by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After publishing TGS since 1957, we’ve learned to “expect the unexpected” each football season. But as the 2012 campaign commenced, we hardly gave consideration to the possibility that Notre Dame would be sitting atop the polls in late November. If anything, the traditional regular-season ender (in even-numbered years) vs. Southern Cal at the L.A. Coliseum figured to be one of the final hurdles for the Trojans to clear in a quest to reach the BCS title game. Even the most wild-eyed of the many Domers we know were hardly expecting to get this sort of early Christmas present from Fighting Irish HC Brian Kelly.

So much for preseason forecasting!

History also seems to repeat itself in college football. And even though it’s been a while since the annual Notre Dame-SC game has held national title implications for the Domers, we’ve seen these dynamics before. More on that in a moment.

Impartial as we are at TGS, we have rather enjoyed the Fighting Irish resurgence this season, if for no other reason than the grudge match vs. the Trojans will once again take on such grand proportions. And having a shot at the national title only enhances the build-up to the country’s last great intersectional rivalry.

As is usually the case when Notre Dame goes on the road, its every-other-year treks to Southern California take on the characteristics more of a crusade than a football game. The game, which almost always takes place during Thanksgiving week in the even-numbered years, features the Fighting Irish local Los Angeles and Orange County booster clubs each staging huge pep rallies at major hotels the night before the game, both drawing thousands of Notre Dame backers and “subway” alums.

And it’s more than just a pep rally, as the hotels themselves become “Fighting Irish Central” before the games. It’s also a place for countless Domers to convene and hold court. Moreover, the Notre Dame bookstore will often have annexes at each hotel (“Bookstore West”), selling Fighting Irish paraphernalia shipped directly from South Bend. Events continue through the weekend; reserving a spot at the “Communion Breakfast” is another byproduct of the festivities, as well as plenty of horse-trading for tickets, rides to the game, and arrangements for tailgate parties at the Coliseum. Which can be quite the attraction themselves; we recall meeting Notre Dame Heisman winners Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart before one such Irish-Trojans game in the 1980s.

Pre-game hoopla aside, Notre Dame football history is also replete with a couple of well-publicized failures with the national title on the line in past season-enders at the Coliseum. Of those, there is still perhaps none as famous as the 1964 game, when first-year Irish HC Ara Parseghian quickly resurrected the Irish from the ashes of a 2-7 team in 1963 to a perfect 9-0 record and top spot in the national polls entering the final game of the ‘64 campaign against John McKay’s Trojans, who (like this year’s SC) had fallen a bit short of expectations that season, entering the game at 6-3. And when Notre Dame bolted to a 17-0 lead at halftime on that November 28, Parseghian famously exhorted his troops to finish the job in the second half. “Men,” said Parseghian, “we are one half away from the greatest comeback in college history. Now let’s give them 30 more minutes of Notre Dame football!”

But the second half would belong to SC. While the Irish squandered chances to put the game on ice, fumbling at the Trojan 9, then having a TD wiped out by a questionable holding call at the SC goal line, McKay’s team rallied. Down 17-7 in the 4th Q, Troy cut the gap to 17-13 on a 23-yard Craig Fertig-to-Fred Hill TD pass. When the Irish were forced to punt, SC started its final drive at its 40-yard line with 2:10 to play. Fertig quickly moved the Trojans into scoring position at the ND 17, but was soon faced with a 4th down. That’s when Fertig famously connected with HB Rod Sherman, cutting to the post and outleaping Irish DB Tony Carey, for a dramatic TD with 1:35 to play. The Trojans then withstood a last second aerial assault by Notre Dame’s soon-to-be-named Heisman-winning QB John Huarte and held on for a 20-17 upset win, wrecking Irish national title hopes.

Parseghian returned to the Coliseum two years later in 1966, again ranked on top of the polls, but just barely so after the epic 10-10 tie vs. Michigan State the previous week at East Lansing. Appearing vulnerable with QB Terry Hanratty sidelined, the Irish nonetheless dominated and took no chances this time, rolling behind backup QB Coley O’Brien, who tossed for three TD passes, including a 40-yard bomb to WR Jim Seymour on the last play of the first half to stake the Irish to a 31-0 lead. There would be no Trojan rally as there had been in 1964; the eventual 51-0 win would cement Parseghian’s first national title and still ranks as the all-time worst defeat in SC history.

McKay, however, would get his revenge on Parseghian, and then some, in subsequent years, although we believe the 1970 game at the Coliseum most closely resembles this Saturday’s contest in its pre-game dynamics. As the Trojans have done this season, they were also a major disappointment 42 years ago, rated as a national title contender at the start of the campaign only to unravel in a collection of agonizing conference defeats which, ironically, like this season, also began with an early-season loss at Stanford. By the time the Notre Dame game rolled around at the end of that season, SC was at 5-4-1 and had just been whipped by crosstown UCLA, victimized, like last week at the Rose Bowl vs. the Bruins, by a criminally slow start en route to a double-digit loss to Tommy Prothro’s last Westwood edition (in 1970, the score was 45-20). All that was left to salvage a terribly disappointing season was the season-ender vs. another unbeaten Parseghian Notre Dame team, this one featuring QB Joe Theismann leading a 9-0 Irish team that was still in the national title hunt.

Notre Dame jumped ahead early by a 7-0 count when the Trojans amazingly caught fire behind QB Jimmy Jones, racing to a 24-7 lead before the Irish could cut the deficit to 24-14 at the half. Rain had begun to pelt the Coliseum in the second quarter (I know; I was there and getting soaked), turning the field into a quagmire by the 3rd Q when the Trojans scored twice within 42 seconds on fumble recoveries by lineman Pete Adams and John Vella. Theismann tried heroically to rally the Irish, cutting the deficit to 38-28 early in the 4th Q and continuing to fire away at the tiring Trojan secondary in the 4th Q. Knocking on the door continually in the 4th Q, the Irish could still get no closer, losing 38-28 despite Theismann’s staggering record 526 passing yards, which were stained by three interceptions.

That result would end up costing the Irish the national title, as events on New Year’s Day (which included a 24-11 ND win over top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl) would catapult Bob Devaney’s 11-0-1 Nebraska team (which, ironically, suffered its only blemish in an early-season 21-21 tie vs. the same USC), to the national title.

There have been many other memorable Notre Dame-SC battles in the decades since 1970. A wild brawl broke out in 1971 at South Bend when another unbeaten Irish team suffered its first loss of the season to what had been a reeling SC side, 28-14; Anthony Davis’ kickoff returns in 1972 and ‘74, the latter game featuring a breathless 55-point rally by the Trojans from a 24-0 deficit; the famous “green jersey game” at South Bend in 1977; a battle between No.1 SC and No. 2 Notre Dame at the Coliseum in 1988, when Lou Holtz exorcised some of those old ND demons at the Coliseum with an emphatic 27-10 win that set the stage for the Irish to win their last national title.

For similarities to the past, however, we recall those 1964, ‘66, and ‘70 visits to the Coliseum by undefeated Notre Dame teams against Trojan sides with nothing to lose.

Not that Lane Kiffin is going to listen to anything we say, but we might suggest finding some highlight film from 1964 and 1970 to show his disappointed Trojans that anything is possible when Notre Dame and USC get together.

Mostly, however, we just get a kick out of the Fighting Irish vs. Trojans having national title implications, like many of their storied matchups long ago.

Return To Home Page