The greatest inter-sectional rivalry in college football renews this Saturday as the Trojans of USC invade South Bend to clash with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
That sentence alone highlights the importance of this game. Like the Iron Bowl or Ohio State vs. Michigan, the game carries heavy significance each season. Between Notre Dame and USC, there are the most championships, most Heisman winners, most Pro Football Hall of Fame members, and a ton of history.
The series originated in 1926 following a conversation between the wives of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne and USC Athletics Director Gwynne Wilson persuading the Irish to take on the Trojans rather than Nebraska as an annual rival.
The two schools have met every year (save three) since, with Notre Dame holding a 43-33-5 series edge.
Notre Dame also holds the longest winning streak, reeling of 11 straight between 1983 to 1993.
USC's longest streak of eight consecutive years (seven games thanks to Reggie Bush) was snapped last year.
On several occasions the two teams have met as top-ranked opponents, and many times the winner has gone on to claim the national title.
That will not be the case this weekend.
The 5-1 Trojans enter the game unranked for the first time in program history. Feeling the sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush affair, the Trojan program has fallen on hard times with limited scholarships and in the second year of an NCAA mandated bowl ban.
The Irish come in 4-2 and also unranked. Notre Dame however seems to be heading in the opposite direction of the Trojans, winning four straight games in fairly impressive fashion.
Still, for Notre Dame, USC represents the greatest hurdle to clear. USC is still the most athletic team the Irish have faced thus far, possess the best quarterback they've seen so far in Matt Barkley, and will be the most angry team the Irish have opposed.
USC feels that they let one get away at home last year. Much like Notre Dame feels that they let Michigan off the hook this year, the Trojans believe they outplayed Notre Dame in a sloppy wet game at the LA Coliseum, and were it not for dropped passes the Men of Troy would have prevailed.
This Saturday they want revenge.
In addition to a hungry USC team, Notre Dame also must still smell the stink of the last eight years.
During the USC winning streak over the Irish, Notre Dame didn't just lose, they were annihilated.
USC won by margins of 31, 31, 31, 20, 38, 35 and seven. The closest game was the vacated 34-31 "Bush Push" contest.
For a long time this series was a total mismatch; Notre Dame was out-manned, out-coached and embarrassed.
Even in quality years where the Irish won nine to 11 games, they were thrashed by USC.
This annual pounding stood testament to those opposed to Notre Dame to reinforce the belief that Notre Dame was soft, overrated, and too slow to play high-caliber football.
USC had become Notre Dame's measuring stick.
In 2009 the gap was visibly closing.
Although USC still had the decided advantage at receiver over the Irish defensive backfield, Notre Dame was up to the challenge on offense. It wasn't until Jimmy Clausen's last-second pass fell incomplete on what could have been the tying score that a Trojan victory was secured.
The 2010 season brought another up-and-down season to South Bend, and an embattled team entered the Los Angeles Coliseum with bowl hopes on the line.
Notre Dame allowed only 80 yards rushing in physically dominating USC's interior line for a 20-16 win.
Like the year before, the game was not truly decided until very late in the game, when a wide open Ronald Johnson dropped a perfectly thrown ball from Mitch Mustain before a Mustain pass found Notre Dame's Harrison Smith open in the end zone for the game-clinching interception.
The last two years have seen the Irish catch up to the Trojans athletically, but not pull away.
This year, as Notre Dame's biggest rival arrives in town, the Irish must forget the future.
They must not worry about being left out of the BCS.
They must forget that more important dates with Navy and Stanford loom on the horizon.
They must not only believe that this is the most important game, but the only game.
A win proves that the last four games have not been a fluke. It demonstrates that the Irish are on their way back to the upper echelon of college football.
They should want more.
This year Notre Dame has a personnel advantage over USC not seen since the Lou Holtz days. The Trojans have difficulty matching up with Notre Dame both on offense and defense, and the only area they can say with full certainty they have the Irish beat is on special teams (which I'm not sure Notre Dame even plays anymore).
A domination of USC would serve as a coronation and exorcism of the demons that haunt this program. The ghosts of Willingham mediocrity, the wailing banshee of Weis' wasted talent.
Simply pounding USC into submission, much like the Irish did to Michigan State in Week 3 would help everyone near and dear to Notre Dame overcome the post-traumatic stress disorder we suffer—worried at the outset of every game that disaster is imminent.
Ending all doubt early will give the nearly 81,000 at Notre Dame Stadium reason to be loud, rowdy, and to act like they are at a college football game rather than a mass in the Basilica.
Beating the Trojans once again will loudly, and proudly, announce that Notre Dame Football is back.
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