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Rivalry reinvigorated

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, October 14, 2005

For decades they’ve played each other. For decades, their games have been significant in the realm of college football. For decades, they’ve played games to remember.

Saturday’s matchup between No. 1 USC and No. 9 Notre Dame is likely to be no different. The Irish sit at 4-1 and are trying to prove they are back at the top of college football once again. The Trojans, meanwhile take their 27-game winning streak to South Bend to prove they still belong at the top after winning back-to-back national championships. There’s no doubt this is a big game.

“This is the reason why every guy on this team came here – is to play in a game like this,” safety Tom Zbikowski said.

But just how big is Saturday’s matchup?

The hype

Everyone across the country is talking about Saturday’s contest. ESPN’s GameDay crew arrived in South Bend a day earlier than usual after not making an appearance at Notre Dame since 2000 and backing out on the Irish last season for the Michigan game. ESPN’s morning show Cold Pizza is broadcasting from campus, and ticket prices are skyrocketing on eBay, with tickets going for upwards of $500 each.

Media access to players was limited to just one day, and the players were preselected to speak to the media. Even the pep rally, moved from the Joyce Center to Notre Dame Stadium for the extra seating, is being televised by ESPNEWS.

“This is definitely one of the bigger games of my career,” junior defensive end Victor Abiamiri said. “So it’s kind of one of the little special times around campus. You don’t really get to the play the No.1 team in the country in your home stadium too much.”

But the Irish are trying not to let the hype and media craze surrounding the game affect them, something passed down from Irish head coach Charlie Weis.

“I think I treat every week pretty much the same,” Weis said. “I have always tried to profess having a very businesslike approach and treating each game as its own separate entity. I understand – I am not oblivious to the magnitude of the football game. But I think that you just set yourself up for emotional highs and lows if you treat it any differently.”

On the USC sideline, quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart downplayed the game, played at Notre Dame Stadium in its 75th year of existence.

“I think it’s just how people make it,” Leinart said. “We approach it like it’s any other game. It is Notre Dame but we approach it like it was against Arizona last week. Obviously people are going to make a big deal about it, but we’re just going to go about our business.”

But at the same time, the Notre Dame players know it’s a big deal that the defending champion and No. 1 team in the country is coming to town. They see it as an opportunity to see just how well they will stack up against a team most experts dub as the best in the country.

“Playing Southern Cal is exciting,” Irish running back Darius Walker said. “It’s a big deal. And playing the No. 1 team in the country I think speaks wonders for us because that’s where we want to be. To be the best, you have to beat the best.”

The history

The Notre Dame-USC rivalry dates back to the Knute Rockne era, when the Irish traveled to face the Trojans for the first time in 1926. This matchup was the beginning of what is now known as the “greatest intersectional rivalry.” Since that game, which Notre Dame won 13-12, the Irish have beaten the Trojans 42 times and lost 29 times.

USC’s first visit to Notre Dame Stadium resulted in the first ever sellout in 1931, a game the Irish lost, 16-14, after leading 14-0. This loss ended Notre Dame’s 26-game win streak, which carried over from Rockne’s tenure.

The rivalry includes many games of significance, including the 1964 game in which Notre Dame saw its national title hopes shattered and the more famous Green Jersey game of 1977. In 1964, under the leadership of head coach Ara Parseghian, the Irish went to Los Angeles as the top-ranked team and fell, 20-17, to the Trojans in the final game of the season after leading 17-0.

In the Green Jersey game, the Irish, coached by Dan Devine, warmed up in their regular blue uniforms and came out in green. Notre Dame defeated USC 49-19 and went on to win the National Championship. Weis, a 1978 graduate of Notre Dame, vividly remembers that game as a student.

“It was a pretty wild experience,” he said. “Watching the team come out there and warm up in blue and didn’t think too much of it to tell you the truth. And they came out, and I remember the big Trojan Horse, and I remember the team coming out there in those green jerseys and knowing this was going to be something special.”

The Green Jersey game is just one of many USC-Notre Dame matchups that was one to remember. Most recently, the Trojans have dominated the Irish, and many have speculated that big wins in 2002 and 2004 helped spur USC quarterbacks and Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer (2002) and Leinart (2004) to win the award. Under those quarterbacks, USC has won each of the last three meetings by 31 points, and the 44-13 loss in 2002 helped push the 10-1 Irish out of contention for a BCS bowl bid. But the Irish say this year’s team isn’t like the ones that lost by 31 points three years in a row.

“This game feels a lot different from the ’02 game, and here’s why,” defensive end Chris Frome said. “Our defense obviously, we had an amazing defense that year, great d-backs. Our offense wasn’t nearly as developed as it is now, and a lot of people have a lot more faith in our offense than they did then. Our whole team does.

“We really feel like we can put some points on the board against USC and hold them scoring, so we feel pretty confident going into this game.”

Saturday’s game is another opportunity for the Irish to prove they belong at the top of college football once again.

“We’re motivated right now just because we’re trying to build something new,” Irish linebacker Maurice Crum said. “We’re trying to get us back to where we used to be, and that’s our motivation.”

Heisman watch

Besides the tradition of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry, recent games have had more implications than just a win or loss. Two of the past three years, the Notre Dame-USC game has helped decide the Heisman Trophy winner, and both times it was a Trojan quarterback. When Palmer tore apart the Irish secondary in 2002, many believed it solidified his chances at college football’s highest honor. Last year, it was Leinart who tore apart the Irish secondary to solidify his place in the award voting. However, this year, there may be three Heisman candidates in Saturday’s game.

Leinart has thrown for 1,646 yards on 108-for-166 passing, including 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. All-purpose back Reggie Bush has 621 yards rushing, 191 yards receiving and 180 punt/kick return yards.

“If it wasn’t for Leinart, he probably would have won the Heisman last year,” Irish defensive tackle Derek Landri said of Bush. “I’m sure he’s a top candidate to win it this year. The kid is just an awesome player. Everytime he touches the ball, it’s like a highlight reel.”

On the Notre Dame sideline, quarterback Brady Quinn has slowly snuck up Heisman watch lists, flourishing in Weis’ offense. Quinn’s numbers are similar to Leinart’s thus far-1,621 yards on 124-for-190 passing, with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. But Quinn is just focused on beating the Trojans, not winning the award.

“I don’t think we focus on [individual accolades] at all,” Quinn said. “As long as the team is winning and doing well those things will come with it.”

And if the Irish win, Quinn’s stock could soar, much like Palmer’s and Leinart’s did.

Matchup of minds

Not only is Saturday a showdown between two of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks, it is also a showdown of two coaches who left the NFL ranks for college football. Trojans head coach Pete Carroll has led his team to back-to-back national titles at USC, while Weis came to the Irish with four Super Bowl rings from the NFL.

“We don’t know each other very well,” Carroll said. “I’ve only talked to him a couple times. It’s all been football.”

Carroll took over as the head coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots in 1996, the year Weis and his staff departed. Weis went to the New York Jets with Bill Parcells, and Carroll was the head coach of the Patriots until Bill Belichick took over in 2000, when Carroll left for USC.

That’s when Weis returned to the Patriots up until this year.

But Weis said there were no hard feelings from the turnover during which he ended up going to the Jets.

“Because we were in that northeast corridor together, we had a chance to compete,” Weis said. “I think he is a really good coach. He has been good for college football. He came in there when that program was a little down. Obviously, they are the bar now. They are the level of performance that everyone is trying to get to.”

And Carroll, who is also the Trojans’ defensive coordinator is looking forward to facing Weis who calls all the plays for the Irish.

“What Charlie has been able to do … he is that offense,” Carroll said. “What they were able to do in New England is what they are now doing at Notre Dame, you can see it clearly and he’s the one that brought it. I have great respect for what he’s done.

“I think it’s really cool that we have this chance to match up again and see what we do.”

And the Irish want to take advantage of the opportunity they have to make another mark in the storied Notre Dame-USC rivalry.

“We look at this as an opportunity to beat Southern Cal,” offensive lineman Ryan Harris said. “Obviously … we would love to play a great game and to win. Our goal is always to win.

“But it would be extra special if we could win this game.”