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Series History: Notre Dame vs. USC

A look at the series history between storied rivals Notre Dame and USC

Notre Dame hosts arch rival USC this weekend as it looks to come out of the bye week playing good football. Even though USC is in the midst of a disappointing season that has already cost Clay Helton his job, the Trojans are talented and you can bet they will be up for the matchup with Notre Dame under the lights in South Bend.

SERIES HISTORY

The Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh stretches back to 1926, when legendary Irish coach Knute Rockne and the Irish took the train to Los Angeles to take on the Trojans in the final game of the season. As Irish Breakdown covered in Part I of the series on the history of Notre Dame and the Big Ten, Notre Dame had applied three times for Big Ten (then the Western Conference) membership in the early 1900s but were rejected each time, with the last rejection coming in 1926, not coincidentally the start of the series with USC.

Rockne and the Irish had struggled to find consistent Big Ten opponents for years due to on-and-off boycotts initiated by Michigan and the University of Chicago, and in response had started to play a national schedule. Rockne realized the benefits (both financial and exposure) that playing a game on the West Coast at least every other year would bring and scheduled an initial home-and-home with USC in 1926. The “greatest intersectional rivalry” in college sports would be played every season moving forward, except for a World War II-influenced hiatus from 1943-1945 and then the 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic when the Pac-12 made the decision to play a truncated, conference-only schedule.

From the beginning, this rivalry garnered immense national attention. From 1928 to 1932, either Notre Dame or USC won the national title in five consecutive seasons. Additionally, since those early years, the outcome of the Notre Dame-USC game has often shaped the landscape of the college football national championship race, such as the period from 1962-1978 when Notre Dame and USC combined for eight national titles.

Notre Dame leads the overall series with USC 47-36-5, and currently holds a three-game winning streak. The series has been marked by periods of dominance by both teams that correspond their program’s respective peaks and valleys.

Notre Dame dominated the early decades under Rockne and Frank Leahy, but the Trojans took control in the mid-1960s, winning 12 of the 16 games (with two ties) between 1967 and 1982. The only two Irish wins during that streak occurred in the Notre Dame national championship seasons of 1973 and 1977. Notre Dame took back control under Gerry Faust and Lou Holtz, winning 11 straight games in the series between 1983 and 1993, before the Trojans dominated the rivalry under coach Pete Carroll during the Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis eras.

One of Brian Kelly’s greatest (and quickest) accomplishments at Notre Dame was restoring Notre Dame’s control of the Jeweled Shillelagh. Kelly won his first matchup with the Trojans in 2010 and holds a 7-3 overall record against USC.

SERIES RESULTS SINCE 2000

2019 – Notre Dame 30 USC 27 (Home)
2018 – Notre Dame 24 USC 17 (Away)
2017 – Notre Dame 49 USC 14 (Home)
2016 – USC 45 Notre Dame 27 (Away)
2015 – Notre Dame 41 USC 31 (Home)
2014 – USC 49 Notre Dame 14 (Away)
2013 – Notre Dame 14 USC 10 (Home)
2012 – Notre Dame 22 USC 13 (Away)
2011 – USC 31 Notre Dame 17 (Home)
2010 – Notre Dame 20 USC 16 (Away)
2009 – USC 34 Notre Dame 27 (Home)
2008 – USC 38 Notre Dame 3 (Away)
2007 – USC 38 Notre Dame 0 (Home)
2006 – USC 44 Notre Dame 24 (Away)
2005 – USC 34 Notre Dame 31 (Home)
2004 – USC 41 Notre Dame 10 (Away)
2003 – USC 45 Notre Dame 14 (Home)
2002 – USC 44 Notre Dame 13 (Away)
2001 – Notre Dame 27 USC 16 (Home)
2000 – Notre Dame 38 USC 21 (Away)

NOTABLE GAMES

2017 – Notre Dame 49, USC 14

This was without question the most impressive win in this rivalry for Kelly. The Irish pounded USC from start to finish, racking up 377 rushing yards in the victory. Notre Dame shut down USC star quarterback Sam Darnold and jumped out to a 28-0 halftime lead. Notre Dame came into the matchup ranked 13th and USC ranked 12, marking the only time during the Kelly era that both teams came into the game ranked in the Top 25.

2012 – Notre Dame 22 USC 13

Notre Dame used a goal-line stand from its dominant defense to hold onto a 22-13 victory and punch its ticket to the BCS National Championship game, the Irish’s first chance to play for a title since 1988. K Kyle Brindza kicked five field goals, RB Theo Riddick had 179 total yards, and LB Manti Te’o snagged his seventh interception of the season in the win, sealing his trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

2010 – Notre Dame 20 USC 16

Pete Carroll’s departure from USC to take the Seattle Seahawks job in January 2010 coupled with Notre Dame’s hiring of Brian Kelly flipped control of the rivalry from the Trojans to the Irish. Carroll had only lost once to Notre Dame (in his first season). Trailing 16-13 late in the fourth quarter, QB Tommy Rees and RB Robert Hughes keyed a physical, 77-yard drive to give the Irish a 20-16 lead. The Trojans had one more chance, but S Harrison Smith intercepted USC QB Mitch Mustain in the red zone to seal Notre Dame’s first win in the series since 2001.

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2005 – USC 34 Notre Dame 31

In one of the most famous games in series history, USC brought a 27-game winning streak into Notre Dame Stadium in Charlie Weis’ first season. With Notre Dame leading 31-28 following heroic performances from Irish QB Brady Quinn and S Tom Zbikowski, RB Reggie Bush pushed QB Matt Leinart over the goal line on a quarterback sneak as time expired to give the Trojans a 34-31 victory, a play now known as the “Bush Push”. The act of pushing a ball carrier forward is now commonplace, but this strategy was illegal at the time. The Irish should never have even been in that situation though. Even after the defense surrendered a 4th and 9 conversion that extended the final USC drive, Leinart scrambled for the goal line but fumbled out of bounds with seven seconds left. The ball should have been spotted at the four-yard line but was instead spotted at the one, giving USC that final chance to sneak it in.

1988 – Notre Dame 27 USC 10

In the only game in the series that featured a #1 vs. #2 matchup, Notre Dame controlled the entire game en route to the 27-10 victory and berth in the Fiesta Bowl against West Virginia, where Notre Dame would win the 1988 national championship. With RBs Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks suspended, QB Tony Rice got the scoring started with a 65-yard touchdown run. The Irish defense took over from there, forcing four USC turnovers, including a pick-six from S Stan Smagala to extend the lead to 20-7.

1977 – Notre Dame 49 USC 19

Notre Dame coach Dan Devine entered the 1977 season on the hot seat, and an early season loss to Ole Miss did little to turn down the temperature. The matchup with the Trojans was a must-win game for Devine, whose Irish squads had dropped contests to USC in 1975 and 1976. After the Irish wore their traditional blue jerseys during warmups, the team changed to green jerseys before taking the field along with a replica of a Trojan Horse. QB Joe Montana led the Irish offense to 28 unanswered points to turn an early 7-7 tie into a blowout, the Irish would win out and capture the 1977 national title, and the legend of the green jerseys was born.

1974 – USC 55 Notre Dame 24

In one of the most frustrating games in the series for Irish fans, #5 Notre Dame traveled to Los Angeles to take on #6 USC in what would be Ara Parseghian’s second-to-last game as Irish coach. Notre Dame jumped out to a 24-0 lead, but the Trojans scored 55 unanswered points behind four TDs from RB Anthony Davis.

1973 – Notre Dame 23 USC 14

#8 Notre Dame hosted #6 USC in a battle of unbeatens in South Bend. The Irish defense controlled the line of scrimmage and held star Trojan RB Anthony Davis to only 55 yards rushing. Following the victory, Notre Dame’s first in the series since 1966, the Irish would vault into the top-5 en route to the 1973 national title, Ara Parseghian’s second at Notre Dame.

1966 – Notre Dame 51 USC 0

The week after holding onto the #1 ranking with a 10-10 tie against #2 Michigan State, Notre Dame stomped #10 USC 51-0 at the Coliseum, securing the 1966 national championship. This remains the largest margin of victory for Notre Dame in the series. QB Coley O’Brien started in place of the injured Terry Hanratty and in his only start while at Notre Dame, threw for 3 TDs to lead the Irish to the win.

1964 – USC 20 Notre Dame 17

Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian had revitalized the Irish program following a lost decade after the retirement of Frank Leahy following the 1953 season, and Notre Dame entered the Coliseum ranked #1 in the nation with a 9-0 record. Notre Dame led 17-0 at halftime, but a series of extremely questionable officiating decisions helped the Trojans come back and secure a 20-17 victory. Even though QB John Huarte still won the Heisman Trophy, Notre Dame would finish third in the final polls.

1930 – Notre Dame 27 USC 0

In what would be the final game that Knute Rockne ever coached at Notre Dame before his untimely death in a plane crash, his Irish squad dominated USC to cap off an undefeated regular season and capture the 1930 national championship.