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McGRATH: No dearth of drama when Notre Dame plays USC

USC interim coach Ed Orgergreets Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly before game Saturday South Bend Ind. | Joe Raymond/AP

USC interim coach Ed Orgeron greets Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly before the game Saturday in South Bend, Ind. | Joe Raymond/AP

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Updated: November 21, 2013 7:04AM

SOUTH BEND, IND. — As college-conference reshuffling turns the methodical science of scheduling into roller derby, it was reassuring to hear Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly refer to the USC game as the ­rivalry game on the Irish schedule. It’s going to be around for a while, even as the new world order sticks Notre Dame with five ACC assignments per year and limits its options.

The Irish acknowledged this news Saturday night by riding a stout defense to a 14-10 victory over USC before a damp sellout crowd of 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish offense was mired in mud after quarterback Tommy Rees left with a neck injury early in the third quarter, the recipient of a lights-out hit from USC linebacker Lamar Dawson. Yet somehow, Notre Dame achieved its first two-game winning streak in the series since 2000-2001.

For those of us a certain age — and a certain ethnic/religious persuasion — Notre Dame-USC almost defined college football, especially when Ara Parseghian and John McKay walked the sidelines. The L.A. games were played late in the season, as the early-winter chill chased us indoors and made sunny California seem dreamily exotic. Truth is, the L.A. Coliseum is a dingy, decrepit facility in a rough part of town. But the most compelling chapters of ND-USC history have been written there, beginning with Craig Fertig’s final-minute TD pass to Rod Sherman that denied the Irish a national championship in 1964, Parseghian’s first season.

Two years later, after a 10-10 tie with Michigan State in an epic Game of the Century muddied Irish title hopes, they used the USC game to woo poll voters in those pre-bowl days. The 51-0 whipping they put on the Trojans was said to have prompted McKay to promise he’d never lose to Notre Dame again.

Seven years would pass before he did, in large part because of Anthony Davis. A Trojan tailback without a Heisman, Davis is nonetheless the tailback on ND’s all-time all-opponent team with 10 touchdowns in two USC blowouts at the Coliseum.

Notre Dame Stadium has seen some big moments in the series, too — Eric Penick’s 85-yard run in 1973, the “green jerseys game” in ’77, the Bush Push in 2005.

Saturday’s game was devoid of them. The Irish managed zero points, 22 yards and two first downs after Andrew Hendrix took over for Rees following the first ND possession of the third period. Rees had been a quietly efficient 14-for-21 for 166 yards and two touchdowns to that point.

Meanwhile, USC’s offense went missing after the first quarter: 0-for-11 on third down after its lone touchdown, with more yards lost to holding penalties (40) than gained on running plays (24) in the second half.

Sure, Saturday’s meeting lacked the drama of the 1988 showdown between 10-0 teams that propelled Lou Holtz’s Irish to the national championship. But it wasn’t entirely meaningless. Notre Dame (5-2) was hoping to show that last year’s run to the BCS title game was not a soft-schedule anomaly. The Irish hadn’t beaten the Trojans in South Bend since 2001, though the 2005 result was reversed, a consequence of NCAA transgressions that occurred while Heisman winner Reggie Bush was a USC student-athlete. (The “Bush Push” that helped Matt Leinart cross the goal line for the winning touchdown in the ’05 game was not listed among the violations.)

That was Charlie Weis’ first game against the Trojans, and the closest he’d come to beating them. Ty Willingham was not only 0-3 against Troy, he was outscored 130-37, a factor in the decision to dismiss him after three seasons.

Brian Kelly is now 3-1 against USC, aided — let’s be honest — by the crippling sanctions imposed on the Trojans for enabling Reggie Bush’s King Farouk lifestyle. Pete Carroll, 8-1 against Notre Dame, saw those sanctions coming and absconded for the pros, leaving Lane Kiffin with a task that might have been impossible even if he weren’t an overmatched coach and an unctuous person.

USC athletic director Pat Haden recognized all that and took the unusual step of firing Kiffin in mid-season. Haden was a quarterback, not a tailback, but he embodies the USC football ideal: star player, Rhodes Scholar, respected broadcaster, accomplished lawyer. He’ll get his man.

Carroll, 93-19 in nine seasons, proved what’s possible at USC, where no NFL presence competes for attention in a mega-market. Notre Dame has been wise to pick on the Trojans while they’re down. It won’t last.

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