I have a problem common to a lot of Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans with California roots, which is that I know too many nice people who root for the USC Trojans. It’s tough having Trojan fans and alums in your life who are relatives, family friends, high school buddies, etc., because your affection for them as individuals inevitably clouds the blind and unrelenting hatred of Southern Cal which is our calling from birth, and which honor demands.
What’s more, the relatively weak performance of USC over the past decade has turned the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh into something of an afterthought in terms of preseason hype compared to other matchups on the Irish schedule. In that way I am less unique among Irish fans, as there seems to be a casual and even somewhat complacent attitude toward the Trojans growing within the Notre Dame fanbase. With three consecutive wins in the series followed by a COVID-induced break, other teams seem to have filled the void of hate and/or anticipation in many Irish fans’ hearts.
To all of this (including myself) I say: FOR SHAME.
I can remember when the mere thought of the USC football team filled me with a volcanic level of hate and desire for revenge. Granted, I was a teenager at the time, but this wasn’t just about pubescent mood swings. The Trojans were so dominant throughout the time I was growing up - and the Irish so miserable in general - that the first Irish win in the series that I can consciously remember watching occurred when I was seventeen years old. Eventually, that dedicated hate was rewarded, and that fateful night when Robert Hughes ran over more Trojans than a Myrmidon on PCP and Harrison Smith made a game-sealing interception still stands out as one of the happiest I have ever had as a sports fan.
In the years since that night, the Irish have regained the advantage in the series, and the hate has become harder to do. What I am trying to do, and what I am asking my fellow Irish fans to do heading into 2021, is to find that hate again. No level of humiliation or defeat will ever be enough to command our mercy; we can never be satisfied with having put USC in their place, because even in that place they will still be USC, and thus demand our hatred.
Oh, we’ve won three in a row? Check back with me when the streak is at ten. Tell when the a 30-point beatdown takes place in the Coliseum. Or don’t - because it still won’t be enough. It will never be enough. That’s the beautiful, classic, maddening thing about a rivalry like this: the score is never settled, and it never should be.
Besides the ethical duty of rivalry hate, Irish fans should avoid also avoid complacency about this game because the Trojans return a dangerous and capable squad in 2021, with talent all over the field. Kedon Slovis opens as a deserving early Heisman candidate and is paired up with Drake London, who has the potential to torch a vulnerable Irish secondary. The offensive line was a major weakness in 2020 and is still a question mark, but some of its underperformance could have been due to youth and with four highly-recruited starters returning, it could see dramatic improvement.
On defense, the Trojans return a strong secondary led by Isaiah Pola-Mao and Chris Steele that will be one of the toughest Notre Dame’s receivers face all year. Where the Irish may have a big advantage - and this is why I still think they will win the game - is against the Trojans’ front seven, which apart from stars Nick Figueroa and Drake Jackson is underwhelming. But if the Trojans show improvement in that area and slow down the Irish running game, this game could turn into a shootout - not something you want with the athletes USC has on offense.
Yes, the Trojans are still coached by Clay Helton; but if Irish fans learned anything from the 2019 Michigan debacle it should have been that a motivated team with high-caliber athletes on the field, even an underperforming one with a dysfunctional coaching staff, is always capable of rising to the occasion on any given night. This is a very dangerous game against a team that will be out for blood - to my knowledge, no member of the Trojans’ current roster has ever beaten Notre Dame in a USC uniform. They will come with a score to settle - let’s remember that we have one too, and keep it that way.