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Clash of the Titans

Andrew Soukup | Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Notre Dame football team doesn’t care if revenge is a dish best served hot, cold or in a Tupperware container.

It only wants to make sure it gets served this weekend.

With the memory of a 44-13 blowout at the hands of USC last year still fresh in their minds, the Irish are hell-bent on avenging a loss last season that knocked their team out of a BCS bowl.

“We were real embarrassed with what happened last year,” said receiver Rhema McKnight, a California native who grew up rooting against USC. “We’re going to have to come out this week fired up and ready to play. We have to come out and attack.”

A year ago, the Irish allowed a school-worst 510 yards in a game that all but guaranteed Carson Palmer the Heisman Trophy. After the game, USC offensive players cut apart Notre Dame’s defense by saying the unit wasn’t very talented and that the Trojan offense could do whatever it wanted.

Notre Dame knows first-hand the power vengeance has in a football game. Earlier this year, Michigan players all but promised they would beat Notre Dame to pay the Irish back for their victory a year before. Notre Dame was then blown out by the Wolverines, 38-0.

“You try to use all forms of motivation,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “… What we have to do as coaches is just find the right button that gets our young man to perform at the highest level.”

The Irish aren’t saying much to each other about how badly they want to knock off the No. 5 Trojans. Instead, it’s an attitude that everyone knows exists but don’t have to talk about.

“That loss last year is definitely in our heads,” said running back Julius Jones, whose academic problems kept him off the field for last year’s USC-Notre Dame clash. “And even though I wasn’t part of that loss, I want to get revenge, too.”

The 75th meeting between Notre Dame and USC – one of the longest rivalries in college football – comes as Notre Dame is trying to find its offensive identity. In Notre Dame’s second-to-last game at Purdue, the Irish passed 59 times for a season-high 297 yards but only rushed for 49. Those numbers were virtually reversed at Pittsburgh Saturday, when the Irish rushed for a whopping 352 yards and threw for only 33.

To beat USC, Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham knows the Irish have to find some way to balance their offense.

“What I am doing,” the coach said with a wry grin, “is praying for our Purdue passing game and our Pittsburgh running game.”

Willingham even evoked glimpses of Lou Holtz’s pre-game account of opponents by complimenting virtually every aspect of USC’s team. While he stopped short of saying the Irish had no chance of winning, Willingham unapologetically complimented the Trojans offense – which is ranked ninth in the nation in scoring offense with 28.5 points a game – and its defense – which allows the nation’s fifth-lowest 73.7 rushing yards a game.

“This is a very, very good defense,” Willingham said. “Gosh, they are physical. You just use all of the very positive adjectives you can in describing them. … And when they cut it loose, it’s impressive.”

Still, Saturday’s win appears to have relaxed the Irish somewhat. Virtually every player who spoke after Tuesday’s practice talked about how they wanted to go out and have fun Saturday.

What they didn’t have to say was how much the Irish want to win.

“This is a big rivalry,” freshman quarterback Brady Quinn said. “The day you sign that national letter of intent, you know that this game is circled.”