USC – Notre Dame Football Rivalry History

Oct 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; General view of the Southern California Trojans logo midfield before the NCAA football game against the Washington Huskies at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; General view of the Southern California Trojans logo midfield before the NCAA football game against the Washington Huskies at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

College football’s longest, richest and most influential intersectional rivalry is nearing 90 years of excellence in intersectional football.

One thing precipitated and accelerated the need for this series. Michigan Head Coach Fielding Yost’s hateful anti-Catholic campaign against Notre Dame led him to convince the members of the Western Conference (the then name of the current Big X, which recently went from 12 to 14 members) to refuse to schedule the Fighting Irish. Not everybody complied with Yost, but Notre Dame was in a state the same as or contiguous with most of those member schools (only Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota excluded) so this presented scheduling challenges for the Irish. The Irish looked East to Army, Navy, Pitt and others. And then they investigated the West Coast. The University of Southern Califonia, right there in the then “city on the make” Los Angeles, was eager to engage with the big boys East of the Mississippi.

There is a split of opinion about the origin of the series.

One version is that the Rose Bowl committee was eager to upgrade its profile and had been pressing to get Notre Dame to be in the game. Once the entrepreneurial Rockne got a taste of the West Coast, when he and his four Horsemen bested Ernie Nevers, Pop Warner and Stanford in the Rose Bowl after the ‘24 season, Knute saw the light , the fun, the money and the exposure that playing a West coast rival would bring.

Another version is that when Notre Dame was on its way to Lincoln to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1925 that Southern Cal dispatched its coach Howard Jones and his wife to talk to the Notre Dame entourage. Mrs. Jones engaged the engaging Mrs. Rockne, and the story goes that she convinced Knute’s better half that Mrs. Rockne might enjoy a biennial visit to the West Coast.

The third, and most apocryphal, dubious version is a blend of the previous two and surfaced in the late 70’s. This version had Knute in greater Pasadena for the ‘24 Rose Bowl. One night, he was taking the missus for a ride well east of LA, far beyond the city lights. Mrs. Rockne was enchanted, right there, on a dark desert highway, cool wind in her hair, warm smell of colitis, rising up through the air. And she declared “Knute, play USC, honey!”

In any event, the fateful day was December 4, 1926, and, other than a three year hiatus because of World War II, Notre Dame and USC have played every year since.

USC was a rising power in the late 20’s and 30’s, but Western football was still considered inferior to the East and Midwest. At the end of 1959 the Irish led 21-7-1.


After Howard Jones retired following the 1940 season, the Thundering Herd was competent but not outstanding. There was a long drought since the near unanimous USC national championship in ’32 and the one poll national championship mentions in ’33 and ’39. USC was not holding up its end of the rivalry. Between Jones and McKay, the Irish owned the series 13-3-2. A lot of the fault there lay on the broad, winning shoulders of Frank Leahy who allowed USC to beat his Irish once and tie them once.

In 1960, after firing Don Clark, USC elevated 37 year old assistant John McKay to the head coaching position.  In 16 years, McKay was 127-40-8, won 9 Pac-8 (yes, there was a time before Arizona and Arizona State were admitted to the Pac X) and Pac-10 titles and won national championships in ’62, ’67, ’72, ’74. McKay never won a national championship unless he beat Notre Dame in that year. So also would it be for Parseghian, Devine and Holtz on the other sideline.

The USC-Notre Dame was as “PIVOTAL” as a game could be, because a losing team in this era NEVER won a national championship.
McKay also became a thorn in the side of Notre Dame, public enemy #1. It was under McKay that USC informed Notre Dame that it would not play in South Bend in a season ending game, but only earlier, in gentler, sylvan October climes. So since ’61 the game in South Bend has been in October, the game in Los Angeles at season’s end, quite frequently on Thanksgiving Weekend.

Adding fuel to McKay’s fire was a rascal of an LA journalist, the creative columnist Jim Murray. Murray arrived at the LA Times in 1961, the spring after McKay became head coach. And Murray delighted in tweaking Notre Dame and its fans.

When Notre Dame hired Ara Raoul Parseghian in ’64, the rivalry, with the aid of television, became a national event. After all, between ’62 and ’77, 16 years, there were 7 national championships won by either USC or Notre Dame. And in years like ’64 ’70, ’73, ’77 and ‘88 one team ended the national championship hopes of the other.


In Ann Arbor and Columbus they get gooey over the 10 year war between Bo and Woody from ’69-’78. It’s a local thing as neither team won a national championship during the Ten Year War, just a pretty trophy from the Big Ten Office.

But when Ara and Mckay went at it there was much more at stake, for in 5 of those years the winner won all or a part of the national championship and in ’64 and ’70, USC dashed ND’s national championship hopes. It was a Big Game.

For Notre Dame alums who arrived after the post-Leahy dark ages, the defining moment in their undergraduate years was the annual battle, the first 5 years of which were when Notre Dame still honored its self-imposed bowl ban.

’64-late holding call, Craig Sherman to Rod Fertig. Irish agony.

’65-a pelting rain and Larry Conjar’s four touchdowns were too much

’66-substitute QB Coleman Carroll O’Brien had his only start as ND QB. He was productive, 51-0.

’67-Orenthal James Simpson was just too much for the Irish

’68-in his third start subbing for the injured Hanratty, Joe Theisman led the Irish to a 21-21 tie in the Coliseum.

’69-cursed zebras! The clip on Duane “Dewey” Poskon allowed SC to escape with another tie.  Poskon’s “alleged” clip ranks with Greg Davis on the Rocket Ismail punt return against Colorado.

’70-unbeaten Irish found both SC and a quagmire and despite Theisman’s record performance, SC won. No championship for ND

’71-the only desultory game in the 11 year war. Even the sideline fight was a yawn.

’72-Anthony Davis scored six touchdowns against the Irish.

’73-Eric Penick, behind blocks by Pomarico and Dinardo went 85 to glory, redemption and catharsis, ending the six year drought

’74-Irish led 24-6. SC then scored 49 in a row. Still a nightmare, ever traumatic for those who witnessed it live or on TV.


Some of the most memorable games in the series occurred in that six year span in the mid-70’s. In ’72 Anthony Davis scored 6 touchdowns to lead USC to another romp over the Irish.

The next year, Eric Penick’s dramatic 85 yard run from the Wing T led Notre Dame to a win, breaking a six year victory drought against USC, and propelling the Irish to Ara’s second national championship.

In 1974, Ara’s final team moved out to a 24-6 lead. USC scored 49 points in the next long, very long, 19 minutes to crush the Irish 55-24.

In 1977, the little leprechaun himself, Dan Devine used a roster full of talent and the motivational tool of green jerseys to propel the Irish to a 49-19 thrashing of the visitors from Heritage Hall.

In each of those four years, the winning team claimed the national championship. The 70’s cemented Notre Dame versus USC as the nation’s preeminent intersectional rivalry and must-see TV for the committed college football fan.


Despite the commitment to excellence, despite the achievements, National Championships, Heismans and glory, both schools have shown the ability to hire mind-numbingly inadequate coaches. Notre Dame has Brennan, Kuharich, Devore, Faust and that not-very-wise-guy from New Jersey. But USC had Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, Paul Hackett and, most recently, the only coach in any sport fired in the wee hours of the morning by being told, by a Rhodes Scholar, no less, to get off the team bus at LAX after a drubbing in Tempe, the incomparable Lane Kiffin.


The series has seen significant momentum swings. Beginning in ’67, the year Orenthal James Simpson began playing for McKay and the Trojans, USC controlled the series, 12-2-2. It is noteworthy that the two losses to Notre Dame came in ’73 and ’77. Those were glorious days in Notre Dame Football as the emotional victory over USC opened the path toward an Irish National Championship.

Under the unlikely leadership of Gerry Faust, the Irish started a streak of their own in ’83, ripping off 12 wins and a tie. Gerry Faust had a better record against USC than either Parseghian or Devine. The USC Notre Dame series defies both expectations and pattern recognition.

Pete Carroll coached USC to 8 wins in a row over Notre Dame before leaving for the Seahawks.

Notre Dame leads the series 45-35-5. Both teams remain in the top echelon of college football. And the rivalry, with all its color and glory, has a bright future. By acclamation, it is the greatest intersectional rivalry, and that means the greatest national rivalry, in college football. Thanks Howard Jones, thanks Rock!


Record: 45-36-5

1W12-04-192613Los Angeles, CA12
2W11-26-19277Chicago, IL6
3L12-01-192814Los Angeles, CA27
4W11-16-192913Chicago, IL12
5W12-06-193027Los Angeles, CA0
6L11-21-193114South Bend, IN16
7L12-10-19320Los Angeles, CA13
8L11-25-19330South Bend, IN19
9W12-08-193414Los Angeles, CA0
10W11-23-193520South Bend, IN13
11T12-05-193613Los Angeles, CA13
12W11-27-193713South Bend, IN6
13L12-03-19380Los Angeles, CA13
14L11-25-193912South Bend, IN20
15W12-07-194010Los Angeles, CA6
16W11-22-194120South Bend, IN18
17W11-28-194213Los Angeles, CA0
18W11-30-194626South Bend, IN6
19W12-06-194738Los Angeles, CA7
20T12-04-194814Los Angeles, CA14
21W11-26-194932South Bend, IN0
22L12-02-19507Los Angeles, CA9
23W12-01-195119Los Angeles, CA12
24W11-29-19529South Bend, IN0
25W11-28-195348Los Angeles, CA14
26W11-27-195423South Bend, IN17
27L11-26-195520Los Angeles, CA42
28L12-01-195620Los Angeles, CA28
29W11-30-195740South Bend, IN12
30W11-29-195820Los Angeles, CA13
31W11-28-195916South Bend, IN6
32W11-26-196017Los Angeles, CA0
33W10-14-196130South Bend, IN0
34L12-01-19620Los Angeles, CA25
35W10-12-196317South Bend, IN14
36L11-28-196417Los Angeles, CA20
37W10-23-196528South Bend, IN7
38W11-26-196651Los Angeles, CA0
39L10-14-19677South Bend, IN24
40T11-30-196821Los Angeles, CA21
41T10-18-196914South Bend, IN14
42L11-28-197028Los Angeles, CA38
43L10-23-197114South Bend, IN28
44L12-02-197223Los Angeles, CA45
45W10-27-197323South Bend, IN14
46L11-30-197424Los Angeles, CA55
47L10-25-197517South Bend, IN24
48L11-27-197613Los Angeles, CA17
49W10-22-197749South Bend, IN19
50L11-25-197825Los Angeles, CA27
51L10-20-197923South Bend, IN42
52L12-06-19803Los Angeles, CA20
53L10-24-19817South Bend, IN14
54L11-27-198213Los Angeles, CA17
55W10-22-198327South Bend, IN6
56W11-24-198419Los Angeles, CA7
57W10-26-198537South Bend, IN3
58W11-29-198638Los Angeles, CA37
59W10-24-198726South Bend, IN15
60W11-26-198827Los Angeles, CA10
61W10-21-198928South Bend, IN24
62W11-24-199010Los Angeles, CA6
63W10-26-199124South Bend, IN20
64W11-28-199231Los Angeles, CA23
65W10-23-199331South Bend, IN13
66T11-26-199417Los Angeles, CA17
67W10-21-199538South Bend, IN10
68L11-30-199620Los Angeles, CA27
69L10-18-199717South Bend, IN20
70L11-28-19980Los Angeles, CA10
71W10-16-199925South Bend, IN24
72W11-25-200038Los Angeles, CA21
73W10-20-200127South Bend, IN16
74L11-30-200213Los Angeles, CA44
75L10-18-200314South Bend, IN45
76L11-27-200410Los Angeles, CA41
77L10-15-200531South Bend, IN34Southern California Vacated Game
78L11-25-200624Los Angeles, CA44
79L10-20-20070South Bend, IN38
80L11-29-20083Los Angeles, CA38
81L10-17-200927South Bend, IN34
82W11-27-201020Los Angeles, CA16
83L10-22-201117South Bend, IN31
84W11-24-201222Los Angeles, CA13
85W10-19-201314South Bend, IN10
86L11-29-201414Los Angeles, CA49

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  2. Duranko. Was an informative and as always well written article. You must be an “Eagles” fan. I’ve enjoyed them live many times myself. First time I may have 12- 14? Upon 2nd reading I caught the “Hotel California” lyrics embedded. Nice touch. Must have been to early for me upon 1st reading. Thanks for your writings.

  3. The Bush push game. Final drive. All the elements of years gone by. ND had it sealed. 3rd or 4th and long. Done deal, right? Nope. SC hits one. Great play. Probably a couple penalties their way to boot. Bad spot on sideline. Then the Push. Can’t remember what else. But you just knew it was coming. Let another one slip away. SC luck was always stronger than the Luck of the Irish. McKay had enough clout to make sure game was never played later than October in South Bend. This team and program is on the brink to live up to its billing. No better game to launch it on than SC. Thanks

  4. Yes Miami was certainly fun and exciting times. Catholics vs Convicts and tough games. Weis offered some growth to the program. Not near enough for the money. The bottom of his era. Actually having to let an opposing offense score, to have a chance to win a game. Pitiful.

  5. Shaz,

    True. That was the game that led to the 10 year extension for Weis (thank you Kevin White). Too think there was a time I drank the Weis Kool-Aid. The loss against Navy where he went for it on 4th and 10 when a FG would have won it was when I finally realized, once and for all, Weis was not the guy. I’ll give the guy credit for bringing recruiting back up to normal for ND, but that was all. I’ll never forgive the guy for one thing though, and that is I actually rooted against ND in 2009 to insure he would get fired (and interest was rising for BK). I never want to be in that position again.

  6. Worst loss?

    Gotta be 2005 (Bush Push), if for no other reason than Charlie Weis is still
    getting paid for it!

    Here’s to the Lads making it…. “a cold day in hell” for the trojans !

  7. Yeah, the losses, I’m there with Jack and Damian.

    1974 was the most surreal. We’ve all suffered tough losses, but that one was an out-of-body experience.
    It was crueler than ’72 because we were not in that game, but we had the 24-6 lead in ’74. And then…..

    I had quite a few friends in the class of ’71, and they NEVER beat USC as undergraduates. To that generation, and folks like 45 year faithful, their DNA precedes the institution of the ND Michigan revival in 1978.

    For those of us who share that DNA ND-USC will ALWAYS remain the rivalry. And nothing else will ever come close.

    So, for Jack and Damian, I hope tomorrow is NOT memorable, for the reasons you set forth.

  8. I too remember the losses more. I think because in recent history the losses have been so lopsided. For most of the Willingham-Weis era USC has thoroughly dominated ND, and of course ND got crushed by USC last year. I’d love to return the favor Saturday.

  9. Beg to differ. Absolutely generational. Undestandable, yet to bad for loss of emphasis for this game. Imho this is the game every year. If ND doesn’t prevail. I’m left with a imcompleteness reguardless of ND’s record. Flip side with an ND victory. Time for ND to take the series back with a stretch of domination. I feel ND has a program in the making to accomplish this. Thanks.

  10. A good series, usually respectful. ND fans want to beat the crap out of USC, and vice-versa, but I never got the impression that there was “hate” for USC like we have with Michigan and Miami. Personally, I’m a fan of ND and anyone playing Michigan and Miami (good luck to Michigan State this week by the way, I’ll be rooting for them over the Meatchickens). And Miami’s multiple years of turmoil seems very deserved given their checkered history (putting it mildly). What comes around goes around.

    But I don’t have the same feeling for USC. In fact, the more they win the better for our strength of schedule, if they go 12-1 with the lone loss being to ND, that’d be a good thing IMO. USC always comes ready to play these days, so team turmoil or not, ND better be ready to play it’s best. I was glad to see BK make a special point to the players to definitely take this game seriously.

    As an aside, I’d love to get Michigan back on the schedule. Every year is not likely, but having a home-home series scheduled every few years would be nice. There is such animosity between ND and the Meatchickens which makes for great football. 31-0, I still never get tired of that, 31-0. 🙂

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