NCF Nation: Trojans-Irish 2009 coverage

USC survives

October, 17, 2009
10/17/09
7:58
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Wow... a classic. Again. Almost as dramatic as the "Bush Push."

This one will be called "It Ain't Over Until It's Over."

And then it was.

USC prevailed 34-27, but Notre Dame made things more than interesting at the end. Very interesting.

The Trojans celebrated their victory twice with the Fighting Irish just 4 yards away from tieing the game.

The first time, an official review put one more second on the clock. Both times, though, Jimmy Clausen was unable to complete another magical pass.

But Clausen and the Irish surely earned USC's respect, rallying from a 34-14 deficit early in the fourth quarter. This certainly was much different than the last two games, won 38-3 and 38-0 by USC.

Matt Barkley mostly outplayed Clausen, but he threw a critical interception that ignited the Irish comeback.

Barkley completed 19 of 29 for 380 yards with two touchdowns and the pick. Clausen, out of sync most of the game, found his rhythm during the comeback and ended up completing 24 of 43 for 260 yards and two touchdowns.

It would appear the rivalry is close to being hotly contested again.

Nonetheless, USC won its eighth in a row in the series. The Trojans return home next weekend to face a foe they might take seriously: Oregon State, the team that handed USC its only loss in 2008, comes to town.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


The hype machine hummed with no small amount of justification this week about Jimmy Clausen and Matt Barkley. The thousands of words that have poured forth about these two quarterbacks, connected and divided by so many opinions and sentiments and measures and public and private moments apprehended and misapprehended, diligently aspired to describe the compelling contrasts and similarities that braid them together in a cardinal and green rope of rivalry and friendship.

 
 Getty Images
 Examining the matchup between Matt Barkley and Jimmy Clausen is an exercise in comparisons and contrasts.
It was an analytical circus that almost eclipsed the football game USC and Notre Dame will play Saturday.

Start with this.

When Clausen picked Notre Dame over USC in 2006, he was "the most acclaimed California prep quarterback since John Elway."

When Barkley, a lifelong USC fan, committed to the Trojans his junior year in 2008, he was "a cross between Joe Montana and [Tom] Brady."

Both southern California products were rated the No. 1 prep quarterback in the nation when they were high school seniors, Clausen at Oaks Christian and Barkley at Mater Dei. Both were longtime students of respected quarterbacks guru Steve Clarkson.

Two years separated them. As personalities, they were very different. But their innate awareness of comparable talent drew them together.

"Every time I go back home during the offseason, Matt is always around," Clausen said. "We're always throwing the ball, hanging out, stuff like that."

But very different.

Clausen committed to Notre Dame from inside the College Football Hall of Fame in front of about 300 people and a TV crew from ESPN. He arrived via a stretch Hummer limousine. He talked about winning multiple national titles. He wore a suit that looked expensive but didn't fit him well. His hair was spiked and gelled.

Barkley released a statement and talked to a handful of reporters when he quietly committed to USC. There was no pomp. There was no circumstance. There was no big, white Hummer. It remains unclear if Barkley actually combs his hair, which already hints at early recession.

A Barkley quote from shortly after he committed as it appeared in the New York Times: “Jesus Christ is No. 1 to me,” said Barkley, who has a 3.9 grade point average. “That’s who I play for."

Do a search on Google images of "Jimmy Clausen" and then "Matt Barkley." Who gets the unflattering, mocking photos? And who doesn't?

So, clearly we have a good guy -- a West Coast Tebow -- and a self-absorbed brat, right?

Great news. It's more complicated that that, more nuanced. To spoil the potential cliffhanger: The folks who actually know Clausen seem to like him. And, you know, maybe he got some bad advice on how to handle his commitment and that one moment shouldn't entirely define him as a person.

"I've grown a lot," Clausen said. "When I first walked into Notre Dame, I didn't really know and expect what it was to be the quarterback at Notre Dame. I've had to deal with some things on the field, off the field."

Clausen mostly stops there and redirects from any deeper introspective insights. He's become pretty jaded -- not without justification -- with this whole "talk about himself to reporters thing," though he seems pleased to learn that USC linebacker Chris Galippo spoke highly of him.

Is Clausen cocky? The question didn't irritate Galippo so much as arouse a linebackery defense.

"No, not at all," Galippo said. "If anything, he's an extreme competitor, which we all are. Regardless of the vibe he gives people, the guy is an awesome football player. He's a guy who goes out and works his tail off. He's easily the best quarterback in the nation right now.

That may be true. Clausen leads the nation in passing efficiency. He's completed 68 percent of his throws with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Moreover, he's played through pain -- he's been nursing a turf toe for weeks -- and has led the Irish to three dramatic comeback wins.

Perhaps he should be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate? All he has to do to legitimize his candidacy is end the Fighting Irish's seven-game losing streak against the Trojans.

"I think that he's had a heck of a year," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "I mean, you look at what he's done through these first five games. There couldn't be anyone in the country playing any better than him. But now he is going against the best defense that he's seen all year long. So I think these are the type of moments where you really get judged on how well you do when you go against the really, really good guys."

Speaking of really good guys: Matt Barkley!

Playing his first career away game in front of 100,000-plus at Ohio State, Barkley became a sensation when he led a 14-play, 86-yard, fourth-quarter drive to beat the Buckeyes.

He's seems completely unflappable. His arm is special. He smiles a lot. His teammates rave about him. Coach Pete Carroll calls him an "outlier," meaning he's human but just barely.

His numbers -- three touchdowns and two interceptions -- won't blow anyone away, but that doesn't stop Carroll from gushing.

"He really has everything you're looking for," he said.

There are many potential topics to ask Barkley about -- his maturation, Notre Dame's struggling defense, his decision to turn down an invitation to join the X-Men, etc. -- but one sticks out.

So is Clausen cocky?

"I think people might get the wrong image but I actually admire that about him," Barkley said. "He's confident in how he can play and his abilities and I think it's really coming out and showing this year. It might have come out wrong in a couple of instances, what people might take from what he's said or what he's done. And that's not who I am. I'm going to take a different route. That's how he is. That's how he plays. It's working out well for him this year."

Just a hint of compare-and-contrast there, eh?

There is an itty-bitty bit of entertaining tension present, bubbling just beneath the surface. After all, it's USC-Notre Dame.

For example, when asked about Barkley, Weis praised his supporting cast: "I think the one thing he does very well is he knows who his playmakers are and he gets the ball in their hands."

Asked about how Barkley is different from Clausen as a freshman, Weis said, "I think that Jimmy wasn't around as good a supporting cast. That might be the biggest understatement I might ever say."

Meanwhile, Carroll basically said that Clausen didn't come to USC because he was afraid of competing with Mark Sanchez.

"I felt like he was concerned about who else was around and was coming and all that," Carroll said. "He was trying to take a look at situating himself in the best position where he could play early ... He had a lot of respect for Mark and thought that in all likelihood Mark might have a chance to be ahead of him, which he would have been."

Countered Clausen, "No, that wasn't a factor at all."

Hmm. Clausen became Notre Dame's starter by the second game of his true freshman year. If he'd gone to USC, it's likely he would have competed with Barkley for the starting job this past spring and preseason after waiting for Sanchez to become a top-five NFL draft pick following his junior year.

Clausen vs. Barkley would have been interesting.

But their competition will have to be settled on the field Saturday in the high grass before Touchdown Jesus. These two hyped, golden-boy, southern California quarterback recruits -- and friends! -- will have at least one opportunity to win dominance over the other head-to-head.

Barkley isn't supposed to be the brash one, but he found it difficult to duck the notion that bragging rights are at stake.

"Possibly. Maybe after the game," he said. "I don't like to think about that stuff heading into a game. But there might be. I guess there will be a little individual battle between us two as well."

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller and Brian Bennett


There's always a lot to talk about when USC and Notre Dame hook up, but Saturday's game might be even more saucy than recent tilts for one reason.

The consensus is the Fighting Irish have a fighting chance, unlike the previous two seasons, when they were throttled by a combined count of 76-3.

Fact is, five of USC's seven consecutive wins in the series have come by 31 or more points.

Sure, USC is ranked sixth and is again a national title contender, while No. 25 Notre Dame has struggled against middling foes like Purdue and Washington.

Wait. Didn't Washington and USC play?

Anyway, it seemed like a good time to check in with Notre Dame and Big East blogger Brian Bennett to see what's shaking with the Irish.
 
 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
 Charlie Weis is still seeking his first victory against USC.
Ted Miller: Sorry I'm late, Brian. I was just trying to finish the 7,400-word transcript of Charlie Dickens' -- make that Charlie Weis' -- news conference. As much as I want to be snide, I actually found Weis refreshingly candid and insightful. He wasn't at all like that back in 2005. Before we engage on the big battle this weekend, what's your take on how Weis has developed -- dare I say grown? -- along with his program?

Brian Bennett: Well, it was only about six weeks ago when some alumni bought a billboard calling Weis an intern. I do get the sense that he's more comfortable now in his position, and really, he should be. The offense, which is his calling card, is now completely in his hands, and he's basically leaving the defense up to Jon Tenuta. While you can debate how much of a schematic advantage Notre Dame has, there's no questioning that Weis is a terrific offensive playcaller who's been at his best in that area this season. Sometimes it seems he believes in his intellectual superiority too much, like at the end of the Michigan game. Whether he makes it through this year remains to be seen, but he seems confident that things are on the right track.

It's an interesting parallel between him and Pete Carroll, two NFL guys who have vastly different personalities. Is it just me, or does Carroll relish beating Weis to a pulp?

Ted Miller: It doesn't appear to be a warm relationship, starting with the fact that Weis is tight with Bill Belichick, who replaced Carroll when he was fired by the New England Patriots. Their personalities, of course, couldn't be more different, with most -- at least media sorts -- giving Carroll a big advantage there.

And the whole "strategic advantage" hiring boast from Weis probably plays well with Carroll when he's celebrating another blowout win in the rivalry.

It didn't seem, however, that either tossed a barb in east or west this week. Weis, obviously, has been humbled and has to act graciously, while Carroll might want Weis to keep his job so he can continue to dominate the series.

Now, if Weis were to win a couple in a row, it's not hard to imagine there might be a tweak or two from him sent special delivery to Heritage Hall. And that might reignite the tensions, which would be great fun.

Brian, I watched the Notre Dame-Washington before the USC-Cal game and many colorful adjectives were tossed around to describe Notre Dame's defense by the sportswriters on hand. Some are not fit for a family blog, but suffice it to say none were good. What's wrong with the Irish defense and how can it stop the Trojans?

BB: Oh, boy. How much time do we have? Well, to begin with, if you compare Notre Dame's defensive line to USC's front four, it's an almost comical mismatch. Weis has not done a good job recruiting those positions, and it shows each week. The linebackers are decent but not overwhelming, and they've been blitzing a lot under Tenuta's aggressive scheme, which is leaving holes on the field. The defensive backfield was supposed to be one of the strengths, but the corners have not played well at all. Tackling, all across the board, has been a major problem.
 
 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
 Freshman QB Matt Barkley has thrown for 958 yards and three touchdowns this season.


The best way for them to stop USC? Say a lot of prayers at the Grotto before the game. Seriously, the best thing you can say about the Irish defense is that it has come up with plays at opportunistic times, like the goal-line stands against Washington and Kyle McCarthy's interception against Michigan State. The Irish will have to pressure Matt Barkley and not break too much after a lot of bending.

Speaking of Barkley, how will the true freshman handle this atmosphere? He's already won at Ohio State, after all. And is Joe McKnight the X factor here?

Ted Miller: Notre Dame won't be as rowdy as Ohio State, and Barkley seemed to handle himself well in The Horseshoe -- see the dramatic game-winning drive he directed -- so I don't know if playing in the shadow of "Touchdown Jesus" will bother him.

There are two issues worth noting, though. Barkley is all southern California. He's accustomed to sun and warmth -- ideal conditions for a quarterback. He's never played in the cold, though an unusual amount of rain this week around Los Angeles probably helped him become aware of challenges from the elements.

Problem with that is it appears that the weather will be fairly nice -- probably a bit chilly in the second half, but certainly not frigid. Still, if it's below freezing in the fourth quarter, or perhaps colder than expected, that could throw Barkley off his game.

Second, Barkley is a cool character, but he's also very competitive. He's buddies with Jimmy Clausen. Both are from southern California and they've known each other for a long time because they've shared a quarterback coach. Seeing Clausen across the field may make Barkley want to outshine the Heisman Trophy candidate. He might press a bit or force a throw, trying to make a big play, and that could cost the Trojans.

Of course, McKnight could solve the need for big plays in the passing game by running through and around the Irish defense. The Trojans' O-line is strong and experienced, and it looks like they have a substantial advantage vs. the ND front seven. McKnight has been playing well, so he could be the X factor.

Of course, he's also had some fumbling issues through the years. That could be a Z-factor.

Let's get down the brass tacks.

Weis and company talked this week about, perhaps for the first time since 2005, believing the Irish could win. First, do they really believe that? And, second, do you? In other words, how do you see this playing out and what's your prediction?

BB: I talked to a couple of players this week, and they really do seem confident. I think all these last-minute wins have them believing this is a storybook season, and this is an experienced bunch. Do I think they can win? Well, everything would have to go perfectly, and there would have to be plenty of leprechaun magic. I can see Notre Dame keeping it close because USC's offense doesn't look that explosive and Clausen will make sure the Irish put up some points. But in the end I think the Trojans pull away by about two touchdowns.

What is your prediction for the game?

TM: My prediction is 31-20, USC.

Clausen and the Irish will make some plays, and I think Barkley will make at least one major mistake that keeps this one close.

But, ultimately, I think the Trojans' advantage on defense is too significant. They will be able to make key stops and the ND defense won't.

Still, since the Trojans started dominating the series, I've paused over one thought before picking this game: At some point, the Fighting Irish are going to beat Carroll and USC.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Like the Irish themselves, I am 4-1 on the season, 11 seconds away from being 5-0 (or a couple of other plays away from having an embarrassing record). But it's all just been a prelude to USC week. So here goes:

USC 38, Notre Dame 24: The Trojans have scored exactly 38 against Notre Dame the past two years and haven't scored fewer than 34 in this game since 2001. So even though they're starting a freshman quarterback this year in Matt Barkley, there's no reason to think they won't slice through a spotty Irish defense this time around, too.

The difference this year is that Notre Dame is able to score some points, too. The passing game behind Jimmy Clausen is legit, and with two weeks to prepare, Charlie Weis will find some things to exploit in an impressive USC defense.

This game will be competitive for a while, unlike most recent meetings. But the Trojans will take control in the second half behind the star of the game, Joe McKnight. Notre Dame can say it has closed the gap in this series, but a sizable gulf still remains.

Last pick: Notre Dame 28, Washington 27.

Actual score: Notre Dame 37, Washington 30 (OT).

Season results: 4-1

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


What to watch from a Notre Dame perspective in Saturday's game against USC:

1. Jimmy Clausen vs. Taylor Mays: Earlier this season, we had the treat of watching Tim Tebow collide with Eric Berry. Here's another matchup of top-flight quarterback against an All-American, future NFL safety. Don't expect many high-impact, Tebow-meets-Berry like crashes between the two since Clausen doesn't run nearly as much as the Florida star. Still, the Irish quarterback and his receivers have to be aware at all times of where Mays is on the field. Clausen's Heisman Trophy hopes -- and Notre Dame's chances at victory -- depend on a productive passing day.

2. Notre Dame's offensive line vs. the USC pass rush: The Trojans share the national lead in sacks, and if the Irish offensive front can't keep Clausen clean, it will be a long night for the home team in South Bend. "If we play like we did last year and get dominated like we did last year, it won't make a darn bit of difference what Jimmy does," head coach Charlie Weis said. USC has a bunch of studs on the defensive line, including Everson Griffen (four sacks) and Nick Perry (six sacks). Notre Dame has to slow them down to have a chance.

3. Joe McKnight vs. the Irish defense: Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley is a true freshman, and Notre Dame will try to bring lots of pressure after him. But Barkley usually isn't asked to win games. The USC offense really goes as the running game goes, specifically McKnight. He's averaging 7.1 yards per carry with six touchdowns. McKnight is also a threat in the passing game. He's the best back the Irish have seen this year, and he can change the game more than anyone else on the USC side.

USC coach Pete Carroll joins Colin Cowherd to preview this weekend's game against Notre Dame. Carroll talks about Matt Barkley and Jimmy Clausen.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Poor ole USC. What is it to do? All of its wonderful, scary linebackers are gone to the NFL. Boy, are the Trojans going to be in trouble in 2009.

No more Maualuga, Cushing -- Cush! -- Matthews or Maiava. Even the names sounded slightly menacing. Heck, Rey Maualuga even became a folk hero and YouTube sensation for his blow-up hits.
 
 Ric Tapia/Icon SMI
 Middle linebacker Chris Galippo leads the Trojans with 32 tackles.


Into their place stepped Smith, Morgan and Galippo. That's two common, yawn-inducing surnames and a third that recalls a failed campaign in World War I.

Poor ole USC. Five games into the season, its no-name defense -- other than fancypants safety Taylor Mays -- only ranks fourth in the nation in scoring (8.6 points per game), sixth in total defense (238.6 yards per game) and fifth in run defense (64.8 yards per game). It has surrendered no -- zero -- touchdown passes. It's the only team in the nation with a clean sheet.

Seems like these no-names aren't half-bad, particularly the linebackers.

"You can't say enough good things about their defense," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "And they're losing all those -- everyone's, 'Oh, they're losing all these guys to the NFL from last year!' and it doesn't seem like they've missed a beat."

Weis has reason for concern as he prepares for a visit from the sixth-ranked Trojans on Saturday. Sure, his offense averages 33 points a game and ranks 10th in the nation with 470 yards per contest, but the Fighting Irish have scored three points against USC in their past two meetings and haven't faced a defense that even approaches the Trojans' depth and talent level.

And this USC defense, as shocking as it might be to say about a unit that replaced eight starters, including four linebackers who were NFL draft picks, might be just as good as -- or at least comparable to -- last year's unit, which was widely regarded as one of the best in college football history.

It starts at linebacker, where Chris Galippo, a sophomore in the middle, and Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith, juniors on the outside, are nearly matching the production of Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Kaluka Maiava.

It's a different style, of course, starting with the fact the Trojans are back to their standard 4-3 look after in large part playing a 3-4 last year. The Trojans' linebacker-heavy front in 2008 was more physically intimidating but not as fast and not always as sound as this year's crew.

"Our guys now are very disciplined, very strict about everything they are doing -- probably more accurately fitting in runs than the other guys had done in the past when they'd kind of clutter their way through," said Trojans coach Pete Carroll, who calls the defensive plays.

Morgan leads the Pac-10 with 9.5 tackles for a loss. Smith has played well, but has struggled with a sprained ankle, though he should be full-go this weekend.

The revelation has been Galippo. He leads the team with 32 tackles -- five for a loss -- with an interception and four pass breakups. A good but not great athlete -- unlike nearly everyone else who starts for USC -- he's showcased uncanny instincts that often guide him toward big plays, most notably his first-quarter interception and 51-yard return at Ohio State that set up the Trojans' first touchdown in an 18-15 victory.

"Galippo's speed on the field is because of his reading ability and his instincts -- he plays fast on the football field," Carroll said.

Galippo, a sophomore, also seems to get motivated by perceived slights. Early in the season, he talked about how no one knew who he or his fellow linebackers were. This week, he recalled a recruiting visit to Notre Dame when he felt Weis ignored him in order to focus on quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

"They were trying to get Jimmy to commit," Galippo said. "It was no big deal. I came home and committed to USC about three days later."

Of course, Galippo knows the deal. Standouts at USC don't get ignored very long. They start to make all-conference and All-American lists and then NFL draft gurus start ranking them.

Galippo, though outgoing and articulate, notes that he, Smith and Morgan aren't the "big personality" guys of the past. He emphasizes staying humble as the talk of rebuilding ends and the discussion transitions toward celebrating the next great Trojans defense.

"The better we play and the more games we win, and the more big-time offenses we shut down, the notoriety is going to go up," he said. "People will start noticing us. But we've got to keep the mentality of going out every day and working hard and continuing to try to earn our spot. As soon as we start thinking you're big time and start taking things for granted, you don't play as well."

Poor ole USC?

Correction: That's poor young USC. Galippo, Smith and Morgan all are expected to return in 2010.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


Notre Dame has lost its last two games against USC by a combined score of 76-3. Yet coach Charlie Weis and the Fighting Irish players sound confident going into this week's renewal of the rivalry in South Bend.

What has changed to make them think they can hang with the Trojans this year? The answer can be found on the offensive front.
 
 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
 An improved O-line gives the Irish confidence heading into their game Saturday against USC.


"Last year, I thought the defense hung in there for a while and the offense was just taking a whooping," Weis said this week. "I'm not expecting to be taking a whooping."

A reporter then asked Weis if he thought the offensive line had improved that much.

"Have you been at the games?" Weis countered.

It's obvious to even casual observers that the Notre Dame offensive line has grown by leaps and bounds this season. That group is a main reason why quarterback Jimmy Clausen leads the nation in passing efficiency and why the Irish have mounted an effective running game for the first time in three years.

The line had 100 career starts coming into this season, and four seasoned seniors are starting this year. The players insisted all offseason that its wealth of experience would lead to improved results, and so far they've been proven right.

"You can see it in the way we're making calls or how, when we're in pressure-packed situations, we're keeping our cool," right tackle Sam Young said. "It's awfully good to have a group of guys who have been playing together for a while now."

The last two times against USC, the offensive line was just awful.

In 2007, Evan Sharpley was sacked five times in a 38-0 loss. Last season in Los Angeles, the Trojans sacked Clausen four times, and he finished just 11 of 22 for 41 yards, with two interceptions in a 38-3 defeat.

"The offense, I thought we just got manhandled," Weis said about the 2008 loss. "From start to finish I thought we got manhandled.

"They were able to pin their ears back with four guys and get after us. I think they completely controlled the line of scrimmage, and I'd like to think that that won't be the case this week."

Notre Dame has allowed nine sacks through five games, but Clausen has usually had plenty of time to operate in the pocket. It's one thing, however, to hold off Purdue and Washington. It's another thing to do it against USC.

The Trojans may have lost a ton of talent to the NFL, but they're once again shutting people down on defense. They're tied with Cincinnati for the FBS lead with 21 sacks through five games.

"They really get after it." Young said. "It's a challenge. You have to look at it as a challenge."

If Notre Dame can't stop that pass rush, then it makes no difference how well Clausen is playing. The offense won't get anything going, and USC will roll to another blowout victory.

But if the offensive line can give Clausen room to make plays, then he and the passing game are strong enough to generate points. And then, at least, the Fighting Irish will have a fighting chance.

"We've had success this year whenever we've had the ball in our hands," Young said. "We expect to score and nothing less. And I'm not talking about three points; I'm talking about six. We have that kind of confidence, and it should be very advantageous for us this week."

Weis: Irish need to beat USC

October, 13, 2009
10/13/09
3:54
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


Charlie Weis keeps a hat in his office that is emblazoned with the words, "USC owns Notre Dame."
Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
You don't have to tell Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis how big a win over USC this Saturday would be.

A Trojans fan mailed him the hat a few years ago, along with a letter containing disparaging remarks about his daughter, Hannah, who is developmentally disabled. Weis won't divulge what the letter writer said, but he keeps the hat as a reminder.

"When we've won a game (against USC), that cap won't be around anymore," Weis said.

The hat provides a stand-in for an albatross, which is what USC has been to Weis and Notre Dame.

Notre Dame has lost seven straight games to its intersectional rival since 2001, and most of them haven't been close. Weis doesn't own a signature victory during his tenure, and in fact his most memorable moment is probably his near-miss against USC in 2005. Notre Dame has lost six in a row against Top 10 opponents under Weis, and this year's 4-1 record does not include a victory over a team with a winning record.

So, yeah, beating USC this week is crucial, both for Weis's job security and for the program's stature.

"Winning this week would do wonders for my spirits," Weis said. "But it would not just be my spirits. It would be everyone affiliated with Notre Dame."

"Our university really could use this win. It's not just me personally or our football team. It's our university. We know the challenge we have at hand, we not oblivious to that fact. It's been a long time coming, and we're going to give it a fair go."

Notre Dame is once again a significant underdog, even at home. But it is taking a different mentality into this meeting.

"Our players believe they're going to win," Weis said. "They understand the talent level they're going against. But this is probably the first time since I've been here that they believe they're going to win. They might be in the minority, but they certainly believe that."

One of the biggest reasons for confidence is the play of the offense behind quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Make no mistake, this is a big game, too, for Clausen, who is currently being mentioned as one of the top Heisman Trophy contenders after his magnificent play in the first five weeks. This isn't the same, though, as toppling Purdue or Washington.

"These are the type of moments where you really get judged," Weis said. "I'm not being disrespectful to our first five opponents, but this is a what-have-you-done-for-me type of position. He won't be judged by bringing us back three times in a row or four times in a row, for that matter. He'll be judged by what he does against USC."

Weis openly embraces the Heisman talk because that means Notre Dame is winning games. Clausen -- a Southern California native who chose the Irish over the Trojans on the recruiting trail -- has something else at stake.

"Jimmy has a lot of buddies over in that other locker room and he's been hearing a lot of abuse from them for a couple of years," Weis said. "We can talk about the Heisman, we can talk about the team being 5-1 and now all of a sudden skyrocketing in the ratings. But more than anything else, him being able to pick up the phone and call all his boys in the other locker room would be the greatest thing for him personally."

Weis said he's been using little motivational tricks for the past week to get his players fired up for the game, but he doesn't have to do too much. The Irish won't be breaking out the green jerseys, for instance, like they did in 2005.

"It's easy to get up for a game against USC," he said. "You can get them to a fever pitch. But you still have to go play against USC on Saturday."

And for Weis and the entire program, they need to find a way to beat USC on Saturday.


"College Football Live" has a preview of USC vs Notre Dame.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


In 2001, Notre Dame whipped USC 27-16 in South Bend. Guy by the name of Pete Carroll got his first taste of the sour end of the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

First and only.

 
  Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
  With Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, is this the year Notre Dame defeats USC?
The rivalry has featured more national champions, Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, and future NFL Hall of Famer inductees than any other collegiate match-up. And it's still college football's greatest intersectional rivalry -- in large part because in the age of cowardly scheduling, few such rivalry games still exist.

But, golly, other than classic "Bush Push" game in 2005, which the Trojans won 34-31, it hasn't been much of a contest.

The other six matchups during Carroll's tenure have been Trojans wins by 20 or more points. Five of those six have come by 31 or more points. The last two? USC won 38-0 and 38-3.

USC hasn't dominated any Pac-10 foe with quite the same ease.

So why should anyone expect anything different this season? The Trojans still look like their same ole physical, athletic, national-title-contending selves while the Irish are struggling against a mediocre schedule with a defense that gives up 400 yards per game.

Of course, the Irish are ranked -- 25th -- for the first time heading into the game since 2006.

And their quarterback, junior Jimmy Clausen, who picked Notre Dame over USC, is a Heisman Trophy candidate. He leads the nation in passing efficiency and has thrown 12 touchdown passes with just two interceptions.

Sure, USC is ranked sixth in the nation and has mostly posted impressive numbers on both sides of the ball. But the Trojans are starting a true freshman quarterback and they had to replace eight starters on defense from the dominant 2008 unit.

You might note that the Trojans and Notre Dame have a common opponent: Washington.

Yeah, yeah, yeah -- Taylor Mays this; Matt Barkley that -- scoreboard, folks! It's all that matters in the end. So what if those guys didn't play?

USC (and Washington) fans can deconstruct that all they want, but that little piece of scoreboard truth, coupled with the comfort of playing at home, should make the Irish feel as confident as they have been entering the game since 2006.

The Irish also have a significant advantage at the most important position: quarterback.

Barkley is what Clausen was in 2007 -- the No. 1 prep quarterback in the nation, starting as a true freshman for one of the nation's premier programs.

No doubt that Barkley handled his transition to college with more maturity and humility. But the biggest difference between Clausen two years ago and Barkley today is the Trojans have way more talent than the 2007 Irish team that went 3-9.

Way, way more talent.

It's not hard to recognize Barkley's poise and skill, but he's still only thrown three touchdown passes with two interceptions. His job Saturday is to not lose the game.

Clausen's job is to hoist his team on his shoulders and shock the world.

No pressure, though.

Clearly, the moment will mean a lot more for Clausen and coach Charlie Weis on Saturday. Clausen is still looking for that redletter performance against a quality foe that will identify him as a great quarterback.

Weis can save his job with a victory. And another spanking my prelude him losing it.

Finally, there is this: At some point, Notre Dame is going to again beat USC.

Let's not forget that that Fighting Irish still lead the series, 42-33-5 (USC is 22-17-3 since 1967, but pre-face-mask football counts, too).

Does that mean I'm picking Notre Dame to win?

Are you nuts?

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