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Notre Dame-USC Preview: The Unrivaled Rivalry

Oct. 18, 2017

By John Heisler

The longstanding football rivalry between Notre Dame and USC has been well-documented.

No other team has beaten Notre Dame more often than the Trojans–and no one has defeated USC more than the Irish.

When John McKay paced the USC sideline for 16 seasons (1960-75), in 10 of those years the national championship was determined in some form by the Notre Dame-USC contest.

Irish titles in ’66 and ’73 provided evidence of that–as did Trojan championships in ’67, ’72 and ’74.

Irish fans still think:
–A late holding call in Notre Dame’s 20-17 loss to USC in 1964 should never have happened.
–USC quarterback Paul McDonald actually fumbled late in 1978 in Los Angeles when that play was ruled an incomplete pass and the Trojans won the game on a field goal with two seconds left.
–USC’s Michael Harper never had the football when he dove over the goal line in 1982 at the Coliseum to score the game-winning touchdown with 48 seconds to go.

Sound like sour grapes? That’s the passion involved when it’s termed the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football.

When Notre Dame prevailed 51-0 in Los Angeles in 1966 to clinch a national title, McKay suggested there were a billion people in China who did not care who won the game.

Notre Dame senior running back Nick Eddy, a Californian, had this retort: “Truthfully, the only remorse I feel is that it (the margin) wasn’t worse.”

Former Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray used to love to watch McKay and Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian do battle. In 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1974, both programs finished in the final Associated Press top 10.

Murray wrote of those collisions: “The Notre Dame-USC series is football’s finest hour. . . . It makes the pro game look like shuffleboard on a world cruise, dominoes at the California Club.”

Which coaches have been most successful in the series? Lou Holtz won nine games against USC in his 11 seasons in South Bend. Pete Carroll and Frank Leahy each won eight. Those names need no introductions.

This rivalry is meaningful enough that Thomas Rupp recently wrote a book titled “Rockne & Jones: Notre Dame, USC and the Greatest Rivalry of the Roaring Twenties.”

Nearly a century later, the way in which Knute Rockne and Howard Jones created the series still resonates.

Former Irish All-American and Hall of Fame lineman Ross Browner in the forward to Rupp’s book relates a story from his recruitment. According to Browner (a Warren, Ohio, product) he and Gary Jeter (from Cleveland) were the top two linemen in Ohio in 1972 so they decided to coordinate their official visits and seriously looked to attend the same school.

Browner and Jeter had planned to visit USC on the same weekend, but Browner ended up going to Pittsburgh instead and expected to reschedule his trip to Los Angeles.

But Browner received a phone call the next Monday telling him USC had offered its final remaining scholarship to Jeter.

Browner’s response? He asked USC assistant coach John Jackson which teams appeared on the upcoming Trojan schedule. After Jackson replied that USC would be playing all the Pac 8 schools plus Notre Dame, Browner said, “Then look for me on Notre Dame’s team. I’ll be playing against you.”

That began a long, complicated Browner family connection to both schools–with Ross, Jimmy and Willard playing for Notre Dame and younger brothers Joey and Keith Browner suiting up for the Trojans.

Fast forward to 2017–and Notre Dame comes into tonight’s clash with a 5-1 record, four straight victories and a number-13 ranking in the Associated Press poll. USC comes to town with a 6-1 mark and a number-11 AP listing.

For Notre Dame, it’s the start of a six-game stretch to end the regular season that matches up with any sort of Murderers’ Row assignment in Irish history.

Go back and look at these end-of-season Notre Dame schedules:

–1938: Notre Dame played four of its last six games against ranked foes–#13 Carnegie Tech, #12 Minnesota, #16 Northwestern and #8 USC.

–1943: Notre Dame played four of its last five versus #3 Navy, #3 Army, #8 Northwestern and #2 Iowa Pre-Flight.

–1944: The Irish played five of their last six against #14 Illinois, #6 Navy, #1 Army, #10 Georgia Tech and #12 Great Lakes.

–1956: Notre Dame played four of its final six versus #2 Oklahoma, #20 Pittsburgh, #3 Iowa and #17 USC.

–1957: The Irish in four of their last six met #16 Navy, #4 Michigan State, #2 Oklahoma and #8 Iowa.

–1958: Notre Dame in four of its final six games played #15 Purdue, #15 Navy, #11 North Carolina and #6 Iowa.

–1959: The Irish squared off in four of their final six contests versus #2 Northwestern, #19 Georgia Tech, #16 Iowa and #7 USC.

–1989: Notre Dame met #9 USC, #7 Pittsburgh, #17 Penn State and #7 Miami over its final six games.

–1990: The Irish faced #2 Miami, #9 Tennessee, #18 Penn State and #18 USC over its last six assignments.

Of those 41 games, Notre Dame won 24 of them (at Notre Dame Stadium the Irish record was 9-8). It’s probably no accident six of those 41 came against USC–with the Irish prevailing four times.

The 2017 Notre Dame season provides a similar challenge.

While Notre Dame’s overall schedule this season so far ranks as the fourth-most difficult in the country according to the NCAA (all opponents are 45-22, .672), the six remaining outings for the Irish qualify as the toughest remaining schedule nationally (28-7, .800).

Upcoming are #11 USC (6-1), #16 North Carolina State (6-1), Wake Forest (4-2), #8 Miami (5-0), Navy (5-1) and #22 Stanford (5-2). All rankings are in the AP poll.

And so maybe it’s only fitting that all of this begins with USC.


Here are a few of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s observations on this week’s matchup with USC:

“Certainly our players are aware of the game, the rivalry. But it really doesn’t change things in the sense that our preparation, the standard that we’ll have to play to still is about what we do. But it’s important to be aware of the excitement and the opportunity that awaits our football team.

“It comes down to the execution. It comes down to the focus, the attention to detail. All the things that we talked about all year can’t change going into this game.

“But we want to make sure our players know you get great opportunities like this at Notre Dame to play on a great stage like this against a rival in USC.

“I think everybody nationally knows about Sam Darnold and what he can do–he’s a Heisman Trophy candidate. They are going to be a challenge as it relates to their passing game, and they are very good at running the football as well.

“Defensively, Clancy Pendergast is an experienced defensive coordinator. He’s done a great job. If you look at their defensive front, it’s been one where they have gotten a lot more disruptions with the ability to pressure the quarterback. The back end of their defense is as good as we’ve seen.

“This is a very good football team. I think we knew that. This USC football team, after last year, coming into this year was going to be a top-10 team–and that’s what they are.

“Our players know what they need to do. They have to play to a high standard. At the end of the day, we’re all going to be judged by wins and losses and I understand that and I said that from day one. But there’s a standard of play that we have to live up to. Our players understand that’s the most important thing we’re interested in.

“I think what stands out when people talk about Notre Dame and USC is that it resonates. It’s got brand power. It sits up there with the great rivalries of college football. And so there’s a great sense of anticipation and excitement in playing in a game of this caliber.”


Here are presentations and introductions that will take place Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium:

–1977 National Champs Recognition: It’s been 40 years since Notre Dame’s 1977 football squad won the national championship and nearly 80 members of that roster will return to campus this weekend. That team won 10 straight games to finish the year, defeating fifth-rated USC in October in the famous green jersey game, then knocking off unbeaten and top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Ross Browner, Ken MacAfee, Luther Bradley, Ernie Hughes, Bob Golic, Willie Fry and Ted Burgmeier all earned All-America honors, while Joe Montana threw for more than 1,600 yards and Jerome Heavens and Vagas Ferguson combined for nearly 1,500 rushing yards for Hall of Fame coach Dan Devine. They were led by captains Ross Browner, Terry Eurick, Willie Fry and special teams captain Steve Orsini.

–Team Irish: The Land O’Lakes Team will be recognized with the Presidential Team Irish Award. Land O’Lakes, the 7,500+ acre property located in the upper peninsula of Michigan and northern Wisconsin, provides a pristine environment for learning and research. Thanks to the consistently high quality of care provided by this team of dedicated Notre Dame staff members, in a remote location where they must depend upon one another, the property’s natural beauty and historical meaning are richly preserved. This is the site where former University president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., relocated the Civil Rights Commission after a judge ruled the Commission unconstitutional. The Land O’Lakes property gave the Commission a chance to unwind, find common ground over fishing, and continue its efforts. Thanks to its time up at Land O’Lakes, the Commission was able to re-open/open the passage of civil rights legislation by voting unanimously on 11 recommendations and five to one on the 12th.

–Student/Military Recognition: The University will pay tribute to U.S. Navy Lt. Jennifer Malherek, who is currently an assistant professor of Naval Science at Notre Dame while also pursuing an Executive MBA in the Mendoza College of Business. Lt. Malherek earned her bachelor’s degree in information technology management from Mendoza in 2010, and, at the same time, was commissioned into the U.S. Navy through the University’s ROTC program. She is a nuclear engineer surface warfare officer and has served in combat deployments on the guided missile destroyer USS Howard and the USS George H.W. Bush super carrier. On the latter, she was involved in counter-piracy operations, the rescue of hostages from pirates in Somalia, and the first strikes against ISIS in 2014. She is the recipient of the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation and Achievement medals.

–2017 Notre Dame NCAA Fencing Title Team: Notre Dame’s men’s and women’s fencing teams combined to win the 2017 NCAA championship — and they did it by accumulating the highest point total by any Irish squad in national championship competition. Notre Dame’s 186 points, most by any team in the NCAAs since 2010, included a fourth straight individual women’s foil title by Lee Kiefer, a second individual women’s sabre title in three years by Francesco Russo–plus semifinal appearances by Amanda Sirico in women’s epee and Ariel Simmons in men’s epee. The men also produced four other second-team All-Americans–Kristjan Archer, Axel Kiefer, Jonathan Fitzgerald and Jonah Shainberg–while Sabrina Massialas won All-America honors in women’s foil. Led by Gia Kvaratskhelia, this marked Notre Dame’s ninth NCAA championship crown in fencing and its first since 2011.

–Flag Presentation: The national colors will be presented by John J. Brennan, chair of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees, and his wife, Cathy. Mr. Brennan is the chairman emeritus and former chief executive officer of Vanguard Group, and the Brennans are the parents of three Notre Dame graduates — William, Kara and Conor.

–All-Faculty Team: Honored will be Mark P, McKenna, Notre Dame professor of law and Presidential fellow. He’s a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and has been a member of the Notre Dame faculty since 2006. He has research expertise in intellectual property law, particularly trademark, copyright, design patent, the right of publicity and tort law. He’s a 1997 Notre Dame graduate with a degree in economics.