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O/NSO: Trojans/Notre Dame rivalry series edition

The Obvious: Of all the non-conference football rivalries that the storied USC Trojans have been part of over the generations, there is one rivalry that stands supremely above all others, and it’s certainly not a state secret that the ultimate USC rival out-of-conference is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The Not So Obvious: The Irish lead in the series against the Trojans, 48-36-5, with both teams owning big winning streaks against the other at various points in their history. Aside from bragging rights, since 1952 the winner of the game has been awarded the “Jeweled Shillelagh.” However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a look at this legendary rivalry and some of the Trojans’ biggest wins coupled with some painful defeats along the way. As a change of pace, below is an NBC pregame special before a televised USC/Notre Dame game, which despite being an Irish broadcast, gives a pretty good overall history and vibe between the two longtime adversaries.

The Obvious: One of college football’s most intense traditions is the pregame pomp and circumstance.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans and Irish each have their traditional pregame routines both home and away, but there is nothing like the Notre Dame Weekender when Trojans fans and the Spirit of Troy visit Notre Dame Stadium. Here are two perspectives regarding the rivalry from each band’s point of view. The first video clip is a promotional recall of the 2009 Trojans Marching Band making its annual trip back to Chicago and Notre Dame Stadium, respectively. The second video clip is the 2017 pregame show of the Band of the Fighting Irish in Notre Dame Stadium before playing the Men of Troy.

The Obvious: The first meeting between the Trojans (8-1-0) and the Irish 8-1-0) was 1926 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the outcome was a narrow 13-12 Irish victory over the Trojans before 74,378.

The Not So Obvious: After the game, Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne said it was the greatest game he had ever seen. Obviously, there was no television at the time, but the game was filmed. Check out below the brief silent highlights, which begins with Rockne with his daughter followed by the kickoff and a long gain by the Trojans. Notre Dame then scores on an end run by Charlie Riley. Howard Jones’s Trojans then score on a pass play. Meanwhile, in the stands, USC fans form card stunts featuring a Trojan horse and then a Notre Dame spell out.

The Obvious: In 1927, the Trojans (7-0-1) traveled back to Chicago by train to play Notre Dame (6-1-1) in Chicago’s historic Soldier Field before a record 120,000 fans. The game was a real battle, but the Irish held on for a slim 7-6 victory. The night before featured a special dinner the likes of baseball’s Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Below is a photo of the dinner and the celebrities that attended.

The 1927 celebrity dinner the night before the USC/Notre Dame game (photo above): Standing left to right: Glenn Pop Warner, Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne, Christy Walsh, Lou Gehrig, Howard Jones, Tad Joneses.

The Not So Obvious: Although the Trojans now found themselves down 0-2 in the series after the loss in Chicago, the 1928 season saw USC garner its first victory over the Irish, 27-14, in the Coliseum. Trojans head coach Howard Jones recorded his first and USC’s first national championship (9-0-1).

Trojans legendary head coach Howard Jones (photo above) led the 1927 to his first and Troy’s first national championship.

The Obvious: In 1931, the Trojans and the Irish played what some thought at the time was the best game ever in the budding rivalry. Notre Dame hadn’t lost in nearly three years, and USC had never won in South Bend. That was all about to change. The Trojans took down the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium, 16-14, and from that point, the rivalry was really on.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans’ hero of the 1931 game was a USC kicker named Johnny Baker, who kicked the game winner. The Trojans scored all 16 points in the fourth quarter, which ended a Notre Dame 26-game unbeaten streak. The victory over the Irish catapulted Troy to the national championship.  How big was the victory over the Irish? Upon their return to the City of Angels, the Trojans were welcomed by an estimated 300,000 fans at the train station.

The Obvious: In 1964, John McKay’s Trojans (6-3) hosted the No. 1 Fighting Irish (9-0) and first-year head coach Ara Parseghian. The Irish were rolling with a dominating team while the Trojans were a substantial underdog at home. For most of the game, Notre Dame controlled the affair until the fateful final quarter. Late in the fourth quarter and trailing the Irish, the Trojans put forth a comeback for the ages, which culminated in a major 20-17 shocker over the Irish.

The Not So Obvious: That final quarter? It came to “literally pass” that the Trojans, trailing 17-13 and facing fourth and eight at the Irish 15, pulled out a miracle with 1 minute 33 seconds remaining. Let’s pick up the game’s famous ending in a story written by late WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz. GP wrote, “What happened next is the stuff of Trojans lore. It began on the USC sideline, when receiver Rod Sherman approached head coach John McKay with a play suggestion, something that players just didn’t do with the imposing USC coach. But the Sherman idea of calling “84-Z-Delay” was quickly accepted by McKay, and Sherman ran onto the field to give the play to (QB Craig) Fertig.

“As the ball was snapped, Fertig rolled left, while Sherman took off from the left slot position, faked to the outside and then cut back to the middle against coverage from Notre Dame safety Tony Carey. As to what actually took place after the ball was thrown was the fodder of many humorous takes between Fertig and Sherman on the USC banquet circuit over the years. To hear Fertig tell it, the ball hit Sherman right between the 1 and the 2 on his jersey. Sherman, of course, remembers having to reach outstretched to make the grab. Regardless of which version you want to believe, the pass was completed for a touchdown and it caused a pandemonium amongst the 83,840 fans in attendance. USC 20, Notre Dame 17.”

In 1964, Trojans’ standout wide receiver Rod Sherman (photo above – No. 12) made the game-winning catch against the Irish.

The Obvious: In 1967, the undefeated and No.1 ranked Trojans (4-0) were a 12-point underdog in South Bend. The Irish (2-1) took a 7-0 lead in the first half. Three times Troy’s middle linebacker Adrian Young, who was born in Ireland, thwarted Irish scoring threats inside the 12-yard line by intercepting passes. Offensively, Trojans All-America tailback O.J. Simpson gained 150 yards in 38 rushes, which included a 1-yard scoring thrust, an explosive 35-yard run in the third quarter, and a three-yard touchdown in the final quarter. The Trojans went on to upset the Irish 24-7.

The Not So Obvious: The 1967 game was delayed six minutes inside Notre Dame Stadium because Trojans’ head coach John McKay refused to take the field first.  Two years earlier in South Bend, Notre Dame had kept Trojans waiting on the field in the rain for 15 minutes.

In 1967, Trojans All-America tailback O.J. Simpson (photo above) led the Trojans to a huge 24-7 upset at Notre Dame. In these highlights above of Simpson, advance to 3:38 on the counter to watch and hear play-by-play narration as Simpson takes apart the Irish in intimidating Notre Dame Stadium.

The Obvious: In 1974, the No. 6 Trojans (8-1-1) welcomed the No. 5 Irish (9-1) to the Coliseum for what turned out to be the most memorable game ever with Notre Dame – at least from a USC perspective. It was a game dominated by Notre Dame in the first half and legendary domination by the Trojans in the second half. The 83,552 at the Coliseum that day can safely say they’ve NEVER seen a USC comeback like this one. The Coliseum has never seen a half of football with that type of sustained noise and intensity and USC scoring from both sides of the ball. It was, to say the least, unreal. The Trojans scored 49 unanswered points in the 55-24 rout of the Irish. There were so many cardinal and gold stars of the game, but once again USC tailback Anthony Davis stood out as the Irish killer. AD also had plenty of help from others that rose to stardom in the game.

The Not So Obvious: With two key fumble recoveries in that 1974 “Comeback” game, Trojans starting linebacker Kevin Bruce recalls below the glorious “Comeback” afternoon in a piece recently written for WeAreSC. Also below are condensed highlights of the game, as well.

The Obvious: In 1977, Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine surprised his No. 11 Irish team (4-1) by ordering special jerseys for the game against the visiting No. 5 Trojans (5-1). The Irish warmed up in their traditional blues, but when they returned to the locker room before the kickoff, green uniforms were hanging in their lockers. The Irish stormed out of their locker room behind an enormous wooden Trojan horse to a thunderous ovation from soldout Notre Dame Stadium. Led by quarterback Joe Montana, tight end Ken MacAfee, and linebacker Bob Golic, the Irish blew out the Trojans, 49-19.

The Not So Obvious: No question that the green jerseys caught the Trojans by surprise. However, the legendary green jerseys probably had more to do with an aroused Irish club. So, why show video highlights from a game in which the Trojans were manhandled? Because the game is a reminder of what one team will do to beat the other, the 1977 game is etched in Irish lore. The Irish were great on that day in South Bend, but the Trojans would extract painful revenge the following season in Los Angeles.

The Obvious: In 1978, Frank Jordan kicked a 37‐yard field goal with two seconds remaining to give the No. 3 Trojans a 27‐25 victory over the No. 8 Irish.

The Not So Obvious: Trailing by 24‐6 entering the final period, Notre Dame (8-2) scored three touchdowns, two on passes by the legendary Joe Montana. The last ND score came with 46 seconds to play and gave the Irish a 25‐24 lead over the Trojans (9-1). Troy’s final drive began on their 30, and the key play in the winning drive was a 35‐yard pass from quarterback Paul McDonald to wide receiver Calvin Sweeney.

The Obvious: In 1988, it was No. 1 Notre Dame (10-0) and the No. 2 Trojans (10-0) in the Coliseum for a day game spectacular. The 60th meeting between the two rivals was the first ever when both had flawless records. Whoever won would head into the bowls as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship. As for the game, the Men of Troy dominated the statistics, gaining 356 yards to Notre Dame’s 253, accomplishing 21 first downs to the Irish’s eight, and running 34 more plays. But the number that was the killer for the Trojans was four, as in four costly first half turnovers. The Irish used a 27-10 victory over the Cardinal and Gold as a springboard to their last recorded national championship.

The Not So Obvious: After the game, Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz said, “I think this team is underrated, even though we’re No. 1. 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.”

The Obvious: In 1996, the Irish (8-2) came into the extremely cold and windy Coliseum with 13 straight years of not losing to the Trojans and 11 straight years of victories over their rivals from Los Angeles. The underdog Trojans (5-6) badly needed a win. The Irish scored a touchdown to go ahead 20-12 (with the PAT pending) in the fourth quarter. However, Irish kicker Jim Sanson missed the extra point, and the lead stayed at eight. The Trojans bounced back with an eight-play, 67-yard drive resulting in tailback Delon Washington’s 15-yard touchdown run with 1:50 remaining. Washington also ran in the two-point conversion, and the score was tied at 20 at the end of regulation.

The Not So Obvious: In overtime, Trojans’ quarterback Brad Otton passed to tailback Rodney Sermons for a five-yard touchdown pass, and the Trojans went ahead for the first time, 27-20. The fans at the Coliseum went crazy when USC linebacker Mark Cusano knocked down Notre Dame’s Ron Powlus’ fourth-down pass for the Trojans upset. USC quarterback Brad Otton missed much of the game due to injury. It was Lou Holtz’s last game as coach of the Irish, and his first loss to the Trojans.

The Obvious: In 2005, this might have been the greatest game ever played between USC and Notre Dame. The clash had everything at Notre Dame Stadium, and the game truly was legendary. The Trojans were 5-0 and top-ranked while the Irish were 4-1 and ranked No. 9. The Trojans had also won 27 consecutive games against all comers. The Irish came out wearing their green jerseys. Irish legendary quarterback Joe Montana was the featured speaker for the ND Friday pep talk as the Irish were pulling out all the stops. As for the game, it came down to the Trojans final possession with everything on the line.

The Trojans’ final possession began at their own 25-yard line with 1:58 left. After three plays, Troy was up against a fourth-and-9 deep in ND territory. Miraculously, Trojans’ lefty quarterback Matt Leinart connected on an audible-called pass to receiver Dwayne Jarrett for a miraculous 61-yard catch-and-run. Moments later, Leinart (cover photo above story) was literally pushed into the end zone by tailback teammate Reggie Bush for the 1-yard winning score.  

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans trailed the Irish three times – 21-14, 24-21 and 31-28 – in the second half. It was Charlie Weis’ first year at Notre Dame and Matt Leinart’s final year at Troy. The “Bush Push” was technically illegal at the time but rarely enforced. Because of the focus on the game-winning play, the NCAA eventually passed legislation to make the “push” play legal.

The Obvious: The last meeting, 2019, between USC and Notre Dame took place in South Bend. After being dominated in the first half, the Trojans came alive in the second half through the passing of true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis and the rushing of redshirt freshman running back Markese Stepp. The two USC freshmen helped close the gap late in the game. Despite their fourth quarter heroics, the Trojans still fell to the Irish 30-27.

The Not So Obvious: Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis, who was returning to action from a concussion, threw for 255 yards on 24-of-35 passing with two touchdowns and four straight scoring drives in the second half that helped keep the Trojans in the game.

The Obvious: And finally, the 2020 Trojans are scheduled to host the Irish on Saturday, November 28, in the Coliseum.  

The Not So Obvious: The Irish currently own a three-game winning streak over the Trojans and head coach Clay Helton. Because of the coronavirus, the 2020 game is right now in question. However, what isn’t in question is not whether the two rivals meet on Thanksgiving Day Weekend, but rest assured that when they do play again, it will still be USC and Notre Dame.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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