In 1989 the Trojans went to South Bend to face a Fighting Irish team that was ranked No.1 in the nation and was on an 18-game win streak. USC held a 17-7 halftime lead, but ND quarterback Tony Rice scored a late rushing touchdown for a 28-24 win.
John Jackson was a senior wide receiver for the Trojans and that night he set a Notre Dame opponent record with 14 catches (for 200+ yards and a touchdown). Jackson took a look back on some of the memories from his final game as a player at Notre Dame Stadium.
“At Notre Dame, the way the stadium is structured, the opponent warms up on the far side away from the locker room while Notre Dame warms up closer to the locker room,” Jackson said. “The tunnel is located right behind the goal post so if the visiting team is done warming up before the home team, they either have to go around them or find some way to go through them.
“As we finished our warm-ups, I noticed the Notre Dame offense was on the field but the reserve guys were lined up along the back line, basically blocking our entrance to the tunnel. I heard some of our guys saying “we’re not going around” and I thought to myself “this is going to get ugly”.
“At that point, you have to remember, we had lost to them the year before in a game that was basically with the national championship on the line, which was heartbreaking. We had never beaten them to that point in my career. I have never been so focused for any game as I was that day.
“As soon as I heard all the talk heading to the tunnel I knew I had to keep my concentration because this was not what I came here for, I came here to win a game. Of course, a skirmish broke out, a fight, and I saw their corner Todd Lyght, he and I just kind of stayed to the side and the fight broke up rather quickly. The last thing I was going to do was hurt my hands and not be able to play.
“Another thing I remember is the team meeting the night before. I’ve never been with a group of guys or group of individuals that felt closer as a group. Every person in there felt like they would rather die than lose that game. We had a players-only meeting and the seniors talked about how much the game meant. I know it sounds corny but I’ve never felt like I was ready to put that much on the line and I know I had 60 guys with me who felt the same thing.
“One play that I always remember is an interception in the fourth quarter. We were at the Irish 7-yard line, it was third down, and a field goal there would have made it a two-score game and put it out of reach. Some of the plays we had worked on that week were a counter to some specific defenses they had. When we were in the huddle I told Todd (Marinovich) that if they were in a certain defense that he should just throw the ball out of bounds. As I lined up on the ball I saw they were lined up in the wrong defense for us and I pointed at the stands so that Todd would know to throw it away. Of course, Todd thought he could make a play, that’s what made him a great quarterback, but this time he didn’t make a play and it resulted in an interception.
“As far as the record, I was so focused during the game that I didn’t know about setting any records until a reporter asked me about it in the locker room. At the time I didn’t care because we had lost but eventually you realize that it’s a big deal to set an opponent record against Notre Dame. I was named the MVP of the Notre Dame game at the banquet that year, which was a nice honor, but I would have much rather had it in victory.
“The 2005 game was my first trip back to Notre Dame Stadium and I was the radio sideline analyst. After the Bush Push, I remember looking in the stands and seeing the Irish fans with their mouths open like they couldn’t believe what had happened. That was the most gratifying feeling I’ve ever had in that stadium after so many moments of heartbreak. After I did my interviews in the locker room, I had to go back out and re-live my whole career there at the stadium. There were a bunch of struggles but there were some good moments too. I was able to walk the route where I caught a touchdown. I walked the spot where we had our final chance to win that game, we were inside the 10 but we went four-and-out. I took about 20 minutes to myself that night and then to have the chance to finally walk off that field after a USC win was very gratifying.”