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Guest Commentary: Trojans still dominate, but the rivalry is changing for the better (Oct. 21)

Dave Dulberg | Thursday, October 20, 2011

Editor’s note: This week The Observer and The Daily Trojan, the student newspaper at Southern California, teamed up with head-to-head columns addressing one topic: the direction of the rivalry between the two football programs.

LOS ANGELES — Unless I’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last decade, the question of who still holds a grasp on the coveted “Jeweled Shillelagh” heading into USC and Notre Dame’s primetime showdown tomorrow night, requires little to no thought.

USC.

There’s no bias here or jaded sense of entitlement. The numbers, the wins and the undeniable dominance speak for themselves. Slice it and dice it anyway you’d like, aside from a rain-soaked 20-16 victory that required more than one fortuitous bounce — a wide open Ronald Johnson dropping what would have been a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes or then-starting sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley sidelined for the only time in his collegiate career due to a knee injury — the Irish haven’t even been playing on the same field as the Trojans since about the end of the Clinton Administration.

Harsh as that might be, heading into last year’s literal and figurative Turkey drop at the Coliseum, USC held an eight-game win streak over Notre Dame. And, outside of the historic “Bush Push” in 2005, most of those contests were decided before the bands even took the field for their halftime performances.

Look no further than the 44-13 snoozer of 2002, Matt Leinart’s 41-10 pre-Heisman coronation in 2004, the 38-0 Mark Sanchez coming-out party in 2007 and the 38-3 Thanksgiving laugher in 2008.

I know statistics don’t always tell the story, but a margin of victory of 24.5 points per game during that span, doesn’t require a lifeline for explanation. Sorry, Regis.

One win does not suddenly shift the balance of power in the swinging pendulum that defines this rivalry.

Joe Montana’s green jersey heroics in 1977 didn’t wash away the Trojans’ eight wins from 1974-1982, nor did USC’s 1996 victory suddenly alleviate the damage left by Notre Dame during the previous 11 years.

So, why is this current quandary any different?

There is no disregarding the job Brian Kelly has done in his second year at the helm of the Irish program. He has quickly restored the crown jewel of the university, which was a mighty tall task given the lack of life support his predecessors Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham provided the program.

But, I think the larger, and perhaps more important question we should be asking, is not who has the bigger fingerprint smudge on the rivalry keepsake, but rather what this game means for two schools caught between the crossroads of what was and what currently is?

Aside from South Bend hosting a night game for the first time since Lou Holtz was calling plays on the Notre Dame Stadium sidelines, this game has a rare air about it none of us have felt for some time.

For a rivalry that began Dec. 4, 1926 thanks to the chatty wives of USC athletic director Gwynn Wilson and famed Irish coach Knute Rockne, the annual matchup stretching over 2,000 miles has sadly gone from riveting to mundane over the last handful of years.

From NCAA sanctions to coaching changes to unfulfilled expectations, two of the country’s powerhouse programs have been reduced to national afterthoughts in recent years.

Forgotten nowadays are historic chapters like Rod Sherman’s remarkable catch to help the Trojans knock off a No. 1-ranked Irish team in 1964, or the unprecedented ties of 1936 and 1968, or the 24-point comeback by USC at the Coliseum in 1976 en route to a 55-24 victory or Irish kicker John Carney’s game-winning field goal as time expired in the closest game between the two in 1986.

Because, while these moments have been forever etched in the lore that holds this rivalry together, the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh these days has been overshadowed by off-the-field drama and on-the-field disappointments.

Both schools can play the “I’m better” routine until their fan bases go red in the face, but the real joy should come in knowing that the rivalry as we once knew it, is back tomorrow night, because slowly but surely, both programs are making strides in the right direction at the same time.

That isn’t to say what we will witness on the foot-high grass Saturday night are two teams battling for national supremacy. Both teams still have plenty of issues to address, from Tommy Rees’ growing pains to the tailback carousel currently taking place in USC’s backfield.

So, on the surface it’s a standard non-conference matchup between fringe top-25 teams, but for those who have witnessed the highest of highs and lowest of lows of this storied rivalry, 2011 serves as the resurrection point. With a nationally televised performance highlighted by pro prospects Robert Woods, Matt Barkley, Michael Floyd and Manti Te’o, there is no debate that the pride of this historic series will certainly be on display this weekend.

It’s the kind of clash Pat Haden, Lynn Swann, Howard Jones, Frank Leahy, Paul Hornung, Joe Theismann and Tim Brown would all sit back and smile about.

So let me rephrase my opening thought. We all are the real winners from this year’s USC-Notre Dame rivalry game.

Whether you bleed blue and gold or cardinal and gold, the real jewel trophy we all can get our hands on, is a rivalry restored.

Contact Dave Dulberg at dtsports@usc.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.