited, they played fast, they played free and they finished,” said Kelly of the performance versus 12th-ranked Syracuse.
“That was something that we really talked quite a bit about in terms of playing in New York and playing in a game against a ranked opponent. We didn’t want to play tentative–we wanted to play fast. I thought they handled that very well. They came out and really exerted a presence right away.
“Having said that, we’d like to be better at controlling the line of scrimmage, with more physicality within what we’re doing. I thought our sense of urgency was good. I thought the emotion of our football team was excellent. But I want to be more physical at the point of attack on both the offensive line and defensive line.
“I think what our team has learned is in November–if they take care of themselves, with the right rest, the right kind of recovery–they can play really fast. Our guys are moving fast.”
But Kelly and the Irish didn’t dwell long on their success in New York with USC looming.
“USC is a very dangerous football team, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly says. “Look at the skill players that they have — (sophomore wide receiver Tyler) Vaughns (46 catches for 554 yards, 5 TDs), (junior wide receiver Michael) Pittman (34 catches for 667 yards–he’s 14th nationally in yards per reception at 19.6), (freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra) St. Brown (50 catches for 656 yards), (sophomore wide receiver Velus) Jones. In the backfield (senior tailback Aca’Cedric) Ware has been really good (757 net yards–he’s 13th nationally in rushing yards per carry at 6.8). J.T. Daniels (179 of 312 for 2,323 yards, 13 TDs, 10 interceptions), a freshman who has incredible arm talent, is a very smart quarterback. So it’s a big-play-potential offense. They can make plays all over the field. They had a great win over Washington State, one of the top teams in the country.
“Then defensively, I think I have a lot of respect for (coordinator) Clancy Pendergast. He knows defense, he has been in this business. He knows how to get his guys in good position structurally. (Senior inside linebacker) Cam Smith (team-leading 69 tackles) is a tough, hard-nosed, physical kid. He’s been around a while, he’s battled through injuries and he keeps coming back. I have a lot of respect for him. There’s (senior cornerback Iman) Marshall (42 tackles, 6 PBU) in the backfield. They defend. They haven’t gotten the ball in their hands (three interceptions), but they’re going to defend the ball in the air (57 passes broken up), there’s no doubt. These are highly recruited players that are really good football players.
“I think Daniels, one day, is going to be playing in the NFL. They’ve been ravaged by injuries defensively. You have a lot of injuries on defense, then a really young quarterback who’s going to be really, really good. They’ve been in some really close games (the last three USC defeats have come by seven or fewer points) and haven’t been able to turn them their way.
“Playing there is never easy, so we have to go across the country and play a team that obviously has a lot of potential.
“Our guys will stick with what they’ve been doing. We’ll spend time on our preparation this week, working on some things particularly that we have to be better at. I mentioned the physicality, and we have to clean up some of the penalties, we have to be a little bit better in our white zone. Clearly we have things that we’ve got to work on as we prepare for this rivalry game—playing for the traveling trophy, the Shillelagh–something that our guys certainly want to keep.”
Kelly has been in the game long enough to recall Irish-Trojan episodes from way back.
“My memories go back all the way to O.J. Simpson playing in the game. It was Notre Dame-USC on TV right around Thanksgiving. Oklahoma-Nebraska and USC-Notre Dame were the games we were looking forward to watching over the holiday weekend.
“Both Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz have been really good at talking with me in terms of the history of the game and recognizing the great history of the game.”
Notre Dame’s head coach likes the notion that his 2018 roster has truly embraced the “team” concept—with a different player receiving the game ball in each of 11 games.
“The sum is greater than any one of the parts,” he says. “That synergy has carried this football team up until this week, and it continues. I think each one of our players here recognizes his value in the program. Each one of them knows he has a role, and it’s valued. That’s why it’s a group that has played consistently. They know exactly what’s expected of them. They know from a week-in, week-out basis they all can contribute and have success each and every week.
“They want to hang out with their teammates. That’s important to them. They really enjoy being around their teammates. Then, they love to play on Saturdays.”
Meanwhile, USC coach Clay Helton has been impressed with the attitude of his team following the UCLA loss and with a big game coming up this weekend.
“Are we disappointed by some of the close losses we’ve had down the stretch? Yes, we are,” he said Tuesday.
“But I appreciate how well they came out and worked in preparation for a big game for us.”
Helton knows the Trojans have a tough test this weekend against what he dubbed the best front seven USC has faced all season.
“We’ve seen (Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry) Tillery for a number of years now and he gets better and better and better every year,” he said. “And he’s surrounded by four or five dynamic NFL football players.
“(In the run game) You do have to have patience to be able to fit that ball in there. Take the ugly four, five, six yards that come with it and hopefully get to those third and manageables.”
Here are additional notes and quotes on both the Irish and Trojans:
- Irish quarterback and Californian Ian Book stands second nationally in completion percentage (.726) and seventh in passing efficiency.
- Over a five-Saturday, regular-season-ending span, Notre Dame will have played in San Diego, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
- The Trojans need a win to become bowl eligible after falling to crosstown rival UCLA last Saturday. USC also is looking to end a two-game Coliseum losing skid after winning its previous 19 home contests.
- The Trojans have won 11 of the past 16 meetings with the Irish (including the past two in the Coliseum), but all five of those losses have been since 2010 (2010-12-13-15-17).
- USC has spoiled a perfect Notre Dame season five times in history (wins in 1938, 1964, 1970 and 1971 and a tie in 1948). On the other hand, an undefeated/untied Irish team has beaten USC 10 times, including in the most recent such matchup in 2012 (which, interestingly, also was played on Nov. 24 in the Coliseum). The other Notre Dame wins in that category came in 1929-30-47-49-61-73-88-89-93.
- It’s just the fourth time a USC team with six-plus losses has faced Notre Dame (also 1957, 1996 and 2000).
- USC is about .500 historically against Notre Dame when coming off the UCLA game.
- Notre Dame has 11 Californians on its roster: OL Aaron Banks (hometown is Alameda), QB Ian Book (El Dorado Hills), DB Tariq Bracy (Milpitas), QB-TE Cole Capen (Yorba Linda), QB J.D. Carney (San Diego), LB Jordan Genmark Heath (San Diego), LB Jack Lamb (Temecula), WR Javon McKinley (Corona), LB D.J. Morgan (Norwalk), OL Jarrett Patterson (Laguna Hills) and WR Matt Salerno (Valencia).
- USC freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown’s brother, Equanimeous, was a wide receiver at Notre Dame (2015-17) who in his three meetings against USC blocked a punt that was returned for a TD in 2015, caught a TD pass among his seven receptions in 2016 and caught another TD in 2017.
- Notre Dame safety Nicco Fertitta is the nephew of Frank and Jill Fertitta, namesakes of Fertitta Hall at USC’s Marshall School of Business.
- Notre Dame wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander lettered as a wide receiver at USC in 1993 and 1994, then was a USC graduate assistant coach in 1996 and 1997.
- The athletic departments and business schools at USC and Notre Dame, along with those at North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and Texas, conduct the Sports Management Institute for mid- and upper-level sports administrators who aspire to be athletic directors, executive directors or general managers in college, amateur or pro sports.
- The winner of the USC-Notre Dame game gets year-long possession of the jeweled Shillelagh. The foot-long shillelagh — a Gaelic war club made of oak or blackthorn saplings from Ireland–has ruby-adorned Trojan heads with the year and game score representing USC victories, while emerald-studded shamrocks stand for Notre Dame wins. For tie games, a combined Trojan head/shamrock medallion was used. The first Shillelagh was retired after the 1989 game when it ran out of space for the medallions and a second one is now in use.
- USC and Notre Dame have two of the top gridiron heritages in the country. The schools both have won 11 national titles (USC in 1928-31-32-39-62-67-72-74-78-2003-04 and Notre Dame in 1924-29-30-43-46-47-49-66-73-77-88).
- Thirteen players from both schools have won Heisman Trophies (USC’s Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Notre Dame’s Angelo Bertelli, John Lujack, Leon Hart, John Lattner, Paul Hornung, John Huarte, Tim Brown).
- USC has 32 players in the College Football Hall of Fame and Notre Dame has 46.
- Both schools have had five players selected first overall in the NFL draft and both are well-represented in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (a record 12 players from each school).
- Both programs have had legendary coaches (USC’s Gloomy Gus Henderson, Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll, and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz).
- USC and Notre Dame are among only three NCAA FBS (formerly Division I-A) schools that have never played an FCS (formerly non-Division I-A) opponent since the divisions were established in 1978. The other school is UCLA.
- USC and Notre Dame have beaten each other more than any other opponent (47 wins by the Irish and 36 by the Trojans (not including wins vacated due to NCAA penalty).
- USC has won 20 of its last 25 Pacific-12 games.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.