by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last weekend, the USC Trojans football team, which experienced a brutal 5-7 season this year, tried to salvage a positive end in confronting a behemoth of a team this year and a historic rival, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, ranked #3 in the nation. It was a valiant effort and a respectable showing, but the Men of Troy came up short, 24-17.
As mentioned above, the USC-Notre Dame rivalry is one of the most storied in college football, with the teams having met 90 times. The first matchup was in 1926 with the teams playing each other every year until 1943. The series, in fact, happened because of the Fighting Irish’s legendary coach, Knute Rockne.
Rockne, who coached the Irish from 1918 to 1930 and then was killed in an airplane crash in March 1931, was courted by USC to become its coach after Notre Dame captured the national championship in 1924. Instead, Rockne recommended a friend and rival, University of Iowa coach Howard Jones, who was hired by USC.
Wanting to develop the Trojans into an elite team like that of the Fighting Irish and because of his strong relationship with Rockne, Jones active pursued starting a series of annual contests between the two schools.
The first two games were very close, with the Fighting Irish winning the first in 1926 at the Los Angeles Coliseum by a score of 13-12, and the contest was said by Rockne to have been one of the greatest he’d seen. The following year, the game was held at Soldier Field in Chicago before an estimated 120,000 people and another nailbiter resulted, with Notre Dame ekeing out a 7-6 victory.
The 1928 game, however, was another story. The Trojans were a powerhouse that season, coming into the game with an 8-0-1, with its only blemish a scoreless contest against the University of California, while racking up 240 points scored, while only allowing 45, including three other shutouts. The Fighting Irish, on the other hand, struggled to a 5-3 record to date, but were looking for a major upset of the Trojans (the reverse of what was attempted in 2018!)
The result, however, was decisive and sure. The Trojans racked up 257 yards to Notre Dame’s 166 and the difference was in the air. The Fighting Irish had a few more yards in its favor on the ground, but the Trojans’ passing game was superior with 116 yards on 7 for 11 passes to its opponent’s paltry 21 on a poor 2 for 13 performance. A featured photo gave an example of stellar pass defense, showing USC’s Russ Saunders leaping to knock down a pass that would have been a touchdown.
The dominance of the Trojans was such that is carried a commanding 20-0 lead into halftime and this included a near-miss for another score. The Irish finally put points on the board in the third quarter when a fake reverse led to a 51-yard scramble for a touchdown. USC scored another touchdown in the fourth quarter to all but seal the game, though the Irish managed to put up another seven points for the final score.
This season-ending contest punctuated a stellar season for the Men of Troy, whose only competition for the national championship was Georgia Tech, which went 10-0 including a 13-0 win against Notre Dame. A mathematical computation arrangement, called the Dickinson System (employed from 1924 to 1940) and created by a University of Illinois economics professor, was used to award USC the crown, the program’s first.
The next three USC-Notre Dame games were instrumental in determining the champs. In 1929, before another massive crowd at Soldier Field, the Irish edged the Trojans, 13-12, and finished #1 in the nation. The 1930 contest, held at the Coliseum, was a mismatch as the squad Rockne said was his finest, dominated USC 27-0, and the Irish took the championship once more.
But, in 1931, with Notre Dame led by a new coach, the Trojans traveled to South Bend and scored a major upset after trailing by two touchdowns and winning with a last-minute field goal. It was said 300,000 people welcomed the Men of Troy home after the win that secured a second national title for the school.
Today’s highlighted “Games People Play” artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a ticket stub for the 1928 USC-Notre Dame contest. To show how important the new rivalry was, the price was $5.00, a full $1.50 higher than a normal USC game ticket for the season.
The holder of the ticket, however, was a student who sat in the “Rooter” section so the price was only $1.00. Stamped on the reverse is a statement about the “Men’s Rooter Ticket” (presumably women had their own section) and it was noted that
Student Holder must wear Rooters cap and white shirt and sit in rooting section. Positively no good for admission if held by any person other than the original purchaser.
Also of note about the ticket, which was very near mid-field and in the 16th row of section 22, is that it has an image on the front of a portion of the USC campus. Evidently, each home game ticket featured a different part of the campus as a ticket in the collection for the 3 November game against Stanford shows a different building. On the reverse is a seating map of the Coliseum, a landmark stadium completed in 1923 and dedicated to veterans of the First World War. Of course, the facility is still the home stadium for Trojans football games.
As for the current status of the USC football team, it appears head coach Clay Helton’s job is safe for at least one more year, despite very vocal and widespread calls for his dismissal. Next year, the Notre Dame game will be in South Bend and it is always tough for any incoming team to steal a win there.
The series tally to date a decisive 48-37-5 in favor of the Irish, which dominated in the 1940s (no games were played from 1943-1945 because of the war), for most of the decade from 1957-1967 and twelve of thirteen years (one time and eleven wins) from 1983 to 1995, while this year’s win marked six of the last nine for Notre Dame.
USC did win three in a row from 1931-1933, but only 8 (with a few ties) from the mid-Thirties to the late Sixties. There have been two periods of Trojan dominance, including eleven wins in thirteen years from 1970 to 1982 and eight straight victories from 2002 to 2009. A win next year for the Men of Troy is, however, a tall order.