Running in a Winter Wonderland – CFB Week 12 Recap

What makes college football the greatest sport in the world is that instead of trying to run from or hide its absurdity, it embraces it. Ridiculous things happen in every sport, but most of them try to paper over the ridiculousness with rules or slick presentation or sensible postseason formats. Not college football. In this game, the more ridiculous, the better. 

There’s no other sport where a snowstorm would be welcomed with a raucous cheer from the crowd that matched anything that happened on the field. Baseball cancels games because of rain, but college football? Bring on the snow, baby. Is the weather not fit to drive in? Snap that football. Can’t see the scoreboard, the play clock, the sideline? Just run the darn ball. Despite it making the actual sport much harder to play, snow just lends an extra bit of magic to a football game.

Saturday, the snow made for a movie-like scene Notre Dame Stadium, as a team that has been waiting all season to manhandle an inferior opponent finally did. That the opponent in question would really really like to be considered a rival of Notre Dame, that they feature a quarterback still salty that he couldn’t beat out the winningest quarterback to ever wear a gold helmet, that they have historically given Notre Dame headaches on Senior Day, made it all the sweeter. 

Not only was this game not close, it wasn’t even close to being close. The Irish set the tone early with a Logan Diggs scamper across half the length of the field followed shortly by Benjamin Morrison registering his third interception this month to set up a second Irish score. Then Morrison added two more, officially tallying more picks in November than there are weeks in November. (Note to Caleb Williams — please throw in the direction of #20 every opportunity you get. Remember, he’s a true freshman!) The Irish didn’t block a punt for the first time since early October, but that was in no small part due to BC turning the ball over so much you might think it was an EZ-bake pancake. And that was before the Winter Warlock popped by. 

So, when do we play USC in this weather?

The Irish have now outscored opponents 99-0 over the last two Senior Days, taking a sledgehammer to that age-old worry that Senior Day is too emotional for good football. A throughgoing dominance like this, where Boston College really didn’t have a chance from the opening snap, makes it look more like the Clemson game is the blueprint for this program and Navy was more just… Navy. 

And yes, snow. The snow was truly awesome, fulfilling a fandom-long dream of attending a snow game. Much of the stadium cleared out early, the game well and truly in hand by the time the blizzard picked up, but those that stayed embraced the elements and this game in its purest form — just kids playing a game in a field in whatever weather rolls by. It was winter fun, but it was also football. I was so lucky to get to witness it firsthand, with the snow piling on and the cold barely even registering as I just grinned. “Kid on Christmas” feels about right. 

College football man. Sport of dreams. 

This post is titled a recap, but I hope you’ll indulge me a little bit of preview rather than recapping two (mostly) uneventfully dominant women’s basketball games, a split hockey series, and a yet another early-season escape by a men’s basketball team that has yet to show it’s anywhere close to an ACC contender. Because, quite honestly, the most exciting thing happening in Notre Dame athletics right now (except women’s soccer’s NCAA tournament run!) is the return of the USC rivalry to national prominence.

Somehow, the renewed intrigue around the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh got lost with all of the numerous storylines swirling around college football this offseason. Perhaps it’s because it’s been a long, long time since Notre Dame and USC were both firing on all cylinders at the same time — there’s only been five matchups where both teams were ranked at the time of the game in my lifetime — and perhaps it’s because there’s so much happening with playoff expansion, NIL, and conference realignment there’s only so much time to talk about the actual football games. But make no mistake, the rivalry is way more interesting today than it has been at almost any point this century.

Rivalry Week (or Thanksgiving Week, as those outside the college football bubble know it) is sacred territory for college football fans. It’s the most meaningful week of the season. This sport is built on rivalries and all the schadenfreude that comes with them. This is the moment fans wait for all year, when the ever-simmering resentment and petty sniping boils over into a week of barely-contained spite, capped off in a glorious yet often existential-crisis-provoking three and a half hours. Other big rivalry games fall outside this window on the calendar, most notably Oklahoma-Texas and Army-Navy, but the regular season finale has by far the highest concentration. It’s a weekend college football should own, if you can look past the NFL competition and the early season basketball invitationals. But… it doesn’t. Thanksgiving is associated with football, sure, but not college football in particular. I think a big reason for this is a relative lack of games with big national stakes. Skunkbears-Buckeyes will always be a media darling for… reasons…, and the Iron Bowl is one of the best intra-state matchups in the country, but many rivalry weekend matchups quite honestly lack national juice. Many are regional or state level games — IU-Purdue, Oregon-Oregon State, the Egg Bowl, the Apple Cup — that are fun and immensely meaningful to fans of those schools, but don’t routinely carry the kind of national stakes that draws outside attention. (That isn’t meant as a knock on these games, by the way, as these kind of matchups are the lifeblood of the sport; give me fan buy-in and regional bragging rights all day.) If you want the weekend to be known for big time football, you need some big-time games in addition to that rivalry juice. If only there was a rivalry between two powerhouses with more national championships, Heisman trophy winners, All-Americans, and Hall of Famers between them than any other series in the country. 

Point is, college football needs Notre Dame-USC back. You want big time football? It doesn’t get bigger. More than any other rivalry in the sport, Notre Dame-USC has been defined by greatness since its inception. It’s always been two heavyweights trading blows. These two programs represent the sport’s golden standard. 

It’s also added to the series’ lore that Notre Dame and USC are so different. Midwestern toughness vs LA glitz. The Golden Dome vs Hollywood Hills. Small city vs metropolis. Cliches, sure, but rooted in truth. These programs just feel like opposites, united only by the series and each’s success. Notre Dame wins with size, grit, and power; USC wins with speed and explosiveness. Notre Dame has had to fight to survive as a program so many times; USC exists in the heartland of football talent. Most rivalries have to scrape together narratives to hate the other school as much as the game calls for (you’ll never convince me that M***igan and Ohio State are really all that different), but for Notre Dame-USC, the narratives are baked in. 

I could make this a very long rant about all the things I hate about Southern Cal (not the least of which is how touchy they are about being called “Southern Cal,”), but instead I’ll focus on one guy — Lincoln Michael Riley. Long hailed as an offensive mastermind, Riley’s Oklahoma teams were immensely fun to watch, as long as you don’t like defense. There’s no denying the guy can coach the hell out of an offense, but his defensive struggles have left him winless in the playoff and shakier by the season in the Big 12. But Riley, who it seemed had earned some goodwill nationally, burned a lot of it last season by running to USC. Put aside his midnight exit from Oklahoma and his subsequent raiding of their roster, recruiting class, and coaching staff to set them back years (which was somehow only the second worst way a coach left a school last year!); many feel Riley took the cowards’ way out, leaving a school where he hadn’t been able to get across the finish line and the road was about to get much harder when the Sooners joined the SEC. Instead, he saw a much easier path to a national title in LA, with a weaker conference and direct access to a truckload of talent in Southern California. Had Brian Kelly not left Notre Dame just about a day later, Riley would likely have been the poster child for coaching scumbaggery. 

How many times have you been blown out in the playoff, Lincoln?

Instead, Riley was just another coach leaving one big job for another. And many, no matter what they felt about how Riley left, saw it as a huge win for a sport that’s become increasingly focused in the Southeast. Riley would lead West Coast football back to greatness, they argued. For all offseason, Notre Dame fans had to endure story after story about how USC was going to clean house under Riley. “Lincoln Riley has made the Pac-12 relevant again.” “The only question about Lincoln Riley is how many national championships he will win.” “Lincoln Riley will singlehandedly save college football.” That type of thing. As if USC football was some divine gift handed down from sportswriter heaven. 

On the one hand, I get it. Most of these guys came up during the Pete Carroll years, when USC was rolling in a big way and was the coolest thing on the block. There was no one in the Pac-12 that could stop them, and very few nationally that could either. And Notre Dame? Notre Dame was at peak incompetence, floating from one failed coach to another, not putting up anything close to a fight against the Trojans most years. It’s easy to fall back on the “USC owns the country” script because they’ve seen it before. On the other hand, aren’t you forgetting about somebody????

Not only is Notre Dame in a way better place as a program now than it was in the mid-2000s, it’s making a play to be even better. (Yes, yes, I hear you, “they lost to Marshall” guy — the difference now is that would have barely registered in 2008, but now it sent the fanbase into panic mode.) Marcus Freeman is already recruiting at a higher level than Riley, and Notre Dame has way more recent success than USC, including ringing up four wins in a row against the Trojans. Not to mention Riley has exactly as many playoff wins as Notre Dame, but somehow avoids getting dragged for it in a similar way. The Irish are well set up to be the ultimate foil to Riley’s Trojans. I’m not saying that Riley won’t win a title at USC, or that Notre Dame will under Marcus Freeman — I’m just saying that maybe we should pump the brakes a little here and talk more about the possible re-emergence of one of the game’s greatest rivalries. 

All the makings of a truly legendary series of contests between these two are there. Notre Dame and USC have always brought out the best in each other, and with both programs taking big swings at greatness, smart money should be on them challenging each other every step of the way. It also helps that each side is led by a promising young coach that play right in to the series’ penchant for contrasts. How about an offensive whiz vs a defensive guru? A coach who bolted in the middle of the night vs a guy who stayed and kept his program together? The ultimate mercenary vs a guy who (seems to) truly embrace his school and its uniqueness? Someone who thinks they’ll have it easy in LA vs a coach who’s already learned the hard way how difficult it is to win in South Bend? Buddy, you got contrast. If Marcus Freeman becomes the coach that so many think he can be, this might just be the premier rivalry in college football once again. 

Now, with that renewed juice, comes some tradeoffs. Hate to say it, but I think the days of Notre Dame going five years without a loss to the Trojans are probably over for a while. This has always been a streaky rivalry, with Notre Dame’s famed “Decade of Dominance” followed shortly by USC ripping off eight wins in a row. I don’t think we’re gonna fall quite back to that misery, but I also don’t think we’re going to keep graduating undergrads without a Trojan loss to cope with as we’ve had the last few years. But while I overwhelmingly want to grind this school and their stupid fake gold pants into dust every year, I think adding a little more spice to what should be the biggest game on the schedule each year anyway is worth the occasional slip-up. 

For now, though, let’s enjoy the moment. Southern Cal’s been in position to wreck a few ND seasons over the last ten or so years, and never landed the blow. But this Notre Dame team, despite its flaws and lowest moments, is better than any of those Trojan crews were. We’ll play spoiler all day long. It would be so so satisfying to end this season by taking those offseason narratives and throwing them through a woodchipper, leaving Riley and his pirated roster shell-shocked on the Coliseum floor. 

It’s Beat SC week. Go Irish, Sack Troy. Let’s ruin some damn narratives. 

– EC

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