There have been many epic games in the storied USC vs. Notre Dame football rivalry, but two that stand out involved massive fourth-quarter comebacks, both by the Irish. Two of the quarterbacks in those games, Paul McDonald for USC in 1978, and Steve Beuerlein for Notre Dame in 1986 sat down for GameChange’s podcast “Thru the Tunnel” to discuss the emotions of those rollercoaster games.
The 1978 USC squad was battling for an opportunity to win a national title and a victory over their highly-ranked rivals from South Bend would definitely grab the attention of poll members. All seemed well after three quarters as USC led 24-6, but then Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana got hot and with only 46 seconds left, the Trojans, unbelievably, found themselves down 25-24. McDonald recalled, “They had all the momentum, all of it.” He added, “I was pissed because we should be winning the game.”
In 1986, Lou Holtz was in his first season as head coach of the Irish. The team was still finding its footing under the new coach and was 4-6 going into the final game of the season against the Trojans. Beuerlein was a senior and this was his last game at Notre Dame. Much to his dismay, he was benched after throwing an interception in the first half. A crestfallen Beuerlein said, “My last game at Notre Dame and this is the way it’s going to be. And my parents, my brothers, and all my friends are in the stadium. I literally was crying.”
As the fourth quarter began, down 17 points, Holtz put Beuerlein back in the game. Trotting onto the field, Beuerlein had sort of an epiphany. He recalled, “I had this energy or this feeling inside of me that was like that aha moment where it was, oh, this is how it’s supposed to end. I am going to get a chance to win.”
And win they did. Beuerlein led the team to a roaring comeback that ended with Notre Dame prevailing 38-37. Although they finished 5-6 that season and didn’t go to a bowl game, the 1986 Irish team laid the foundation for a championship culture during Lou Holtz’s 11-year tenure that resulted in five top 5 finishes and a national championship in 1988.
Even with only 46 left on the clock and the ball in the Trojan end of the field, McDonald also had not lost belief. He explained, “My mindset was, there’s no way we’re going to lose this game. So, we’re in the huddle, and I told everybody, “Hey, all we need to do is get forty-five yards. Get Frank Jordan out here, we’ll kick this field goal, win the game.”
As time expired, Jordan kicked a 36-yard field goal and USC won 27-25. The victory propelled the 1978 Trojans toward the opportunity of winning a national championship, which they secured with a victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl.