The date: November 30, 2002
The matchup: No. 7 Notre Dame (10-1) at No. 6 USC (9-2)
The stakes: Well, first of all, it’s USC-Notre Dame. There are always stakes involved. Second, the winner likely gets a major bowl bid; that’s huge for a USC team that fell into the doldrums in the 1990s and was still working its way out.
The back story: The difference between college football’s ruling class and the rest of the sport isn’t that ruling-class members can’t have bad seasons or eras. Of course they can. But they’re always just one good hire from returning to their post near the top of the sport.
Notre Dame had been to just one major bowl in six years and had stumbled at the end of the Bob Davie era, but new head coach Ty Willingham had the Irish back in the top 10 in his first year. They had beaten four ranked teams and suffered only an upset loss to Boston College.
Meanwhile, it had taken USC’s new boss, Pete Carroll, a little while to get rolling. He went just 6-6 in his first season after taking over Paul Hackett’s rickety program. The Trojans began 2002 with just a 3-2 record as well, though that included games against Auburn and four consecutive ranked opponents. They were clearly building something, and former blue-chip quarterback Carson Palmer was finally beginning to consistently look the part as a senior. Still, nobody knew about the lift-off that was about to occur.
After losing by three points to Washington State, USC wrecked two ranked opponents (No. 21 Washington and No. 14 Oregon) by a combined 31 points, and leading up to Notre Dame’s visit, the Trojans wrecked No. 25 UCLA, 52-21, as well. Over the course of a couple of months USC was dominant old USC again. Would Notre Dame be able to prove its own top-10 bona fides by keeping up in the L.A. Coliseum?
The game: From the L.A. Times:
USC started and ended the regular season on a perfect stage.
A prime-time national television audience that included bowl championship series officials and Heisman Trophy voters watched Saturday as the sixth-ranked Trojans played seventh-ranked Notre Dame.
USC put on a show worthy of the spotlight, completing the toughest schedule in the nation with a 44-13 rout of the Fighting Irish before 91,432 at the Coliseum.
"I hope everyone was paying attention and saw the score," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "They need to know that we're for real now. We are definitely worthy of being a BCS team."
BCS officials will have a hard time ignoring a USC team that rolled over the nation's fifth-best defense for a season-high 610 yards, the most ever given up by Notre Dame.
The USC defense was even more overpowering. The Trojans (10-2) limited the Fighting Irish to 109 yards and four first downs to complete their first 10-win season since 1988.
Loking back, it's like the Trojans were toying with the Irish early on. Ryan Killeen missed a 35-yard field goal. Notre Dame kicked a field goal, recovered a kick return fumble, and kicked another one. USC rebounded to take a 10-6 lead and picked off a pass, but then Palmer threw one right back. Notre Dame threw another one but then blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. Notre Dame led 13-10 with basically a single good offensive play.
But then USC got bored with messing around. Palmer threw touchdown passes to Mike Williams and Malaefou Mackenzie to build a 24-13 lead, then connected with Mackenzie again to put the game away. Notre Dame went 0-for-13 on third downs, and the only thing that kept this score from being even worse was special teams. This was a statement.
The box score: You can find the full box, with play-by-play, at USCTrojans.com.
Palmer completed 32 of 46 passes for 425 yards, three scores, and two picks, while Notre Dame's Carlyle Holiday completed 10 of 29 for 70 and three picks. USC's Justin Fargas and Sultan McCullough rushed 28 times for 164 yards; Notre Dame's Ryan Grant carried 10 times for 16 yards. Williams had 10 catches for 169 yards; Notre Dame star receiver Arnaz Battle had two for six.
The Notre Dame defense did its best, recording six tackles for loss and picking off the two passes. But this was an unfair fight. Palmer would win the Heisman shortly after, and USC finished the season by pasting 11-1 Iowa.
The USC roll continued for quite a while. Between the September 2002 loss to Washington State and the loss to Texas to end the 2005 season, USC went 45-1 with only a 34-31 road loss to Cal in 2003 marring the perfect record. USC lost Palmer, McCullough, etc., and got better with the arrival of star recruits like Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. This was a wrecking machine. And it started in 2002.