USC was a wayward and aimless college football program the past several years under Clay Helton. Lincoln Riley stepped into this mess and immediately cleaned things up, showing that one year was sufficient for a transformation and renewal project. He didn’t need three or four years to get everything in order.
While the transfer portal did not exist 20 years ago, making it harder to instantly revive a program, it is true that USC needed a reset and found just the right coach to execute the plan. The Trojans’ struggles under Clay Helton, followed by a Riley renewal, offer strong parallels with 2002 and the Paul Hackett years which preceded that special USC season.
College football historian Chris Kreager looks back at the 2002 USC team and the years which immediately preceded that important season in Trojan history, now 20 years old:
After a 13-year Trojan dry spell against Notre Dame from 1983-1995 in which USC won a grand total of zero games, one of college football’s greatest rivalries went back to being more even.
The Trojans won three straight games from 1996-1998 (1996 in OT, 1998 a shutout of a one-loss Irish team pursuing a BCS championship game berth)
BOB DAVIE BEATING USC
Then the Irish won three straight games themselves from 1999-2001.
After a run of ND predictability, USC-Notre Dame had returned to a rivalry with a delicious tug of war.
LEADING INTO NOTRE DAME
Carson Palmer, the last holdover from the John Robinson 2.0 era, had come into final form as a senior QB. Through 11 games, he had a dazzling 28/8 TD to INT ratio and 3,214 passing yards.
However, Sultan McCullough and Justin Fargas (a future 1,000-yard runner in the NFL with the Raiders) combined for over 1,000 yards and more than 10 touchdowns to give SC some semblance of balance in its offense.
BUILDING A DEFENSE
Carroll, who had cut his teeth as an NFL defensive coordinator with the Jets and 49ers, had plenty of talent to work with on the other side of the ball with Shaun Cody, Kenechi Udeze, and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Troy Polamulu.
While SC was hardly a perfect team–the Trojans had lost twice in the 2002 season, albeit on the road by a combined 10 points against ranked Kansas State and Washington State teams–the Men of Troy had won six straight
games following their OT loss at Wazzu
ANYONE, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME
Their 9-2 record was extremely impressive considering their difficult schedule: Of their first 11 opponents in 2002, only Stanford had a losing record.
NOTRE DAME REPLACING BOB DAVIE
They (Notre Dame) initially hired George O’Leary, who had taken Georgia Tech to five bowl games (one of them a Gator Bowl win over Notre Dame) and overseen mostly productive offenses which included 1999 Heisman Trophy finalist Joe Hamilton and future CFL star receiver Kerry Watkins.
However, five days later, O’Leary resigned after it was revealed he had falsified info on his resume about his playing days (playing three years at New Hampshire) and academic credentials (having a New York University masters degree).
Tyrone Willingham had taken Stanford to a Rose Bowl in 1999 and won nine games in 2001 (including a huge road upset of Oregon that kept the Ducks out of the national title game).
THORN IN THE SIDE
USC had struggled against Stanford under Willingham: a 3-4 record, though all four losses were close (24-20, 35-31, 32-30, 21-16).
WORKMANLIKE IRISH OFFENSE
The Irish offense was solid if not steady, a unit which featured some future NFL-ers: Carlyle Holliday, Arnaz Battle, and Maurice Stovall.
The key player on offense was Ryan Grant (who would enjoy a productive NFL career with the Green Bay Packers), a player who had to replace another future 1,000-yard NFL rusher, Julius Jones, who was out for academic reasons.
NOTRE DAME CORNERSTONE
The 2002 Irish primarily relied on their defense, a unit that allowed more than 20 points only three times going into the USC game. It averaged 13 PPG allowed through 11 games.
Notre Dame shocked the college football world with an 8-0 start against quality opposition
USC BLEW A 21-0 LEAD TO NOTRE DAME IN 1999
The Irish had won three straight games in this rivalry against the Trojans (which included a USC meltdown in 1999).
TRANSITION FOR USC
Their last visit to L.A. in 2000 was a bad day for USC, a 38-21 Coliseum rout for the Irish that locked up a BCS at-large bid and all but ended the brief Paul Hackett era for Southern California
PLENTY TO FIX
Even Pete Carroll and Carson Palmer were 0-1 against the Irish, 27-16 losers in 2001. Throw in Willingham’s winning record versus the Trojans at Stanford, and this game was seen as a toss-up going in.
After a long run of Irish dominance over USC and a recent run of back-and-forth results (3-2 in the last five games going back to 1996), this classic rivalry seemed to be back to the days of give-and-take.
Even those aforementioned Seau/Carrier/Peete teams of Larry Smith, which made three straight Rose Bowls, never beat Notre Dame. While the Trojans did win three straight against the Irish from 1996-1998, they were not exactly resounding.
USC CAUGHT SOME BREAKS
Those three wins had plenty of luck:
1996: ND missed an extra point, SC had to make a 2-point conversion just to force OT.
1997: Irish kicker Jim Sanson missed three field goals in a three-point game
1998: Notre Dame QB Jarious Jackson missed the game due to a knee injury sustained the previous week. Even with five turnovers, the Trojans only won 10-0