The '84 Notre Dame win made USC believe great things were possible
In October 1984, the heretofore lowly Gamecocks walked into South Bend and planted its flag in the cradle of modern college football.
The last time South Carolina played Notre Dame, it was also a Gator Bowl season for the Gamecocks. But this year they’re killing two birds with one stone.
Unlike in 2022, the 1984 Gamecocks saw the Gator Bowl as a consolation prize. USC spent most of the season with its sights set on the Orange Bowl, and as Carolina’s undefeated run stretched on, it became a matter of routine for fans to pelt the field with a barrage of citrus fruit as an act of celebration. But by the time of the Clemson game — one week after a deflating loss to Navy that sank USC’s national title and Orange Bowl chances — it was Tiger fans who were throwing oranges onto the field at Memorial Stadium, in mockery of their in-state rivals.
South Carolina struggled in ‘85 and ‘86, and the successes of ‘87 and ‘88 have been, in large measure, blotted out by the steroid scandal and Joe Morrison’s untimely death. As the Gamecocks’ profile continued to sink throughout the 1990s, the 1984 season began to live on mostly as a cautionary tale. The buildup of hype during the nine-game undefeated run — and then the loss to two-touchdown underdog Navy — was an example of just how deep the Chicken Curse ran.
The heights of the Steve Spurrier era further diminished, in relative terms, the stature of Morrison’s second season in Columbia. But for a time, there was no more consequential road win in South Carolina history than the Gamecocks’ 36-32 win over Notre Dame on Oct. 20, 1984.
The win over Notre Dame was not the most impressive item on the 1984 Gamecocks’ résumé. In fact, it was not uncommon for accounts of USC’s triumphs to mention beating Georgia, Pitt, and Florida State while leaving the Fighting Irish off the list entirely.
And not without reason. The 1984 Notre Dame squad finished 7-5, in the depths of the forgettable Gerry Faust era. (Faust’s resignation-under-pressure at the end of the 1985 season precipitated the decision to activate the Notre Dame clause in Lou Holtz’s contract at Minnesota.)
But beating Notre Dame in South Bend was still beating Notre Dame in South Bend. With most of South Carolina’s big games taking place at Williams-Brice,Notre Dame offered something that no other game schedule could: the opportunity to plant a flag on the home turf of the sport’s most storied program.
The day before the game, South Carolina worked out in Notre Dame Stadium, where the awestruck team dentist is reported to have told All-America linebacker James Seawright, “This is where the Four Horsemen rode. This is where the Gipper played. This is where Knute Rockne coached.”
“Means nothing to me,” Seawright answered, “because they’re all dead.”
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South Carolina was 5-0 and ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll, coming off perhaps their most comprehensive performance of the season: a 45-21 domination of Pitt at Williams-Brice Stadium in which the Gamecocks controlled both lines of scrimmage. Up to that point, you might have written off USC’s win over Georgia as a one-off fluke in a rivalry game. But there was no longer any getting around it: Joe Morrison was onto something special.
Reporters from the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Denver Post, and Sports Illustrated descended upon Columbia to profile the Gamecocks ahead of their trip to South Bend. The game would be broadcast to a national cable audience — a rare occasion at the time. There was as much media hype in the buildup to this game as there had ever been for any Carolina football game — at least until three weeks later, when ABC sent Keith Jackson to call No. 5 South Carolina vs. No. 11 FSU.
The manner of the Notre Dame victory only served to enhance the drama. The Gamecocks dug themselves a 26-14 third-quarter hole but stormed back with 22 unanswered points — a pattern that repeated several times throughout the 1984 season. A dead-ball penalty against South Carolina wiped out a late safety for Notre Dame (which would have put the Irish within in just a field goal of a victory), and an interception at the USC seven-yard line killed the Fighting Irish’s attempt at a game-winning touchdown drive.
After the game, Seawright seemed more receptive to the idea that walking into South Bend was, for an up-and-coming program like South Carolina, a sort of crucible.
“We won against the weather, we won against Notre Dame,” the linebacker said. “You go through all that, you can go through almost anything.”
Seawright’s fellow All-American, offensive guard Del Wilkes, was less impressed.
“We’d been hearing so much about this stadium and Notre Dame, but this is just like anywhere else,” Wilkes told the Greenville News. “We came out here yesterday and looked around and found out we weren’t playing Rockne and the Four Horsemen. We were playing Golic, Banks, and Klein.”
“We didn’t see any ghosts around here, so we knew we were alright.”
When the players returned home, they were greeted at the Columbia airport by thousands of fans — estimates vary, but contemporaneous reports place it between 6,000 and 12,000 in attendance — cheering, waving congratulatory signs, and dancing on the hoods of their cars. Many of those gathered believed that this win — and the win over No. 11 FSU that soon followed — marked USC’s deliverance from mediocrity.
What we understand now is that no single game or season can fulfill that promise. As we learned under Will Muschamp and Lou Holtz, thrilling bowl wins over storied Midwestern programs are no guarantee of future success.
But beating Notre Dame — even a five-loss Notre Dame — is still beating Notre Dame. As it would be tomorrow, in Jacksonville. Even if Spencer Rattler leaves and 2023 is another ugly scrap for skin-of-our-teeth bowl eligibility, a Gator Bowl win will still have been something worth dancing on the hood of your car about.
In a weird twist of Independent scheduling, South Carolina played its first five games of the season at home. The trip to South Bend in Week 7 was the first away game of the season.