Thursday, October 13, 2005

Northern Indiana Welcomes Southern California | by Jay

(We're pleased to have this contribution from BGS reader John, who fills us in on the rich history of the Trojans' roadtrips to South Bend over the years. Enjoy.)

Saturday marks the 77th meeting between Notre Dame and Southern Cal, and the Trojans’ 35th visit to Notre Dame Stadium. Much has been written about how the series was inspired by the affection Knute Rockne’s wife, Bonnie, had for Southern California. But it was also a watershed for USC, which was growing into a national power but had never ventured east of the Rockies.

Notre Dame’s first two home games against Southern Cal were at Chicago’s cavernous Soldier Field in 1927 and 1929. The Irish eked out one-point victories both seasons before crowds of well over 100,000.

Southern Cal’s first appearance in the House that Rock Built was on November 21, 1931. In front of the first-ever sellout crowd at Notre Dame Stadium, the Fighting Irish suffered their first defeat in their two-year-old home, 16-14, on a last-minute field goal. The upset thwarted Notre Dame’s hopes for an unprecedented third-straight national championship. The Trojans took the title for themselves, and were greeted by a ticker-tape victory parade upon their return to Los Angeles. Southern Cal went on to win three of their first five games at Notre Dame Stadium.

Frank Leahy’s 1941 arrival in South Bend marked the beginning of two-and-a-half decades of dominance for the Fighting Irish over their arch-rivals from the Left Coast. Notre Dame won 10 straight home games over Southern Cal, clinching national championships with lop-sided wins in 1946 and 1949, and spoiling the second-ranked Trojans’ title hopes in 1952, 9-0. Even after Leahy retired in 1953, the less-heralded trio of Terry Brennan, Joe Kuharich and Hugh Devore kept the Irish home streak alive.

During this period, a majority of games in the series were played in Los Angeles – including seven out of 10 meetings between 1947 and 1956. Apparently, Southern California was growing weary of late November trips to Northern Indiana, which usually featured brutish weather and Trojan defeats.

Beginning in 1961, the schools agreed to move Notre Dame’s home games in the series to mid-October. Although the weather was somewhat milder, the Fighting Irish home-field supremacy over the Trojans continued. In 1963, Notre Dame won only two games – at home versus Southern Cal and UCLA, in consecutive weeks. Ara Parseghian resurrected Notre Dame football the following year, and in 1965 led the Irish to a 28-7 rout of the Trojans to avenge a heartbreaking and controversial loss at the Coliseum in 1964.

Southern Cal finally broke its 28-year dry spell in South Bend in 1967, as O.J. Simpson led the Trojans to a 24-7 win which propelled them to a national championship and their only extended run of dominance over Notre Dame. The Irish would collect only two wins and one tie in their next eight home games against Southern Cal, but both wins – in 1973 under Parseghian and the "Green Jersey" game of 1977 under Dan Devine – paved the way for Notre Dame national championships.

In 1983 and 1985, Gerry Faust continued an improbable tradition of failed Notre Dame coaches winning at home over Southern Cal. Despite promising his teams would always "have blue in the uniform," Faust’s Irish took the field in green jerseys for the 1983 game. Faust later explained that those jerseys had thin madonna-blue stripes on the sleeves. Whatever, Gerry. Even more peculiar was Faust’s ploy to have his team change from blue to green jerseys at halftime of the 1985 game. It looked like Faust was rubbing it in, since the Fighting Irish had a 27-0 lead at intermission. Notre Dame went on to a 37-3 rout – the most lop-sided game in the series in South Bend. But Faust apparently squandered whatever luck remained in those jerseys: with the exception of the '92 Sugar Bowl, green-clad Irish teams are 0-3 over the last 20 years.

The undisputed master of the Notre Dame-Southern Cal rivalry is Lou Holtz, who went 9-1-1 against the Trojans – including 5-0 at home. The most memorable of the home wins were over eventual Rose Bowl champions in 1989, when No. 1 Notre Dame rallied for a 28-24 victory, and 1995, when the Fighting Irish crushed the No. 5 Trojans, 38-10.

The teams have split the last four games in South Bend. Yet another failed Notre Dame coach, Bob Davie, won two out of three at home over Southern Cal. After the 2001 game, a 27-16 Irish victory, USC dropped to 2-5 and appeared doomed to perpetual mediocrity under yet another struggling first-year coach. That game remains the Trojans’ only double-digit loss under Pete Carroll. Since then, Southern Cal has been on an incredible 45-4 streak – including two A.P. national titles and a 45-14 win over Tyrone Willingham’s Irish in 2003, by far Southern Cal’s most one-sided victory ever in South Bend. Notre Dame hopes to bookend the Trojans’ most recent run of success by pulling the upset this Saturday, just as the Irish bookended a similar 42-3-3 streak 30 years ago with losses to the Trojans in 1971 and 1975.

Notre Dame still leads the overall series 42-29-5, and is 25-10-1 at home against the Trojans. This year’s game is the first since 1989, and only the sixth time ever, when both teams will enter Notre Dame Stadium ranked in the top 10. As has often been the case, Saturday’s game will probably either propel the winner to another national championship or dash the loser’s title dreams – or both.

-- John