In the wacky world of college football, there are innumerable traditions, unique rivalries that have defined the sport, and just plain absurd moments that are unforgettable; however, you may be hard-pressed to find more polar opposite rivals than Notre Dame and USC. On one hand, Notre Dame is a Catholic university located in northern Indiana, has a fan base made up mainly of blue-collar folks, and has traditionally been a team that finds most of its success with a dominant ground game and defense. On the other hand, USC is a large university located in Los Angeles, has a primarily West Coast following, and has traditionally possessed the sexier skill position players. These stark differences have led to simmering tensions between the two fan bases for nearly a century.
While it seems like Notre Dame has an endless number of rivals, none stand quite as tall as USC. The two schools have been meeting annually since 1926 except for 1943-1945 (WWII) and 2020 (COVID-19). The winner of the game is awarded the Jeweled Shillelagh. Currently, Notre Dame holds a 47-36-5 edge in the series. Throughout much of the series’ history, the game between the two schools has had major implications on the national championship picture. Furthermore, many of college football’s greatest stars have suited up for one of these two teams. The two schools have combined for 22 national titles, 13 Heisman winners, 74 College Football Hall of Famers (44 for Notre Dame and 30 for USC), and 26 NFL Hall of Famers (13 apiece). The list of coaches that have taken part in this match-up are unparalleled: Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, Howard Jones, John Robinson, John McKay, and Pete Carroll. On the whole, there is no other rivalry in college football that can compare to the history, success, and numbers that Notre Dame and USC collectively possess.
There have been glorious triumphs and crushing defeats for both sides throughout the years. Notre Dame can boast the 1966 51-0 drubbing of the Trojans, the 1977 “Green Machine” victory, and the 1988 decisive victory between the #1 Irish and #2 Trojans at the end of the season. Meanwhile, USC can point to the 1964 upset to prevent Notre Dame from capturing a title in Ara Parseghian’s first season in South Bend, the 1974 win that saw USC score a miraculous 55 unanswered points, and the 2005 “Bush Push” game. The one critique many offer against this matchup is that the series has often been defined by sustained stretches of one-sided affairs. Notre Dame has reeled off winning streaks of 11, 5, 5, and 4 games, while USC has had winning streaks of 8, 5, 3, and 3 games. Thankfully, over the past decade, Notre Dame has held a 7-3 edge in the matchup.
From a historical perspective, Notre Dame’s rise to prominence is so closely tied with their early barnstorming days under Knute Rockne. In addition to several high-profile games against Army on the east coast, the Irish made themselves known to the west coast through their yearly contest with the Trojans. Similarly, USC has typically never been a program that has strayed too far from home with its schedules. Yet, their bi-annual trek to the Midwest played a major part in elevating the Trojan program into the national brand that it is today.
All in all, USC remains Notre Dame’s greatest rival. There is simply no other team that has been as nationally relevant, created as much heartbreak, or been as consistent of an opponent on the schedule as USC. This year should feel like a return to normal when the Irish take on the Trojans in Notre Dame Stadium under the lights on October 23rd. While it never gets old beating USC, here is to hoping the Trojans can return to an elite level over the next few years to raise the stakes of our yearly contest. While I certainly am not advocating for a return to the Pete Carroll years, the wins over the Trojans simply mean more when they are nationally relevant. To another century of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry, cheers!