Beginning under a technicolored sky in smog-ridden Los Angeles and ending under a starry West Coast night, Notre Dame will try to keep its undefeated season and shot at a national title alive tonight.
Far removed from the blue-gray visage that the horsemen ran under when Notre Dame ruled college football, the Irish have awakened the echoes of past glory.
Notre Dame (11-0) kicks off against the University of Southern California (7-4) at 8 tonight (5 p.m. PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a chance to finish a season undefeated for the first time since winning its last football championship in 1988.
The Irish are No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, which determines which two teams play for the national title after the regular season. A win over the Trojans will put Notre Dame in the championship game Jan. 7 in Miami.
“Notre Dame is where every team wants to be,” said Mike Golic, who was a captain for the 1984 Irish team and is now a co-host of ESPN radio’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning.” “It’s called controlling its own destiny.”
There is not a better opponent for Notre Dame to go up against with a chance to play for a title on the line.
The Irish and Trojans will be playing each other for the 84th time in a series that began in 1926. The teams didn’t play each other from 1943 to 1945 because of travel restrictions during World War II.
Notre Dame holds a 43-35-5 series advantage, but USC is 21-18-4 when playing the Irish at home. And each victory and loss is important to the teams.
“Anyone who is a lifelong Notre Dame fan that goes back more than a few years certainly remembers USC ripping their hearts out a time or two. And we remember doing the same to them,” said Phil Houk, the host of an Irish football preview show on WKJG 1380 AM in Fort Wayne.
“They’re all emotional victories, they’re all things Notre Dame fans mark time by, I would say. Notre Dame-USC I would say has got to be the best intersectional rivalry in the country.”
A national title has been at stake for Notre Dame or USC numerous times when the teams have played.
The Irish had championship aspirations ruined by the Trojans in 1938, 1964, 1970, 1974, 1980 and 2006. Notre Dame’s bid for a 1948 title was also damaged by a tie with USC.
The Irish have also spoiled the Trojans’ push for a title with victories in 1947, 1952 and 1988. The 1988 game was the only time the teams were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the polls, and top-ranked Notre Dame defeated No. 2 USC 27-10 en route to its last national championship.
But the rivalry goes deeper than just final scores. The series is filled with emotional and memorable moments.
In 1931, USC scored all of its points in the final quarter to beat Notre Dame 16-14 in South Bend as the Trojans won their second national championship.
In 1947, both teams were undefeated and the No. 1 Irish (8-0) defeated the No. 3 Trojans (7-0-1) 38-7 thanks to a 76-yard touchdown run by Emil Sitko and Bob Livingstone’s 92-yard score as Notre Dame claimed the national title.
In 1964, USC upset top-ranked Notre Dame by rallying from a 17-0 halftime deficit to win 20-17, denying the Irish a national title. But two years later, Notre Dame throttled USC 51-0 as it claimed the 1966 championship.
In 1973 and 1977, Notre Dame was propelled to national championships with wins over USC, but the Trojans ruined the Irish’s shot at a major bowl game in 1996 with a 27-20 overtime victory that marked the end of Lou Holtz’s tenure as Notre Dame’s coach with a 100-30-2 record.
The USC Trojans will only be hoping to play spoilers of Notre Dame’s perfect record. They have a record of 7-4 and are no longer ranked. More important, they were banned from the postseason for two years in 2010 for violating rules governing improper benefits to players.
Even so, more than 200 sportswriters, columnists, broadcasters and others will be covering the game, reflecting the interest in the game and the history of Notre Dame football dating back over a century. Indeed, one of the most famous opening paragraphs of any sports story was written by Grantland Rice in an account of a 1924 Notre Dame game against Army.
“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky,” Rice wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. They are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden,” a reference to the Irish players who dominated the game, won by Notre Dame, 13-7.
Golic said his favorite memory from the rivalry was the 1977 game when the Irish warmed up in their traditional blue jerseys but came out of the locker room wearing green jerseys for the first time since 1963. Notre Dame defeated USC 49-19 en route to the national title.
“I remember sitting in the stands seeing them all come back out with green jerseys on and everybody was going nuts,” Golic said. “My brother (Bob) told me the story in the locker room how all the guys were ripping their jerseys off to get the green one on. They just went out and absolutely dismantled USC in that game. It certainly helped on the way to a national championship.”
Notre Dame will try to create another USC memory that could lead to a championship tonight, and the Irish will also try to start swinging the balance of power back in their favor after losing to the Trojans in nine of the last 10 years.
“I knew about this rivalry since I was young. I’ve been a part of, I guess, every game since I was young. I know how special it is and how big a deal it is,” said John Goodman, a current Notre Dame receiver and Bishop Dwenger graduate.
“Hopefully, we can get ND back on the winning streak.”