It is one of the most historic and most beloved rivalry in college football history. It’s the Notre Dame Fighting Irish against the USC Trojans. So many Heisman Trophy winners have played in this rivalry, so many national titles have been lost in this game or were allowed to live on with a win in this game. It was very hard to pick ten, but this is my list of the top ten games between the Fighting Irish & Trojans.
Just like with my previous lists, the criteria for selection was simple:
1. How great the game itself was
2. The importance of the game to each team’s seasons
3. The historical importance of the game itself
1996—USC 27, Notre Dame 20 (OT)
The first overtime game in the rivalry’s history. The game itself was very close in regulation and a Brad Otton touchdown pass in OT turned out to be the game-winner when Ron Powlus‘ pass on 4th down for the Fighting Irish was batted down. Plenty of significance to this game outside of the initial venture into overtime: it was Lou Holtz‘s last game as coach of the Fighting Irish, it was Holtz’s first loss to the Trojans, and it ended a 13-game losing streak (with two ties included) for the Trojans against the Fighting Irish.
1977—Notre Dame 49, USC 19
The famous “Green Jerseys Game” where Fighting Irish coach Dan Devine thought it would be a good idea for his team to practice in their blue home jerseys, then change into green jerseys to play in. Turns out it was a great idea, as the Fighting Irish steamrolled through the Trojans with one of their best performances in the history of the series, and that’s saying something.
1999—Notre Dame 25, USC 24
The Fighting Irish gave a new example to “luck of the Irish” in this game, coming back from a 21-point deficit to pull out their first win against the Trojans in years. The Irish had noticeable wind assistance in both the final quarters and the game-winning score was a fumble recovery in the end-zone with a little less than three minutes remaining.
And now onto the list…
#10: 1948—USC 14, Notre Dame 14 or 1968—Notre Dame 21, USC 21
Pick your tie. Each one held similar significance: both ties ended perfect seasons for one (the Fighting Irish in ’48, Trojans in ’68) and one was ranked #1 going into the game (Fighting Irish in ’48, Trojans in ’68). The ’68 game featured the Trojans shutting out the Fighting Irish in the second half while having to come back from a two-touchdown deficit.
#9: 1964—USC 20, Notre Dame 17
The Fighting Irish lost the #1 ranking and a national championship in this one. The Fighting Irish held a 17-7 lead at the half, but the Trojans came back. The Trojans took the lead late in the game with a touchdown pass from Craig Fertig to Rod Sherman on a fourth down. The officiating in this game was controversial (not a first or the last in this series), but the Fighting Irish were still able to mount one final drive. Unfortunately for them, it came up short as a last-second pass in the end-zone was broken up.
#8: 1929—Notre Dame 13, USC 12
One of the early famous defensive struggles in the series saw the Irish win in the closest margin possible for victory. The game was held at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois and is historic for bringing in over 112,000 people and is still one of the most attended games in the history of college football.
#7: 1931—USC 16, Notre Dame 14
The first game in the rivalry to be played in South Bend, Indiana. The Trojans’ win snapped a 26-game unbeaten streak for the Fighting Irish and ended up attracting 300,000 people to welcome the Trojans home after the win. The Irish lead 14-0, but the Trojans fought their way back and won with a Johnny Baker field-goal with a minute to play.
#6: 1989—Notre Dame 28, USC 24
A very underrated and somewhat forgotten game in this rivalry. The Irish were #1 and the defending national champions while the Trojans didn’t seem in their league in 1989. The Trojans weren’t intimidated, and this showed itself in a pre-game brawl between the teams inside the entrance tunnel. Once the game got started, Todd Marinovich was almost unstoppable for the Trojans and they built themselves a 10-point halftime lead. The Irish fought back and eventually took the lead on a late-fourth quarter TD run by Tony Rice. The Trojans’ last advance was thwarted by the Irish defense and a questionable spot of the ball that cost the Trojans a first down. This was similar to a questionable call in the 1986 game between the two.
#5: 1978—USC 27, Notre Dame 25
From a tragedy that could have been to a tragedy that was. The Trojans were on the hunt for a national title and were dominant through the first three quarters, leading 24-6. Joe Montana lead a magnificent comeback, one that he would eclipse in that season’s Cotton Bowl, a game known as “The Chicken Soup Game.” Montana and the Fighting Irish ended up taking a 25-24 lead with 45 seconds to play. An apparent fumble on the Trojan’s ensuing drive was ruled incomplete and the Trojans made the most of that good fortune, moving the ball into Fighting Irish territory. And then Frank Jordan converted a field-goal with just seconds to play to give the Trojans the win. They would go on to win a share of the national championship. The tragic part of this: the Fighting Irish missed a two-point conversion after taking the lead in the final minute.
#4: 1986—Notre Dame 38, USC 37
A real classic, and an uncharacteristic offensive shootout between the two. The Irish had to climb back from a 37-20 deficit to win the game, and won it with John Carney‘s last-second field-goal. The game is not only noteworthy for the fabulous show of offense from both teams, but for some questionable officiating, something familiar to the games in this rivalry. In this case, it was a questionable call on a 4th & 1 for the Trojans. The officials didn’t appear to spot the ball for forward progress made on the play and the ball was given to the Fighting Irish. This is significant because it came with the Trojans ahead 37-35 and deep in Fighting Irish territory.
#3: 1988—Notre Dame 27, USC 10
The only number one versus number two game in the history of the rivalry. The Fighting Irish were not going to be denied and ended up winning this one pretty easily, and did it without Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks. The two were sent back to South Bend on the day of the game for being late to a team dinner the night before. The Irish went on to win the Fiesta Bowl, finish 12-0 and win their last national championship to date as a result.
#2: 1974—USC 55, Notre Dame 24
Some people know this game as “The Comeback.” I just look at it as a story of two extremes played out in almost identical segments of thirty minutes of football. The Fighting Irish seemed to be on their way to a rout through the first 29 minutes and 50 seconds of the first half. Then, the Trojans scored on a short touchdown catch by Anthony Davis to end the half. Davis then returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown and would score twice more in the third quarter. In all, the Trojans would score 55 unanswered points in around 17 minutes of football. And they got it through runs, passes, field-goals, a kickoff return and a defensive touchdown.
#1: 2005—USC 34, Notre Dame 31
This was one of the last truly meaningful Saturday’s at Notre Dame Stadium until this season. Both teams were in the national championship hunt and this appeared to be a Fighting Irish team that actually could beat the defending national champions. The game was close the whole way and the Fighting Irish even lead at halftime. The game was tied going into the fourth and was won by the Trojans on what has become known as “The Bush Push.” In the final seconds, Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart went to sneak the ball into the end-zone, but was initially stopped by the Fighting Irish line. Reggie Bush helped to shove Leinart into the end-zone for the game-winning touchdown. On the sidelines, Pete Carroll seemed to be signaling for Leinart to spike the ball, but he later would say that it was all a diversion. It turned out to be the first year since the BCS was created that both teams made it to BCS bowl games in the same season with the Fighting Irish losing in the Fiesta Bowl and the Trojans losing the Rose Bowl/BCS title game.