SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium in 21 years, the Fighting Irish will wear sparkly new helmets and perhaps green jerseys, all to spice up a rivalry that has seldom needed the help.
It’s Southern Cal coming to town, and over the years it has been a remarkable series that began in 1926 when Knute Rockne took the Irish to the West Coast and came away with a 13-12 win.
There was Notre Dame’s 51-0 romp in 1966, and Anthony Davis’ six TDs to spark a 45-23 USC victory in 1972. And who can forget the “Bush Push” game of 2005 when USC quarterback Matt Leinart was nudged into the end zone to give the Trojans a 34-31 win?
Notre Dame (4-2) ended an eight-game losing streak to the Trojans (5-1) last season, giving the Irish some confidence in an unusual game: Saturday night’s 83rd meeting between the one-time powers will mark only the 10th time — and second straight season —that both schools enter the game unranked.
“When I was in high school, USC was almost that mythical team. They were winning every game and they were killing teams,” said Notre Dame guard Trevor Robinson of Elkhorn, Neb. “They were coming into Nebraska and I was watching them play in Lincoln and they were running the ball for 300 yards. I was sitting there and like, ‘Who’s going to beat these guys?’
“Then we get here and I go out my freshman year and we don’t put a first down on the board until the beginning of the fourth quarter,” Robinson said of a 38-3 loss in 2008. “As we’ve gone through here, we’ve gotten better and better. We’ve been able to kind of compete and getting that win (last year) is something that I think will give a lot of guys confidence.”
Yet in that victory last season, the Irish didn’t face USC quarterback Matt Barkley because he was injured.
It was Mitch Mustain starting in the rain at the Coliseum and he threw a pass to a wide-open Ronald Johnson with 77 seconds left that was going to be a sure go-ahead TD and the likely winning score. But with no one around him, Johnson dropped the ball at the 15 and moments later Harrison Smith’s interception at the goal line wrapped up Notre Dame’s 20-16 win.
Despite four turnovers by then-freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, the Irish were able to prevail.
“This year’s game has nothing to do with last year,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It was heartbreaking at the time to lose that game and to lose the streak of wins over them when you know how hard the players and coaches in the past had worked to get to that point.”
Rees had more problems with turnovers earlier this season — nine in four games — but he’s been spotless the last two weeks and now the Irish have a four-game winning streak and are coming off a bye week. Rees is 8-1 as a starter in his career.
“He turned the ball over a few times. You could easily say he didn’t play great, but I don’t think you can take away that he gained a lot of confidence in that game,” coach Brian Kelly said of last year’s victory. “His mistakes were just a couple of pressures where some guys dropped out that he wasn’t counting on. He’s seen all those things, so I’m not really that concerned about that .”
Of more concern is Barkley, who has thrown for 1,782 yards and 16 TDS with just four interceptions and Robert Woods has 60 catches with six touchdowns. Another Barkley target, Marqise Lee, has 25 for 404 yards and four scores, but hurt his shoulder last week in a win over Cal.
No. 1 tailback Marc Tyler, who also hurt his shoulder against the Golden Bears, has gained 368 yards on 83 carries, while Curtis McNeal has picked up 289 yards on 41 carries.
And Barkley has enjoyed good protection and been able to keep his uniform relatively clean. Featuring tackle Matt Kalil, the Trojans’ offensive front has surrendered just four sacks this season.
Two years ago at Notre Dame, Barkley passed for 380 yards in the Trojans’ 34-27 win.
“If you let (Barkley) sit back there, he’s going to make plays,” Notre Dame outside linebacker and pass rusher Darius Fleming said. “With Woods being the dynamic player that he is, you have to put pressure on (Barkley) because you can’t let him just run around with our DBs out there.”
Defensive end Nick Perry has four sacks and six tackles for losses to lead a Trojans defense that created five turnovers last week. USC lost cornerback Anthony Brown, who hurt his ankle in the Cal game, and the Trojans will have to find a way to slow down Michael Floyd, who has 53 catches this season and is Notre Dame’s career leader in most receiving categories.
The Irish will be sporting new helmets, complete with flakes of 23.9 karat gold. The school contracted with a company to do the actual painting and, to consistently get the desired color, decided to scrap the tradition of having student managers do the helmet painting each week.
Notre Dame’s last night game at home came in 1990, a pulsating 28-24 victory over Michigan in the Irish’s season opener.
Now it’s time to turn on the lights again, a little more than two decades later.
“They’ve made it, I’m sure, their Super Bowl by putting a bye before it, putting it at night,” Kiffin said. “We’re glad to be a part of their history.”