Notre Dame and USC, just the two names conjure up thoughts of tradition, class, excellence, and big games. Tradition, tradition, tradition…Black cleats, no names on the backs of their jerseys, "Touchdown Jesus," the Golden Dome, the Coliseum, the Peristyle. There are many great traditions in college football from the deep Southern roots of Alabama, Auburn, and LSU to the plains of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas. There is tradition in the East with Penn State and the old days of Army-Navy. The Midwest has one of the best in Ohio State-Michigan. The Miami teams in the 80's to the more recent success of the Florida Gators.
However, there is one rivalry which is the pre-eminent intersectional rivalry in all of college football…Notre Dame and USC. You can look to the 11 National Championships that each team has won or the 7 Heisman Trophies won by both universities. They are ranked 1st and 2nd in all time All- Americans and players in the NFL Hall of Fame. There is nothing quite like this one in the country. The Irish Green and Gold vs. the Trojan Cardinal and Gold. Cheer Cheer for Old Notre Dame and Fight On for Ole SC- you can feel the clash of the titans. The Notre Dame band Shaking Down the Thunder with their leprechaun mascot jumping around and the Trojan marching band blasting Fight On and Conquest, with Traveler and Tommy Trojan fighting on to victory!
There have been many epic battles played in this series over the years. The all time series is currently 42-33-5 in favor of the Irish with USC winning the last seven contests. Even though there have been periods of droughts and dominance in this series, there is still a mutual respect for these two storied programs and an enduring rivalry that is unlike any other. The teams play for the Jeweled Shillelagh which goes home with the winner. It is important to take a look back at the history that has created the tradition and respect that is still upheld today.
As the story goes, in 1926 two ladies got together to create this rivalry, the wife of Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne and the wife of USC Athletic Director Gwynn Wilson. USC was looking for a national rival and a worthy opponent. Rockne initially resisted a home and home series with the Trojans because of the long travel time from the Midwest to Los Angeles. However, leave it to a woman to make it happen. Mrs. Wilson persuaded Mrs. Rockne that a trip to Southern California in late November or December would be better than a trip to Nebraska or the East Coast at that time of year. And so it was, on December 4th, 1926, the beginning of the USC-Notre Dame series began. Later, it was agreed by both teams that USC would travel to South Bend in October every other year for their game.
Notre Dame won the first game played against the Trojans 13-12 in 1926 with Rockne stating it was the best game he ever saw. The following year they played a tight game won by the Irish 7-6, with approximately 120,000 fans in attendance. The following years looked a lot like the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the 80's with USC winning National Titles in 1928, 1931, and 1932 and Notre Dame winning titles in 1929 and 1930. It was these early games that established the tradition and rivalry that still stands today. The 1929 game with Notre Dame winning 13-12 held the largest confirmed attendance in the history of NCAA football at 112,912. The 1930 win by Notre Dame 27-0 was Rockne's last regular season game that he coached and he considered that team his best and they finished with their 2nd straight title and 3rd overall.
The 1931 game won by USC in a dramatic come from behind win, 16-14, after trailing 14-0 and ending Notre Dame's 26 game unbeaten streak was the Trojans first win in South Bend. It was also their 2nd National Title. Many historians cite this come from behind victory by Howard Jones' Trojans as the game that put them in the same elite circle as Notre Dame. More than 300,000 people gave the Trojans a ticker tape parade upon their return to Los Angeles. The 1932 USC team's 13-0 shutout victory gave the Trojans their 2nd consecutive National Title and matched Notre Dame's titles from 1929 and 1930.
There are many legends that have coached in this rivalry. Coach Knute Rockne from 1918-1930 was 105-12-5 with 5 undefeated seasons and 3 National Championships. He was the coach of the legendary "Four Horsemen" and is also remembered from the era "win one for the Gipper. " Notre Dame also had Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, and now Charlie Weis. USC has had greatness as well with Howard Jones going 121-36-13 with 4 National Championships in 16 years. John McKay was 127-40-8 with 4 National Titles in 16 years. There was also John Robinson, Jess Hill, and now Pete Carroll. Coach Carroll is 91-16 and has won 7 consecutive Pac-10 Titles, 7 straight 11 or more win seasons, 2 National Championships, and 3 Heisman Trophy winners in this his 9th season.
The Heisman Factor:
The programs share 14 Heisman's between them, 7 apiece. No other rivalry comes close to this number. Notre Dame with Angelo Bertelli in 1943 to USC's Reggie Bush in 2005, there has been great players that have played for both sides in between. Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart, John Lattner, Paul Hornung, John Huarte, and Tim Brown for the Irish and Mike Garrett, OJ Simpson, Charlie White, Marcus Allen, Carson Palmer, and Matt Leinart for the Trojans. A quick note: Mater Dei High School is one of only two high schools to have multiple players to win the Heisman Trophy (the other was Woodrow Wilson High School).
The Golden Era:
1960-1982 is remembered as the golden era of the series as Notre Dame and USC combined to win 8 National Titles. Notre Dame won titles in the 1966, 1973, and 1977 seasons and the Trojans won titles in 1962, 1967, 1972, 1974, and 1978. This era was the time of a great coaching rivalry between USC coach John McKay and Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian. This is when a rivalry is at its best, when both teams are contending for titles. It is like a heavyweight fight with two formidable and evenly matched opponents battling for victory.
The Games to Remember (the Bad, Good, and the Ugly):
There was 1964 game at the Coliseum with USC overcoming a 17-0 halftime deficit against the #1 ranked Fighting Irish. USC quarterback Craig Fertig hit Rod Sherman on a 4th down touchdown pass to win 20-17 and ride into USC folklore.
The Irish domination game in 1966 in which the Trojans were handed their worst loss, 51-0, prompting coach John McKay to say that he would never lose to Notre Dame again (which he did not do until 1973).
The 1972 game was "the Notre Dame Killer", Anthony Davis, scoring 6 touchdowns, 2 on kickoff returns that went the distance. The Trojans went on to finish undefeated and win the National Championship. This USC team is the one that many still consider the best of all time
The 1974 game was among the best games in USC history and one of the best comebacks in all of college football. The Trojans erased a 24 point deficit to the defending National Champions at the Coliseum. With Notre Dame leading 24-0, USC scored right before half to cut the lead to 24-6. Coach McKay at halftime told his team that they needed to make a play and that Anthony Davis will take the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and that they would beat the Irish. AD took the kickoff back 102 yards to score and they never looked back, scoring 35 points in the 3rd quarter. The Trojans scored 55 points in the span of 17 minutes and is still the most points scored by one team in the series. Although I was not in attendance, I have been told by many Trojans that not a single Trojan sat in their seat the entire 2nd half.
1977 was the "wearing of the green" game won by Notre Dame 49-19. The Irish warmed up in their traditional navy jerseys only to go in before the start of the game to change into their emerald green jerseys. The Notre Dame players emerged from the locker room followed by a Trojan Horse, containing the captains on the team. The sight of the green jerseys created a frenzy in the stands and the Irish never looked back with Joe Montana leading them to victory. The Irish finished strong with a victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl to win the National Championship.
The 1978 game was won by the Trojans. USC took a commanding 24-6 lead only to have Joe Montana lead the Irish to spectacular 4th quarter comeback to take a 25-24 lead. However, Trojan kicker Frank Jordan kicked the game winner to propel the Trojans 27-25 at the Coliseum.
A recent classic is the 2005 game in South Bend or what is now known as the "Bush Push" game. Notre Dame did break out in their green jerseys and they let the grass grow long to try to neutralize Reggie Bush's speed. It is the best game that I have ever witnessed live. This was a heavyweight fight with both teams battling back and forth and the Irish taking the lead late in the game. With less than a minute to play, Matt Leinart delivered a 4th and 9 strike to Dwayne Jarrett down the left sideline that took the Trojans inside the Irish 15 yard line. After a Leinart scramble towards the endzone, he was hit hard and the ball was knocked out of bounds. However, the clock did not stop and the time ran out sending the Notre Dame fans storming onto the field in celebration. After clearing them and resetting the clock, the Trojans ran a quarterback sneak and Bush gave his quarterback Leinart a good push to propel him over for the win.
1983 to 1995 was a lopsided era with Notre Dame winning 11 straight against the Trojans and now the Trojans have won their most consecutive games with 7 in a row.
So, now the greatest intersectional rivalry adds its 81st chapter this weekend. There is a lot of optimism for Notre Dame this year and they are finding ways to win close games. They are playing better football and they are protecting their quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Getting pressure on the quarterback is something USC will need to do this week, as the Trojans face the nation's top passer in terms of efficiency (179.25). The junior continues to get better, having completed 67.6 percent of his passes thus far, for 1,544 yards with 12 TDs and just two interceptions. He has an arsenal of weapons even with the injury to their breakout receiver, Michael Floyd. The USC defense has been their strength this season as they are only giving up 8.6 points per game with 3 rushing touchdowns allowed and none through the air in 5 games.
Charlie Weis recognizes the magnitude of this game for the program.
"USC is one of the best teams in the country," he said. "They've beaten us seven times in a row, really, the bottom line. Some of them have been ugly. So I think winning this week would do wonders for my spirits. But it wouldn't just be my spirits, it would be everyone affiliated with Notre Dame. So that is what we're going to try to do."
Both teams are 4-1 and coming off a bye week giving each team time to get healthier as well as prepare for a turning point game for both teams. The Trojans must come in and take their next steps, to come into battle in their opponent's arena, to be focused, and to wage war. There will be no retreat and no surrender. The Trojans, regardless of conditions or circumstances, are coming in to play their best game and to Fight On! Beat the Irish!
Shane Foley played quarterback for the Trojans from 1986-1990. He is a Vice President and Wealth Management Consultant for Wells Fargo in Newport Beach. He serves on the executive board for Pete Carroll's A Better LA, The Blind Children's Learning Center in Orange County and is involved in several other charities. He can be reached at Shane.Foley@wellsfargo.com.