It seems like just yesterday we were counting down the days until the season opener against Michigan, and here we are at the last game of the season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. USC Trojans. Where did the football season go? I don’t know about you, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this season, and this team, and I cannot wait to see how everything plays out after this game. I’ve been walking down memory lane this week, thinking about all of the Notre Dame - USC games I’ve been to over the years, and I’ve seen some great ones. But if I had to pick my favorite, I’d probably have to pick this one.
It was 1988, and I was a senior in high school. I was busy with school, and applying to colleges, and even though my dad went to Notre Dame, ND really wasn’t on my college list. I had always been a football fan, but at the time I was all consumed with my high school’s football team, and had not really been attentive to Notre Dame’s season that fall. However, the Notre Dame - USC game was a family tradition for us. Every other year when Notre Dame would travel out to LA to play USC, my family would make the 45 minute (or so) drive to USC to watch them play. That year was no different. However, what was different was that I had no idea that Notre Dame was undefeated, that USC was also undefeated, that the two teams were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, or that Notre Dame was just one win away from playing for the National Championship. But, I learned all of that on that day.
Mal Florence of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “It seems appropriate that one of college football’s greatest rivalries has developed into the game of the year. USC and Notre Dame have engaged each other in a historic series that began in 1926 and Saturday’s game at the Coliseum is as significant as any that has preceded it. In the match-up of the season, top-ranked Notre Dame will play second-ranked USC with the winner becoming the clear favorite to win the national championship pending the outcome of bowl games. The Trojans and Irish have played when one team was unbeaten and untied. However, this is their first meeting when both have perfect records.”
It was a beautiful, sunny Southern California day, and it was a sell out crowd at the Coliseum, 92,516 strong. Notre Dame fans were a bit on edge that day after finding out that Coach Holtz had suspended two of his stars, Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks, for disciplinary reasons (just a tip ... don’t ever be late for anything when it comes to Coach Holtz), and they did come on the trip. The Fighting Irish were underdogs that day, but the stout play of the defense lead by defensive end Frank Stams and cornerback Stan Smagala, along with the offensive prowess of quarterback Tony Rice, propelled the Irish onward to victory. For a change, USC’s impressive quarterback Rodney Pete, was held at bay by the Notre Dame defense.
The background for this unforgettable match-up was quite impressive.
--It was the 24th time since the inception of the Associated Press poll in 1936 that there had been a match-up of the nation’s Nos. 1 and 2 ranked teams.
--USC had been involved in 3 such games, beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl in 1963 as the No. 1 team; losing to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl in 1969 as the No. 2 team and beating Oklahoma in an early season game in 1981 with a No. 1 ranking at the time.
--Notre Dame had 6 previous games with the No. 1 and 2 match-up: against Iowa Pre-Flight and Michigan in 1943; Army in 1945 and 1946; Michigan State in 1966, and Purdue in 1968. The Irish are 2-2-2 in such encounters.
--USC, at the time, had a 5-1-2 record against Notre Dame when the Trojans went in as an unbeaten, untied team. The Irish were 6-4-1 against USC when they were in similar circumstances.
--Notre Dame had defeated USC 5 consecutive years. Neither team had ever been able to make it 6 in a row.
--USC had yet to lose a game at the Coliseum since Larry Smith became coach in 1987, the record standing at 10-0.
--Notre Dame had won 7 national championships since the AP poll began and claimed 3 others with different selection methods before 1936.
--USC had won eight national championships, three before the AP poll was accepted as the standard.
--The Trojans had deprived the Irish of the national championship by winning in season-ending games in 1938 and 1964. USC had also tied Notre Dame, 14-14, in 1948 when the Irish were unbeaten and second-ranked.
--The teams had only two previous meetings when both were undefeated, but USC’s record was marred by a tie. The Irish won those two games--38-7, in 1947 before 104,953, a record Coliseum crowd; and, 23-14, in a mid-season meeting in 1973.
Coach Hotlz was well aware of the significance of the game, but was doing his best at managing his team’s mindset and making sure they took care of the job at hand. Holtz told the LA Times, “We can’t be afforded the luxury of thinking about that (national championship),” he said. “I can die and still get into heaven if we don’t win the national championship.”
The Notre Dame defense forced four turnovers that day, and Tony Rice lead his offense to a 27-10 victory over the Trojans, to finish the season with a perfect record. The Notre Dame offense started the game full speed ahead, scoring on the first drive of the game, on a 65-yard Tony Rice touchdown run. In the below video, Tony talks about the game, and how the pressure was all on USC’s quarterback, Rodney Pete, and that’s just how he liked it.
After that game, I added one more college to my college application list, Notre Dame. I did not get my acceptance letter from ND until April 1st (yep, April Fool’s Day), but as soon as I received it, I knew it was exactly where I was supposed to go to school. Little did I know in 1989 what a huge part of my life Notre Dame would become, and would still be to this very day.
So he we are at the last game of the season, and once again we have another 11-0 Notre Dame team heading out to USC, dreaming of potential post season play. What say you? Will Notre Dame head to the Coliseum and burn Troy to the ground? Will it be a close game? Or a huge upset? Me ... I’m ready to see the Fighting Irish burn Troy to the ground. Get you popcorn ready folks ... Notre Dame - USC never disappoints.
Cheers & GO IRISH!