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History of the rivalry: Irish, Trojans set to battle with major stakes

There’s an argument to be made that Notre Dame-USC football is always appointment television. But when it’s a consensus top-15 matchup featuring a Heisman favorite, two teams with a combined 18-4 record and a Playoff spot on the line, it’s not even an argument. It’s a must-see game. 

That, among more, sets the stage for one of the most enticing duels of this historic rivalry in recent memory. For just the fourth time in series history, both teams have a new head coach. It’s two of the game’s youngest coaches in the well-established Lincoln Riley and the up-and-coming Marcus Freeman. 

On offense, the story is whether Caleb Williams can continue his Heisman parade, maybe adding his fifth game of four touchdown passes and no interceptions this season. The former Oklahoma gunslinger has been dominant all season, and the Irish must find a way of slowing him down. For Notre Dame, it’s about whether the Irish can bring their physicality to the west coast. The Irish have made a habit of dominating in the trenches, and in their most recent top-5 win, they had their way with Clemson, running the ball at will. USC hasn’t really faced a team that loves to establish the run game as much as the Irish do. Notre Dame’s prowess in the trenches could challenge a Trojan defense that has been porous at times, giving up 35+ points in four of the past five games. 

Defensively, two of the nation’s best pass-rushers go toe-to-toe, with Tuli Tuipulotu bringing his FBS-leading 11.5 sacks to the table. Senior Irish vyper Isaiah Foskey has 9.5 sacks, setting the Notre Dame program record for career sacks a week ago. USC for all their defensive deficiencies, lead the country with 18 interceptions. Notre Dame freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison has five interceptions in his last three games, including a 96-yard pick-six versus Clemson. It’s going to be a battle in Los Angeles on Saturday night, the likes of which this rivalry hasn’t seen in a while. Here’s a look at a few other times the stakes were similar to what they will be when Freeman and Riley duel for the first time as head coaches. 

History of a top-15 ND-USC battle

In the past 50 years, the Irish and Trojans have met 14 times with both squads ranked inside the top 15. When playing those games, Notre Dame is 5-9 against the Trojans, but those wins have usually come in a big way. In the five Irish wins, Notre Dame emerged victorious by an average of 19 points per game. When the game took place in Southern California, however, Notre Dame went 1-5. The last time Notre Dame won at USC in a top-15 matchup was back in 1988.

These top-15 matchups occurred far more frequently in the 1970s and 80s. The two squads have met as top-15 opponents just four times this century. The most recent came in 2017 when No. 13 Notre Dame welcomed No. 11 USC to South Bend. The Irish blasted the Trojans, 49-14. Before that, the two teams had not faced off in a top-15 game since 2006. Between 2002-2006, the Trojans beat the Irish three times in such contests. 

One notable fact is the success of the favorites. Much is made of the ‘throw out the records’ in rivalry clashes, but in these 14 games, the lower-ranked team won just four times. Good news for the Irish? Three of those four upsets were in favor of Notre Dame, including that 2017 demolition. 

When a title is on the line

This limits the history to games at USC. Whenever the two teams play in South Bend, it’s a mid-October duel, so there aren’t direct postseason implications. However, some of the season-ending games in Los Angeles have propelled both teams to national championship opportunities.

Most recently, Notre Dame’s last two wins in USC have both been to extend their season. In 2012, Notre Dame entered the game unbeaten and ranked No. 1. USC put up a fight, but Notre Dame pulled away late for a 22-13 win, sealing a spot in the BCS National Championship.

In 2018, the Irish won at USC again, 24-17. That win clinched an unbeaten regular season and a College Football Playoff berth. Before that, the teams hadn’t met with Playoff or national championship aspirations since 1988. Then, of course, No. 1 Notre Dame blasted No. 2 USC, 27-10 en route to their most recent national championship. In both 1972 and 1974, USC vaulted themselves to a national championship via late-November home victories over the Irish. 

Can the Irish play spoiler?

Neither team often played spoiler throughout this rivalry. Frequently, when a playoff or championship berth was on the line, the favored team managed to reel in the victory. That’s what USC is looking to do this weekend. A win and an ensuing Pac-12 championship victory could push the Trojans to their first-ever College Football Playoff. When there’s a spoiler, it’s frequently been USC. The Trojans have ruined the hopes of the visiting Irish on a few occasions over the course of the rivalry. Most notably, in 1964, an unranked USC squad defeated unbeaten and No. 1 Notre Dame 20-17, depriving the Irish of a national championship. In 1970 and 1980, the Trojans knocked their rivals out of championship contention. 

Notre Dame enters this game with a chance to do something they’ve really never accomplished. With no national title hopes of their own, they have a chance to bury the Trojans’ championship dreams. In 1947, the Irish went on the road and beat No. 3 USC to end their title hopes, but Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 and favored in the game. This would be the first time Notre Dame truly pulled off a road upset that ended USC’s season (in terms of championship aspirations). 

There’s a lot on the line Saturday. Notre Dame could play true spoiler for arguably the first time in the series. In doing so, they could put themselves in consideration for a New Year’s Six bowl game with their second top-10 win of the season. USC is looking to vault into the Playoff with a win over the Irish, and they also have a chance to match Notre Dame with a seventh Heisman winner. A big performance from Caleb Williams in this one should make the USC quarterback the clear favorite in the race. 

It’s been five years since these two teams met when both were ranked. Now, with two new head coaches, two red-hot teams in the top 15 and plenty at stake, the rivalry’s juice is renewed, with one of the biggest games in recent history occurring Saturday night in the Coliseum.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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