Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

The Last Word

by John Heisler

Former Notre Dame running back great Jerome Bettis, now with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, stopped by Heinz Field in Pittsburgh last Friday to offer the current Irish football team a few words of encouragement during its walk-through.

As Bettis headed to his car he greeted Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White and whispered briefly in his ear. The subject? With the Steelers enjoying an open date this weekend, Bettis was looking for a couple of tickets for the Notre Dame-USC football game today.

Join the crowd, Jerome.

NBC late night talk show host Carson Daly, who makes it plain on the air that he’s a Notre Dame fan, let it be known he was interested in coming to South Bend this fall. The game he had in mind? It was Notre Dame-USC.

NBC Sports host Bob Costas is here today to do the network’s pregame and halftime shows live from its on-field set (the first time Costas has been to South Bend for an Irish home game since the ’93 Notre Dame-Florida State clash). Why? It’s Notre Dame-USC.

When Notre Dame’s ’03 NCAA championship fencing team selected a game at which to be honored on the field for its accomplishments a year ago, the fencers picked Notre Dame-USC.

Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa have been in Chicago all week doing their morning show live on location. Think there’s a chance Reege may stop through South Bend on his way home?

Is there anyone in the free world not planning to be here for the game today? Notre Dame assistant athletic director for ticketing Jim Fraleigh doesn’t think so. He can’t remember a game in which there was more interest, internally and externally, for tickets.

The advance requests, all 54,244 of them from contributing alumni, made this game the fourth-largest in terms of ticket demand in the history of Notre Dame Stadium. And Fraleigh’s job didn’t get any easier in the last seven days, thanks to Notre Dame’s inspiring ground effort last weekend at Pittsburgh, combined with USC’s jump to fourth in the ESPN poll. This becomes the highest-ranked Trojan unit to visit Notre Dame Stadium since 1979 when the fourth-rated Trojans ran past the ninth-ranked Irish 42-23 (Vagas Ferguson ran for 185 yards for the Irish – eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charles White ran for 261 for USC, with White’s 44 carries still standing as a Notre Dame single-game opponent record).

When Notre Dame’s ’73 national championship team chose a weekend to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its title (rerun Eric Penick’s memorable 85-yard scoring sweep that helped the eighth-rated Irish defeat the sixth-ranked Trojans 23-14 in Notre Dame Stadium).

When Irish ’03 Hall of Fame inductee Joe Theismann selected a game for his on-campus salute, he picked Notre Dame-USC (rerun Theismann’s Irish single-game record 526 passing yards versus the Trojans in 1970).

When the Golden Knights talked about bringing their parachute team to a game, they picked Notre Dame-USC.

Ten NFL teams are represented today with scouts in the press box.

Read all the preseason magazines, like Street & Smith’s, Lindy’s, and Athlon? They all have photographers here today.

The New York Daily News requested a credential for the game. So did the San Antonio Express-News, the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch and the Washington Post. So did American Health & Fitness magazine out of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada (that one was denied).

Even Rudy (Dan Ruettiger) is in town this weekend (he didn’t play on that ’73 title team, but was enrolled at Holy Cross College back then).

Amazingly enough, despite the rich tradition of this series, neither team has been ranked in any of the last three meetings in Notre Dame Stadium (1997-99-2001). That all changes this time around – with a USC team that has won 13 of its last 14 games, and scored 30 or more points in 13 of those 14.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, continues down what may be an unprecedented early-season road in which the Irish already have played teams currently ranked sixth (Washington State at 5-1, with the Irish handing the Cougars their lone defeat), 15th (Purdue at 5-1), 17th (Michigan at 5-2), and 18th (Michigan State at 6-1) in the ESPN poll. Pittsburgh stood 15th (Associated Press) before its loss to Notre Dame last weekend knocked the Panthers (3-2) out of the polls. This week come the fourth-rated Trojans (5-1) – and still ahead on Nov. 1 is a visit from seventh-ranked Florida State (5-1).

This is a USC team that had 18 first downs and 413 yards of total offense by halftime last weekend against Stanford. This is a Notre Dame team that’s still creating its identity – with a defense ranked 14th nationally overall and an offense that in its last two outings threw the ball 62 times for 297 yards one week, then ran it 56 times for 352 yards the next.

It’s Notre Dame-USC – and there’s no room at the inn.