Irish look to leave USC at a loss

Notre Dame hoping for reversal of fortune against unbeaten, top-ranked Trojans

College Football


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The famous echoes are wide awake, stirred by Notre Dame's fast start under first-year coach Charlie Weis and today's arrival of college football's best team.

The ghosts of upsets past will be flying around this storied campus, giving Notre Dame Stadium the kind of aura it hasn't had in a while, at least in a dozen years.

The meeting between the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish and top-ranked Southern California doesn't have the animosity of the "Catholics vs. Convicts" showdown with Miami in 1988 or the clear significance of the 1993 game here between No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Notre Dame.

But it's certainly the biggest game of the 2005 season, with USC (5-0) riding an astounding 27-game winning streak and hoping to become the first team in history to win or share in three straight national championships, and Notre Dame (4-1) looking to continue its remarkable progress under Weis.

A sellout crowd of more than 80,000 and nearly 1,000 media representatives will be in attendance for what is anticipated to be a scoring-fest between two powerful offenses, in USC's case one that is considered among the most prolific in history.

The stadium was more than half-filled last night for a pep rally that featured legendary walk-on Rudy Ruettiger as the emcee and included former Irish greats Joe Montana and Tim Brown among those who addressed the crowd.

"It is a great matchup for college football, for those former players from both schools that love this game, and for the fans," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "It is a huge game for our program. It is a huge game for Notre Dame's program."

Said Notre Dame linebacker and co-captain Brandon Hoyte: "Every college program wants that opportunity. Every college program wants that dynasty. And they are on the verge of doing it. But, at the same time, every college program wants the opportunity to be that team that stops that dynasty. We are fortunate to be in that situation."

Weis, a Notre Dame graduate who replaced Tyrone Willingham after helping the New England Patriots win three of the past four Super Bowls as an assistant coach, is well aware of the recent history in this 76-game rivalry, so one-sided in favor of the Trojans that it played a role in Willingham's dismissal after last season.

In fact, Weis used the point differential between the two teams during Willingham's three-year tenure as a way to motivate his team.

"I basically told them that you're already down 31, let's see where we can go from there, see if we can close the gap a little bit," said Weis, alluding to losses of 41-10 last year, 45-14 in 2003 and 44-13 in 2002. "It's a good opportunity for us to judge where we are right now."

As the Fighting Irish continued their preparation for the school's 25th game against a No. 1-ranked team, Weis began taking a new tack.

"You start off embarrassing them, then the rest of the time you try to build up their confidence," Weis said. "You play to their psyche. Last week, the No. 1 job I felt I had to do was get them believing that they had a chance to win the game. Just getting them to believe they have a chance to win the game is easier said than done."

The Notre Dame players are all too familiar with what USC can do, particularly on offense.

"The thing with USC is that they have so many different weapons," said Hoyte, who leads the Fighting Irish with 42 tackles, more than a third of them for losses. "Some say that they pass the ball well or are one-dimensional and run the ball, but what makes them such a good team is their balance on offense."

From quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart to the "Thunder and Lightning" backfield of Reggie Bush and LenDale White to dangerous wide receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, the Trojans are loaded, averaging 51.6 points and 640 yards a game.

If anything, Carroll has to make sure that the Trojans aren't too overconfident, given what has transpired the past three years against the Irish. Nor can USC afford to get off to another slow start, as happened against Oregon, Arizona State and Arizona, and expect to win in this setting.

"I am concerned, I like to start smoothly and get rolling," Carroll said. "Hopefully we can rid ourselves of [early turnover]. I am not dwelling on it thinking that it is the kind of team we are. If anything it shows that we can finish."

Said Leinart: "We kind of spoiled everybody the first two wins [when] we had 70 and 63 points. Not every game goes like that. We can't control how people see us. I think our offense is just fine. Just because we haven't blown everybody out doesn't mean we're not playing well."

If there has been a weak spot for the Fighting Irish this season, it's been their inability to stop the pass. Teams have averaged 305.6 yards a game and more than 14 yards a reception against Notre Dame, and have been burned by teams with a lot less talent than the Trojans.

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