Six years ago, No. 9 Notre Dame hosted No. 1 USC in one of the most memorable contests in recent college football memory — a game remembered simply as the “Bush Push.”
Though the Irish fell in a heartbreaking 34-31 defeat, many viewed the game as evidence of Notre Dame’s imminent return to football prominence. First-year Irish coach Charlie Weis seemed to have the program rapidly moving in the right direction and, with the departure of quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush after the 2005 season and USC coach Pete Carroll’s continued flirtation with the NFL, the end of a tumultuous four-game losing streak to USC was in sight.
Well, not exactly.
Carroll delayed the inevitable departure four more years until 2010 when Weis was also ousted, signaling the end of a period of Irish befuddlement in the form of an eight-game losing streak with a 24.5-point average margin of defeat.
Just a few months later, USC was placed on probation, banned from bowl appearances for two years and, most importantly, stripped of 20 scholarships over a two-year period.
Under Irish coach Brian Kelly and Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, a new chapter of the rivalry is unfolding, as the two will be inextricably connected throughout their respective tenures.
Kelly won the first battle between the two, a gritty 20-16 Irish victory that snapped eight years of turmoil and returned the Jeweled Shillelagh to Notre Dame for the first time since the Bob Davie era.
Detractors are quick to point out the Trojans were without their starting quarterback and right tackle in the 20-16 loss. Notre Dame, however, was even thinner in numbers, with a freshman backup quarterback, and backups at running back, tight end, nose guard and linebacker.
Lost in the argument amid all the injuries is the important point that Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco bamboozled a talented Trojan offense and its coach, who was hired more for his ability to out-scheme a defense than for his previous track record, which includes a 5-15 mark with the Oakland Raiders and a 7-6 slate in his only season with the University of Tennessee.
The 16 Trojan points were the direct result of four Tommy Rees turnovers in Notre Dame territory. Despite an average starting field position at the 23-yard line following the four turnovers, the Irish defense surrendered only three field goals and a touchdown.
The Notre Dame-USC battle is always a barometer used to determine where each program stands, and last year’s Irish victory suggests a shift in momentum in the rivalry.
With a gargantuan opportunity in this year’s contest, Saturday marks the biggest game for Notre Dame since that fateful October day six years ago. Only this time, the program is much closer to returning to elite status than it was in 2005.
Despite consecutive losses to begin this season, Kelly’s plan is working. Players are becoming more comfortable in his system and his recruiting, specifically on the defensive side, has provided this year’s unit with depth, not to mention present and future playmakers.
While USC is hampered by a scholarship limit, Notre Dame has had the opportunity to reel in its second consecutive top-10 class, and this weekend will go a long way toward attaining that goal, as the Irish host 17 elite prospects on official visits and many more on unofficial visits.
What happens if Notre Dame loses?
Well, the rest of the college football world will roll its proverbial eyes and quip that it’s simply another false alarm on the “Return to Glory” claim. Some prospects might not buy into the plan Kelly is preaching.
And if the Irish win?
The Trojan fan base becomes further disgruntled with Kiffin’s performance, Notre Dame’s slim BCS hopes become a bit less slim, and a crop of the most talented high school prospects in the country, many of whom are USC targets, get a front-row seat in an electric atmosphere to the continuation of a new streak in the storied rivalry.
Andrew Owens is the associate sports editor for the Notre Dame Observer.