And then there were two. The USC Trojans – Notre Dame Fighting Irish series has produced some truly terrific games throughout its history, but WeAreSC readers were clear in their preference for the top two, as the 1974 and 2005 games sailed through their first-round matchups and into this head-to-head contest.
Both games feature Trojan comebacks, one via a second-half of absolute dominance, one with two signature plays on the final drive of the game. Both games provided a lifetime of memories for any USC fans in attendance or watching from home. And now both games are WeAreSC finalists for the best USC – Notre Dame game of all time.
1974 USC vs Notre Dame
Defending national champion Notre Dame took a 24-0 lead late into the second quarter, when USC quarterback Pat Haden hit tailback Anthony Davis on a swing pass for a touchdown with only a few seconds left in the half.
And somehow, someway, down 24-6 at halftime, the route was on.
Davis was the next Trojan to touch the ball, gathering the Notre Dame second-half kickoff two yards deep in the endzone. Following a wall of blockers, Davis made one man miss at the 18-yard line, veered toward the left sideline, and was gone.
Davis scored on a six-yard run on the following USC drive and just 3:25 into the third quarter, USC had cut the Notre Dame lead to 24-19.
A Kevin Bruce fumble recovery and a couple passes from Haden to wide receiver J.K. McKay led to another Davis short touchdown run. And the two-point conversion gave USC a 27-24 lead just 6:23 into the third quarter. And it Just. Never. Stopped.
USC used a 56-yard punt return to set up a Haden-to-McKay touchdown. Then a Charles Phillips interception led to another Haden-to-McKay touchdown as USC went up 41-24 at the end of the third quarter.
Bruce jumped on his second fumble recovery early in the fourth quarter and Haden hit wide receiver Shelton Diggs for a 16-yard touchdown. Phillips picked off his third pass of the game and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown, traveling the final 30 yards with the ball aloft in celebration. And in 17 minutes of game time, USC had scored 55 points, turning a rout into a rout, and giving the Trojans arguably the greatest game in the history of the program.
2005 USC vs Notre Dame
USC’s 27-game winning streak was on the line, and Notre Dame knew exactly how big this game was. Having warmed up in their traditional home blue jerseys, the Fighting Irish came out for the game in their fabled green jerseys, providing another spark for the Notre Dame fans.
The Trojans got off to a strong start as a wobbly Brady Quinn pass on a flea flicker wound up in the arms of USC linebacker Keith Rivers and USC capitalized on a 36-yard touchdown run by Reggie Bush, featuring a beautiful hurdle over a Notre Dame defender.
After a Notre Dame touchdown drive, USC quarterback Matt Leinart found tight end Dominique Byrd for a long catch and run that led to a short touchdown by LenDale White.
Every good USC game needs a villain, and that role was filled by Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardzija and safety Tom Zbikowski. The tall Samardzija seemingly won jump ball after jump ball against the USC defensive backs, and one went for a 32-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14.
After a stalled USC drive, Zbikowski took his turn in the spotlight, returning a punt for a 60-yard touchdown and giving Notre Dame a 21-14 lead they would take into halftime.
With 9:36 left in the third quarter, Bush ripped off 45 of his game-high 160 rushing yards and scored his second of the game, tying the score.
Notre Dame kicked a field goal and the third Bush touchdown of the game gave USC a 28-24 lead with just five minutes remaining.
And then things really got good.
Quinn picked the USC defense apart on the ensuing drive, eventually scoring on a quarterback draw with just 2:04 left. But things really looked bleak for the Trojans when Leinart took a second-down sack, setting up a third-and-19 with just 1:44 remaining.
A short pass to Bush was completed and the stage was set for “4th-and-9,” a play that means as much as any in Trojan history.
Leinart called an audible at the line and hit Dwayne Jarrett down the sideline, as the ball somehow got through the Notre Dame defender, and Jarrett ran for a 61-yard gain. A couple Bush runs set USC up at the two yard line with 23 seconds left.
Setting up in a five-wide set, Leinart was forced to roll to his left and he took off for the endzone, eventually getting hit at the goal line and fumbling the ball out of bounds. While the official waved to stop the clock, the clock kept running, hitting triple zeroes and sending Notre Dame players and fans into celebration.
When order was finally restored, USC had the ball at the one-yard line and seven seconds left, and a massive decision to make. While head coach Pete Carroll motioned for Leinart to spike the ball, Leinart took the snap and went for the endzone. Stuffed initially at the line, Leinart spun to his left, was the recipient of the “Bush push” and extended the ball behind his head and over the goal line. The touchdown sent the entire USC sideline out onto the field in celebration.
When USC was able to cover the Notre Dame kick returner, the Trojans had sealed one of the greatest wins in program history, 34-31.