Some events defy easy categorization; a USC-ND game does the trick

Words sometimes fail to describe the events that fill our lives. In sports, an epic meltdown or comeback could do the trick. In the USC-Notre Dame rivalry, one game left many onlookers speechless. Everything there was just strange… and no one knew what or how to feel when it was all over.

College football historian @ChrisKBills explains in the first of a three-part series on the 1994 USC-Notre Dame game:


One of college football’s greatest rivalries, USC-Notre Dame, is known for its legendary battles where the winners have etched their names into the annals of the grill tradition.

But not always.

Of the 91 games these teams played, five ended in ties, which the NCAA interrupted in 1996 to make way for overtime.

Here are the other links:

    • 1936, a 13-13 game that featured a USC record for longest interception, a 99-yard pick-six from Bud Langley
    • 1948, a 14-14 tie that cost the No.2 and unbeaten Notre Dame the national title. Sandwiched between the championship seasons of 1947 and 1949, it was as close as any team to four consecutive championships, as Notre Dame won it all in 1946 as well.
    • 1968, a 21-21 tie that looked like a victory for Notre Dame against the top-ranked reigning national champions Troy. The Irish held OJ Simpson, in his Heisman winning year, to 55 rushing yards. It was also the last year of Notre Dame’s self-imposed 45-year hiatus.
    • 1969, a 14-14 tie that was USC’s only flaw in an unbeaten season. While it cost the Trojans (and their legendary Wild Bunch defense) a possible slice of the national title with Texas, the Irish actually had a chance to win instantly but missed a late field goal.

The next and last tie arrived in 1994.

On Thanksgiving weekend that year, the Trojans and the Irish played their last game in which neither team left the field with a W or an L.

USC was in the middle of a nightmarish run against Notre Dame: 11 straight losses, including eight straight losses to Lou Holtz.

The Trojans had lost all possible means:

Huge blown lead: This marked the SC from a loss in 1986. The Trojans led 37-20 in the fourth quarter only to give up 18 points and lose 38-37.

A missed opportunity in a monumental game: In a No.1 vs. No.2 battle at the LA Coliseum, both teams were undefeated before their 1988 clash. USC just wasn’t ready just yet in one. 27-10 game in which the Irish scored two 60-yard touchdowns and forced four Trojan turnovers.

A valiant effort failed in 1989: Notre-Dame No.1 was down 17-7 at halftime, but rallied for a 28-24 triumph. The Irish resisted late training from Troy who reached Notre Dame’s 7-yard line.

A lack of offense: In 1990, USC – a week after scoring 45 points against UCLA – were stifled by a 10-6 loss to an Irish side whose pass defense had been shaky that season .

A lack of defense: In 1991 (the first USC-ND game to be televised on NBC), the Trojans were beaten for 178 yards and two touchdowns by future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis in an Irish 24-20 victory.

A blowout: While most of those losses were close games until the end, the 1993 game was anything but a 31-13 bombing in which USC allowed 305 rushing yards. This 1993 setback was also the first USC-ND game of the John Robinson 2.0 era.

After nine years as an NFL coach with the LA Rams (six playoff appearances, only three seasons lost), Robinson returned to where he won a national title in 1978.

While his 1993 team performed better after that Irish scramble – 4-1 in their last five games that year, including a Freedom Bowl win over Utah – Robinson clearly had work to do.

At the start of their 1994 game, the shoe was the opposite: it was USC, not Notre Dame, who had the best season.

Led by a massive offense with quarterback Rob Johnson, WR Keyshawn Johnson and great Tony Boselli on the left tackle, as well as a competent defense led by Sammy Knight and Darrell Russell, the Trojans have had an impressive year.

That Trojan team wasn’t quite back, losing to Rose Bowl-related Penn State and Oregon by a combined 60-21 and suffering a fourth straight loss to Terry Donahue and UCLA. However, a record of 7-3 and top
20 rankings were not to be despised after the previous years.

As USC entered the 1994 season ranked 13th and expected to do good things, Notre Dame, ranked third in the preseason, had a year of major decline. . The Irish had just bid farewell to a great senior class – a whopping 13 players who graduated from a 1993 squad that nearly won the national title.

Among these players: Lake Dawson, Kevin McDougal, Aaron Taylor, Bryant Young and Jim Flanigan.

There were still a handful of players from the 1993 squad: Marc Edwards, Derrick Mayes, Ray Zellars, Bertrand Berry, Renaldo Wynn and Allen Rossum.

However, quarterback Ron Powlus – whom Beano Cook sadly said would win two Heisman Trophies – couldn’t be as productive as ND McDougal’s predecessors Rick Mirer and Tony Rice.

Add in a bunch of injuries, the departure of talent, the lack of senior leaders (only 2 seniors in 1994 against 13 in 93), and the Irish just couldn’t get over the talent drain.

With three of their four losses close (Florida State and BYU each beat Notre Dame by touchdown; Michigan won by two points on a late field goal), it was ND’s worst season since Lou’s first year. Holtz in 1986, when the Irish had lower expectations.

Thus, it was the USC with the best record (7-3 vs. 6-4) and highest ranking (No. 17 vs. unranked) before the LA Coliseum in November 1994.

Although USC was locked in second place in the Pac-10 conference – Oregon had previously won the Rose Bowl – and neither team knew which bowl game it was heading to, the horses of Troy were still trying to end the Irish hex and have a nine shot win for the first time since the days of the Junior Seau-Mark Carrier.

In his first stint with the Trojans (1976-1982), John Robinson was 6-1 against the Irish, the only loss coming in the famous 1977 Green Jersey game. Although his team lost hard in 1993 , Robinson was a perfect 4-0 against Notre Dame at LA Coliseum. USC felt that if anyone could stop the Irish hex, it was a guy who knew how to beat them.

Larry Smith, Robinson’s predecessor at USC, had three Rose Bowls, but he never beat Notre Dame in six tries, including the unbeaten 1988 1v2 battle.

Ted Tollner in 1984 brought the Trojans to a Rose Bowl title and loss to Washington, No.1, but he was 0-4 against Notre Dame. His last game was that 17-point home meltdown in 1986.

The man who preceded Robinson, John McKay, had a winning record against the Irish and only lost twice in LA: his first year in 1960 and against the 1966 national championship team.

Robinson, a man who knew how to beat Notre Dame, had replaced McKay, who had led some of USC’s greatest triumphs against the Irish.

Smith and Tollner went 0-10 against Notre Dame. There was a feeling that USC was expected in 1994. For once the Trojans were not to lose to the Fighting Irish.

They didn’t… but not in the way many expected.

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