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No. 1 USC VS. NO. 9 NOTE DAME

They're Over the Jet Lag

Interest in intersectional rivalry is the highest it has been in years, and almost everyone involved says that's good for college football.

October 14, 2005|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

The planes will land one after another, four-seaters and small jets, and that might be the best indication that this year's football game between USC and Notre Dame is back to being a really big deal.

On any other football weekend, 30 or so private planes fly into the small airfield in South Bend, Ind., not far from Notre Dame Stadium. This Saturday, officials are expecting as many as 240, bringing in fans of both teams from around the nation.

"That would be a record for us," said John Schalliol, the airport's executive director. "There's so much excitement over this game."

Hotel rooms are going for triple normal rates and have been sold out for weeks. Pat Haden, the former USC quarterback who is now television commentator for Notre Dame games, saw this one coming.

A month ago, while taking his customary Saturday morning walk, he passed a scalper named Tony.

"What's going to happen for the USC game?" he asked.

Tony replied, "I'm already out of tickets."

This annual game dates to 1926, the era of coaches Knute Rockne and Howard Jones. Players from Johnny Lujack to Joe Montana, from Johnny Baker to Anthony Davis, have left their marks on the rivalry.

But some of the luster had worn off in the last two decades as Notre Dame -- which leads the series, 42-29-5 -- went undefeated against inferior Trojan squads for 13 years. Then USC turned the tables, winning six of the last nine.

USC is favored by 12 points, but this one has the looks of a classic matchup.

The Trojans are top-ranked and riding a 27-game winning streak that includes consecutive national championships. They boast one of the most potent offenses in the game's history, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and tailbacks Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

Notre Dame has a tough-talking new coach, Charlie Weis, who has led the Irish to several big victories in recent weeks and a No. 9 ranking. Like those gold helmets the Irish wear, the shine is back on a program that Haden describes as a brand name in sports, "the Procter & Gamble of college football."

College football benefits from a showdown between two of its most storied programs, both with avid fan bases. Notre Dame has won 11 national championships and seven Heisman Trophies. USC claims 11 titles and six Heisman winners.

The Irish have the advantage of playing at home, their campus doubling as a mecca for the game. Fans stop by the famed grotto on their way to the stadium and, once inside, can peer out at "Touchdown Jesus," a shining mural of Christ with arms upraised that adorns the side of the school library.

The first time USC Coach Pete Carroll brought a team to South Bend, in 2001, he took his players on a sightseeing tour. He now wonders whether some of them weren't a little awed, letting an early lead slip away the next day and losing, 27-16.

"We don't need to do that again," he said this week, adding that it was "a new coach's mistake."

USC players say the mystique surrounding Notre Dame Stadium is hard to ignore.

"You just know all the tradition that's been in that stadium, that kind of mysterious feeling that people make of it," Leinart said. "Then you go in and you kind of notice just the stadium itself."

Glazed bricks and gold laminate. Stands pushed up close to the field.

"It's kind of cool," Leinart said.

Davis, the former USC tailback who scored 11 touchdowns against the Irish, has another way of describing his experiences there.

"It was like being in a lion's den," he said.

Davis became a part of the lore in 1972, scoring six touchdowns at the Coliseum in leading the Trojans to a 45-23 victory. The next season, when USC traveled to Notre Dame, the local newspaper published a front-page photograph of a hanging effigy wearing his jersey, No. 28.

"They also had pictures of me on the ground around the Golden Dome, where everyone was stepping on me," he recalled.

Davis added: "When both sides are playing well, it's good for college football, period. You tell me what schools in history have had more legendary names and legendary games?"

There was, for instance, the 1974 game, when Notre Dame led at halftime, 24-6. Davis, then a senior, returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown and USC went on to a 55-24 comeback victory.

Three years later, in South Bend, 11th-ranked Notre Dame stormed out of the locker room in green jerseys -- instead of their regular blue -- and upset fifth-ranked USC, 49-19. Weis was a Notre Dame student sitting in the crowd that day.

As for Saturday's game, ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit ranks it among the most eagerly awaited in the last decade.

"You're talking about two of the most storied programs in sports, not just college football," Herbstreit said. "There are so many generations of fans that can relate to USC and their great teams over the years. The same can be said for Notre Dame. It crosses over all boundaries when you have these types of teams having a great year at the same time."

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