There can be no more doubting the Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Say what you want about Leprechauns, green jerseys, Touchdown Jesus and three-inch-high blades of grass, the reality of Saturday's showdown in South Bend was no fluke. Notre Dame, which came within seven seconds of knocking off "the greatest offensive team in college football history," is legit. Do not write this off as anything other than that.

Notre Dame went toe-to-toe with USC. The Irish didn't do this with gimmickry and they didn't get the benefit of quirky bounces or a bunch of unforced mistakes or any of the things many suspected it would take for the Irish to stage some sort of miracle upset.

The pass defense, ranked 114th, which was supposed to be so brutal, thumped Matt Leinart and forced the star QB into two interceptions, which nearly doubled the total he had coming into the game.

The Irish attacked and capitalized on some of the Trojans' flaws -- suspect cornerback play and a soft middle. That's what good teams do. The Irish also took every haymaker the Trojans unloaded, yet they never buckled.

Still, Notre Dame wasn't in any mood to talk about how the gutty upstart Irish, a team some experts thought might start out 0-6, may have won something despite not winning. This was, after all, the same Notre Dame team that the Trojans had throttled by 31 points in each of their last three meetings. But, by now, we've realized it's really not. To borrow a line from Charlie Weis' mentor Bill Parcells, you are what you are, and ND is indeed very good. It's time for anyone who thinks the Irish have just been reaping the rewards of Weis' genius playcalling to re-evaluate. This team is loaded with solid football players from quarterback Brady Quinn to tight end Anthony Fasano to linebacker Brandon Hoyte.

Better still, they have proven each week that they may be the most unpredictable offense in college football. And now against the ultimate benchmark, the Irish showed they belong in the discussion when the subject of elite teams comes up. Weis, though, wasn't buying into any "almost" victories. You know he didn't leave the NFL to lead his alma mater to the Mediocre Bowl.

"If you're waiting for me to say it was a good loss, you won't hear that here," Weis said. "Losing is losing; there are no moral victories. What I did tell them was not to hang their heads. That was a slugfest, a street fight. That was a good football game."

Weis got the last part of that wrong. It was a great football game, just another classic chapter in a storied rivalry. Once again, we saw more evidence of USC's mental toughness as well as superb physical conditioning. (The Trojan defense was on the field for 87 plays, 23 more than Notre Dame, which held more than a 17-minute edge in time of possession.) Leinart provided more proof why he might be one of the most clutch QBs the college game has ever seen. (Exhibit J: The perfect pass he floats to Dwayne Jarrett on fourth-and-9.) But this was more a reintroduction of a glorious program. Don't expect them to be a double-digit underdog to anyone again for a very long time.

Asked what the Irish proved, Irish running back Travis Thomas said without hesitation that they proved they are "one of the best teams in the country."

The message Weis hammered home in the locker room after the game as many of his players fought back tears was that there was no shame in losing like that and to let go of this one quickly because they still have a long season in front of them.

"Today we showed that this team fights," said sophomore tailback Darius Walker. "We're fighters, and no matter what happens, we're gonna keep our composure.

"But we don't wanna feel like this any more, and hopefully it'll encourage us to work harder," he said.

Trojans coach Pete Carroll, after surviving the Irish, knows that's a scary proposition.

"They're going to be a real problem for everybody," he said with a hint of relief.

As he was about to leave the podium, a question came from the crowd asking if Carroll thought the days of blowing the Irish out by 31 might be gone.

"Yeah, Carroll laughed. "That might be a thing of the past."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at bruce.feldman@espn.com.