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USC vs. Irish: Little at Stake--Maybe a Job : Today's Game Could Be Most Important of Tollner's Career

November 29, 1986|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

There will be no national championship to be obtained or spoiled when USC plays Notre Dame today at the Coliseum, as frequently was the case in the past. The teams that once were among college football's elite have dropped a notch in the '80s.

There is, however, considerable significance to the game for USC Coach Ted Tollner in particular.

Even though the Trojans have a 7-3 record and are headed for a Jan. 1 Florida Citrus Bowl matchup against Auburn, Tollner's job may be in jeopardy if USC loses today.

At USC, a coach is not always judged on how many games he wins, but on how many he wins against whom.

So, Tollner's status became precarious when USC lost last Saturday to traditional rival UCLA, 45-25. The game was a blowout, with USC trailing, 38-0, in the third quarter.

Another loss to a traditional rival--one Tollner has never beaten--and his combined 1-7 record against UCLA and Notre Dame in four years might be the final straw.

USC Athletic Director Mike McGee is noncommittal, saying that any evaluation of the football program will take place at the end of the season.

But it is believed that McGee would have terminated Tollner last season if USC hadn't upset UCLA, 17-13. Published stories have pointed to a strained working relationship between Tollner and McGee.

McGee met with a splinter group of the USC advisory committee on athletics earlier in the week. It was a scheduled meeting, and the football situation was discussed. It would have been surprising if it hadn't been.

But it was learned that the committee made no recommendations, or suggestions, regarding Tollner. It just expressed opinions. USC is a web of committees, most of which have little or no clout as to ultimate decisions on things such as a coach.

Of course, if USC wanted to end any speculation as to Tollner's tenure, the school could simply announce that it was honoring the final two years of his contract. Notre Dame carried Gerry Faust for the length of his five-year contract, deeming it the honorable thing to do.

USC has fired only two football coaches since it began playing the game in 1888. Gloomy Gus Henderson was dismissed after the 1924 season for political reasons. He still has the highest winning percentage of any USC football coach. Jeff Cravath was released after a 2-5-2 record in 1950, even though his team upset Notre Dame, 9-7, in the final game.

So, that's the climate for today's game.

Notre Dame, with a 4-6 record under new Coach Lou Holtz, seeks a win as kind of a just reward for suffering through a season of many close losses to some of the nation's best teams while playing the toughest schedule in the country.

The Irish have a capable quarterback in Steve Beuerlein, from Anaheim's Servite High School; a big-play performer in All-American flanker Tim Brown and average tailbacks by Notre Dame standards.

Holtz has some experienced and skilled defensive players, notably tackles Wally Kleine and Robert Banks, linebackers Mike Kovaleski and Cedric Figaro, and cornerback Troy Wilson.

"Five of their front seven players have played against us for three years," Tollner said.

That's not a good omen considering that the Trojans have lost three straight to the Irish.

Notre Dame is particularly unyielding against the run, restricting opponents to an average of only 115.3 yards a game. The Trojans are averaging 143.9 yards a game on the ground, far below vintage standards.

The Irish, however, have been burned by accurate passing teams, permitting an average of 195.4 yards a game

"We've been vulnerable to the bomb and third-down passes," Holtz said. "We don't get a particularly good pass rush, and I don't think there is any way in the world that we can get to Rodney."

USC's Rodney Peete, a mobile quarterback, has completed 54.8% of his passes for 1,854 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing 10 interceptions. USC is averaging 205.9 yards passing a game, and probably will need to maintain that figure to beat Notre Dame.

Peete is USC's primary offensive threat, but the Irish can counter with Brown, a game-breaking wide receiver and kick-return specialist, who is also a running back when the Irish are in their wishbone formation.

Brown ranks third nationally in all-purpose yardage with an average of 168.5 a game. He has returned kickoffs 95 and 96 yards for touchdowns and had another score nullified against Penn State because of a penalty. He has also caught 40 passes for a 20.5-yard average and 5 touchdowns and has averaged 4.4 yards as an option runner.

"Tim is the most gifted, talented player that I've ever been around," Holtz said. "He's an instinctive athlete and he makes things happen."

Holtz also said that Brown has been playing with a damaged cartilage in his knee that will require surgery at the end of the season.

It has been a frustrating season for Notre Dame, ever so close to a winning record.

"We've put ourselves in a position to win every game but one (Alabama), and I'm referring to winning in the last minute of play," Holtz said.

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