The match-up on Saturday between the Irish and the Trojans will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the great games in the series.
On Nov. 28, 1964 Notre Dame came swaggering into the Coliseum ranked No. 1 in the country with a 9-0 record under first-year coach Ara Parseghian. It had been a surprising turnaround for the Irish, who had been 2-7 in 1963 and had only posted two winning seasons in the previous eight years, and were on their fourth coach in that same span. Notre Dame featured quarterback John Huarte, who personified the rags-to-riches Irish by going from deep reserve to Heisman Trophy winner in one year. USC had a solid team with a 6-3 record and was still alive for a potential Rose Bowl berth. The Trojans were led by tailback Mike Garrett, who would win the Heisman the following year.
USC coach John McKay, who had won a national championship in 1962, was well aware of what kind of team the Irish were bringing to town.
"I studied the Notre Dame-Stanford film for six hours last night and I have reached one conclusion: Notre Dame can't be beaten," McKay told the media the week before the game. "I've decided that if we play our very best and make no mistakes whatsoever we will definitely make a first down."
The Irish jumped on top early and went into halftime with a comfortable 17-0 lead as Huarte completed 11 of 15 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver Jack Snow. In the second half, however, things started to change.
USC took the third-quarter kickoff and promptly scored on a Garrett run to make it 17-7, and then the momentum took a pair of cardinal and gold turns. After driving the length of the field, the Irish fumbled the ball away inside the USC 10-yard line. On their next possession, the Notre Dame running back dove into the end zone but the play was called back due to a holding call that Parseghian would later refer to as "the worst officiating call in the history of college football."
Notre Dame failed to score after the holding penalty and USC took advantage by driving 88-yards and scoring on a pass from quarterback Craig Fertig to tight end Fred Hill to bring the score to 17-13 with just over five minutes to play. The Trojans defense forced an Irish punt, and a long return from Garrett set USC up with field position on the Notre Dame side of the field for a dramatic finish.
Fertig hit Hill with a pass to put the Trojans in the Notre Dame red zone, and there was another controversial call on a Fertig throw to Hill in the end zone on second down, a play USC fans thought should have been ruled a touchdown. On a third down from the Irish 15, Fertig was hit, the ball came loose and was ruled an incomplete pass, which resulted in yet another disputed call from the Notre Dame side. The Trojans maintained possession but were faced with a fourth down and the game on the line.
What happened next is the stuff of Trojans lore. It began on the USC sideline, when receiver Rod Sherman approached head coach John McKay with a play suggestion, something that players just didn’t do with the imposing USC coach. But the Sherman idea of calling "84-Z-Delay" was quickly accepted by McKay, and Sherman ran onto the field to give the play to Fertig.
As the ball was snapped, Fertig rolled left, while Sherman took off from the left slot position, faked to the outside and then cut back to the middle against coverage from Notre Dame safety Tony Carey. As to what actually took place after the ball was thrown was the fodder of many humorous takes between Fertig and Sherman on the USC banquet circuit over the years. To hear Fertig tell it, the ball hit Sherman right between the 1 and the 2 on his jersey. Sherman, of course, remembers having to reach outstretched to make the grab. Regardless of which version you want to believe, the pass was completed for a touchdown and it caused a pandemonium amongst the 83,840 fans in attendance. USC 20, Notre Dame 17.
For the Trojans, the euphoria of the victory was tempered with the news later that night that the AAWU conference had voted to send co-champion Oregon State to the Rose Bowl instead of USC. It was a vote that caused USC athletic director Jess Hill to comment, "So far as I am concerned, this is one of the rankest injustices ever perpetrated in the field of intercollegiate athletics."
While USC lost a shot at the Rose Bowl, the Irish lost a shot at a national championship. Notre Dame finished the season 9-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country. The Trojans were ranked No. 10 with a 7-3 record and, most importantly, a victory over the Irish that still resonates with USC fans 50 years later.