Notre Dame vs. USC 1988: Cementing Their Position

Keeping national championship hopes and an undefeated season going has always been a challenge for college football teams. Having to capture the final regular season game against another undefeated team heightens that difficulty. Those were the circumstances that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish squad faced when they faced the Southern Cal Trojans on Nov. 26, 1988.

The storied Notre Dame – USC rivalry has had countless battles, though it’s open to debate whether any can match the tension leading up to this clash. The Irish entered the game at 10-0 and ranked first in the country including their thrilling win over previously #1 ranked Miami in the Catholics vs. Convicts game. The Trojans were right behind them, also sporting a 10-0 mark. By the time Notre Dame went on to finish its 27-10 victory, they had reinforced that top spot in the rankings.

The Coaches

Lou Holtz was winding down his third and most successful season with the Irish. In his first two seasons of getting the program back on track, Holtz managed a 13-10 record, with one Cotton Bowl appearance. However, he had wiped away the sour taste of three straight losses to end the 1987 campaign and had Notre Dame in title contention.

Larry Smith was in his second season at Southern Cal after replacing Ted Tollner and had won 18 of his 22 games entering this matchup. Smith was hoping to even his mark against the Irish after dropping a 26-15 road effort the year before. The Trojans had been a Top 10 team all season long, slowly moving up as teams above them lost.

The Key Players

Tony Rice was thriving behind center for Notre Dame, offering production with his arm and especially his legs. However, he was saddled with a huge burden for this game after both running back Tony Brooks and wide receiver Ricky Watters were suspended for missing a team meal. Brooks and Watters led their respective departments but the Irish still had players like running back Mark Green and wideout Rocket Ismail. On defense, the defense was among the elite in the country, with players like Frank Stams up front, Mike Stonebreaker at linebacker and George Streeter in the secondary.

Southern Cal’s offense was powered by Heisman candidate Rodney Peete, who finished the 1988 season with 2,654 yards passing and 18 touchdown passes. The Trojan running game was more running back by committee, with four different backs gaining over 400 yards by the end of the season. Peete spread the ball around on passes, most notably to Erik Affholter and John Jackson. The Southern Cal defense had strong units at linebacker and safety with Junior Seau and Mark Carrier, respectively, the most prominent players within the group.

The Game

After the Trojans’ first punt of the afternoon pinned Notre Dame at its one-yard-line. Rice offered plenty of breathing room on the first play from scrimmage. He connected with a wide-open Ismail, who reached the Southern Cal 43, but the drive soon stalled out.

After the Notre Dame defense again stopped the Trojans, the next Irish drive appeared ready to end in another punt. However, on a third-and-three call, Rice took a 65-yard run to the house for an early 7-0 advantage. The Irish were then able to double their lead when Southern Cal then fumbled the ball less than two minutes later and Stams recovered at the Trojan 19. Green delivered a pair of key runs, the latter a two-yard score to make it 14-0 when the opening quarter ended.

Defense again dominated during the first seven minutes of the second quarter. At that point, Southern Cal managed the chop its deficit in half with an 11-play drive that took nearly five minutes and ended with a one-yard scoring run from Scott Lockwood. The Trojans converted on a 3-and-11 play to extend the drive and then took advantage of a fourth-down interference call on Corny Southall.

The momentum appeared to be shifting in Southern Cal’s favor when they stopped Notre Dame and had the ball at the Irish 49 with 52 seconds left before halftime. That ended on the Trojans’ first play when Stan Smagala intercepted and delivered a 64-yard pick-six for Notre Dame, marking the fourth Southern Cal turnover for the half. Despite a missed extra point, the Irish took a 20-7 lead into the break.

Once play resumed, the defenses remained in control. The only points of the third quarter came on a 26-yard field goal by the Trojans in the final two minutes of the period to make it a 20-10 game. Another strong defensive stand by Notre Dame from the Irish four-yard-line helped force the field goal, with a pair of run attempts that gained nothing followed by an overthrown pass.

Any thoughts of a dramatic comeback by Southern Cal died on the next drive as the Irish ate up nearly five minutes of clock over 10 plays. On that tenth play, Green again made it into the end zone after a pair of clutch plays by Anthony Johnson, making the final 27-10 in favor of Notre Dame.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of this win was the fact that the Trojans outgained the Irish in offensive yardage, 356-253 and first downs, 21-8. Yet, the aforementioned turnovers proved to be the fatal blows that cost Southern Cal a potential national championship.

The final score as well as Notre Dame getting outgained on offense had parallels to the first Notre Dame title in 1924. In what turned out to be their only bowl appearance until 1970, the Irish defeated Stanford by the same score in the Rose Bowl. They were also outgained then, 316-186, with two interception returns for touchdowns by Elmer Layden and a fumble return for a score by Ed Hunsinger accounting for much of the scoring.

Notre Dame’s success on defense was fueled by defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez’s strategy to frequently blitz Peete, forcing him to get the ball away quicker than usual. Given the lack of speed among the Trojans’ receiving corps, it helped avoid the sort of big plays that might have otherwise spelled defeat.

The victory by the Irish marked the sixth straight win in the rivalry, with Notre Dame not losing to the Trojans again until Holtz’s final season in 1996.

The Aftermath

Five weeks later, the Irish capped a spotless season with a 34-21 win over the West Virginia Mountaineers. Notre Dame had taken a 23-6 lead into halftime and held on to capture the program’s 11th national title. It would be the only championship during Holtz’s 11 seasons but it marked the first for the Irish since 1977.

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  1. Don’t write about things you have no knowledge of. Reggie Brooks was not sent home from the game with Ricky Watters because Reggie was in high school and not a student at Notre Dame at the time. Embarrassing.

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