Notre Dame, Notre Dream: The Irish ride West, in search of Manifest Destiny

The Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving are cherished pieces of college football, because they bring back the tradition, romance, and sweet nostalgia of this sport. They recall a time when college football — yes, not pure and innocent under the surface; coaches did cheat back then — was treasured and accepted for what it was, not what it needed to be.

Yes, the sport lacked a playoff. Yes, the sport featured lots of split national titles. Yes, the vast majority of the sport was not accessible by television for Americans. Yet, college football made and built its name for generations of fans. These fans were made by a few rivalries, among others:

Michigan and Ohio State playing in the cold and (usually) gray of a Midwestern autumn turning into winter.

Alabama and Auburn jousting in the cauldron of Iron Bowl hatred.

Notre Dame playing USC.

That last rivalry is unique on multiple levels, many of them evident and some not as readily.

What’s obvious about Notre Dame-USC: It is an intersectional rivalry; it’s a non-conference rivalry; and it’s a multi-time zone rivalry.

What’s not as obvious: The site of the game determines when it’s played during the season.

Michigan-Ohio State and the Iron Bowl are always late-November games these days, and have been for some time.

Notre Dame-USC, when played in South Bend, is an October game, stuck in the middle of the season. USC hosts UCLA late in the season, as is the case this year.

However, when Notre Dame-USC is played in Los Angeles, the game is on Thanksgiving Saturday.

Notre Dame Stadium is one of the cathedrals of college football. The romance, the history, the heartbeat of the sport come alive in that setting. When Irish-Trojans is played in Los Angeles, the time of year helps accentuate the occasion.

The Midwest is inexorably tied to the Rose Bowl, not just because of tradition, but because of the allure of being able to escape the harsh weather of the native region for the palm trees and sunny skies and mild temperatures of California. Los Angeles captures this image more than the San Francisco Bay Area does; moreover, the history of college football enabled these Thanksgiving Saturday clashes to acquire larger-than-life significance in the memories of those who witnessed them:

* The 1974 game, “The Anthony Davis Game,” prevented Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian from being able to finish second in the polls in his final season on the sidelines. Notre Dame would not have passed unbeaten Oklahoma for No. 1, but in light of a win over Alabama in the 1975 Orange Bowl, Notre Dame would have been second if it had been able to protect a 24-0 lead just before halftime. Davis’ second-half explosion changed all that. USC finished No. 2 in the polls in January of 1975.

* The 1988 game pitted No. 1 Notre Dame against No. 2 USC, both unbeaten and untied. A sun-drenched afternoon in the L.A. Coliseum greeted these fabled rivals. Tony Rice soared whereas Rodney Peete faltered, and Lou Holtz went on to win his national championship under the Golden Dome nearly five weeks later.

* The 2012 game did not produce a USC team which came even remotely close to the high standard set by John McKay’s 1974 bunch or Larry Smith’s 1988 crew. However, Notre Dame expected and received a 60-minute fight from the last USC team coached from game one through 12 by Lane Kiffin. When Manti Te’o and the rest of the Irish defense were through with the Trojans, Brian Kelly made his first and only BCS National Championship Game appearance.

Now, Kelly is seeking his first College Football Playoff berth.

USC is not the opponent. However, a Thanksgiving Saturday visit to California remains.

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Dormant since 1964, the Notre Dame-Stanford series was revived in 1988. This might have seemed inconsequential at the time, especially since Stanford wasn’t consistently good. The Cardinal turned in great seasons in 1992 (win-loss record) and 1999 (Pac-10 championship), with good seasons in 1995 and 2001, but they could not sustain a high level of performance from year to year.

Yet, reviving Notre Dame-Stanford mattered to people who care about the longer run of college football history. The 1925 Rose Bowl matched the Irish and the Cardinal. Interestingly enough, the game marked Notre Dame’s first-ever trip to the West Coast for a game. This contest is credited with sparking the creation of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry. (How ’bout THEM apples?)

The game itself was pretty important in its own right; it was one of the most celebrated and hyped contests in the first third of the 20th century. Notre Dame had the Four Horsemen — Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Elmer Layden — and iconic coach Knute Rockne. Stanford’s legendary player was Ernie Nevers, its coach the even more revered Glenn Warner.

His nickname? Pop.

Yeah — that guy.

Notre Dame and Stanford needed to continue their series, and so they did. It was great for the sport then. It’s even better for the sport now.

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From 1988 through 1997, Irish-Cardinal was played in October on a regular basis. No game was played in 1995 or 1996, but whenever the game was played, early October was the time of year. The 1998 staging of the game in South Bend kept the early-October pattern intact, but in 1999, when Stanford was due to host, the game moved to Thanksgiving Saturday.

So it has been since 1998 that Notre Dame has visited either Los Angeles or Palo Alto on the final Saturday of its regular season, making the journey West against USC (1998) or Stanford (1999). The powerful Midwestern school making the trek to sunny California in the latter stages of autumn, on a holiday weekend, is the irresistible kind of scenario from which college football derives so much of its magic. Naturally, though, college football’s appeal reaches its zenith when the romance of a game’s idea is matched — if not exceeded — by the significance of the actual event.

Such is the case with the 2015 edition of Notre Dame-Stanford.

Let’s start with the Cardinal. They are on life support as far as the College Football Playoff is concerned, but if the perfect storm occurs, they could still make the derby.

North Carolina losing to North Carolina State and then beating Clemson.

Iowa losing to Nebraska and Michigan State losing in one of the next two weeks.

Florida losing to Florida State and beating Alabama.

Oklahoma State beating Oklahoma and TCU beating Baylor.

Stranger things HAVE in fact happened in college football. Consult the 2007 season.

Even if it doesn’t make the playoff, Stanford would like to be remembered as the one Pac-12 team to lose fewer than three games this season. The Cardinal would like to enter the Pac-12 Championship Game without a loss on their minds.

Naturally, though, if one team has a particularly good shot at the playoff, it’s Notre Dame. Merely an Oklahoma State win over Oklahoma in Bedlam would give the Irish a portal to the final four if they win on The Farm.

Brian Kelly knows — from his 2012 experience — that this final hurdle in the West will be extremely difficult. The Irish’s accumulated injuries will only make the task more daunting against Stanford.

Nevertheless, this game is as large as a regular-season game can get. It is the kind of game little boys think about when they first watch a game on television or pick up a pigskin in the yard.

Will “Notre Dream” be realized against Stanford? California Dreamin’ once again becomes a part of the story of the Fighting Irish.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |

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