LOS ANGELES – The Jeweled Shillelagh has been spending an awful lot of time in Hollywood over the past decade.
Southern California has won nine of its past 10 meetings with Notre Dame in one of college football’s best intersectional rivalries. The Trojans won a record eight straight over the Irish before a narrow loss in 2009, falling one dropped touchdown pass short of a perfect 10-year stretch with the jeweled trophy.
USC’s dominance is one reason many of the current players don’t have a full grasp of more than 85 years of history between the schools. The Trojans have been on top for most of their youths, winning in everything from blowouts to the famed “Bush Push” game of 2005.
“It’s not a great rivalry right now,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We haven’t won enough games. They’ve had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry.”
The top-ranked Irish have that chance Saturday at the Coliseum. Notre Dame (11-0) needs a win to advance to the BCS title game, while the Trojans (7-4) have been reduced to spoilers after starting the year at No. 1.
That’s a change from the rivalry’s recent history dominated by the Trojans, whose incredibly successful run under coach Pete Carroll has been dampened by NCAA sanctions while Kelly revitalized the inconsistent Irish. The USC-Notre Dame rivalry carries more weight for alumni and former players than the current stars in uniform.
“We try to work on that, (but) I don’t think that’s natural to them,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “But that’s what we live in nowadays. We’re dealing with 17- to 21-year-old kids, and for whatever reason, they don’t come in here understanding that, so we work on that.”
In fact, Kiffin welcomes Notre Dame’s success under Kelly, believing it’s the only way to make his players understand what’s special about the matchup.
“That will naturally change it,” Kiffin said. “I’m sure as these kids grew up with the whatever it was, eight straight (wins for USC), I’m sure they weren’t watching the same type of games that 20 years ago, kids were watching. That would definitely change it, but it’s our part to make sure we’re up there, too.”
The series, which dates to 1926 when Knute Rockne first brought Notre Dame to the West Coast, has been dominated by one team for long stretches in the past half-century or so. Notre Dame went unbeaten in 13 straight meetings from 1983-95, and USC lost only twice from 1967-82.
With Notre Dame two wins away from its first national title since 1988, the Coliseum is an ideal setting for a memorable win. Although the rivalry was one-sided in recent years, it produced several memorable moments – most of them less regrettable than USC receiver Ronald Johnson’s horrific drop of a sure touchdown pass with 1:17 to play on a rainy night in Los Angeles two years ago.
The Bush Push game might have been the most entertaining, with a back-and-forth game culminating in Reggie Bush’s push of quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone in the final seconds of No. 1 USC’s 34-31 victory over the green-jerseyed Irish. Even Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis agreed Bush simply had been trying to win, even if he strayed onto the gray edge of the rule book.
Although the current players don’t know everything about the schools’ history, they’ve written a bit of their own already. USC senior safety T.J. McDonald cites the Trojans’ 31-17 victory at Notre Dame last season among the best memories of his college career, still savoring the South Bend silence a year later.
Kelly hopes the Irish start making their own memories Saturday.
“We need to win some more football games against a great opponent in USC,” Kelly said. “Our guys know that. I don’t have to tell them that. They’ve been around. They were here last year when we got beat. We want to make this a rivalry. We’re going to have to play great football against a really good football team.”