Last Saturday in South Bend dawned gray and dank. Then the fog settled in, and that was followed by drizzle—all of which created, as it turned out, a perfect atmosphere for the 1983 renewal of the rivalry between legendary Notre Dame (17 national championships, six Heisman winners, the Golden Dome, Rockne) and storied Southern California (eight national titles, four Heismans, Tommy Trojan, O.J.). In a game that matched the weather, the Irish won 27-6 as USC went out without a whimper.
The victory was Notre Dame's first over USC since 1977, when Coach Dan Devine surprised everyone by putting his team in Fighting Irish green jerseys for motivation. Last week, for the first time in his 2½-year tenure at Notre Dame, Coach Gerry Faust tried the green-jersey trick. Although it worked again, the sad truth is that both of these tradition-rich teams, each matching the other in the arrogance that comes with a great deal of winning and each coping with fans who are awful at accepting defeat, have been less than magnificent this fall. Indeed, their combined record going into Saturday's game was 6-5-1, the poorest since the two met in 1963 with a combined mark of 2-3.
Still, a win, as they say, is a win, and Faust, who if handed a bushel of thorns would start looking for the roses, walked away from Notre Dame Stadium in the increasing gloom of the night with sunshine in his heart. "Yes, sir, I think we're over the hump," he said. "I really think we are." Well, maybe.
If true, it's not a moment too soon, for Faust failed to amuse the Irish faithful by guiding the team to a 5-6 record in his rookie season of 1981. That was Notre Dame's worst finish since '63, when it was 2-7. Going 6-4-1 last year didn't cheer up anybody significantly. This season, when the Irish were 1-2, having lost 28-23 to Michigan State and 20-zip to Miami on prime-time national TV, panic was setting in. Even Faust conceded on the eve of the USC game, "Sometimes I question why God brought me here." But now Notre Dame has won four straight to improve its record to 5-2. Cotton Bowl officials are even drooling at the prospect of a Texas-Notre Dame matchup. Not so fast. The Irish have yet to defeat a team with a winning record, and they still must play Pitt and rapidly improving Penn State. Moreover, whatever Faust may be doing better these days—"I think I've improved," he says—he's the same coach who was at the controls last year in losses to then lowly Arizona and so-so Air Force, and in a tie with Oregon, which ended up 2-8-1. A 7-4 season seems about right this time around at a school where at least 9-2 is expected. Says Athletic Director Gene Corrigan, "The problem here is there are so many ghosts, so many shadows."
October 31, 1983
Indeed, seldom has a game between two teams with uninspired records—the Trojans are now 2-4-1—been so important to each school. Notre Dame Running Back Allen Pinkett, who ran for all three Irish touchdowns en route to a 122-yard rushing afternoon, pondered the squad's plight. "This game will make us or break us," he said.
Now, at least, the Irish have a chance to get back from the dark side of the moon. The poor Trojans are in the pits and sinking, and when they call for a lifeline, their fans plead deafness. Instead, they send letters to newspapers. Wrote one, "The Kansas-USC game [which USC lost 26-20] demonstrated that the Trojans have no offense, no defense, no quarterback, no desire to compete and no acceptable excuses." Another: "When did USC deemphasize football? I didn't read about it in the paper, but I was on vacation a couple of weeks last May." A headline on an article in the Los Angeles Times read: use DEVELOPS BALANCED ATTACK: NO RUN, NO PASS.
With the Trojans down 27-0 at halftime a fortnight ago to Arizona State, their fans booed the team off the L.A. Coliseum field. "That hurt our players' feelings," says Ted Tollner, USC's first-year coach. Perhaps. But if ever a team's feelings deserved to be hurt, it's the 1983 Trojans'. Inexplicably, they play as if they regret the bother, they regularly blow assignments, and sleepwalking is their forte. In sum, they look as if they'd rather be on Malibu beach. "You sort of feel something is missing," says Linebacker Jack Del Rio, "but I don't know what it is."
Whatever it is, it's stunning. Last year the Trojans were 8-3 and only inches from 10-1. Their last truly poor season was 1961, when they ended up 4-5-1. To be sure, recent football-related scandals have hurt the Trojans. At present the school is serving a three-year probation—no TV or bowl appearances—because of an elaborate ticket-scalping scheme involving the players' complimentary game tickets. In 1980 came the disclosure that players were getting credit for classes they didn't attend. Hence, a sign at the Notre Dame pep rally on Friday night had a picture of a football autographed thusly by a Southern Cal player: XXXX.
Irish Offensive Tackle Larry Williams was looking at USC films and shaking his head. "They have great personnel, but they're playing horrible as a team," he said. That was obvious on Saturday when the Trojan defense looked slow and lethargic, and the offense did little but sputter and stall. USC converted only five of 14 third-down plays. "It's been humbling, disappointing and frustrating," said Tollner. "But if you don't win, the next most important thing is that you don't disintegrate." Disintegration, however, seems to have set in, and with Cal, Stanford, Washington and UCLA to come, the Trojans may not reach .500.
Inexperience and injuries have hurt USC—as they do all teams—but Tollner, to his credit, won't use either as an excuse. In fact, nine of 11 defensive starters have missed most or all of at least one game. That explains why Tollner says of his secondary, "Our coverage is horrible. It's embarrassing to us because we have to look at it as a failure of our coaching."
Offensively, Quarterback Sean Salisbury, who lacks mobility and repeatedly doesn't get his feet set for passing, is reeling. "I'm a very average quarterback right now," he says. "I'd rate myself a C minus." After a struggling first half against Notre Dame, in which he completed five of 10 passes for only 34 yards and threw one interception, Salisbury was benched. His replacement, lefthander Tim Green, a whiz-bang J.C. transfer from El Camino College, looked no better. Green read blitzes poorly or not at all, which caused him to throw two interceptions. Tollner, however, hinted that Green might be his quarterback of the future.
Faust understands Tollner's quarterback dilemma. Following the Miami loss, he replaced the veteran but uptight Blair Kiel with freshman Steve Beuerlein, and Beuerlein has completed 43 of 79 passes for 590 yards and three TDs, with only one interception. He also has a 4-0 record. "Ted's going through the same thing I went through," says Faust.
Tollner, who established himself as an offensive genius while an assistant at San Diego State and BYU, clearly has the credentials to be a winner at a school with a big-time program like USC's. One of his central problems is his staff. Or, more precisely, who isn't on it—notably Defensive Line Coach Marv Goux and Offensive Line Coach Hudson Houck. Former Coach John Robinson took both of them with him when he went to the L.A. Rams in February. Both Houck and Goux would make anybody's Hall of Fame for assistants. Houck talked the language of the big guys, got down in the dirt with them and was a key reason that the Trojans produced 19 All-America offensive linemen in 19 years. Goux, a notable teacher himself, was in charge of intensity, emotion and discipline. Says Tight End Fred Cornwell, "Coach Goux was the man. No one ever questioned him, ever." Adds Guard Mike Lamb, "He made Patton look like a piker. He's the kind of guy who would dive on a hand grenade."
Says Tollner of Goux, "When you start looking for excuses as to why you can't play hard, you're in trouble. But he was a legend. By the other token, he's not here anymore. The world goes on."
Another problem: Robinson didn't leave any Charles Whites or Marcus Aliens for Tollner to build an offense around at old Tailback U. Last season, Southern Cal didn't have a 1,000-yard runner for the first time since 1971. This year, three players—Fred Crutcher, Michael Harper and Todd Spencer—are sharing the position. Crutcher leads USC with 482 yards rushing.
As for the Irish, they should refrain from any temptation to indulge in smugness. Although the Notre Dame defense played well against USC, especially Safety Joe Johnson, who had an interception and was ornery beyond the call, the defense lacks speed. Also, as Miami proved, it's vulnerable to a sharp passing attack. The offense is rudimentary, and if Pinkett is stopped, Irish eyes won't be smiling, because Beuerlein isn't ready to handle complex reads and throwing patterns.
At least one Notre Dame man, sobered by those early-season reversals, has kept these Irish in perfect perspective. "All we want to have," says John Heisler, the school's associate sports information director, "is a team that our press guide can be proud of."
At USC, the goal is not quite that lofty. Not for now, anyway. Says Tollner, "We need to restore our dignity."