Noie: This college football rivalry still matters, for myriad reasons

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There’s a different vibe for this one.

At the Martin’s on Ironwood. Along SR 23 where RVs with green shamrocks first rolled through early Tuesday afternoon. Even across the Notre Dame campus where tacky garage sale-like signs are strategically staked at several intersections encouraging fans to wear green. Heck, it must be big, they even repaved Twyckenham Drive this week.

It’s another week and another Notre Dame home football game, the third in a row. But this one’s just … different.

It’s No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1) and USC (3-2), two schools separated by three time zones and 2,090 miles but linked among the game’s first families. The schools have produced a combined 22 national championships, 14 Heisman Trophy winners, 181 All-Americans and 87 members of the College Football Hall of Fame. You can’t write the history of college football without either school. They’re in the first few paragraphs. Saturday’s game is the 91st time the teams have met.

The series shows no sign of slowing. That’s good. Don’t take this one away. Ever.

Odd-number years bring the Trojans to Indiana. Their chartered 737 was scheduled to land at South Bend International Airport late Friday afternoon after a four-hour cross-country flight. By the time the plane taxis out for takeoff early Sunday morning, temperatures might be in the 30s. There was sun and rain and clouds and warmth and cold expected during their stay. Welcome to fall in the Midwest.

Speaking of rain, it was in the forecast for the second in the last three Fridays. It affected the outdoor pep rally plans prior to the Virginia game. Officials outright canceled that one. It affected the outdoor pep rally plans prior to the USC game. Officials moved that one inside. Why?

It’s USC.

Even the Irish have a sense that there’s something special about this one. It’ll be played at night, maybe under a full moon that will rise shortly before the official 7:36 p.m. kickoff. Prior to previous home games against New Mexico, Virginia and Bowling Green, Notre Dame players spoke of competing against nameless and faceless opponents. The jersey colors didn’t matter. The helmet logos didn’t matter. The fight song, belted out by the opposing band high in an upper corner of the stadium, didn’t matter.

All of it mattered this week. Some could listen to the USC fight song played on a continuous loop for hours. Fight On! Same for Notre Dame’s. Others want to plug their ears and run away. That’s part of what makes this matchup special. The schools. The bands. The teams. The history. The tradition. The leprechaun. Tommy Trojan. The Song Girls. The game.

Six Irish met the media earlier this week and not one, even company-line guys like fifth-year senior captain Chris Finke, mentioned facing that nameless, faceless opponent. It’s USC. In a season that doesn’t have many marquee home games, this is it. With Virginia Tech and Navy and Boston College still to come, this is as good as it gets.

“Everybody wants it real bad, no matter the circumstances,” Finke said.

It matters to Finke. It matters to fellow captain Alohi Gilman, who may know the programs’ cores better than anybody. When it came time for Gilman to transfer after one season at Navy, his choices were Notre Dame or USC. He had a lot of connections to Los Angeles, but his head and his heart were drawn to South Bend.

“This week brings a lot of excitement,” Gilman said. “Everybody’s ready. Everybody’s amped.”

That includes tight end Cole Kmet. The first time Kmet attended a college football game — as a high school standout in the northwest suburbs of Chicago still sifting through the recruiting process — it was USC against Notre Dame. First game or not, he knew what winning that one meant.

“It’s something that both schools hang their hats on,” Kmet said.

Fans too. They’ll get there early Saturday evening to watch the Irish walk from the Gug to the library and into the stadium. They’ll get there to watch the USC buses ferried in via police escort. When the visiting entourage arrived two years ago, the five buses stopped outside the north entrance, then swayed back and forth as players inside rocked and rolled them. Fans in cardinal and gold stood three, four, five deep and rocked as well. No other visiting school arrives at Notre Dame like USC.

Irish coach Brian Kelly knows how much this matters. Earlier in the week during his meeting with the media, Kelly spun through the USC offensive and defensive personnel like an advance scout. Watch out for this guy. Keep an eye on that one. And those receivers, maybe the best set the Irish face this season. A week after not mentioning a single Bowling Green player in his opening remarks, Kelly rattled off nearly a dozen Trojans.

Why? It’s USC.

“It’s one of those rivalries that haven’t gone away,” Kelly said. “It’s part of college football.”

Heck, part of college athletics. Former Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps was coasting down Leahy Drive Monday morning when he spotted Irish assistant coaches Del Alexander and Chip Long out for a walk. Phelps steered his sedan to the closest parking spot, got out and flagged down the coaches. Ten bucks says he gave them an unsolicited history of the green jersey game. You know, THAT one.

Alexander likely sighed. He’s a 1995 graduate of USC.

At a time in college football when rivalries have faded thanks to conference realignment — goodbye Nebraska-Oklahoma, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Texas-Texas A&M and even Michigan-Notre Dame — this one maintains staying power. Why does Notre Dame fiercely guard its independence? To play USC every year.

It’s still Notre Dame. It’s still USC.

It still matters. A lot.

When it comes to college football rivalries, its hard to beat Notre Dame and USC, for myriad reasons.
Notre Dame and USC players pray before the game Nov. 24, 2018, at the LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.