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Flashback: Notre Dame-USC 1988
By Mike Diegnan

The storied rivalry between the Trojans and Irish never had more significance than on Nov. 26, 1988. No. 1 Notre Dame headed to the Coliseum, where the second-ranked Trojans waited with anticipation in a battle between 10-0 teams.

The 60th meeting between the two programs was the first ever when both had unblemished records. Whoever won would head into the bowls as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship.

Mark Green
Tri-captain Mark Green helped the top-ranked Irish knock off No. 2 USC in the Coliseum.
In his second year in Los Angeles, Larry Smith had already rebuilt the Trojan program. As his quarterback of the future, Todd Marinovich, watched from the sidelines, USC started the season 10-0 behind the arm of Rodney Peete. In the four games leading up to Notre Dame, USC had posted 41, 35, 50 and 31 points on its opponents.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame was doing it on defense in Lou Holtz's third season in South Bend. The Irish had held its last four opponents to less than 10 points a game after their exciting 31-30 win over No. 1 Miami.

But the importance of the game did not hit two of Notre Dame's key players, who were out shopping the night before the game and late for a team dinner. Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks were sent back to South Bend on the day of the game for "repeated irresponsible tardiness."

"There's no excuse for anybody being late now, because everyone's got a Cotton Bowl watch," said Holtz of the two suspended players, which the seniors agreed was appropriate.

But it did not affect the Irish. USC dominated the statistics, gaining 356 yards to Notre Dame's 253, earning 21 first downs to the Irish's eight, and running 34 more plays. But the number that dogged the Trojans was four, as in four costly first half turnovers as Notre Dame improved to 11-0 with a 27-10 victory.

"I think this team is underrated, even though we're No. 1," Lou Holtz said after the game. "Our football team is prettier than I am, but that's about it. They don't play pretty all the time, but they sure play together as a team."

In the end, defense defeated offense as the Irish turned USC's mistakes into two touchdowns and never looked back on its way to the school's first national championship in 11 years.

Holtz also had a few surprises for his counterpart from the West. On the first play of scrimmage, the Irish were backed up on their own 2-yard line. Instead of using their patented option offense, Tony Rice found a sprinting Raghib Ismail down the right sideline. The 55-yard pass to the freshman Rocket did not lead to any points, but it served notice of the Irish's intentions. Rice threw only eight more times all afternoon, but the threat was there.

On Notre Dame's next possession, Rice kept it himself on an option play and raced 65 yards to give the Irish a 7-0 lead. Just two plays later, USC's Aaron Emanuel fumbled on the Trojan 19, leading to a Mark Green touchdown that gave Notre Dame a commanding 14-0 lead.

Rodney Peete
The Notre Dame defense forced Rodney Peete into two interceptions and three sacks.
With the lead down to 14-7, USC had an opportunity to go into halftime with a chance to cut further into the lead when a poor punt gave the Trojans possession on the ND 49 with 52 seconds left. Instead, USC receiver John Jackson slipped and Stan Smagala returned an interception 64 yards for a touchdown to give Notre Dame a 20-7 halftime lead.

Midway through the second half, Notre Dame posted its only long scoring drive of the day and never looked back.

For USC, the loss ended hopes of returning to national glory. The Trojans returned to the Rose Bowl, but for the second straight January, a trip to Pasadena ended in defeat.

For Notre Dame, Holtz's legend grew as the Irish went on to beat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.

Mike Diegnan is the editor of

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