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Irish Insider: A lot on the line for Irish vs. USC

Sam Werner | Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It’s appropriate that USC usually comes to South Bend on or around midterms week.

Most odd-numbered years, the Trojans are a mid-season exam for Notre Dame, a test to see exactly where they stack up in the class of college football. Hopefully, in most years, Notre Dame’s final exam comes in some form of a bowl game.

This year, though, USC represents much more than a midterm for the Irish.

Not to get too melodramatic, but a great deal of the future trajectory of the Notre Dame football program relies on this game.

First, and probably most obviously, this game could have a great impact on how the 2009 Irish finish out their season. A win would mean some serious momentum heading into very winnable games with Boston College, Washington State and Navy. A loss to the Trojans, especially a blowout, could wake up the wrong kind of echoes from the past two years. Remember, last year’s squad started 4-1 as well.

The players, for their part, said they’ve tried to put last year behind them, while at the same time using it as motivation.

“You’re kind of mixing what we’ve done this year with having that chip from last year,” senior offensive tackle Sam Young said. “We’ve been moving forward, getting better every week, as an offensive line and as an offense, but at the same time you still have memories of that game.”

In a big picture sense, this weekend’s game could have huge implications for coach Charlie Weis’ job security. Weis has been on the hot seat since the season began, and his fifth straight loss to Notre Dame’s biggest rival certainly wouldn’t help. To give some historical perspective, no other coach in Notre Dame history had even lost four straight to the Trojans. Moreover, a loss Saturday would only further cement the notion that Weis can’t win the big game.

Even putting Weis aside for a second, the recruiting implications of this weekend are downright monumental. With almost 50 prospects visiting campus in some form, this weekend could easily make or break Notre Dame’s recruiting in 2010 and even beyond.

“I think that when these kids want to come in for a visit during the academic year, during their season, well they want to come in for a big game,” Weis said Tuesday. “What bigger game is there as far as buzz and everything else than this one.”

Now, it’s true that the one thing Charlie Weis has unequivocally done well during his time at Notre Dame is recruit. His four incoming classes have ranked 23rd, 2nd, 11th and 5th nationally, according to scout.com.

However, for the past five years Weis has been able to sell recruits on a vision of the future of Notre Dame football. He could point to the 2007 and 2008 teams and tell prospects how they could make an impact right away and help bring the Irish back to the upper echelon of college football. Sophomore receiver Michael Floyd committed right after the 38-0 debacle against USC in 2007 and freshman linebacker Manti Te’o decided on Notre Dame even after visiting during the infamous snowball-filled loss to Syracuse last season.

At some point, though, Weis is going to have to stop selling recruits on the future. He’s going to have to show that Notre Dame is that elite football team he’s been promising since he was hired. What better time to prove it than Saturday?

If you skip a few pages ahead and look at my prediction, you’ll see that I don’t think Notre Dame will win this game. Call me a realist. I do, though, think it’s at least a possibility that the Irish come out on top.

Jimmy Clausen needs to keep playing the way he has been, the offensive line needs to give him time, Armando Allen needs to hit his holes effectively and the defense needs to unleash Jon Tenuta’s own personal style of hell on USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. And would it be out of the question to have Floyd suit up, even to just stand on the sidelines, pump up the Irish faithful, and give Pete Carroll something to think about?

If enough things fall into place, Notre Dame can finally pass its most important test in recent memory.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu