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.
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."