By Erica Lucero
Special to Page 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: Erica Lucero, a sophomore at Southern Cal, will provide Page 2 with periodic updates from campus this season as the Trojans attempt to win their third consecutive national championship.

Usually, when we have an away game, people will ask casually, "So, are you going to watch the game Saturday?"

This week, however, is an entirely different matter. Everyone is going on the (very) safe assumption that whomever they're speaking with is prepared to drop everything Saturday afternoon and head to the nearest television set.

This Saturday, USC will play one of its most storied rivals, Notre Dame, which, thanks to a bye last weekend, has had two weeks to get ready for us. It's shaping up to be one of the biggest and most-hyped games of the year.

Pete Carroll
Carroll has gotten his Trojans to storm back in the second half of late.

I'm going to tell the truth: Tensions are high. There is a kind of nervous energy attached to the topic of Notre Dame and football this week. Declarations that we are sure to win are a bit louder than usual. The phrase "second-half team" is working overtime. Praise for individual players has gone from exaggerated to mythical.

When it comes to our traditional rivals, USC's attitude toward Notre Dame is unique. Mention UCLA, and overt dislike is displayed. Cal? We're talking absolute dismissiveness. If ASU even makes it into the discussion, then all conversation is accompanied by a sneer.

What it all comes down to is this: Notre Dame is our worthiest and most feared rival, because it is the school most similar to our own.

Both schools are so steeped in football tradition, it is as though we are meeting our psychological and spiritual equivalents in South Bend on Saturday.

Consider some of Notre Dame's traditions:

Before every home game, Notre Dame players scrape off some of the gold covering the Main Building dome on campus. They then melt the gold down and paint it onto their football helmets.

Rumor has it that USC students are spoiled, but let's all keep in mind that Notre Dame players will only play with real gold on their helmets.

Every Friday night before home games, Notre Dame's team and student body have a pep rally in the gym. When I first heard this, I scoffed, remembering high school pep rallies that students only grudgingly attended. But, apparently, Notre Dame pep rallies are very popular. They usually attract upwards of 11,000 people, with many more waiting outside, hoping for the chance to get in.

And then there are the striking similarities between the two schools:

Just as the Trojans come out of a tunnel designed to make them feel like gladiators, on their way to do battle on the football field, the Irish run past a huge yellow sign that instructs them to "Play Like a Champion Today."

As is the case at USC, in South Bend, fans who sit during games are considered weak, and, if you're sitting with a group of guys, chances are someone's going to get hoisted in the air to do a pushup for every point on the scoreboard.

And consider the two teams' head coaches. Here at USC, we firmly believe that it doesn't get much better than Pete Carroll. He is our hero, universally respected, and we all want to know what the heck that guy says at halftime.

Enter Charlie Weis.

Now there's a man to be taken seriously. As the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, he deserves a lot of the credit for their three Super Bowl victories in four years, and for his development of Tom Brady from an unknown sixth-round draft pick into an All-Pro quarterback.

In his first year as coach of the Irish, he's turned them into an offensive powerhouse that's only an overtime touchdown against Michigan State from being undefeated. And if those credentials aren't flawless enough for you, he's also a graduate of Notre Dame.

Yet another common trait shared by the Trojans and the Fighting Irish: Great respect for history.

Charlie Weis
Charlie Weis has also done a masterful job bring the Fighting Irish back to prominence.

And historically -- at least, recently -- we've done rather well.

The last time that Notre Dame had as high of a ranking as they do now was in 2002, when we beat them handily, robbing them of a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.

Carson Palmer walked away looking pretty darn good, too.

And let's not forget "The Comeback." That was the legendary day in 1974 that Notre Dame allowed a 24-point lead to get away from them. USC played their ultimate second half game, inspired by Anthony Davis' four rushing touchdowns. It not only sent Notre Dame off the field looking like fools, it handed USC one of the greatest moments in NCAA history, a stunning 55-24 win.

To further cement the bond between our two schools, there's the shillelagh. Legend has it that Howard Hughes' pilot flew the wooden club from Ireland to the United States. The victor each year is granted possession of the shillelagh and, depending on who wins, either a ruby-encrusted Trojan head or an emerald shamrock is attached, along with the year and the game score. The memories of these games aren't allowed to die.

Despite all the excitement surrounding USC vs. Notre Dame, other things continue to move along in the life of the nation's No. 1 football team. I was with my dad when we found out that the Bruins had come back to beat then-undefeated Cal this past Saturday.

"Damn," he said turning to me, "that changes things."

And it does, but not in the way that most people would think. Maybe it's arrogance, or maybe it's just cold reality, but, despite the upset of Cal, very few people around here consider UCLA a more worthy opponent. Even one of my childhood friends, who chose to attend UCLA despite my ranting, raving and tears, called me to inform me that she intended to attend the UCLA vs. USC game at the Coliseum.

"Even though I know we're going to be beaten to a bloody pulp, I'm still going to the game," she said.

Of course, because of their loss to UCLA, we are more confident than ever that Cal is going down.

And so we are left with Notre Dame, the school that takes football so seriously that one of its most treasured pieces of art is a mural with Jesus at the center, holding up his hands in what suspiciously appears to be a ref making a touchdown call.

His name: "Touchdown Jesus."

I'm not going to comment, since I come from a school that has a strong affinity for abusing flagpoles. All I'm saying is: Both teams are back. And each, it seems, is soon to meet a worthy opponent.

Erica Lucero is a 19-year-old USC student from Upland, Calif., working on an English major and an American studies minor. Her activities on campus include serving as an officer of her sorority, representing the Trojan Alumni Association as a Pepster and acting as a peer mediator.