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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.