I’ve been waiting for this game for a decade.
As a lifelong Notre Dame fan, the annual rivalry contest against Southern Cal is easily the biggest date on the calendar. A historic series dating back to 1926 when the teams used to take week long train journeys to face each other, the Irish enjoy a 44-35 W/L record all time against their most heated adversary. For over a decade, however, the rivalry has been a lopsided one with the Trojans dominating the series 9-1. While Notre Dame has shown brief flashes of competitiveness against USC in 2005 and 2010, any Irish fan would be quick to tell you that it’s been a long, painful decade in this storied war.
Despite its status as one of the preeminent destinations in the college game, I’d been avoiding a trip to USC for good reason. I’ve never wanted to fly across the country to watch the Irish get shellacked in front of 95,000 hostile fans. At long last, 2012 has been a different story. Entering the contest at an unblemished 11-0, the Irish were finally fielding a competitive football team again, and, perhaps, one that could finally compete in South Central Los Angeles. This final, giant hurdle stood between the Irish and a date with infamy in Miami for the BCS National Championship. Sporting a lofty #1 ranking and BCS Title shot on the line, this trip to USC was arguably the most significant game for Notre Dame since Florida State in 1993. What more appropriate backdrop for my inaugural trip to the Coliseum.
I touch down in LAX airport the Friday after Thanksgiving and the airport is a ghost town. I make quick work at the rental car counter, and speed a silver Kia rental to our hotel in downtown Los Angeles. My cohort in this adventure – Dylan, the ever urbanite Manhattan resident, had curiously picked a hotel in downtown Los Angeles despite scores of beachfront options overlooking the postcard sunsets of the Pacific Coast. Evidently his pasty, Northeast skin had revolted at the thought of staying near sun and sand. Fresh of a week long vacation stint in El Salvador, I’m sporting a glorious tan, but the beaches of Santa Monica would have to make due without my bronze magnificence. To his credit, however, Dylan has a knack for showing up for the big games. He was with me for the epic #1 LSU vs #2 Alabama game last year and now found himself along for the ride at the biggest Irish game in a quarter century.
Saturday morning wakes to a typical Southern California morning, sunny and clear with a brilliant blue sky overhead, a welcome respite from the Midwest gloom of late November. Donning shorts and flip flops after thanksgiving, one could get used to this climate. We lope the Kia onto Interstate 710 South, skirting the serpentine concrete confines of what little remains of the LA River – a meager brown trickle down the center of a grey, lifeless expanse. Bored after a season of highway driving, visions of the opening chase scene from Terminator 2 flash through my mind. I imagine careening the silver rocket off the nearest bridge into the concrete chute below, swerving and splashing through the spray at 100mph, firing shotgun blasts out the sunroof at evil cyborg pursuers.
But we’re headed to Compton, and that’s a gun toting adventure of its own. We cruise past exits for Rosecrans and Compton Blvd, passing by handfuls of churches and barred window liquor stores on the way to Long Beach Blvd. With the top down and a few hydraulic switches, we’d be in an Ice Cube rap video. Thus far, I’d even have to say, today was a good day. Unlike the esteemed rapper, however, I fully intend to eat hog – mountains of BBQ in fact.
Without incident, we arrive at our stop: Bludso’s BBQ. Started by transplanted Texan, Kevin Bludso, the non descript Compton fixture is rumored to have some of the best cue’ in Southern California. After surveying the puffing black iron pit in the parking lot, the enticing waft smells promising, and we huddle into the tiny storefront to place our order. A few minutes later, they push our tray through the sliding glass service windows, and we retreat to a picnic table in the alley for a carnivorous breakfast. Unwrapping the foil feast, our picnic table is heaped with slabs of pork ribs, beef ribs, fiery red sausages and smoky beef brisket. While it’s not up to Central Texas standards, it still has the hallmarks of proper BBQ, and we devour the smoky protein before hustling north towards the USC Campus.
With the BBQ situation worked out, we jump into the Kia and chirp out. Streaking onto the highway like a silver comet, our progress is quickly halted by a five mile stretch of infamous LA traffic. After an exhausting thirty minutes of choking down smog, we limp off the 110 highway and slip into the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot on Hope Street, an insider tip from my friend Larry. A haggard looking vagrant taps on the drivers window and informs me it’s $40 to park here. Wearing no orange vest, uniform, or identification of any kind, I’m confident it’s a complete scam. But this is South Central Los Angeles after all, and I quickly realize I’m not paying for a parking space. I’m paying for the privilege of not having my windows smashed. Ever the negotiator, I offer him twenty dollars for the parking spot, making my donation to his general alcohol fund in exchange for an extorted modicum of security
We walk across the street to the half full parking lot of Mercado La Paloma. The hot asphalt is shaded with a handful of cardinal and gold tents, and I struggle to fight back my gag reflex. We’re greeted by my friends Larry and Katie. Both grad school chum from Notre Dame, we’d shared more than a couple of beers together at some rowdy tailgates I’d hosted from the back of my Dodge Ram pickup during our two year stint in South Bend. With a new baby at home in San Diego, Larry and Katie had made the short drive up the coast for the afternoon to take in the epic Irish contest.
They welcome us to a USC friends’ tailgate, and wearing a bright green shamrock t-shirt, I’m nervous about how these sinister Trojans might respond to an infiltrator recklessly quaffing their beer and grabbing fistfuls of any snacks I can get my hands on. Despite my preconceived notions of uppity Southern California tailgate spreads consisting of a cornucopia of lettuce wraps, wheatgrass smoothies and hummus – they actually have real food here and, delightfully, fizzy yellow light beer. What’s more, everyone is actually nice – welcoming in fact. They must be plotting something. I survey the parking lot for makeshift weapons should the need arise. A tent leg, if broken off properly, could make a nice spear. Dylan will have to fend for himself once they jump us…
On top of being confoundingly nice, this USC crowd is knowledgeable to boot, which is completely ruining it for me. I’d always envisioned SC fans as the front running bandwagon types. With the Trojans already sporting a few losses, I’m surprised these guys even bothered to show up. These USC loyalists are confusing me. Wires are short circuiting in my brain with this sudden influx of new information, politeness and actual fandom. Or perhaps it’s the 12 pack of Busch light I’ve downed. Either way. These vile, gutter trash fans are supposed to represent the axis of evil in my mind, yet here they are shotgunning beers with me. I still won, of course, but the point is that they’re making it impossible for me to hate them. Perhaps I should hate them for that instead…
After a few hours soaking in the parking lot atmosphere, we make our way towards the stadium. I make one final assault on the cooler before leaving, stuffing my pockets with a few cold ones for the inevitable agonizing walk to the stadium. The sidewalks are flooded with hordes of slow walkers, all lethargically crawling towards the campus at a break neck, open mouthed, Wal-Mart shopper pace. But the scene on the Exposition Park lawn outside the stadium is impressive. The grounds are suffocated with tents and revelers, concession stands, and the usual serpentine port o potty lines of heavy consumption. From the looks of the ample green shirts and pasty complexions, the Notre Dame fan contingent is well represented here too. With the Irish in the hunt for a BCS National Title berth, clearly a few old ND hats were dusted off to show up for the historic contest.
Finding our seats in the cavernous LA Coliseum, the space immediately impresses. It is an absolutely massive facility; our flimsy plastic chairs in the 50th row are barely halfway up the towering rows of the concrete bowl. I’ve been to the “Big House” before, and the Coliseum feels even larger than that. If they were to fill the South end of the stadium with seats, the place could probably hold 120,000 fans. As it stands the 93,607 fans on this night made it the largest venue on my schedule this season. While arguably the second most renowned stadium in the LA Metro area, behind the Rose Bowl perhaps, the Coliseum is not without a history of its own. Featured in countless movies and host to all manner of huge sporting events through the years, it remains the only stadium in the world to host two separate Olympic games, in 1932 and 1984. In fact, the Olympic Cauldron perched atop the East façade still burns during the fourth quarter of each Trojan home game.
As we settle into our seats, “Tommy Trojan” – the Roman Centurion garbed USC mascot – prances out onto the field mounted on “Traveler” a pure white Andalusian horse as part of Southern Cal’s ceremonial entrance. Shortly after, a slick pregame video featuring USC football players posing for the camera flashes across the jumbotron. The blustering crowd, perhaps up to 20% Irish given the high stakes contest, takes its feet as the football team streaks out of the tunnel. Players run drills, hooting and hollering at one another across the green fold. The song girls prance away on the sidelines listlessly in their pleated skirts and classic varsity sweaters, easily most talented group of cheerleaders in College Football. The Coliseum turns electric in the dry SoCal night.
As the game kicks off, the Irish immediately take charge. Asserting themselves on the ground, running back Theo Riddick carves up the Trojan defense. He rushes for the sole Irish touchdown in the first quarter, tallying 146 yards of rushing on the day. Irish Freshman quarterback Everett Golson plays efficiently, tossing safe sideline routes and converting a few key third down completions. But the Irish offense is hamstrung in the red zone, routinely stalling inside the 20 yard line and settling for field goals.
The culprit is a baffling empty backfield offense the Irish employ inside the 20 yard lines, removing the threat of their two talented running backs (Theo Riddick & Cierre Wood). I scream across the cavernous Coliseum at head coach Brian Kelly in frustration, drawing glares from the detached USC faithful around me. But the Trojan team is a nefarious bunch, and only touchdowns can satisfy 10 years of pent up frustration and heartache. I don’t want to merely win, I want their throat. My cries go unnoticed by the Irish coaching staff, and place kicker Kyle Brindza gets a leg workout as a result, booting five field goals on the night against six attempts.
My fears come to bear late in the fourth quarter. Despite handily beating the Trojans on both sides of the ball, the Irish cling to a paltry 9 point lead with six minutes left on the clock. The game – still nervously in question. Visions of 2005, Notre Dame’s soul crushing last second defeat to USC, flash through my mind. The last decade of mediocrity brings out the cynic in me. With a BCS National Championship berth on the line, visions of an epic meltdown race through my mind.
After a blistering kick return that quite nearly broke for a touchdown, USC starts with the ball near the 40 yard line. Assuming their offensive set, the Trojans immediately streak another 53 yards down the field on a crisp throw to standout receiver Marquise Lee. The aloof Southern Cal faithful jolt to their feet in excitement, haughty swagger renewed. A lump forms in my throat as the rest of the Irish crowd is hushed. They’ve nearly gone the length of the field in two plays. After a few penalties and some shuffling, it’s 1st and goal on the Notre Dame one foot line. The Trojans hav
4 plays to punch in the easy score.
But then it happens.
Boasting the stoutest scoring defense in the country, this is no ordinary Irish squad. This is a band of warriors. Battle hardened, they’d already proven their mettle in a heroic overtime goal line stand against Stanford. As the home crowd hushes for their team, we scream ourselves hoarse towards the Irish defense stretched across the goal line directly below. For three straight plays the Trojans run headlong into the teeth of the imposing Notre Dame front seven. For three straight plays they are rebuffed. The Irish refuse an inch. Finally, on fourth down, with the game on the line, the Trojans take to the air. USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek scrambles, then fires a pass into the endzone that is bobbled for a moment, then dropped by tight end Soma Vainuku into the red turf below. In a historic goal line stand, the Notre Dame defense holds. The warriors have become legends.
The Irish are going to the National Championship.
And with my flights and hotel room already booked nervously before the game, I’ll be joining them…
See you in Miami.
Thanks to my friends Larry & Katie – always great to catch up with you guys, and great to finally see you on the West Coast!
Thanks as always to my friend Dylan for showing up for the big ones. Let’s see what 2013 has in store for us…
Special thanks to my friend Tyler for helping us out with some tickets to the game – hopefully next time you can get some tailgating in!
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