USC-Notre Dame: Eleven Classics From Years Gone By


On October 17, the USC Trojans and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will take the field to continue a heated rivalry that began in 1926.

While USC has dominated the recent years of these gridiron battles, it has not always been this way.

Much of the 1980’s and 1990’s saw the Irish, led by Lou Holtz, beat the Trojans with same regularity that USC enjoys over Notre Dame in this decade.

Every year, the USC-Notre Dame game captures the imagination of college football fans throughout the nation and many of those years found the winner of this game vying for the national championship.

This year, the game may not feature a national championship winner but it will figure prominently in both the Trojans title game hopes and perhaps the future of Charlie Weis as Notre Dames coach.

In honor of this long running contest that has provided so many sterling moments and memories, here is my top eleven USC-Notre Dame games throughout the years:

#11 1930: Notre Dame 27 USC 0

While this game wasn’t a classic for the on-the-field exploits, it merits distinction as the last regular season game coached by Notre Dame’s legendary Knute Rockne. Coach Rockne, who won six titles in 12 seasons as the Fighting Irish coach died in a plane crash at the age of 43, but not before he guided the Irish to 10-0 season and his last national championship before he boarded that airplane for his ill-fated flight.

#10 1948: USC 14 Notre Dame 14

A hard fought game that saw the Trojans break Notre Dame’s 21 game winning streak. This game cost the Irish the AP national championship, who elevated the Michigan Wolverines to the top spot.

#9 1929: Notre Dame 13 USC 12

Another classic, hard fought game played in front of the largest crowd ever to witness a college football game.

#8 1964: USC 20 Notre Dame 17

Notre Dame came into this game 10-0, undefeated and ranked #1. Meanwhile, USC, under the tutelage of the legendary John McKay was a lackluster 6-3. John Huarte, Notre Dame’s Heisman trophy winning quarterback of that year led the Irish to a 17-0 halftime lead and form all appearances, it looked like Notre Dame would roll to another victory and perhaps another national championship but it was not meant to be. Craig Fertig, USC’s much less heralded quarterback, led a stirring USC comeback and with 1:35 left in the game, he hit wide receiver Rod Shermen on a spectacular fourth down pass that gave the Trojans the lead. Huarte then marched the Irish down the field but a last second pass to Jack Snow fell incomplete as time ran out.

#7 1968: USC 21 Notre Dame 21

USC, led by OJ Simpson, came into the game undefeated and ranked #1. Notre Dame was 7-2 and when Notre Dame’s quarterback Terry Hanratty was injured, it marked the beginning of the Joe Theisman era who promptly threw an interception that USC returned for a touchdown. Theisman shook off that mistake and led Notre Dame to a 21-7 halftime lead. USC came back with two touchdowns in the second half and when Notre Dame missed two field goals that same half, the game ended in a tie. Simpson, who would go on to win the Heisman, was held to 55 yards that game.

#6 1986: Notre Dame 38 USC 37

In Lou Holtz’s first year as the Irish coach, Notre Dame trailed 37-20 in the fourth quarter before staging a furious rally capped by John Carney’s (isn’t he still kicking somewhere?) field goal as time ran out. Although the Irish would only finish 5-6 that year, it was the start of Notre Dame’s return from the woeful Gerry Faust era and only two years later, Holtz would lead the Irish to a national championship.

#5 1996: USC 26 Notre Dame 20

After 11 straight years of futility against the Fighting Irish, the Trojans finally broke through in the first overtime game in the long series. Coming off of a heartbreaking double overtime loss the week before against rival UCLA, Trojan quarterback Brad Otton’s pass to Rodney Sermon gave the Trojans a 27-20 lead and when Ron Powlus’ last gasp pass fell harmlessly to the Coliseum turf, the Trojan faithful finally had some thing to cheer about in an otherwise dismal Trojan season.

#4 1988: Notre Dame 27 USC 10

This game was special for the circumstances that surrounded it. Notre Dame came into the game undefeated and ranked #1 while USC was also undefeated and ranked #2. Notre Dame, playing without suspended stars Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters beat a Rodney Peete led Trojan team behind the stellar play of Tony Rice. The Fighting Irish would go to win the national championship that year.

#3 1970: USC 38 Notre Dame 28

Interestingly enough, this game was memorable not for the final score which saw USC, a pedestrian 5-4, end Notre Dames national title hopes but rather for the remarkable performance of Joe Theisman who passed for a school record 526 yards in a driving rain. Although Theisman’s heroics would fall short of a Notre Dame victory, his performance nonetheless was one for the ages.

2) 2005: USC 34 Notre Dame 31

USC came into the game riding a 27 game winning streak, which included three straight 30+ point beat downs of Notre Dame. However, Brady Quinn led an inspired Irish offense who took the Trojans down to the wire.

Key plays included a fourth and nine pass from Matt Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett that covered 61 yards with 1:37 left in the game. Two rushes by Reggie Bush brought the Trojans to the Irish two yard line and on the next play, Leinart rolled out with seven seconds left when the ball was knocked out of Leinart’s hand out of bounds. The timekeeper let the clock run out and frenzied Irish fans stormed the field thinking they had won. However, time was put back on the clock setting the scene for Leinart’s quarterback sneak, assisted by a well place shove in the back from Reggie Bush that propelled Leinart into the end zone and this game into the annals of all time great USC-Notre Dame games.

#1 1974: USC 55 Notre Dame 24

Simply known as “The Comeback,” the Fighting Irish raced out to a 24 point lead but with 10 seconds remaining, USC quarterback Pat Haden threw a seven yard touchdown pass to running back Anthony Davis to finish the first half. On the second half’s opening kickoff, Davis returned the ball 102 yards to spark the Trojans to 55 straight points in a mind boggling 17 minutes. Davis would go on to scored two more touchdowns, Haden would throw for two and when it was all over, Notre Dames then-president Theodore Hesburgh told Trojan coach John McKay that what he did to the Irish “wasn’t very nice.” McKay, known for his biting wit replied, “That’s what you get for hiring a Presbyterian.” (Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian’s religion of choice)

So there you have it, my eleven greatest USC-Notre Dame games in this memorable rivalry.

I tried to be fair (this coming from a rabid Trojan fan) but lists are always subjective and I hope you forgive any unconscious transgressions.

There have been many, many great games in this series and I am sure that I have slighted many games that possibly deserve inclusion in this list.

On October 17, the Trojans and Fighting Irish renew the series once again in South Bend.

Lets hope that this game barges its way into my top ten Trojan-Irish games next year.

As long as it features a USC “W.”