On top of being an annual appraisal for the Notre Dame football program, the Fighting Irish's yearly battle with USC is more than just a rivalry game played for something called the Jeweled Shillelagh. It's been a boiling point—a game that's done a better job of pushing the truth to the forefront than any other matchup for Notre Dame.
Ever since that fateful Saturday when the Irish pushed Pete Carroll to his max (and Reggie Bush pushed Matt Leinart into the end zone), Charlie Weis' signature loss reignited college football's greatest intersectional rivalry. It hasn't necessarily always lived up to the hype on the field. But it has been a key indicator for the Irish's football fortunes.
Don't believe me? Let's walk through the fateful Saturdays since the epic 2005 battle between Notre Dame and Southern Cal.
2005 — Coming out in green uniforms, it was a dream Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium as Charlie Weis pulled all the right strings until Reggie Bush snatched victory away from Brady Quinn. While it was a heartbreaking finish that'll go down as one of college football's most memorable games, it was a showdown that had many believing Notre Dame had found the right coach.
Status Report: Irish are finally on the rise.
2006 — After opening the season as some people's No. 1, the Irish shrugged off an ugly early-season loss to Michigan to arrive in Los Angeles for the season finale as the No. 6 team in the country. While the Irish matched the No. 3 Trojans' 404 yards, Rick Minter's defense couldn't stop SC, and the Trojans rolled to a 44-24 victory.
Status Report: Invisible at the time, but the first signs of trouble.
2007 — It was the beginning of the end for Charlie Weis. The ugly 38-0 loss dropped the Irish to 1-7, not even as bad as it was going to get considering the next two weeks brought losses to Air Force and Navy. The matching 38-point skunkings by rivals Michigan and USC were a rude awakening after back-to-back BCS appearances.
Status Report: Rock bottom.
2008 — Buzzards were swirling after Pete Carroll whipped Weis' free-falling squad 38-3, holding the Irish to just 91 total yards and four first downs (the first of which came on the final play of the third quarter). Jack Swarbrick let the hot seat sizzle for a few days before ultimately keeping Weis in place, hoping a Hawaii Bowl victory would springboard the team into a better 2009.
Status Report: Runaway train never coming back.
2009 — In what many thought was a must-win for the No. 25 ranked Irish against the No. 6 Trojans, the Irish looked left for dead down 20 points in the fourth quarter when they stormed back to life. Jimmy Clausen threw three incomplete passes into the end zone in the game's final seconds to come up short and the Trojans walked away with a 34-27 victory behind freshman Matt Barkley.
Status Report: Too little, too late.
2010 — Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis turned things over to Lane Kiffin and Brian Kelly. And after a season filled with nothing but tough breaks, the Irish finally got one when Mitch Mustain's deep throw slid through Ronald Johnson's hands, allowing Robert Hughes' late fourth-quarter touchdown run to hold up for a 20-16 victory. In a driving, cold rain, the Irish clinched a winning season with a hard-fought seventh win and ended an eight-game Trojan winning streak over Notre Dame.
Status Report: Cathartic win after a season filled with heartbreak.
2011 — Notre Dame went all in for the Trojans, inviting a large contingency of national recruits to watch the Irish take on USC under the lights. Things couldn't have gotten off to a worse start for the Irish, down 17-0 well into the second quarter before George Atkinson's kickoff return got the Irish on the board. But with Dayne Crist in for an injured Tommy Rees and heading in for a tying score, the senior muffed the snap at the Trojan goal line and USC ran it back for a touchdown, all but ending any attempt at a storybook comeback for the Irish (and Crist for that matter).
Status Report: Different coach, same problem?
2012 — What a difference a year makes. After two seasons of frustrating 8-5 football, the Irish needed to only get by their hated rival to punch their ticket to the BCS National Championship game. Powered by Theo Riddick and conservatively managed by Everett Golson, the Irish defense once again saved the day with an epic goal line stand, stopping the Trojans eight times inside their ten yard line to close out the game.
Status Report: Two programs going opposite directions.
With USC and Notre Dame set to square off for the 85th time this Saturday night, there might not be a less intriguing matchup in the last 25 years. Neither team is ranked. One team is without a head coach. But for the Irish, the game could be the most meaningful of the season, and could ultimately determine the trajectory of this program under Brian Kelly.
Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham, (even) Bob Davie had a singular year of success. But none followed that up with another impressive campaign—with Weis getting the closest before late season blowouts against USC and LSU reassessed that success. Kelly's 12-0 campaign was in danger of being forgotten mighty quickly if he had spent the bye week at 3-3, a scenario most oddsmakers thought probable heading into the Irish's battle with Arizona State. But, it appears that after some early struggles the Irish have righted the ship, with only USC in the way before a run of games that could push the Irish back into BCS consideration.
But, the Trojans once again stand in the way, playing their preferred role of underdog with a chip on the shoulder. Gone is the pressure that tumbled off the head coaches shoulders and onto the players. Gone is the play-caller that's so afraid to lose the game with his offense that he neutralizes the best receiving duo in the country. Under Ed Orgeron the Trojans have returned to being that swagger-filled team that embraced the hatred. Now we'll see if they earn back the respect they once deserved.
Saturday night might not be must-see TV for the rest of the country, with Clemson-Florida State likely capturing most of the attention. But once again, the Irish have reached a boiling point. And as usual, they've got the Trojans to thank for it.