That was College Football at its best," said an emotionally wrung-out Southern Cal coach Larry Smith with a sigh. Moments before, Smith's Trojans had lost to Notre Dame for the seventh straight year, 28-24. High praise in tough times. And winning coach Lou Holtz, who, if possible, looked even more drained than Smith, simply shook his head and said: "There isn't any difference between these two teams. I'm 4-0 against USC, and I could just as easily be 1-3. And if you had told me before the game we'd have five turnovers, I'd have said, 'We won't win.' "
Then Holtz fell silent, contemplating how close—how remarkably close—his No. 1-ranked Irish had come not only to losing to No. 10-ranked Southern Cal but also to being fiat blown out in the first half on a cold and blustery Saturday afternoon in South Bend. Holtz routinely jokes that the Notre Dame alumni—including the subway variety—"expect a minor miracle every Saturday and a major one every now and then." Put this game in the latter category. Somehow the Irish survived, despite being outplayed by the Trojans. Notre Dame is still unbeaten this season—and in 19 straight games—mainly because Raghib Ismail returned a first-quarter kickoff 58 yards to the USC 38 to set up one score, and because, in the fourth quarter, fullback Anthony Johnson broke loose for a 35-yard touchdown that gave the Irish the lead for the first time in the game, 21-17.
Notre Dame was down a scary 17-7 at the half, and the score could easily have been 27-7. Very easily. With 10:22 left in the second quarter—after driving his team brilliantly from its own 20 to the Irish 11—USC's redshirt freshman quarterback Todd Marinovich had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Quin Rodriguez. The Notre Dame defense had denied the Trojans a first down with some ferocious hitting.
Moments later, starting anew at his own 28, Marinovich was systematically shredding the Irish defense when he abruptly hit the wall, throwing an interception into the hands of strong safety D'Juan Francisco.
October 30, 1989
Before the day was over, Marinovich would drive the Trojans inside the Notre Dame 40 three more times—to the 36, eight, and seven—yet come away with no points. A miracle? No, the Irish defense. Asked how well he thought he had played, Marinovich said softly, "Not good enough to win."
Since Holtz arrived at Notre Dame four years ago, a number of changes have taken place—not the least of which is that the Irish win a lot more than they did under his predecessor, Gerry Faust. Sadly, they also have earned a reputation for intimidation and hooliganism that used to be the hallmark of schools that most Notre Dame alumni regard with unabashed contempt.
Last Saturday's game was marred by an example of just this sort of ugly behavior even before the opening kickoff. It happened when most of the 106 Irish who had dressed for the game were standing on the back line of the north end zone as the team finished its punting drills. After completing their pregame warmups, the Trojans discovered that they would have to run a Notre Dame gantlet to enter the tunnel leading to both teams' locker rooms. Several Trojans brushed shoulder pads with their Irish counterparts, who had gone out of their way to block the path to the tunnel. Unpleasantries were exchanged, and about 20 Southern Cal players, surrounded by a sea of blue and gold, had to brawl their way free. A number of Trojans who had already entered the tunnel by skirting the massed Notre Dame players heard the commotion and joined the fray.
Afterward, Holtz admitted that the episode was the fault of his players. "I'm deeply disturbed and distressed by what happened," he said. "It should have been avoided by Notre Dame and it will never, ever happen again." Then, to demonstrate just how seriously he took all the extracurricular pushing and shoving, Holtz said that he would quit as coach if such a thing ever happened again, and he promised to get to the bottom of the matter. Of course, he might start with himself and a look inward.
The Irish under Faust, it was said, had become too nice, too unwilling to mix it up, swell guys who weren't finishing first. Well, Holtz has changed that. Notre Dame's new approach to the game was there for all to loathe at the Fiesta Bowl last January when Holtz made a grand show of reprimanding his players on the field for their shoving, showboating and taunting while sewing up the national championship against West Virginia. His outburst earned his team a delay-of-game penalty, but the larger point was worth the five yards: These are nasty, ornery, pit-bull Irish, who may be beyond the control of their own coach. Approach at your own peril.
There were minor troubles in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel with Miami last season, but because the opposition that day was notorious Miami, the widely held assumption was that the Hurricanes had started the shoving and shouting. The same sort of thinking prevailed regarding a mild dustup when Michigan visited the Irish on Sept. 10, 1988, the opener for both teams: The Wolverines had to be at fault. The blame couldn't possibly lie with the gentlemen from Notre Dame, could it? But USC took exception to the notion that two teams couldn't share one large tunnel. The Trojans were right.
Not that USC players didn't become active participants in these goings-on—indeed, full of themselves at halftime, when they had a 17-7 lead, some Trojans ill-advisedly sang the Notre Dame Victory March in a mocking way as the teams entered the tunnel together. But Smith justifiably snapped that it is up to Notre Dame to control this stuff. Some USC players went so far as to say that the pregame melee started when a Notre Dame player deliberately hit Marinovich with a forearm.
Smith was gracious enough to say that the brouhaha hadn't affected the outcome of the game, and he was right. But that didn't stop Trojan wide receiver John Jackson from fuming, "It was really low class on their part." Even Irish linebacker Ned Bolcar said, "We do not care to continue mishaps like that." Damage was done not only to this game but to the heavily tarnished image of the college game as a whole. Can't you guys walk through a tunnel together without a confrontation? Please.
Ironically, the game was as cleanly played as could have been hoped for. And it was chock-full of big plays and great hits. Notre Dame fell behind 7-0, rallied to tie, fell behind again by 10 and came back to score the winning touch-down with 5:18 left. That was accomplished when quarterback Tony Rice, who had a generally mediocre day (5-for-16 passing with one interception, 99 yards rushing on 18 attempts and a fumble), connected with Ismail, who had a generally miserable day (two fumbles, both of which led to USC touchdowns), on a 40-yard pass that Ismail caught in full stride and took to the USC 15-yard line. On the next play, Rice ran an option left, dodging four tacklers en route to the end zone.
The Irish had to withstand one final onslaught from Marinovich, who drove the Trojans to the Irish seven, with 2:39 remaining in the game. But Marinovich, who has matured enormously since USC's first game of the season, a 14-13 loss to Illinois, reminded everyone that he still is, after all, a freshman. He threw three straight incompletions, and Notre Dame hung onto a No. 1 ranking that had looked as if it was gone.
Yet Marinovich was the star despite that interception, despite being on the losing side. You could sense it coming. One day last week in L.A., he was sitting on a cement wall on campus in shorts and a T-shirt and musing about playing in Notre Dame Stadium: "I've never been there, so I don't know how spooky that place is." The answer, of course, is real, real spooky. The Trojans know that better than anyone; they traveled to South Bend for 10 games in 25 years, from 1941 to '65, and didn't win once.
Names like Gipp, the Four Horsemen, Rockne and Parseghian cast a palpable feeling of invincibility over the stadium. There is no other place like it. Plus that doggone Golden Dome sits there as a kind of arrogant exclamation mark. "Yeah, I've heard those names, I guess," said Marinovich without certainty, "but they don't mean much to me. All I know is good players play at their best in big games. What stadium we're in doesn't make any difference."
That, as much as anything, may explain why Marinovich was able to shoot out almost all the lights. He completed 33 of 55 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns, sweet revenge after having been heavily criticized for his performance against the Illini, and not bad for a youngster whose grooming for stardom since infancy has made him an object of curiosity, even animosity (SI, Feb. 22, 1988). True, he got a lot of help from his friends, including Jackson, who caught a school-record 14 passes for 200 yards, and hard-hitting safety Mark Carrier, who had 13 unassisted tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
As for Notre Dame, it survived, though without style and without much class. Now Holtz has to get the Irish cranked up again this week for a home game against Pitt. Let's hope that while he's doing it, he also teaches the children some tunnel etiquette.