A full hour before kickoff, the quarterbacks jogged through a tunnel at the north end of Notre Dame Stadium and into last Saturday's raw autumn drizzle, where Ron Powlus felt a chill that had nothing to do with the weather. As the crowd roared a passionate welcome, Powlus turned to his backup, junior Tom Krug. "The Florida State game must have been like this in '93," Powlus said, recalling Notre Dame's last meaningful victory, which he watched from the press box as an injured freshman.
This was a sensation Powlus had heard about but never experienced, not as a star-forever-in-waiting, 19 games into a career that began with so much promise but stalled—with his team—in mediocrity. "It had to be at least something like this," Powlus said to Krug, hoping that this would be the kind of afternoon he had waited three seasons to experience. And one that he would never forget.
The script could not have been more clearly written. Southern Cal came to South Bend ranked No. 5, undefeated, loaded with talent and in pursuit of a national championship. Notre Dame already had lost to Northwestern and Ohio State and just one week earlier had avoided a loss to Army only by stopping a two-point conversion with 39 seconds to play. The Irish hadn't lost to the Trojans in 12 years, but that inexplicable streak—in the oldest and most storied intersectional rivalry in the country—seemed certain to end now. "I've seen too many fifth-year seniors sit here and say they've never beaten Notre Dame," said USC center Jeremy Hogue, himself a fifth-year senior, before Saturday's game. But Notre Dame wasn't really a rival for the Trojans this autumn, it was no more than a hurdle on the route to greater things. "I wasn't hired to win the Notre Dame game," said Southern Cal coach John Robinson. "I was hired to win them all."
But much of this college football season has been a riddle that remains unanswered (what to make of Kansas? of Northwestern? of anyone's prospects of winning the Heisman?). Even the road to greatness never leads where we expect. So it only makes sense that Notre Dame beat USC 38-10, destroying the Trojans' title hopes and creating this scene in the Irish locker room: "Hey," said offensive guard Ryan Leahy, another fifth-year senior, to a fifth-year teammate, flanker Charles Stafford, "we never did lose to those guys, did we?"
Never did, never will. An accounting of the grim, cold afternoon leaves credit and blame spread in a thin, wide blanket across the entire field. "That's what makes this so sweet; everybody had a part in it," said Irish senior defensive back Shawn Wooden.
One part was played by Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, whose big-game efficiency remains a force (and who is 0-1 coaching on the field this fall but 4-0 coaching from the press box since his Sept. 12 neck surgery). Another part went to the Irish offensive line, which schooled Southern Cal's talented defensive front while opening the way for Notre Dame's 216 yards rushing. "They didn't physically dominate us, they fooled us," said USC defensive tackle Darrell Russell, failing to recognize merely another form of domination. And another part belonged to the Irish defense, which three times stopped the Trojans inside the Notre Dame five-yard line, forced four turnovers and didn't let Southern Cal wideout Keyshawn Johnson (six catches, 122 yards) win the game by himself. Why, there was even a part for the Gipper—in this case, pilot Scott O'Grady, the son and brother of Notre Dame graduates, who was shot down over Bosnia in June and who served as inspiration for the Fighting Irish. O'Grady spoke at Friday night's pep rally, and he visited the Notre Dame locker room after the game. USC's dressing room, meanwhile, was graced by the presence of former slacker quarterback Todd Marinovich, among others.
Don't forget the part played by the Trojans, who failed to convert on those three chances deep in Irish territory: late in the first quarter, when tailback Delon Washington fumbled at the three-yard line after a huge hit by Kinnon Tatum; just before halftime when, trailing 21-7, USC failed to score on four chances inside the five; and with 1:14 left, when Washington fumbled at the seven. But there was no defining moment. "The turning point," said Robinson, "was that their football team came out and executed, and ours did not."
Towering over all of this was Powlus. His arithmetic in Holtz's low-risk offense was typically solid, typically unspectacular: 18 completions in 29 attempts for 189 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown to tight end Pete Chryplewicz, along with a third-quarter interception, underthrown into the wind. But what distinguished Powlus's performance was that he made the game his own. He traded trash talk with USC strong safety Sammy Knight and the 320-pound Russell; he gamely ran the option that Holtz so adores and that Powlus is so ill-equipped to run; he caught a two-point conversion pass from fullback Marc Edwards; and in the fourth quarter he sustained a gash in his chin that would require eight stitches and didn't miss a snap.
If you choose to think of green-tinted glory and wondrous upsets as a staple of Notre Dame football, your memory is far longer than Powlus's. "I don't know this feeling from the past," he said, standing outside the stadium long after the game, in the darkness and the cold, persistent rain. "This is the first time I've felt like this here, like I was part of a big-time victory as the Notre Dame quarterback."
Some days it still seems that Powlus has just arrived in South Bend, a 6'4", 210-pound high school All-America from a prep football plant in Berwick, Pa., the quarterback with Joe Montana's number and surely destined to win lord knows how many national championships. In fact, it was two years ago that Holtz was prepared to start Powlus as a true freshman until Powlus suffered a broken collarbone in the last preseason scrimmage. And it was last year that Powlus started the season with four touchdown passes against Northwestern and finished it 6-5-1. He will graduate in 1997, with a degree in business, and he says next year will be his last in South Bend.