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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish VS USC, 1986

They Told Holtz There Would Be Days Like This

NCAA Football: USA TODAY Sports-Archive
Nov 29, 1986, Los Angeles, CA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Mark Green (24) carries the the ball against the Southern California Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the 1986 season. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons
Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend the Notre Dame Fighting Irish head to sunny southern California to face the USC Trojans in their final regular season game. The two times have met each other a total of 89 times with Notre Dame winning 48 times, USC winning 36 times, five ties, and three vacated games (two by ND in 2012 and 2013, and one by USC in 2005). Notre Dame’s largest margin of victory is 51-0 in 1966, and USC’s largest margin of victory is 38-0 in 2007. Notre Dame’s longest win streak is 11 (1983-1993), and USC’s longest win streak is 7 (2002-2009.

Notre Dame’s current overall record is 937-334-42 (.730), and USC’s current overall record is 866-361-54 (.697), Both teams have a total of 11 National Championships. Notre Dame has played in 38 bowl records with a record of 18-20-0 (.474), and USC has played in 53 bowl games with a record of 34-19-0 (.642). Notre Dame has seven Heisman winners, to USC’s six. Notre Dame has had 105 consensus All-American’s, to USC’s 82. Notre Dame has spent 853 weeks in the AP Poll, to USC’s 799. Notre Dame has spent 98 weeks at AP No. 1, to USC’s 91. And Notre Dame has had 522 NFL Draft Picks (70 in the first round), to USC’s 520 NFL Draft Picks (84 in the first round).

This week I’m going to share an excerpt from the April 25, 1987 issue of the Irish Eye, recapping the 1986 matchup between Notre Dame and USC, written by John Heisler.

They Told Holtz There Would Be Days Like This

(by John Heisler)

They told Lou Holtz when he took the job of head football coach at Notre Dame there would be days like this one.

They tell Irish players when they matriculate there will be Saturdays like this.

They just never told Holtz or John Carney or Steve Beuerlein or any of the other Irish seniors they would have to wait so long for a moment like this—or that that moment, once it arrived, could be so eminently satisfying.

Saying Notre Dame defeated USC 38-37 doesn’t. begin to tell the story of one of the more impressive comebacks in Irish gridiron history.

This was football played for pride—not only for a Notre Dame team already guaranteed a losing record but also for a USC team trying to save the job of its head coach, Ted Tollner, despite a New Year’s Day invitation to the Citrus Bowl.

After five losses by an amazing total of 14 points, this marked one last chance for the Irish to get it right - and they did it in such spectacular fashion that stunned Trojan players were sprawled numbly on the field at the finish.

The terse wire-story version said John Carney’s 19-yard field goal as time expired won it for Notre Dame. Yet, that hardly told the saga of a remarkable display of fortitude by a seemingly forever-jinxed band of Irish — and, in particular, by a handful of Californians on the Notre Dame roster who couldn’t possibly have imagined a more enjoyable outing in their own backyard.

There had been plenty of moist eyes in the Notre Dame locker room during ‘86—but this time the tears of joy gave a whole new meaning to a season in which the Irish lent a different significance to the word competitive.

“The USC game was a great game for the spectators, but don’t forget we had five other games just like that. The difference was the ball went through the uprights this time,” Holtz says. “We had so many times where it seemed we were down two touchdowns and came back to put ourselves in position to win the game. The USC game was the first time we climbed over the summit.”

“I thought it was a tribute to our players because, as I’ve said many times, it was like going to the altar five times and getting jilted every time. It gets tough to get ‘em to come back that sixth time. But our kids kept coming back.”

“That’s why I hated to see the season end on the Saturday when we really came of age. I just hope we can build on that confidence next season. It’s so much easier to improve after you win a game like that one. If we could have come back and played the next week, we would have been a much, much better football team.”

As it was, Holtz would have to be satisfied with a merely exceptional comeback on the particular Saturday. The list of heroes went on so long, it proved difficult to single out individuals.

But try Beuerlein.

Starting the 42nd and final game of a checkered career in front of his hometown fans, the senior from nearby Fullerton almost watched his afternoon go up in flames. He’d been amply warned by Notre Dame’s head coach after throwing an interception on his final attempt the previous Saturday at LSU (that came after a record 119 straight throws without an intercept).

“Coach Holtz let me know that if I had any turnovers against USC, drastic action might take place,” admitted Beuerlein, who could only watch as the Trojans’ Lou Brock picked off his cross-the-field second-quarter throw and return it 58 yards for a 10-6 USC lead.

“I knew that was probably it for me. Coach came up to me and said, ‘There’s nothing to be said. Terry’s in (junior quarterback Andrysiak).’”

But Holtz chose to give Beuerlein one more chance, reinserting him on the next series.

“I thank God he had faith to put me back in,” Beuerlein said. “I was thinking about how it was my last game, in front of all my friends and family and how this was no way to go out. But I had a gut feeling he would give me another chance. When he asked me if I was ready to play, I said, ‘Yes: sir, you won’t regret it.’”

Beuerlein proved just short of sensational the rest of the way, finishing with four touchdown passes-tying records for most scoring throws ever against the Trojans and the most by an Irish quarterback in a single game.

Try Milt Jackson.

Often hidden in the shadow of Tim Brown’s efforts, Jackson made a play as spectacular as any made all day as he went high in the air in the end zone, out-leaping Trojan safety Junior Thurman for the ball. That 42-yard scoring pass cut the USC lead to 37-27 and came just 43 seconds after a Rodney Peete quarterback sneak had given USC a seemingly insurmountable 37-20 advantage with just 12:26 left.

Try Brown himself.

All he did in the final half alone was return a kickoff 57 yards to set up the scoring bomb to Jackson, catch a 49-yard pass to set up another Irish touchdown and then return a punt 56 yards (only the second punt return of his career) to set up Carney’s game-winning field goal.

Try the all-California backfield duo of tailback Mark Green (Riverside) and fullback Braxston Banks (Hayward).

Green, who hadn’t carried the football once the previous week at LSU, gained a season-high 119 yards on 24 carries marking the first time all year any Irish running back gained more than 73 yards in a game. Banks caught a pair of scoring passes from Beuerlein and added another 30 rushing yards.

Try unsung sophomore tight end Andy Heck.

He scored Notre Dame’s first touchdown, but - more impressively - he banged heads with the USC defense on a two-point conversion try in the final period and came away the winner. Seemingly halted short of the goal line after catching a quick pass from Beuerlein, Heck’s second and third efforts finally pushed him across the stripe, making the count 37-35 and giving Carney a chance for the game winner moments later.

Try the game Irish defense.

Though Notre Dame allowed the Trojans eight more points than it permitted against any other opponent in ‘86, the Irish got tough when it counted. They held strong on a fourth-and-inches attempt at the Notre Dame five with just over six minutes to play. USC disdained the probably-automatic field goal, only to watch a Peete sneak come up short-setting the stage for Notre Dame’s late rally.

Finally, try Carney.

Despite breaking both the season and career records for field goals, the usually dependable senior placekicker had been remembered more in ‘86 for his last-second misses against Michigan and Pitt-each of which would have been game winners. This time, Carney knocked the albatross from around his neck by nailing three three pointers, the last of which from 19 yards at the final gun culminated the improbable comeback.

Notre Dame spent the entire 1986 season outgaining opponents in total yards, first downs and just about everything else except points. The first half of this contest gave every indication of a repeat performance.

Continue reading more of this game recap here.

Here’s a video of Coach Holtz talking about the game:

This has been quite an up-and-down year for the Irish. Coming off a shut out of Boston College, do you think the Irish have what it takes to carry that momentum to California and take care of business against USC on Saturday? What say you?!

Happy Thanksgiving to you & yours!!

Cheers & GO IRISH!