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CHICAGO -- In four-plus seasons at Notre Dame, Charlie Weis has taken teams to -- and lost -- two BCS bowl games; won a bowl game against Hawaii in Hawaii; led a team to nine losses for the first time in school history; lured scores of four- and five-star recruits to South Bend; provided his team with a decided schematic advantage, theoretically anyway; and turned himself, for better or worse, into the face of arguably the most polarizing college sports team in the country.
|Matt Leinart threw for more than 300 yards against Notre Dame in 2005, but it was his rushing touchdown with three seconds left that killed the Irish.|
What Notre Dame's football team, under Weis' leadership, has not done is win the Big Game.
Notre Dame is 33-22 since Weis was hired to replace Tyrone Willingham, which is good, but not great, and Notre Dame is a program that prides itself as being deserving of unequivocal greatness. This is difficult to accomplish, not that anyone, outside of the actual players and coaches, cares.
Notre Dame has a Big Game this weekend. Some are saying it's the most important game of the Weis era, or at least of the season. USC, the bête noire of the Fighting Irish, is ranked high, but it's vulnerable with a true freshman quarterback, a young team. The time is now to finally end the Trojans' seven-game winning streak, or so the thought process goes.
The Big Game is the game that creates legacies, good and bad. Ask John Cooper about his success against Michigan, if you can find him. It's the game that causes 21-year-old guys to chug at its mere mention, and 50-year-old men to write checks and buy motor homes to bask in its reflected glory. It's the kind of event that crooked-fingered old linemen will talk about at wintry tailgates until their minds go in old age, then they'll get the details all wrong, except they won't be wrong in spirit.
"Normally for a game, people start showing up on campus on Thursday," former Irish safety/return man/blunt trauma provider Tom Zbikowski said in a phone conversation Thursday after a Baltimore Ravens practice. "For the USC game, people start showing up Monday or Tuesday. They're on campus already."
The biggest loss in the Weis Era of Schematic Advantages wasn't the back-to-back BCS bowl games Notre Dame dropped in 2006 and 2007. It wasn't even the losses to Navy and Air Force in the desultory 2007 season.
No, it was USC in 2005 with a Push to the QB. Everyone who watched that game remembers it with startling clarity, the promise of the Irish vanquished by one final drive and one final Reggie Bush shove to Matt Leinart to put the pretty-boy QB in the end zone with scant seconds left for a wild comeback win for the No. 1 team in the country.
Leinart's and Bush's USC was the team of this era, with a running back who is a YouTube darling and a quarterback who was an Us Weekly regular, and all of Hollywood was in love with your team, well, the Trojans were easily America's Team. The Irish were kind of plucky and fun and full of made-for-TV stars themselves.
That game was What College Football Is All About, the kind that creates its own mythology, no hype needed. And it's amazing now, how fleeting it all was for almost everyone involved.
Four years after USC's 34-31 comeback win, who would've thought that game would be the most recent, most visceral football highlight for Leinart, Bush, former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and pretty much the entire Irish football program?
For those headliners, their public, football life has been a mixture of heartbreak, malaise, Cleveland Browns football and Kim Kardashian, not in that order.
That USC won the game on a morally ambiguous play, cements the notion that the Irish were cheated out of a special moment that would've been boxed up and sold and gifted under Christmas trees from Weehawken, N.J., to Guam. Whether it was fate, referees or a frequently hurt running back who did the cheating is immaterial. The loss didn't hurt recruiting, but it certainly meant something.
"It took me a little time to get over it," Zbikowski said. "Not that year, because you've got to get ready for next game. But it still stinged. USC went on to play Texas in the national championship. If we win that game, we probably would have been in the national championship. It would have been great for the university, great for the team, to win that game. But what are you going to do about it now?"
At the time, there was no way of knowing the Irish would go three seasons without winning a truly meaningful game again, a streak that is still running. Zbikowski said the team wiped it off a few days later, but it hurt for a long while. What would a national championship appearance have meant? Even if the Irish had gotten blown out by Vince Young and the Longhorns, it would have showed the world that Notre Dame was back. You think the Irish got good recruits after that season? A national championship would have raised the stakes dramatically. There is no telling what a win over USC would have brought, and there is no use dwelling on it. It's like Zbikowski said, "What are you going to do about it now?"
Now, Zbikowski said, he thinks of that game with a certain pride and remembers how fun it was. I don't know how many Irish fans feel the same, considering what has happened since.
The Weis era started with so much promise, remember? It seems as if that was 15 years ago. In 2005, Weis had a roster full of Willingham players, but he made his own decisions on whom to play, including Jeff Samardzija, the Shark, who was a little-used receiver who dabbled in pitching until he turned into a major star with Quinn as his quarterback.
|Jeff Samardzija caught six passes for 99 yards and a touchdown against USC in 2005.|
To refresh your memory, the Irish started the year unranked but beat No. 25 Pittsburgh in the opener and then shocked the No. 3 Wolverines 17-10 in Ann Arbor. That moved the squad up to No. 12, but the Irish lost an overtime game to Michigan State before rebounding with wins at Washington and No. 20 Purdue. Notre Dame looked like a pro program, as if Weis had imported the Patriots to South Bend.
Then the Trojans came to town and the winning stopped, just barely, and, in hindsight, the magic ended.
The Trojans, of course, went on to lose to Texas in a wild national championship game at the Rose Bowl, which was their last title game appearance. They've won three straight Rose Bowls since. USC has become a program defined by its dominance. Notre Dame remains a school looking to recapture long-past glories, fighting with ghosts while struggling with Midshipmen.
The players and coaches don't care much about history and meaning and schadenfreude. The Irish are 4-1, ranked 25th. Jimmy Clausen looks like the star he was recruited to be. A dorm-full of recruits are coming to watch this game to imagine what it's like to play for the Irish. Those teenagers have no idea how tough it is, Zbikowski said. Not that he would have it any other way.
"It's good to see them winning," he said. "A lot of people don't understand what the players are going through every game, especially if it's a bad year. I'm glad to see some of the good guys I know there winning, but even then, winning isn't good enough. They just have to keep playing, having fun."
Zbikowski has some informal wagers on the game. He and his position coach Mark Carrier are finalizing their bet, which Zbikowski said likely will entail the USC grad wearing gold shorts for a week of practice, should the Irish pull one out. Zbikowski will wind up with some Trojan apparel.
"Maybe one of those maroon blazers they wear," he said.
Odds are Zbikowski will be wearing the coat. USC has won its past two matchups against Notre Dame by the aggregate score of 76-3. The Trojans are looking to bolster a BCS ranking hampered by a loss to Washington. Notre Dame needs to win this game in front of its stud recruits and its nervous fans.
You think this game isn't Big?
"I lost every time I played USC," Zbikowski said. "I always looked forward to playing them."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.