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Loss Leader

National title was on line when Trojans, Irish met in 1988, and for USC players that defeat still stings more than any other

November 30, 2002|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

A high-scoring USC team featuring a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and a ball-hawking defense prepares to play Notre Dame in a game with major bowl implications.

Sound somewhat familiar?

Former USC quarterback Rodney Peete recalls the buildup surrounding the 1988 showdown, a game similar to today's matchup at the Coliseum between the sixth-ranked Trojans (9-2) and No. 7 Notre Dame (10-1).

The stakes were higher 14 years ago. Both teams were unbeaten, with Notre Dame ranked No. 1 and USC No. 2, the only time the historic rivals have met while holding the top two spots in the polls.

"I loved all the hype that surrounded that game," Peete said. "It was something that, growing up, you dreamed about."

But it became a nightmarish afternoon for the Trojans. Although USC outgained Notre Dame and held a nearly three-to-one advantage in first downs, the Irish made all the big plays and capitalized on four Trojan turnovers for a 27-10 victory before 93,829 at the Coliseum.

The sting of the defeat is still felt by Mark Carrier, the Trojans' starting safety as a sophomore.

"I really don't have many regrets from my time at SC, but that was one," Carrier said. "We had a chance to win a national championship and, boom, it was gone that fast."

Notre Dame went on to defeat another unbeaten team, West Virginia, in the Fiesta Bowl and win the national title with a 12-0 record.

"You couldn't help but think, 'That could have been us,' " Carrier said.

In Carrier's case, that was especially true. The former Long Beach Poly High standout chose to attend USC over Notre Dame.

"Obviously, I wanted to play in that game," said Carrier, whose USC teams were 0-3 against the Irish in 1987-89. "Unfortunately, I came out on the short end of the stick."

No one would have predicted that things would go so badly for the Trojans on Nov. 26, 1988.

They were 10-0 after defeating UCLA, 31-22, the previous week to earn a berth in the Rose Bowl. With Peete, a senior All-American, at the helm, they were averaging 34.6 points a game. The defense, boasting Carrier, linebacker Junior Seau and linemen Dan Owens and Tim Ryan -- all future NFL starters -- had helped USC to a plus-17 turnover ratio, third-best in the nation.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, went into the game defending itself against critics who claimed the Irish weren't a legitimate No. 1 team. Irish players fumed when USC was made a 4 1/2-point favorite.

Lou Holtz, then Notre Dame's coach, acknowledged that many thought the defense-minded Irish were winning ugly and joked, "[People think] our football team is prettier than I am, but that's about it."

Public perception of Notre Dame's chances didn't improve when, on the morning of the game, Holtz sent home two of his top players -- tailback Tony Brooks and receiver Ricky Watters -- for being late to team functions.

That left Tony Rice, an option quarterback with limited passing skills, as the main offensive weapon for the Irish.

Rice promptly earned a place in Notre Dame lore by providing the game's most enduring image: a 65-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"The one play I remember the most is Tony Rice running down the sideline for a touchdown," Carrier said. "For some reason, I can't get that image out of my mind."

Carrier's assignment on the option play was to cover tailback Mark Green in case Rice pitched the ball. But as Carrier reached the outside, he watched Rice run past him on the inside. Carrier said two defenders were assigned to the quarterback, but both were blocked, springing Rice into the secondary where he eluded the last Trojan, strong safety Tracy Butts, at the USC 20-yard line.

"People asked me later, 'Why didn't you tackle Tony?' " Carrier said. "But if he had pitched it to [Green], no one would have been on him."

While Notre Dame cashed in its scoring opportunities, the Trojans squandered theirs. Tailback Aaron Emanuel lost a fumble in the first quarter, setting up an Irish touchdown. In the second quarter, tailback Ricky Ervins fumbled at the Notre Dame 19, ending a scoring threat.

Peete, under constant pressure from a blitzing Notre Dame defense, threw two interceptions in the first half, the second of which was returned 64 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Stan Smagala to give the Irish a 20-7 halftime lead.

Trojan receiver John Jackson slipped on the play, allowing Smagala to step up and make the sideline interception.

"That swung the momentum hugely," Peete said. "Up to that point, it was a tight ballgame."

Adding injury in insult, when USC regained possession with a few seconds left in the half, Notre Dame defensive end Frank Stams sacked Peete, forcing him to leave the game with a separated left shoulder. Peete played in the second half but left the Coliseum with his left arm in a sling.

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