Fighting Irish Flashback: Notre Dame clinches the National Championship with resounding victory over USC
Last week, we covered Notre Dame's notorious tie against Michigan State in the school's third installment of the 'Game of the Century.' As such, it only feels right to dive into the game that came next since it was arguably even more iconic for the program. Notre Dame traveled to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to take on USC 57 years ago today, which was a major reason Ara Parseghian felt comfortable with going for the tie (Michigan State did not have a follow-up contest and needed a victory).
The Irish likely needed a strong performance to be favored over Alabama in the polls, as they were also undefeated (without a tie). However, expectations were tempered for Notre Dame's offense heading into the game with backup quarterback Coley O'Brien making his first career start in place of the injured Terry Hanratty, who got hurt early against Michigan State. At that time, O'Brien was a completely unknown commodity whom Parseghian famously didn't trust enough to throw the ball late against the Spartans, albeit with little-to-no preparation leading up to the contest.
Notre Dame may have been coming off a 10-10 stunner, but USC had a heartbreaker of their own the week prior. They lost 14-7 in their annual game against their rival UCLA, who were led by a quarterback making his first (and only) career start, Norman Dow. The Trojans also lost against Ohio State two weeks prior after starting the year 6-0. They fell to tenth in the rankings ahead of the matchup against Notre Dame, who remained at number one despite the infamous tie.
The matchup may have lost some of the luster that it had when the Trojans were on a tear earlier in the season, but many still expected a hard-fought game between the rivals, who faced off every season since 1946 (and between 1926 and 1942 before that, with a break in action due to World War II). The programs traded victories in the five years leading up to the contest, and Notre Dame came out on top 28-7 in their most recent battle in '65.
Many doubted Notre Dame's ability to move the ball against USC, as they boasted an elite defense that hadn't given up more than two touchdowns in any game that season. However, those questions promptly got put to bed after the Irish scored on the opening drive. On the other side of the ball, the Irish's smothering defense picked up right where they left off against Michigan State, scoring a touchdown of their own after safety Tom Schoen took an interception 40 yards to the house, bringing the score to 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Notre Dame never looked back from there, and their scoring onslaught continued in the second quarter with the help of a rather unlikely hero; backup quarterback Coley O'Brien. The sophomore signal-caller had complete control of the offense, launching two second-quarter touchdowns to take a wild 31-0 lead over their rivals at halftime. He added one more before the game was finished and had over 250 yards through the air to go with it. It was a remarkably efficient performance from the man coming off a game in which he looked totally overwhelmed against the Spartans defensive front a week prior.
USC didn't even know what hit them. The Irish thoroughly dominated the Trojans throughout the entire contest, and their win was seemingly never in doubt. When the final whistle blew, the scoreboard read Notre Dame, 51. USC, 0. The victory was the epitome of complimentary football. Over 88 thousand fans were in attendance at the Coliseum, and the vast majority of them went home sad.
The rivals have continued to face off every year, and the Irish, who have come out on top in six out of their last eight meetings, lead the all-time series 49-37-5. However, the 51-point shutout remains the largest margin of victory in the history of the series.
Notre Dame was named national champions after the dominant victory, but that was not without some controversy, as some believed Alabama deserved the recognition after they came out with a 34-7 win over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. However, in the end, the voters sided with Notre Dame following their standout season, and their one-sided clash with USC 57 years ago today was a major reason for that. The Irish went on to win three more titles since that season, with arguably more talented rosters, but the level of dominance they displayed in that game was unmatched.