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Words Ignite USC-Notre Dame Rivalry


It's been more than 60 years since Knute Rockne supposedly implored his Fighting Irish to win one for the Gipper.

Both George Gipp and the Rock are long-since gone, but the practice of firing up the troops not only is alive and well at South Bend, Ind., but is being employed for Saturday's Notre Dame-USC showdown.

This week, Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz is imploring his Fighting Irish to win one against the Ripper.

That would be USC Coach Larry Smith, who is said to have ripped Notre Dame in a Times story, written last spring, that has found its way onto the Notre Dame bulletin board.

Speaking during spring practice of last year's Irish victory over USC, Smith said: "People say we were out-coached and not physical enough against Notre Dame. That's not true. We out-coached them, out-blocked them and out-tackled them. We made about seven critical mistakes, and Notre Dame, being a good, sound football team, took advantage and turned them into points."

Those words didn't create much of a stir at the time, but they were quickly brought up by Notre Dame linebacker Ned Bolcar Tuesday in a national conference call with reporters.

"It seems like the losing team doesn't want to give us much credit," he said. "It gets kind of discouraging after a while. You play well for 12 games. You go out to the West Coast and beat a team and their coach says, they out-hit, out-coached and out-hustled us. If he says so, that's his business. He saw the film. But after we play them again Saturday, maybe he'll have a different opinion this time."

When Bolcar's words were relayed to Smith, the USC coach replied, "Was he at my (press) conference? No? Then I guess it's something his coach told him.

"I think what we're getting involved in here is a blackboard war. To me, it has no bearing on this week. We have great respect for them and all that kind of thing. If they want to play that game in the newspaper, fine. I think the game will be played on the field."

But the mind games have been going on all week.

With the final whistle still echoing in his ear Saturday after USC's 31-15 victory over California at Berkeley, Smith started talking about Notre Dame, equating the Irish talent with that of the Rams and the San Francisco 49ers, saying that if the Trojans continued to rack up the penalties as they did against the Bears, Notre Dame would beat them, 90-0.

"They may be the best team in 20 years," Smith said. "If we play the way we did (against Cal), we'll go up there and get killed."

Holtz was quick to answer with a self-inflicted shot of his own. He chose to denigrate his secondary.

Speaking about the performance of his defensive backs against Air Force quarterback Dee Dowis last Saturday, Holtz said, "If he had thrown a hand grenade in there, the only one who would have been injured would have been the receiver."

But beyond all the golly-gee-they're-such-a-great-team-and we'll-just-hope-to-show-up-and- not-embarrass-ourselves hype, there is no denying that Saturday's game at South Bend matches two powerhouses. Notre Dame is the defending national champion, still No. 1 in the nation and has won 18 in a row. USC, expected to contend for the national title, has won five straight since a season-opening loss to Illinois.

There's another streak, however, that sticks in USC's craw. The Trojans have lost six in a row to Notre Dame, having scored their last win over the Irish in 1982.

"They're on a mission," Holtz said. "We're on a mission, too, but we just don't necessarily know what it is.

"The fact that we've won six in a row against them, some people might say the odds are against us. That's nonsense. What happens this year has nothing to do with the last six. Or the last 50. This is a new game."

It's a game Smith is calling "the biggest challenge of my career--as far as psychologically, X's and O's, blocking and tackling, you name it."

It certainly shapes up as the biggest challenge of USC quarterback Todd Marinovich's young career. The redshirt freshman has played in only six games, but he has known about the importance of USC-Notre Dame all his life.

How could he escape it?

His father, Marv, was a linemen for the Trojans and co-captain of the 1962 national championship squad.

And his uncle, former USC quarterback Craig Fertig, led one of the great Trojan comebacks against the Irish.

The year was 1964. Notre Dame was top-ranked, unbeaten, and, seemingly, unaffected by anything the Trojans could throw at them, leading USC, 17-0, at the half. But the Trojans came back and won, 20-17, scoring the final points on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Fertig to Rod Sherman with 1 minute 33 seconds left.

Marinovich says that when he goes to his uncle's home, Fertig often finds an excuse to pull out the tape of that game.

"I see it almost yearly," Marinovich said.

How does he feel about stepping into the midst of this storied rivalry on the road with just half a season's experience?

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