USC Notre Dame: The Rivalry


Notre Dame and USC, just the 2 names conjure up thoughts of tradition, class, excellence, and big games. Tradition, tradition, tradition…Black cleats, no names on the backs of their jerseys, “Touchdown Jesus,” the Golden Dome, the Coliseum, the lighting of the Torch to start 4tt. In an era of unprecedented change and realignments throughout the country, many rivalry games and decades of tradition are now facing extinction. Recently, Texas A&M left the BIG-12 for greener pastures of the SEC ending their annual game with Texas that dates back to 1894. There are many great traditions in college football from the deep Southern roots of Alabama, Auburn, and LSU to the great plains of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas. There is tradition in the East with Syracuse, Penn State, Pittsburgh and the old days of Army-Navy and the ivy league matchup of Harvard-Yale. The Midwest has one of the best in the land with Ohio State-Michigan. In the South, there is the Iron Bowl with Alabama-Auburn, out West there is the Big Game with California-Stanford, the Civil War with Oregon and Oregon State, the Backyard Brawl with Pittsburgh-West Virginia, the Cross-town Rivalry with USC-UCLA, the Border War with Kansas-Missouri, and the Red River Shootout with Texas-Oklahoma just to name a few.

However, there is one rivalry which is the pre-eminent intersectional rivalry in all of college football…Notre Dame and USC. You can look to the 11 national championships that each team has won or the 7 Heisman Trophies won by both universities (10 and 6 since Reggie Bush’s existence has been vacated but you cannot change what he did on the field). They are ranked 1st and 2nd in all time All- Americans and players in the NFL Hall of Fame, #1 total draft picks of 472 for USC and #2 Notre Dame with 469 and they have each had five #1 overall NFL selections. There is no game quite like this one in the country. There is the contrast of the Irish Green and Gold vs. the Trojan Cardinal and Gold. Cheer Cheer for Old Notre Dame and Fight On for Ole SC- you can feel the clash of traditions. The Notre Dame band Shaking Down the Thunder and cheer cheering for Old Notre Dame with their leprechaun mascot jumping around and the Trojan marching band blasting Fight On and Conquest, with Traveler and Tommy Trojan Fighting On to victory!

There have been many epic battles played in this series over the years. The all time series is currently 43-33-5 (with one win vacated) in favor of the Irish with USC’s eight game winning streak coming to end in Los Angeles last year. Notre Dame has a 22-15-1 advantage in South Bend and USC holds a 21-18-4 edge in games played in Los Angeles. Even though there have been periods of droughts and dominance in this series, there is still a mutual respect for these two storied programs and an enduring rivalry that is unlike any other. The teams play for the Jeweled Shillelagh which goes home with the winner. It is important to take a look back at the history that has created the tradition and respect that is still upheld today.

The Origin:

As the story goes, in 1926 two ladies got together to create this rivalry, the wife of Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne and the wife of USC Athletic Director Gwynn Wilson. USC was looking for a national rival and a worthy opponent. Rockne initially resisted a home and home series with the Trojans because of the long travel time from the Midwest to Los Angeles. However, leave it to a woman to make it happen. Mrs. Wilson persuaded Mrs. Rockne that a trip to Southern California in late November or December would be much better than a trip to Nebraska or the East Coast at that time of year. And so it was, on December 4th, 1926, the beginning of the USC-Notre Dame series began. Later, it was agreed by both teams that USC would travel to South Bend in October every other year for their game.

Notre Dame won the first game played against the Trojans 13-12 in 1926 with Rockne stating it was the best game he ever saw. The following year they played a tight game won by the Irish 7-6, with approximately 120,000 fans in attendance. The following years looked a lot like more recent franchises Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the 80′s with USC winning National Titles in 1928, 1931, and 1932 and Notre Dame winning titles in 1929 and 1930. It was these early games that established the tradition and rivalry that still stands today. The 1929 game with Notre Dame winning 13-12 held the largest confirmed attendance in the history of NCAA football at 112,912. The 1930 win by Notre Dame 27-0 was Rockne’s last regular season game that he coached and he considered that team his best and they finished with their 2nd straight title and 3rd overall.

The 1931 game won by USC in a dramatic come from behind win, 16-14, after trailing 14-0 ended Notre Dame’s 26-game unbeaten streak and was the Trojan’s first win in South Bend. It was also their 2nd National Title. Many historians cite this come from behind victory by Howard Jones’ Trojans as the game that put them in the same elite circle as Notre Dame. More than 300,000 people gave the returning Trojans a ticker tape parade upon their return to Los Angeles. The 1932 USC team’s shutout victory 13-0 gave the Trojans their 2nd consecutive National Title and matched Notre Dame’s titles from 1929 and 1930.

The Coaches:

There are many legends that coached in this rivalry. Coach Knute Rockne from 1918-1930 was 105-12-5 with 5 undefeated seasons and 3 National Championships. He was the coach of the legendary “Four Horsemen” and is also remembered from the era “win one for the Gipper. ” Notre Dame also had Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, and now second year head coach Brian Kelly is bringing new hope the Irish faithful. USC has had greatness as well with Howard Jones going 121-36-13 with 4 national championships in 16 years. John McKay was 127-40-8 with 4 national titles in 16 years. The recently departed Pete Carroll finished with some controversy but there is no disputing his success and impact on college football. When he finished, his record was 96-19 in nine seasons with 7 consecutive PAC-10 Titles, 7 straight 11 or more win seasons, 7 straight top 4 finishes, 2 national championships, and 3 Heisman Trophy winners. There was also John Robinson, Jess Hill, and now second year Head Coach Lane Kiffin who inherited major sanctions from the NCAA but is battling through with no complaints. Last year marked the first time since 1941 with USC’s Sam Barry and Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy that both teams had first year coaches.

The Heisman Factor:

The programs share 14 Heisman’s between them, 7 apiece. No other rivalry comes close to this number. Notre Dame with Angelo Bertelli in 1943 to USC’s Reggie Bush in 2005, there has been great players that have played for both sides in between. Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart, John Lattner, Paul Hornung, John Huarte, and Tim Brown for the Irish and Mike Garrett, OJ Simpson, Charlie White, Marcus Allen, Carson Palmer, and Matt Leinart for the Trojans. As we know, Bush’s Heisman has been sent back and his records removed in the last year. A quick note: Mater Dei High School is one of only two high schools to have multiple players to win the Heisman Trophy- John Huarte and Matt Leinart (the other was Woodrow Wilson High School).

The Golden Era:

1960-1982 is remembered as the golden era of the series as Notre Dame and USC combined to win 8 National Titles. Notre Dame won titles in the 1966, 1973, and 1977 seasons and the Trojans won titles in 1962, 1967, 1972, 1974, and 1978. This era was the time of a great coaching rivalry between USC coach John McKay and Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian. This is when a rivalry is at its best… when both teams are contending for titles. It is like a heavyweight fight with two formidable and evenly matched opponents battling for victory.

The Heated Rivalry

Seven times Notre Dame has entered the game at USC with a shot at a national title, only to be defeated (1938, 1948, 1964, 1970, 1974, 1980, and 2006) and an eighth was damaged by a tie in 1948. Notre Dame has ruined USC’s national title dreams three times 1947, 1952, and 1988.

At least one team has been ranked in the AP Top 25 in 63 of 71 meetings since 1936 (the 1st season of AP national rankings), while both teams have been ranked a total of 29 times.

The Games to Remember (the Bad, Good, and the Ugly):

There was 1964 game at the Coliseum with USC overcoming a 17-0 halftime deficit against the #1 ranked Fighting Irish. USC quarterback Craig Fertig hit Rod Sherman on a 4th down touchdown pass to win 20-17 and ride into USC folklore.

The Irish domination game in 1966 in which the Trojans were handed their worst loss 51-0, prompting coach John McKay to say that he would never lose to Notre Dame again (which he did not do until 1973).

The 1972 game was “the Notre Dame Killer”, Anthony Davis, scoring 6 touchdowns, 2 on kickoff returns that went the distance. The Trojans went on to finish undefeated and win the National Championship. This USC team is the one that many still consider the best of all time.

The 1974 game was among the best games in USC history and one of the best comebacks in all of college football. The Trojans erased a 24 point deficit to the defending National Champions at the Coliseum. With Notre Dame leading 24-0, USC scored right before half to cut the lead to 24-6. Coach McKay at halftime told his team that they needed to make a play and that Anthony Davis will take the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and that they would beat the Irish. AD took the kickoff back 102 yards to score and they never looked back, scoring 35 points in the 3rd quarter. The Trojans scored 55 points in the span of 17 minutes and is still the most points scored by one team in the series. Although I was not in attendance, I have been told by many Trojans that not a single Trojan sat in their seat the entire 2nd half.

1977 was the “wearing of the green” game won by Notre Dame 49-19. The Irish warmed up in their traditional navy jerseys only to go in before the start of the game to change into their emerald green jerseys and the Notre Dame players emerged from the locker room followed by a Trojan Horse, with their team captains inside. The sight of the green jerseys created a frenzy in the stands and the Irish never looked back with Joe Montana leading them to a lopsided victory. They won out the rest of the year with a victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl to win the National Championship.

The 1978 game was won by the Trojans. USC took a commanding 24-6 lead only to have Joe Montana lead the Irish to spectacular 4th quarter comeback to take a 25-24 lead. However, Trojan kicker Frank Jordan kicked the game winner to lead the Trojans to a 27-25 victory at the Coliseum.

In 1988, both teams for the first time entered undefeated and pitted #1 Notre Dame vs. #2 USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Tony Rice broke the game open with a long run and Notre Dame corner back intercepted a Rodney Peete pass for a touchdown right before halftime on their way to a 27-10 victory. Notre Dame went on to win the national title that year beating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

Fast forwarding to the 2005 game in South Bend or what is now known as the “Bush Push” game. Notre Dame did break out in their green jerseys and they let the grass grow long to try to neutralize Reggie Bush’s speed. It is the best game that I have ever witnessed live. This was a heavyweight fight with both teams battling back and forth and the Irish taking the lead late in the game. With less than a minute to play, Matt Leinart delivered a 4th and 9 strike to Dwayne Jarrett down the left sideline that took the Trojans inside the Irish 15-yard line. After a Leinart scramble to the end zone, he was hit hard and the ball was knocked out of bounds. However, the clock did not stop and the time ran out sending the Notre Dame fans storming onto the field in celebration. After clearing them and resetting the clock, the Trojans ran a quarterback sneak and Bush gave his quarterback Leinart a quick push to propel him over for the win.

1983 to 1995 was a lopsided era with Notre Dame winning 11 straight against the Trojans and the Trojans won their most consecutive games with 8 in a row from 2002 to 2009.


So, now the greatest intersectional rivalry adds its 83rd rendition this Saturday night in South Bend It is the first night game for the Trojans in South Bend and the first time since the 1990 season that Notre Dame has had a night game. USC has won the last four times since their last loss in 2001. USC Athletic Director Pat Haden returns to Notre Dame for the first time since he left as the Notre Dame analyst the last 12 years. Notre Dame is coming in as a heavy 9-point favorite There was a time not long ago that this game carried national title implications. In both 2005 and 2006, both teams entered the game ranked in the top 10 in the country. For the third time in nine seasons, neither team is ranked in the top 25 but Notre Dame at 4-2 and USC at 5-1 are both knocking on the door. There is renewed optimism at Notre Dame right now under 2nd year Head Coach Brian Kelly righting the ship after an inauspicious beginning to the season with two sloppy losses and a blown gasket by Coach Kelly on the sidelines. They have since won four straight including dominant wins over 5-1 Michigan State and they pounded Air Force 59-33. The Irish are led by Tommy Rees on offense who has throw a touchdown in 11 straight games and they are averaging 273.5 yards passing per game and are currently 29th in the country. Rees’ favorite target is huge target 6-3 227 pound junior receiver Michael Floyd who has 53 receptions and four touchdowns. Running back Cierre Wood is 20th in the country with 650 yards and 108.3 yards per game. The much improved Irish defense has become much more physical in the trenches. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o leads the Irish in tackles, tackles for loss and also has four sacks. Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Robert Blanton will try to neutralize USC’s potent passing game. The Irish are playing a tougher brand of football that has been missing at Notre Dame the last few years prior to Kelly’s arrival. There has been a lot of talk about how this is just another game which Manti Te’o stated and this is also the philosophy of Coach Kiffin which is designed to avoid the highs and lows of the season. As a player, there is no way to deny that this is a special game that feels different from the rest regardless of the circumstances. USC and Notre Dame are both teams that everyone wants to beat. Coach Kelly talked about the different rivalries on the Irish schedule but he said that “this is Notre Dame’s rivalry game” and this is the game that is circled on their schedule. Regardless of the records, this game has big consequences for both programs with recruiting, pride, and needed momentum to get back to national relevance. This game

There are many doubts from the experts surrounding the Trojans right now which is why they are 9-point dogs and are not in the top 25. The bottom line is that the Trojans are 5-1 right now and the next two weeks will reveal a lot. This is why we play the game. Matt Barkley threw for 380 yards as a true freshman in 2009 in leading the Trojans to a 34-27 victory. USC got banged up against Cal last week so other players have to step up. This is the opportunity that you come to USC for; playing on the big stage against your arch rival. The Trojans have to establish the line of scrimmage and be able to run the football. They will have to find a way to win the turnover battle. They must find ways to pressure Notre Dame’s quarterback to minimize the mismatch that Michael Floyd creates. It is time to play inspired football with heart, passion, and focus. Who is going to step up and be remembered in this unparalleled series? It is time to stand and deliver; to make the big play, and to do what you were born to do. There will be no retreat and no surrender, regardless of conditions or circumstances. There are no excuses. As a Trojan, you play with class, respect for your opponent and an indomitable will to beat them fairly, squarely, and relentlessly. The Spirit of Troy Marching Band will be blasting Conquest on Saturday in the cold fall night at Notre Dame Stadium and the Trojans will raise the sword and always Fight On!

Fight On & Beat the Irish!!



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Shane Foley played quarterback for the Trojans from 1986-1990. He is a Private Banker for Wells Fargo in Pasadena, CA. He serves on the Executive Board for Pete Carroll’s A Better LA, Board of Councilors USC Dornsife College, USC Alumni Association Board of Govenors, and is involved in several other charities. He can be reached at, or at The Foley Report on Facebook