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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.
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.