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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football VS USC, 1988

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They wanted to win...

Tony Rice’s 65-yard touchdown run on the opening drive put the Irish ahead – and they never looked back.
Notre Dame Media Relations

This is the eleventh week in my series on Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football national championship winning seasons, and this week (per your requests!) I’m highlighting the 1988 match-up between Notre Dame and USC. Here is a snippet of the game recap from the 1988 Notre Dame Football National Championship Review. And if you love the stories from the 1988 season as much as I do, check out Jerry Barca’s book, Unbeatable.

This happens to be a game I saw in person. I was a senior in high school, living in Southern California, and my parents took me to the game. We sat in the end zone, with the rest of the Notre Dame fans, and I was blown away by Rocket’s kickoff return, and just how much fun the game was from start to finish. At that point I had not received my acceptance letter yet, but that game was truly a taste of what was to come for the next four years. Little did I know I’d be seeing these guys around campus in just a few short months. You just never know where life is going to take you ... and I’m so very grateful for my four years at Notre Dame! GO IRISH!

What they said ...

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame are not necessarily dominant or stylish at all times, but they manage to win all the time.

Showing a blitz-filled defense for the first time this year, and shaking opportunity’s hand when it knocked with fumbles and interceptions, the No. 1 Fighting Irish finished the regular season a perfect 11-0 with a 27-10 win over No. 2 USC Saturday before 93,829 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

“We blitzed more than we have in the past, and we were opportunistic and scored when Southern Cal made turnovers.”

Offered Irish Coach Lou Holtz, whose team can probably lock up the national championship with a win over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

“It wasn’t all that pretty. In fact, I tell the team that the only thing they were prettier than is me, and that’s not saying much. We just did what we had to do to win.” Nov. 27, 1988 . Grand Rapids Press

Since when does Oklahoma take a back seat to Notre Dame on the option play?

Since Saturday, of course. USC stopped the Sooners, famed runners of the wishbone, early this season. USC didn’t stop Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish used their option to rush for 162 yards in their 27-10 victory over USC at the Coliseum. The Trojans hadn’t allowed that many rushing yards since the Arizona game seven weeks ago, or that many points since the Washington game five weeks ago.

“With Oklahoma, Washington, Arizona, I came up to make someone outside take me,” USC cornerback Ernest Spears said. “But (the Irish) had everyone covered. It was about as good as Arizona’s. Those two stick out in my mind.” Nov. 27, 1988 Orange. County Register

The team that was “a year away” put itself 60 minutes away from the 1988 national championship against USC.

Notre Dame cashed in on numerous Southern Cal mistakes and toppled the Trojans 27- 10 in the Los Angeles Coliseum to finish the regular season.

The way the Irish defense pressured Southern Cal quarterback Rodney Peete had to make the Heisman Trophy candidate long for the days of measles and laryngitis, which slowed, but did not stop Peete over the two weeks prior to the Notre Dame game. Jan. 19, 1989 The Observer

In the most important game of the season and, for that matter, one of the most significant in any season, USC made just enough errors to help Notre Dame retain its No. 1 college football ranking.

Clearly, though, Notre Dame was the better team Saturday at the Coliseum, winning 27-10 before a crowd of 93,829.

The Irish beat the Trojans on big plays, a 65-yard touchdown run by quarterback Tony Rice in the first quarter and a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Stan Smagala in the second quarter. Nov. 27, 1988 Los Angeles Times

The Matchup: #1 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. #2 USC (10-0), November 25 in Los Angeles Coliseum, Los Angeles, Calif.

The Holtz Pre-game Quote: “This isn’t the end of the journey. We haven’t accomplished anything yet. All we’ve done is put ourselves in position to do something big. We’re 10-0, but this isn’t where we want to end.’’

The Angle, Part I: Despite the huge accomplishments of both programs, this marks the first time Notre Dame and USC have faced each other with perfect records. The only times both teams were unbeaten were 1947 (Notre Dame #1 at 8-0, USC 7-0-1) and 1973 (Notre Dame 5- 0, USC 5-0-1).

The Angle, Part II: This marks the 24th time in the history of the Associated Press poll that the two top-ranked teams have met. Notre Dame was involved in six of the previous 23, going 2-0-1 as #1 and 0-2-1 as #2. Notre Dame had not won a #1 vs. #2 battle since doing it twice in 1943.

The Question: Could the Irish deal with the Trojans’ 14-game winning streak (longest in the country), an offense averaging 472.1 yards per game led by Heisman Trophy candidate Rodney Peete and a defense leading the nation by allowing only 68.1 rushing yards per game?

The Answer: Notre Dame prevailed by gambling with one-on-one coverage of the Trojan receivers so it could put extra pressure on Rodney Peete. The Irish sacked him three times, forced four first half turnovers and held USC to 10 points.

The Irony, Part I: Notre Dame triumphed despite only eight first downs, despite being outgained by more than 100 yards and despite going the entire second period and the first I4 minutes of the third without a first down.

The Irony, Part II: Notre Dame triumphed despite suspending its leading rusher (Tony Brooks) and leading receiver (Ricky Watters) before the game.

The Hero: They were the Irish big play people - Tony Rice for his 65-yard option run, Stan Smagala for his 64-yard interception return, native Californian Mark Green for his two touchdowns and defensive end Frank Stams for his nine tackles, two-and-a-half sacks and fumble recovery.

The Unsung Hero: Fullback Anthony Johnson made two critical plays on Notre Dame’s final scoring drive. On third-and-three from midfield, he bulled off tackle for 1O yards. Then, on third-and-six from the USC 36, he took a screen pass through the right side for 23 yards.

The Sting: Notre Dame set the tone for the contest when Tony Rice threw a 55-yard bomb to Raghib Ismail on the first Irish play from scrimmage after a USC punt had backed the visitors to their two.

The Key Move: USC had a big chance to get back into the game late in the third period, starting with a first and goal from the Irish four with Notre Dame leading 20-7. The Irish defense made two critical stops of Aaron Emanuel, and then a procedure penalty vs. the Trojans forced them to settle for a field goal. Notre Dame then launched its 70-yard drive for the clinching score.

The Holtz Post-game Quote:

“I think this team is underrated, even though we’re number one. I’ve read articles people have sent me saying we were lucky against this team or that team. Our football team is prettier than I am, but that’s about it. They don’t play pretty all the time, but they sure play together as a team. I said to my wife on Tuesday that God works in strange ways. He’s managed to expire my enthusiasm and energy at the same time as our season. I’m completely beat right now. I have absolutely no emotion. But I’m thrilled for our players.’’

If you want to read even more about this game, there is another recap in the Scholastic’s 1988 Notre Dame Football Review. (page 48)

Now that I’ve made it through the 11 “claimed” national championship years, I was thinking about going through the “unclaimed” national championships: 1919, 1920, 1927, 1938, 1953, 1964, 1967, 1970, 1989, 1993, and 2012. What do you think?

Cheers & GO IRISH!