The Content Department here at The Open Man felt it was time to take things up a notch. This week’s edition of The Worst features USC against Notre Dame, a rivalry that Trojans head coach Clay Helton called “the greatest intersectional rivalry in college sports.” In its history, there have been plenty of opportunities for some ugly outcomes and heartbreaking finishes.
After all, this rivalry extends back to the days when Knute Rockne was probably figuring out how to make motivational videos.
Supposedly, this rivalry started because Notre Dame got tired of going to Nebraska every other November. Okay, that might not be the entire reason that the USC rivalry started. Honestly, I can’t blame them for wanting a sunnier location. With this rivalry, it goes back more than 90 years, even though they did skip a few years during World War II.
For this edition of the Worst, we look at the games that didn’t work out well for Notre Dame or USC, or sometimes both. Are these the five worst games ever? I can’t say with confidence that they are. However, this column has always been about inflicting pain. That’s what we aim to do.
For what it’s worth, we’ve expanded our selection. We might have just one game on this list that took place this century. We really wanted to do a little digging for this edition. So here we go…
5. USC and Notre Dame finish in 17-17 tie- 1994
Notre Dame came into the game winning their home finale the previous week over Air Force. USC meanwhile lost to UCLA, which led to Oregon clinching the Pac-10 outright.
The Fighting Irish went into the game winning the last 11 meetings against the Trojans. At 6-3-1, they were hoping to get a little consideration from the Bowl Coalition and get into one of the nice bowl games. Also at stake, Notre Dame Head Coach Lou Holtz hoped to get his 200th career victory. This game is notable in that it features the epic quarterback match-up of Notre Dame’s Ron Powlus versus USC’s Rob Johnson.
Both quarterbacks finished with less than stellar games. Thanks in part to the wind, Powlus went 13-for-22 for 122 yards with a touchdown pass, while Johnson went 15-for-29 for 187 yards with a touchdown and interception.
At one point, Johnson got tripped by a teammate on a sack late in the game.
Notre Dame had a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter and had a chance to add to it with a 37-yard field goal attempt by Stefan Schroffner. With 6:43 left, USC linebacker Israel Ifeanyi broke through and blocked the field goal attempt with one hand. Trojans safety Sammy Knight picked up the ball and took it 56-yards to the Notre Dame 16-yard line.
Running back Shawn Walters plowed his way through and scored a one-yard touchdown run 4:53 remaining in the game. The Trojans opted to play it safe and went for the tie thanks to an extra point.
You would think with Notre Dame at 6-4-1, they couldn’t get a fun or interesting bowl game. You’re wrong! The Fighting Irish still landed in the Fiesta Bowl playing Colorado. It didn’t end very well as Notre Dame lost to Colorado and Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam, 41-24.
Meanwhile, USC went to the Cotton Bowl, where the Trojans blew out Texas Tech 55-14.
This game is the only one that we have for this century. And it wasn’t close.
The Trojans started this game by scoring the first 35 points. By halftime, they led 35-7 over Notre Dame. USC quarterback Cody Kessler threw five of his six touchdown passes in the first half.
Malik Zaire scored Notre Dame’s first touchdown with 4:11 left in the half thanks to an 11-yard touchdown run. USC piled on the damage in the blowout victory.
Meanwhile, USC’s ground game punished the Notre Dame defense, running for 205 yards on 63 carries. Javorius Allen had 19 carries for 93 yards to lead the Trojans rushing attack.
While the Trojans had no chance to win the Pac-12, they did make it to the Holiday Bowl where they defeated Nebraska. The loss for Notre Dame came at the end of a four-game losing skid.
Notre Dame had one more game as they defeated LSU in the Music City Bowl.
3. Notre Dame denies USC an undefeated season- 1952
When Notre Dame and USC face off again this weekend, they’ll once again be ranked. This instance, they’re both outside the top 10. However, it isn’t uncommon to see one or both in the top 10 when these two teams meet.
The 1952 season was no exception. USC came into the game undefeated and ranked second in the country by the Associated Press. Notre Dame, meanwhile, had already lost twice and tied once, but they came into the game ranked seventh thanks to a couple of big wins against teams like Oklahoma, Texas, as well as Purdue.
This was a game that took place in South Bend in late November. That happened quite often in the rivalry. However, they stopped after the 1959 game because of the cold weather. And now anytime the game is in South Bend, it’s played in October.
The game was a low scoring affair and it was the first time USC was shutout since 1950 when they lost 39-0 to UCLA.
Johnny Lattner had the lone touchdown of the game in the first quarter. Notre Dame added a field goal in the third quarter and it was more than enough to get the win.
Thanks to the win, Notre Dame finished third in both the AP and Coaches Poll. USC rebounded with a victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
2. Notre Dame hands USC a blowout loss- 1966
This turned out to be one of the biggest wins in the rivalry, especially in terms of the score. The final ended up being 51-0 in favor of Notre Dame.
It was all Notre Dame from the get-go. They just piled on as many points as possible. And the Fighting Irish did all of this without starting quarterback Terry Hanratty, who had been injured the previous week. Coley O’Brien got the start and threw three touchdown passes and completed 21-of-31 for 255 yards in the win.
What’s notable about this game is it came one week after the “Game of the Century,” which featured No. 1 against No. 2, Notre Dame against Michigan State. That game ended in a 10-10 tie and was the only blemish on an otherwise perfect record for Notre Dame.
With the win over USC, it cemented the status for Notre Dame as one of the best teams in college football. They were awarded the National Title and No. 1 ranking by both the AP and Coaches Poll.
USC meanwhile went to the Rose Bowl, losing to Purdue.
1. Notre Dame crumbles as USC rallies to win 20-17- 1964
End of the year, both strong teams, but one has a big eye on winning a national title. The late Ara Parseghian had completed an amazing turnaround of the Notre Dame football team. The ’63 team finished 2-9 and expectations weren’t high for the new coach at the time.
Going into the Coliseum, Notre Dame was 9-0. They had a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback John Huarte (who found out he won while shaving) and brushed by most of their competition. The Fighting Irish came into the game ranked No. 1 for nearly a month. A win against their rival would likely have guaranteed the school its first consensus national title since 1949. Notre Dame was so good in 1964 that they had three shutout wins (UCLA, Navy and Iowa).
Meanwhile, USC was unranked, but still had a shot of making it to the Rose Bowl. They finished the conference season tied with Oregon State at 3-1. It would come down to the conference to determine who goes to the Rose Bowl.
The Athletic Association of Western University had already delayed the vote a week to keep USC’s consideration of the Notre Dame game in mind. Unfortunately for the Trojans, the conference went with Oregon State. USC Head Coach John McKay found out about it during a celebration dinner after the game. It was a 4-4 tie vote, but Oregon State got the bid because it had been much longer since they had appeared at the Rose Bowl.
Notre Dame came into the game as a two-score favorite over the Trojans. In the Sports Illustrated article about the game, McKay said this, tongue-in-cheek, about Notre Dame:
“I studied the Notre Dame-Stanford film for six hours last night and I have reached one conclusion: Notre Dame can’t be beaten.” – Source
The reality is, McKay and the team knew what they needed to do to beat Notre Dame. And not even one of their players walking through a plate-glass window at a motel (refer to the SI article) could stop the Trojans.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the start USC fans hoped for. Notre Dame, with Huarte and receiver Jack Snow leading the way, jumped ahead 17-0 at halftime. McKay remained optimistic and told his team to keep at it, realizing they had a chance to really keep close.
Future Heisman winner Mike Garrett began the comeback for the Trojans with a one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, cutting the Notre Dame lead to 17-7.
Notre Dame tried to put the game away with a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but a holding call negated the touchdown. Ultimately, Notre Dame didn’t score and USC stayed in the game.
Later in the quarter, USC quarterback Craig Fertig completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to Fred Hill. The Trojans missed the PAT but found themselves down only 17-13.
USC found itself facing a fourth down situation at the Notre Dame 15-yard line. Fertig called 84-Z, a pass play, immediately finding receiver Rod Sherman in the end zone for the go-ahead score with less than two minutes left in the game. USC won the game and it was arguably one of the biggest upsets of the season.
The loss torpedoed Notre Dame’s National Championship and finishing undefeated hopes. Notre Dame would finish third in both the AP and Coaches poll. They did receive the MacArthur Bowl, which is the National Football Foundation’s version of the National Championship.