TGS SPECIAL REPORT...IT'S USC-NOTRE DAME WEEK!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
It has been said that we can never really escape our past, partly because of sport. After all, here it is in 2017, and we have a chance to experience another Yankees-Dodgers World Series. But for us at TGS, our annual reminder of time gone by is the week USC and Notre Dame tangle; this Saturday the hostilities between the Trojans and Fighting Irish will be renewed in South Bend. For one of only a few times in recent years, there is some meaning attached to this week’s gridiron festivities beneath the Golden Dome; both are relevant again and ranked at the same time, with consequences in the polls and the playoff mix as the season passes its halfway point.
One of the treats of having a front-row seat to Trojans-Fighting Irish in decades past was enjoying the annual fun that legendary LA Times columnist Jim Murray had with the yearly showdown. Murray’s wit was never sharper than after an SC-Notre Dame battle, when he would often recycle a report of the game in an Irish brogue. Murray wasn’t the only scribe who had some fun with SC-Notre Dame; those fans in the Long Beach area could look forward every year to a colorful Trojan-Irish debate featuring Press-Telegram “dueling” columnists Loel Schrader and Tom Hennessy (by his name, we’re sure you can guess which side Hennessy preferred).
The recent passing of legendary Notre Dame HC Ara Parseghian recalls some epic battles vs. SC’s John McKay from 1964-74, in what we believe, at least in the TGS generation, was the high-water mark of the Trojans vs. Irish conflict. Interestingly, McKay and Purdue’s Jack Mollenkopf were the only HCs who got the best of Parseghian’s Domers; Ara was only 3-6-2 in games vs. McKay. That both of these coaching giants would be greatly defined by their clashes vs. one another underlines the significance of USC-Notre Dame.
Two of Parseghian’s wins over USC were key moments in Fighting Irish national championship seasons of 1966 & ‘73. But the game we at TGS recall most fondly, at least from a Notre Dame perspective, was the 1965 clash vs. the Trojans. Having watched college football for over a half century, and having recalled most of Parseghian’s greatest wins, we can say that the ‘65 game vs. the Trojans might rank as the high point of the “Era of Ara” at Notre Dame. We have long thought it was Parseghian’s finest hour; into our seventh decade of publishing, we’re not sure we’ve ever seen a team execute so effectively in a textbook display of fundamental football.
The setting was a dark and gloomy South Bend, and “remember” and “revenge” were the words of the day, the week, that month, and the entire ‘65 season at ND. For Parseghian’s first Irish team in ‘64 had almost authored one of the great storylines in college history, recovering from a desultory 2-7 mark in '63 to one win from a perfect 10-0 season and a national title, only to be cruelly denied in the season-ender at SC, 20-17, as the Trojans rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit. Avenging that loss became something of a crusade at Notre Dame; all week long the campus was draped with signs to remind the Fighting Irish of what happened the year before in Los Angeles—as if they could forget. The signs hung from ancient Sorin Hall, and from the freshman dormitories, Farley and Breen-Phillips, as well. Priests strolling through the trees wore large white buttons that said simply, “Remember.” Parseghian even had the word repetitiously pasted across rows of lockers in the varsity dressing room.
The stakes were typically high; SC, featuring top Heisman contender RB Mike Garrett, entered the contest 4th-ranked, unbeaten, but once-tied courtesy a 20-20 stalemate vs. Minnesota in the opener. Meanwhile the Irish, having been knocked out of the top spot in the polls a month earlier by Bob Griese and Purdue, were slotted seventh, and eyeing a late move in the rankings.
“You can’t let Garrett have the ball 30 times,” warned Parseghian before the game. Which seemed prudent; Garrett had averaged 30 carries and 170 rushing yards in his five previous games. “And,” said Ara, “the only way to do this is to hang onto the ball ourselves. Ball control is of the most importance.”
To that end, Parseghian devised some new wrinkles in his offense for this drizzly, gray day. Instead of splitting his ends out from the power-I formation, Ara sent them out wide, then curiously shifted them back in tight before the snap of the ball. He also unbalanced his line frequently, but in a different way—-using both tackles on the strong side. With this heft up front to block for a full-house backfield of Bill Wolski, Nick Eddy and Larry Conjar, it was Parseghian’s simple plan to try and blast out USC with a ground attack that would eat up both yards and minutes.
Maybe the most brutally-effective and efficient half of Irish football would ensue, but not until the tone for the game in the frenzied atmosphere had been set on the opening kickoff. That was when Trojan flanker Rod Sherman slipped and fell on the wet turf shortly after he gathered the kick and began to generate momentum. “My God,” said McKay to young, first-year assistant Craig Fertig, who had thrown the TD pass to Sherman to win the ‘64 game. “They’ve shot him.” Quickly, the Irish defense picked up the baton, with an eight-man front featuring linemen Alan Page, Pete Duranko, and Dick Arrington, and LB Jim Lynch, shutting off Garrett’s running lanes and harassing QB Troy Winslow, who, when he could get off a pass, would often see it harmlessly fall out of bounds or otherwise incomplete.
To enhance the offensive plan, Ara made another change, switching back to QB Bill Zloch, a limited (at best) thrower who had lost the job to soph Tom Schoen (later a DB) two weeks before in the Army game, but a sure ball handler, and just the man, Parseghian thought, to direct the smashmouth infantry. Zloch would execute as ordered, almost completely forsaking the pass (he threw only seven), instead sending the bruising Conjar, a rugged jr. from Harrisburg, Pa., plowing through USC’s middle and inside the tackles 20 times in the first half alone as the Trojans seemed overly conscious of Wolski’s sweeps and Eddy’s counters. Notre Dame scored in this same, hammering fashion its first three possessions, Conjar barging in from short range for each TD.
By the end of the 3rd quarter the Irish were ahead 28-0, all four TDs scored by the pounding Conjar, and had run 58 plays to Southern Cal’s 26. Garrett, held to 9 yards on 7 carries in the first half, did not see even a glimmer of daylight until into the 4th Q against the Irish's late-game "baseball defense" to help bring his rushing tally for the day up to a paltry 43 yards. ND would rush for 308 yards as the final score was 28-7, much to the astonishment of a national TV audience on NBC that had expected another thriller, instead stunned to see the powerful Trojans bullied in such a manner. “Maybe SC should have scheduled Yale instead,” deadpanned the iconic Murray in his LA Times column the next day.
McKay, however, would end up getting his revenge, and then some, on Parseghian during a six-game unbeaten (but twice-tied) series run from 1967-72, plus the epic 1974 fightback when SC reversed a 24-0 deficit with one of the most-breathtaking 17 minute-stretches in college history, scoring 55 unanswered points. For us, however, an often-overlooked renewal would come in 1970, in a game that might have more typified SC-Notre Dame in the McKay-Parseghian era. One of Parseghian’s best teams, and certainly his best-ever offense, led by QB Joe Theismann, would again rumble into the Coliseum unbeaten at 9-0, jockeying for the nation’s top spot in a furious November along with other unbeatens Texas, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Michigan (which had fallen to the Buckeyes the previous week). Meanwhile a promising Trojan season had unraveled in four losses vs. Pac-8 opposition, including a wicked 45-20 beatdown the previous week administered by crosstown UCLA. Notre Dame would be installed as a deserving 12-point favorite as heavy rain was forecast that afternoon in L.A. (We know, we were there!) When the Irish marched easily downfield on their first possession, with Theismann scrambling for the TD, the ND script seemed set.
Only, amazingly, it wasn’t. The ghosts and lore of SC-Notre Dame were enough to even stir this underachieving bunch of Trojans, whose speed edge, which was not as pronounced vs. many Pac-8 foes that season, became evident vs. the Irish. After Theismann’s score, SC took its first shot, and moved easily downfield to a short scoring run by HB Clarence Davis. Forcing a quick punt, SC had the ball again at midfield and marched 51 yards to another TD. Like a boxer hit with an early haymaker, the Irish looked stunned as the skies began to darken ominously and the rain, torrents eventually, began to fall. Before the 1st Q ended, SC got the ball back again, and this time much-maligned QB Jimmy Jones tossed a 45-yard TD bomb to WR Sam Dickerson, who caught the ball in “Sam Corner,” a northwest slice of the closed end endzone. (It was in that corner a year before that Dickerson had made his famous catch to knock UCLA out of the Rose Bowl, sending SC to Pasadena instead.) Down, 21-7, Theismann valiantly tried to get ND back into the game, but was swimming—literally—upstream this gloomy afternoon. Up 24-14 in the 3rd Q, SC got a couple of cheap TDs in quick order—one when Trojan OT Pete Adams plopped on HB Mike Berry’s fumble in the ND endzone after the ball slithered away from various Irish defenders, another a few moments later on a Theismann fumble recovered in the ND endzone, mushrooming the lead to a stunning 38-14. The Domers fought back as Theismann, helped by big plays from RB Larry Parker, kept firing and hinted at a remarkable comeback deep into the 4th Q, but Notre Dame had dug itself too big of a hole.
In the end, perhaps the most remarkable number of the rainy day would be the 526 passing yards by Theismann in adverse conditions, only 28 yards shy of the then-NCAA single-game record set by Cincinnati’s Greg Cook the previous year, and obliterating the SC opponent record of 401 YP set by Wisconsin’s Ron VanderKelen in the 1963 Rose Bowl. “I don’t know how he did it,” said SC counterpart Jones when told of Theismann’s yardage. “There were times in the second half when all I’d have was a handful of mud after the snap.” It also shattered the Irish one-game passing mark of 366 by Terry Hanratty against Purdue in 1967. But Joe also tossed 4 picks, part of 8 Irish giveaways, and the most-important numbers of the day were the score...USC 38, Notre Dame 28.
“It doesn’t matter if you lose by one point or 40,” said a distraught Parseghian, though his team would recover to upset Texas in a Cotton Bowl rematch, denying the Horns a national title. Yet the loss to SC would cost the Irish the crown; ND ended up 2nd-ranked behind Bob Devaney’s Nebraska (which, ironically, also suffered its only 1970 blemish at the hands of SC in a 21-21 early-season draw). For McKay it would be a nice ending to a rough year and plant the seeds for a return to glory soon after. “Well,” said McKay afterward as he puffed a big cigar, “it makes the winter livable.”
A lot to live up to for the next renewal of USC and Notre Dame on Saturday! (To see what we think about Trojans-Fighting Irish and the entire upcoming college card for this week, check our College Analysis.)
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