You could almost see it coming. Going into last week's showdown with Southern Cal, Notre Dame had been poor-mouthing itself so loudly—we're small and weak, and our quarterback can't throw—that you had to figure something was up. After all, how do you think the Irish got to be 10-0 and No. 1 in the land? Papal edict?
USC, which also had gone 10-0, was No. 2 in the polls, and the winner of this game would have the inside track on the national championship. Never in 59 meetings between the two teams had both of them come in undefeated and untied, though in this long and glorious rivalry, fancy won-lost records have never counted for all that much.
When Southern Cal broke Notre Dame's 26-game unbeaten streak in 1931 with a 16-14 victory in South Bend, the Trojans were greeted by 300,000 fans upon their return home. In a column that ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Evening-Herald that day, USC coach Howard Jones wrote of his players, "Theirs is the glory of this victory; to them is all honor due." The glory and honor were all Notre Dame's in 1977, when the Irish, wearing green jerseys for the first time in 14 years, upset the fifth-ranked Trojans 49-19.
The most important of the events that would make Saturday's game worthy of this grand series came midway through the first quarter at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Notre Dame and Southern Cal were scoreless, and Irish quarterback Tony Rice had just handed the ball to fullback Anthony Johnson on two consecutive plunges into the line off the option set. Johnson had gained four yards and then three to move the ball to the Notre Dame 35. Boring, yes. But this is how you set up defenders for the rest of the option package, particularly defenders who actually might have believed Irish coach Lou Holtz when he said, "We're much smaller than Southern Cal. We have one of the smaller teams in the country, especially in the offensive line." The average size of the Notre Dame interior line is 6'4", 264 pounds, which is small only if you compare it to USC's offensive front wall, which includes two 300-pounders.
December 5, 1988
So here came the same play again. Only this time Rice pulled the ball out of Johnson's belly and sprinted toward the left end, holding the ball in both hands, ready to pitch to his tailback, Mark Green. Rice looked Trojan safety Mark Carrier square in the eye. Carrier was alone on the outside, naked as a stand-up comic on a bad night. Where was his support? Where was the rest of the USC defense, which is tops in the nation against the run, which had held Oklahoma's option attack to 89 yards on the ground? Mostly it was thrashing about back where Johnson had plunged into the line. The Trojans were victims either of overzealous run support or of the precise blocks of Notre Dame's purportedly puny offensive line.
For an instant Carrier, Rice and Green formed an equilateral triangle, one of those portentous configurations so unsettling to a defender and so essential to the success of the option game. Carrier had to make a choice—go for the pitchman, Green, or the quarterback. He went for the pitchman. But Rice didn't pitch. He kept the ball and was gone—65 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Irish lead.
Notre Dame would go on to win 27-10, largely on the strength of its roughhouse defense and four turnovers by Southern Cal. But that run by Rice—the longest of his career, the longest of the year for the Irish and the longest of the season against the Trojans—seemed to do the most damage. "All I know is we were in an assignment defense and I had the pitchman," said Carrier in the USC locker room after the game. "I don't know why nobody had the quarterback. I'll have to see the film."
When you have to see the film, you've got trouble. But Notre Dame has a way of making opponents feel as though they beat themselves. Certainly that's how the previously undefeated Miami Hurricanes felt on Oct. 15, after they made seven turnovers, missed a two-point conversion and lost 31-30 in South Bend. Every week the Irish would win, and people would wonder aloud if Rice was really any good. Against USC he completed five of nine passes for 91 yards, while his Southern California counterpart, Heisman Trophy candidate Rodney Peete, converted 23 of 44 for 225 yards. But Peete also threw two interceptions, was sacked three times and got knocked silly on a couple of other occasions. Rice had no interceptions and was never sacked. And he won, which makes him good.
After the game Holtz said, "We're not a pretty football team," and for once he was telling the truth. But this Irish squad is unusual. Seventeen of its members played for former Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust, who went 30-26-1 from 1981 through '85, and they are bound by a desire to bury memories of those mediocre years. Holtz, who's only in his third season with the Fighting Irish, already seems to have assumed the legacy of Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian. Every Notre Dame coach except Joe Kuharich, who was 17-23 from 1959 through '62, has had a winning record. Anybody remember Jesse Harper, the guy who preceded Rockne? He only went 34-5-1 in five seasons. And John L. Marks, the guy before Harper? He didn't lose a game in two seasons. Tough group, Irish coaches.
But the school itself may be Notre Dame's greatest recruiting tool. In 100 seasons of football, the Irish have had only nine losing records. "I didn't come because of Faust," says offensive tackle Andy Heck. "I wouldn't have come because of Holtz. I came because of Notre Dame."
On Thanksgiving Day the Irish practiced late into the afternoon, the crack of the pads echoing over the deserted campus. Nearly all the other students had gone home for the holiday, but the team labored on as an amber moon rose in the dark sky and reflected off the players' gold helmets.
Afterward Holtz said, "When I came here I heard all the reasons why Notre Dame couldn't win again: no redshirting, tough schedule, tough academics, no special courses for athletes, no athlete dorms. We decided to do the best we could within the framework of Notre Dame and the NCAA." Then he added, "I don't know why people make such a big deal about being 10-0. That's what you're supposed to be."
You're also supposed to have discipline on football teams, which is why Holtz suspended Tony Brooks, his No. 1 rusher, and Ricky Watters, his leading receiver and punt returner, for Saturday's game. After having been repeatedly tardy for "team meetings and functions," the two were 40 minutes late for Friday night dinner at the team hotel in Newport Beach, Calif. That was the last straw, so Holtz sent them back to South Bend the next morning. Who knows? Maybe the suspensions jacked up the rest of the team.
USC coach Larry Smith also had reason for concern in the days leading up to the game. Peete, who had barely gotten over the measles in time to guide the Trojans to a 31-22 win over UCLA on the previous Saturday, came down with laryngitis on Sunday. For all but one practice last week, freshman quarterback Todd Marinovich had to call signals for Peete, and Smith considered having the tailbacks handle the task against Notre Dame.
Peete had his voice back by Thanksgiving, but a lot of players on both teams volunteered for flu and measles shots to ensure that they would be healthy for the kickoff. "I got my flu shot in front of the players and didn't flinch," said Holtz. "I did pass out, but I didn't flinch."
Holtz is tough to figure out. At times he's as stern and intense as a Marine drill sergeant—in his first year at South Bend he held brutal 6:15 a.m. workouts during the off-season, which the players called "pukefests"—but he's also a master of the con, the pat on the back and the one-liner. A sportswriter once asked him how it felt to be named Notre Dame coach. "Look at me," said Holtz. "I'm five foot ten, I weigh 150 pounds, I talk with a lisp, I look like I have scurvy, I'm not very smart, I was a terrible football player, and I graduated 234th in a high school class of 278. What do you think it feels like to be named head coach at Notre Dame?"
Like most opposing coaches, Smith shakes his head when he ponders Holtz's rhetoric. "He's a master of overemphasis, or whatever you want to call it," says Smith. "He says his players aren't as big as ours. I told our guys that half those players could eat peanuts off our heads."
But on Friday, USC seemed ready to devour the Irish. The Southern California players gathered at one end of the field after practice and waved their fingers in the air as the band and pom-pom girls performed for them. The cheerleaders and pom-pom girls grabbed players and coaches and danced to the music. Peete climbed a stepladder and waved a sword at the sky. When punter Chris Sperle was presented with a box of Lucky Charms cereal—you know, the one with the leprechaun on the front—and was asked by band members what he would like to do to Notre Dame, Sperle kicked the box as hard as he could, sending little sugar-coated bits of oats and marshmallow high into the air.
The kick was almost as good as his first punt of the game, a lofty spiral that Carrier caught on the fly and downed at the Fighting Irish two-yard line. Less than four minutes had been played, and Notre Dame was in trouble. How could the Irish get out of this hole? Pass? Hah. "He [Peete] is a great quarterback. I'm fair," said Rice on Wednesday. Added Holtz, "We're not a good football team if we're required to throw."
On first down, however, Rice made a play-action fake that sucked in every Trojan defender for an instant and then heaved a bomb to wide receiver Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, who was streaking down the right sideline. Ismail, who has 4.28 speed in the 40, caught the pass for a 55-yard gain before being knocked out of bounds by USC cornerback Ernest Spears. Notre Dame was forced to punt, but it had made its point: This was looking like a lucky Irish kind of day.
Trailing 7-0 after Rice's touchdown run on Notre Dame's next possession, Southern Cal dug itself into a real hole when tailback Aaron Emanuel got careless with a Peete swing pass and fumbled. Irish defensive end Frank Stams (see box, page 34) made the recovery at the Trojans' 19. Five plays later Green, who filled in nicely for Brooks, scored on a two-yard run to put Notre Dame ahead 14-0.
Stams, who finished with nine tackles, was all over the field for the Irish defense. So, too, were his buddies: tackles George Williams (four tackles, including 1½ for losses and one pass broken up) and Jeff Aim (four tackles, including one for a loss and one pass broken up), linebacker Wes Pritchett (eight tackles, including one for a loss) and nosetackle Chris Zorich (four tackles and two passes broken up).
Notre Dame's blitzing scheme appeared to baffle the USC offensive line. Peete was constantly flushed from the pocket, and on several occasions he was decked just after throwing a pass. At times the Irish seemed to have more than 11 people on the field. "We blitzed a little more than usual," said Stams afterward, "but we didn't throw a new defense at them. We just got after them."
"We watched them all week in the films, and they always played teams that stunted and slanted," said Zorich. "They never played a team that goes face mask on face mask as we do. We just butt our opponents and knock their heads back."
With 2:24 remaining in the half, USC made the score 14-7 on a one-yard run by reserve tailback Scott Lockwood—two plays after perhaps the day's best example of just how tough the Irish are: The 225-pound Emanuel, running with a full head of steam, was straightened up and stopped just short of the goal line by 195-pound free safety Pat Terrell, a converted split end.
Peete had stung himself hard while making a touchdown-saving tackle early in the second quarter on Notre Dame strong safety George Streeter, who had intercepted one of Peete's passes and returned it 23 yards. Now, just before the half, after a Fighting Irish punt, Peete threw another interception. This one was picked off by cornerback Stan Smagala, who ran the ball back 64 yards for a touchdown. The play marked the first time in Peete's college career that a defender had returned one of his passes for a score. Worse, though, was the block that Stams laid on Peete as he pursued Smagala. Five plays later Stams sacked Peete, who took an early intermission.
The second half was a defensive struggle, with USC scoring on a 26-yard field goal and Notre Dame getting a touchdown on a 70-yard drive. Peete didn't look bad during the game, but he didn't look like a Heisman winner, either, largely because he was beaten to a pulp. Note, all you one-man teams, that's how important an offensive line is. "He got up slow," Zorich would say after the game. "I looked in his eyes, and he didn't have that 'eye of the tiger' look."
Did Notre Dame miss Brooks and Watters? "People go down, other people step in," said Smagala with a shrug. "We're a team. We're a class act, and we win with style."
Right now it's hard to determine exactly what that style is. Southern Cal outgained the Irish 356 yards to 253 and made 21 first downs to Notre Dame's eight. The Irish don't dazzle the opposition with a slick offense. No, their style is best defined by that opportunistic, head-cracking and—dare we say it—cocky defense. In the locker room several Trojans remarked that Notre Dame had done some serious trash-talking during the game. Notre Dame?
"Before, during and after the game," said Zorich. "That's college ball."
Wait a minute. Has this been going on for a while? Zorich nodded. So that brawl in the tunnel before the Notre Dame-Miami game—the ruckus that was blamed on those outlaw Hurricanes with the flapping jaws—that wasn't Miami's doing after all?
"No sir, it wasn't," said Zorich. "No sir."