This weekend’s Notre Dame-USC showdown will be the 83rd between the two schools, dating back to 1926. The only time the series was interrupted since then was 1943-45, when World War II helped preempt cross country air travel.
Tight end Ken MacAfee (81) and fullback Dave Mitchell (44) celebrate an Irish touchdown during the 49-19 Green Jersey Game victory over USC on Oct. 22, 1977.
The Irish lead the series 43-34-5 after last year ending a Trojan record eight straight victories from 2002-09.
The bar in this series is about as high as it comes because there has been no rivalry in college football history where a meeting between two programs has had the national title on the line with such frequency, although Miami-Florida State since 1983 has come a little closer. The peak of the Notre Dame-USC series was from 1964-80, when one or both programs were legitimately in the hunt for the national title at the time of the game. In those 17 seasons, those two programs won outright or had a share of the national title nine times (five for USC, four for Notre Dame) and/or finished in the AP top 3 five times.
Here’s a review of 10 of the more memorable or watershed victories by the Irish in “The Game.” There is no “right answer” regarding these games. This is based more on personal memory.
5. Nov. 26, 1966: History Doesn’t Repeat
Two years after No. 1 Notre Dame held a 17-0 halftime lead at USC — only to lose in the closing minute (20-17) to cost it a consensus national title — the Irish were No. 1 once again and had built a 17-0 cushion in the closing minutes of the second quarter against Pac 8 champion and Rose-Bowl bound USC.
“My God,” hollered Irish linebackers coach John Ray from the sidelines, “We just have to get another score before the half!”
Indeed, with 58 seconds left in the first half, backup quarterback Coley O’Brien, subbing for an injured Terry Hanratty, found split end Jim Seymour on a 13-yard tally to make it 24-0. Then, after partially blocking a Trojan punt, Notre Dame struck again when O’Brien found Seymour on a 39-yard strike with eight seconds left to up the halftime advantage to 31-0.
The Irish posted a 51-0 win, the largest margin of victory in the series history to date to clinch the consensus national title one week after the famous 10-10 tie with No. 2 Michigan State. In fact, the UPI had dropped Notre Dame to No. 2 after the tie, prompting Notre Dame to drape a banner over the back of its bench at USC that read: "To Hell WIth UPI, We're No. 1." By the end of the day, everyone agreed.
“I told our players that there were 700 million Chinese people in the world who didn't even know the game was played,” USC head coach John McKay would say later. “The next week, I got five letters from China asking, ‘What happened?’ ”
4. Oct. 21, 1989: The Series’ Best Game?
This 28-24 Irish victory may have been the most exciting back-and-forth game in this series.
After No. 9 USC built a 17-7 halftime lead, No. 1 Notre Dame put together two 80-yard drives in the fourth quarter, the second on a 15-yard Tony Rice tally with 5:18 left, and then made a goal-line stand versus quarterback Todd Marinovich and Co. to hang on against a team that would win the Rose Bowl.
Remarkably, it was Notre Dame’s seventh straight conquest of Troy, and the streak would reach 11 in 1993.
“This will even out some day and things will go their way,” Irish head coach Lou Holtz predicted. “I’ll be saying, ‘See, I told you it would all even out.’ Of course, I don’t know if I’ll be here then.”
3. Oct. 22, 1977: Dressed To Thrill
Although Notre Dame has often tried to replicate “The Green Jersey Game,” this is the original.
The popular preseason pick to win the national title, Notre Dame sputtered to a 4-1 start, losing at Ole Miss and squeaking by Purdue (31-24) only after third-team quarterback Joe Montana rallied the Irish from a 24-14 fourth-quarter deficit.
When he took over as the Irish head coach in 1975, Dan Devine’s suggested switching to green jerseys because that’s how he remembered Notre Dame in the 1940s and 1950s. The idea received a cool reception, but Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps urged him to keep trying. Devine secretly ordered green jerseys for a special occasion in 1977. The occasion arrived with the No. 5 Trojans coming to town and owning a 7-1-2 advantage in the series since 1967.
Only a few knew the secret, including team captains Ross Browner, Willie Fry, Terry Eurick and Steve Orsini — and they were vowed to silence.
At the pep rally the previous evening, Phelps began a “Green Machine” chant (a take on the “Mean Machine” mantra in the 1974 movie “The Longest Yard.”). Like all the other Notre Dame students in attendance, senior and future 2005-09 Irish head coach Charlie-Weis was confused about all the green references.
“I remember (after the pep rally) going back to my dorm and saying, ‘Digger doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about!’ ” Weis said.
During the pre-game warm-ups the next day, student managers carried boxes of green jerseys into the Irish locker room and hung them in front of each player’s locker. Bedlam and a “Dressed To Kill” reaction engulfed the team when they returned from warm-ups.
“Here’s one of my closest friends and suite-mates, Terry Eurick … he didn’t tell me,” Weis said. “He figured I had a big mouth and I would have told the whole campus.”
With Montana tossing two touchdown passes to All-America tight end Ken MacAfee, and sneaking in for two more scores, the Irish rolled to a 49-19 victory.
From 1966-82, the Irish were 3-12-2 against USC. Each of the three wins (1966, 1973, 1977) resulted in a national title.
2. Nov. 26, 1988: 1 vs. 2
This was the only time in series history the two schools were ranked 1 (Notre Dame) and 2 (USC), with both sporting 10-0 ledgers.
Notre Dame was lined up to meet 11-0 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, but a trip to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was considered far more daunting. On six previous trips to Notre Dame’s version of “The Wailing Wall”, its dreams of a national title were shattered on the final day of the regular season: 1938, 1948, 1964, 1970, 1974 and 1980.
Furthermore, on the eve of this contest, Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz sent home leading rusher Tony Brooks and leading receiver Ricky Watters for repeated tardiness.
"There is never a right time to do the wrong thing, and never a wrong time to do the right thing," Holtz philosophized.
Although USC finished with more first downs (21-8) and total yards (356-253), the Irish used a 65-yard scoring run by quarterback Tony Rice in the first quarter, a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Stan Smagala, and a 4-1 advantage in turnovers to post a 27-10 conquest — its record sixth in a row against USC.
1. Oct. 27, 1973: Ending The Curse
Entering this contest, USC was the defending national champ, boasted a 23-game unbeaten string and possessed the nation’s most lethal offensive arsenal with quarterback Pat Haden, tailback Anthony Davis (who scored six touchdowns the previous year against the Irish), and wide receiver Lynn Swann. Above all, head coach Ara Parseghian’s Irish had not defeated the Trojans the previous six years, and pundits mocked him as the coach who “can’t win the big one.”
During one of the most electrifying weeks of preparation on campus, impromptu pep rallies were held nightly, hundreds of Davis photos dancing on his knees in the end zone against Notre Dame in 1972 were taped to the campus sidewalks, and bed sheet banners were hung from dorm rooms throughout the campus. For sheer intensity toward one regular season game, only the 1966 showdown with Michigan State and the 1988 arrival of No. 1 Miami rivaled this one.
On USC’s opening series, Irish freshmen phenoms Ross Browner and Luther Bradley set the tone, with Bradley dislodging the helmet from Swann on an incomplete quick out and Browner nearly sacking Haden for a safety. Notre Dame’s 23-14 victory earns it the cover of Sports Illustrated thanks to limiting Davis to 55 yards rushing on 19 carries. Meanwhile, Eric Penick’s 85-yard scoring run on the first Irish play from scrimmage in the third quarter to provide a 20-7 cushion is considered in many circles the most electrifying run in Notre Dame Stadium annals.
When asked after the game why he didn’t dance on his knees after his score, Penick replied, “This is Notre Dame. We’re not hot dogs.”
Bob Thomas’ third field goal provides a crucial two-score edge, and the ball repeatedly bounces in Notre Dame’s favor during the fourth quarter while USC turns it over three times in Irish territory on a rainy day.
The euphoria so overcomes Notre Dame Stadium, the student body tears down the north goal post after the contest — to our knowledge the last time that has occurred (in fact, an old “H” goal post/ crossbar had to be installed from the practice field for the rest of the season.)
Just like in 1977, the victory propels Notre Dame to the national title later that season.