Friday October 16th, 2009

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, a man who seems at peace with his circumstances, stood before his team Thursday afternoon and summed up Saturday's clash with USC better than even the most seasoned sports columnist could.

"Saturday night, fellas, you're going to be the lead story in the country, one way or another," Weis said. "So which lead story do you want to be?"

Weis understands. Outside of Los Angeles, the headlines will either trumpet his signature win in South Bend or predict his impending doom after a fifth loss in five tries against the Trojans. Fair or not, this is the game on which Weis will be judged. He coaches a roster populated exclusively with players he recruited, so the "empty-cupboard" excuse is moot. His team clearly has talent. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen is a potential Heisman contender. Receiver Golden Tate can get open against anyone. Freshman linebacker Manti Te'o improves every week. Notre Dame ranks No. 8 in the country in passing offense (322 yards a game) and Clausen ranks first in passing efficiency (179.25). Sure, the defense ranks 110th against the pass (263.6 yards a game), but the Trojans don't often come to South Bend starting a true freshman at quarterback.

The Notre Dame fan base, divided over Weis in recent years, has rallied behind this team. Still, those fans fret. If USC blows the Fighting Irish off the field -- as the Trojans have in three consecutive seasons -- it will be difficult for anyone in gold to muster hope that Weis can bring the Irish back to an elite level. For most of the decade, USC has defined elite. If Notre Dame can't compete with the Trojans, then the CEO of the program isn't doing his job.

It's telling that the 2005 loss to USC was the closest Weis has come to a signature game at Notre Dame. At the time, we thought that Trojans squad was the best college football team ever assembled. Weis, in his first year and sporting a 4-1 record identical to the one he now boasts in 2009, coached the Irish to within one Reggie Bush push of an upset for the ages. Then the wheels came off. In 2006, the Irish lost by 20. In 2007, by 38. Last year, they didn't manage a first down until the final play of the third quarter and lost by five touchdowns.

This year is supposed to be different. The pieces are in place. Even Trojans coach Pete Carroll can feel it. "This is the hottest Notre Dame team we've seen in a couple years," Carroll said Tuesday. "All phases are hammering at you." Carroll might just be blowing smoke and privately laughing in the film room, but he sounded sincere.

Aside from an season-opening thumping of Nevada, Notre Dame has barely survived its wins. At Michigan, the Irish suffered their only loss on a miracle drive by a true freshman quarterback. It's easy to say a team that scrapes by Purdue doesn't stand much chance against USC, but Weis looks at it another way. Maybe those close calls were lessons the Irish needed to learn to put themselves in position to topple the Trojans.

"Where everyone would like to look at the negative side and say, well, 'You're just eeking out games at the end,' the flipside is you're building some toughness," Weis said. "You're building some intestinal fortitude when you're playing in games like that. They've gotten to the point where they don't believe they're going into a game where they're not going to win. Once you get to that point, then you become dangerous."

Carroll agrees. "I know this is the team they've had the most success with coming into our game," he said. "They know they've got experience. They know they've got firepower, and they have the confidence of being able to hang in very difficult games and dramatically come back and win. All of that just adds to your mindset. They've got to be as strong as they've been in years. I would think that they're anticipating their best chance to be on top of this thing."

Now let's consider the flipside of that statement. If this is Notre Dame's best, and if it's still not good enough, it won't bode well for Weis.

Weis seems to have made peace with this possibility. He has assembled a talented team. On Saturday, he will coach that team to the best of his ability, and the chips will fall where they fall. And one way or another, by Saturday evening, the Irish will be the lead story.

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