Oct. 14, 2005
by Alan Wasielewski
One of college football’s greatest rivalries returns to center stage this afternoon when top-ranked and undefeated USC (5-0) visits Notre Dame Stadium to take on the 4-1 and ninth-ranked Fighting Irish.
From its memorable beginnings when Knute Rockne led his team by train across the country to Los Angeles for a 13-12 victory in 1926, to the unforgettable games in the 1970s, through two streaks of domination – ND winning 11 consecutive meetings in the 1980s and ’90s and USC winning by exactly 31 points in the last three series meetings – the Notre Dame-USC rivalry has been and will be one for the ages.
Fans of the Big Ten, SEC or Big 12 will argue that they have great rivalry games as well, but no one can argue against the uniqueness and relevance of the ND – USC series. One team is from the Midwest with a tradition of work-man-like performances to along with a classic, sometimes `old-school’ style. The other team exudes the glitz and glamour of its home region and carries itself with a swagger that serves as a model for modern-day college football programs.
Both teams also have helped form the foundation of college football in the United States.
Notre Dame has won eight Associated Press national titles while USC has won five.
The Irish have been selected as a national champion by at least one legitimate poll in 19 seasons, USC lists 16 such campaigns.
Notre Dame began the season second on the all-time winning percentage and total victories lists. USC is not far behind in ninth and 10th place, respectively.
Instantly recognizable coaches have stalked the sidelines for each team. Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz for Notre Dame. Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll for USC.
Today’s game brings the Notre Dame – USC rivalry back to the forefront of college football. For a variety of different reasons, the series had briefly fallen out of the limelight. Notre Dame’s struggles over the last few years have contributed to three consecutive blowout losses to the Trojans. USC, on the other hand, lost 14 of 18 meetings between 1983-2001. The match up today is the biggest between the two teams since 1988, when the top-ranked Irish took down No. 2 USC 27-10 in the Los Angeles Coliseum on the way to Notre Dame’s most recent national title. Long-time fans of both teams know, however, that today’s game brings the series back to its glory days in the 1970s.
From 1972-1979, Notre Dame and USC battled each other back and forth – with neither team ranked lower than 14th in all eight meetings. Irish fans also remember that the Trojans got the best of Notre Dame in that run, going 6-2 in those eight games. It should be pointed out, however, that the two Irish victories in that span (1973, 1977) ended up as national title seasons for Notre Dame.
You could talk about the series history between these two teams forever. Books have been written on the subject. While fans, alumni and the media cannot ignore past history – both teams on the field today will need to forget the past to be successful.
For Notre Dame, the sting of three consecutive 31-point losses to the Trojans will need to be disregarded. USC sent Notre Dame back to reality in 2002 with a 44-13 victory (a match up that featured No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 6 USC), sailed to a victory of 45-14 in 2003 and added a 41-10 insult in 2004.
The Irish are a renewed team in 2005, with one of the most potent offenses in the nation. The recent history of Trojan dominance (of which they have exerted on the entire college football nation with two consecutive AP national championships) will need to be ignored by Notre Dame today.
For USC, they are up against a proven history of upsets in a place known for its magical moments. The Trojans carry a 27-game win streak into Notre Dame Stadium today. Notre Dame has ended similar impressive winning streaks at home five times: in 1953 (ending Georgia Tech’s 31-game unbeaten streak), 1973 (a USC 23-game run ended that year), 1988 (Miami’s 36-game run ended) and 1993 (Florida State’s 16-game string). Irish fans will be quick to remind you that today’s game is exactly 17 years after the Irish knocked off top-ranked Miami 31-30 on Oct. 15, 1988.
As much as the Irish have improved, particularly on offense this season, USC enters today’s game with well-deserved confidence. While Notre Dame’s offensive numbers are impressive, USC’s are staggering. Led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Matt Leinart (1,646 yards, 16 touchdowns), all-purpose back Reggie Bush (612 rushing yards, 191 receiving yards) and veteran running back LenDale White (620 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns), the Trojans are averaging 640 yards per game, 52 points per game and 349 passing yards per contest.
Going up against a Notre Dame passing defense that is ranked 114th in the nation (305-yard average per game), it is easy to predict that today’s final score will not be 3-0.
That prediction also falls in line with Notre Dame’s offensive output this season. The Irish are ranked ninth in the nation in total offense (504 yards per game) – a mark that a Notre Dame offense has not achieved since 1992. USC’s pass defense, just like Notre Dame’s, has had trouble stopping the pass this year and is ranked 83rd (246 yards per game) heading into today’s game.
For the Irish to be successful and give the Trojan’s all they can handle today, the defense will need to force a number of turnovers. As mentioned earlier, the parallels with today’s game and the 1988 Notre Dame – Miami match up are hard to ignore. The Hurricanes entered that contest a vaunted juggernaut on offense, but Notre Dame forced seven turnovers in the contest and eventually prevailed 31-30. Those numbers will hopefully repeat themselves in this afternoon’s game.
Notre Dame also will need to play a near-perfect game on offense. USC is not the type of team that can be given extra possessions. Junior quarterback Brady Quinn has seemingly turned a corner this season (1,621 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, 65-percent completions percentage), but he will need to raise his game to an even higher level against the Trojans. Today’s game also will be the ultimate test of Notre Dame’s offensive line.
While USC has struggled at times defending the pass, they have completely shut down their opponent’s running game. The Trojans are 11th in the nation in rush defense (90 yards allowed per game) and the Irish front line of junior Ryan Harris, senior Dan Stevenson, junior John Sullivan, senior Bob Morton, senior Dan Santucci and senior Mark LeVoir, will have to control the line of scrimmage if the Irish hope to eat up the clock and keep USC’s offense on the sidelines.
The stage is set for another classic Notre Dame – USC showdown this afternoon. Whether the Trojans continue their streak of wins over the Irish or Notre Dame pulls off another memorable upset, college football observers can’t help but feel good. The series is back where it should be and has been before as the best college football rivalry in the nation.