Perspective Piece: Notre Dame vs USC

The USC Trojans, in pursuit of the BCS title game, might be tempted to pursue style points against Notre Dame on Saturday night in the L.A. Coliseum. They'd be wise not to.

The dangerous element of this game for Pete Carroll's crew is the desire to fashion a pulchritudinous pigskin package against the biggest brand name in all of college football before a huge national television audience on a weekend bereft of five-star football fights. With all eyeballs fixated on this, the sexiest intersectional rivalry in the sport, USC fans--like many national observers--will think that a blowout win should be achieved against the Fighting Irish. This line of thought--if it gains enough heft in press rooms and public discussions--could potentially lead pollsters to devalue an ugly and close Trojan win, and perhaps tip the scales in the human portion of the BCS rankings formula. For many ever-present reasons, USC could think that it needs to bring the hammer to the Weis man on the sidelines and his boys from South Bend.

Such a thought process would prove to be fatal.

Even in victory, USC has had to learn, over and over again in the Pete Carroll era, that Notre Dame can't be taken lightly. Ever since the Trojans became an elite team under Carroll in 2002, USC has still been the team that has had to absorb the first punch in this rivalry. A 45-14 Trojan trouncing of Notre Dame in 2003 proved to be the exception, not the rule, in the latest stretch of this sensational series. Even when USC pulled away for big wins in 2002 and 2004, Notre Dame struck the first blow in each of those contests. Last year, of course, took this rivalry to an elevated plateau, as the Irish didn't stop pounding USC when the first quarter ended. Charlie Weis' first Fighting Irish outfit continued to punish SC until the game's dying moments, when a 4th and 9 pass and a Bush Push carried the Trojans to an exhilarating but undeniably improbable win. USC might be winning every year in this rivalry, but Notre Dame usually carries the action in the first half and now has a coach who can make better second-half adjustments. Add it all up, and USC has zero reason to expect a blowout.

Consider this angle as well: anyone with any respect for Notre Dame has to realize that a service academy-laden schedule has enabled Charlie Weis to game plan for this contest for over a month. After the heartbreak of last year's 34-31 loss in one of college football's greatest games, Weis has had USC in the crosshairs--tactically and emotionally. Looking at this game solely in terms of matchups might suggest that SC can do some damage, but a look at this rivalry--and the impressive person calling the shots for the Fighting Irish on the sidelines--demands that the Trojans be afraid... very afraid... of what will happen to them if they seek the seductive style points that usually ambush anyone who pursues them.

When a team thinks it either needs style points or should easily attain style points, the result turns out to be the exact opposite. Teams in search of the pretty and perfect victory quickly crumble if they start poorly. After all, if you set your mind to winning big--and not merely winning--your objective becomes impossible to attain if you stumble out of the gate. The knowledge of certain failure in relationship to your objective creates the psychological breakdown that produces panic, anxiety, frustration, depression, and all the other mental demons that routinely slay young football players. It has always been so, and it won't ever change: teams that either expect a blowout or feel they need one are the teams that don't just fail to get the blowout; they fail to win the ballgame. Minutes after the fullness of the emotional devastation sets in--once the numbing shock lifts--young men come to realize how foolish they were to expect--and shoot for--a blowout victory laden with style points.

Notre Dame will play a big-time football game Saturday night. The team under the microscope--and not just for BCS-based reasons--is the Trojan Empire of College Football. If USC focuses on the next between-the-tackle run by C.J. Gable, the next 15-yard out cut from John David Booty, and the next delay screen from Brady Quinn to Darius Walker (which should be a staple for the Irish against SC's blitzing, overaggressive defense), the Trojans will look at the scoreboard only to find that Charlie Weis will have attained the revenge he so thirsts for. A BCS dream against the Buckeyes of Ohio State will go out the window.

Pete Carroll has a young team on his hands. How this team mentally responds to this showcase stage in prime time will determine how well his team plays. Against Notre Dame, that level of play will need to be pretty high if SC is to even win the contest. Style points? All USC needs is one more point than the Irish. With the attitude of a hungry junkyard dog that treasures every small scrap of food, the Trojans--gritty, gutsy and grimy--will give themselves a chance to win. If they try and play high-society football and hang out with the beautiful people in Hollywood, however, Pete Carroll's boys will get blasted.

It's all in the mind for the USC Trojans as they prepare for the biggest game of Thanksgiving Weekend. If they choose to display blue-collar football and a poor man's attitude against Notre Dame, they'll fare well. But if they prove UCLA fans right by imitating a "University of Spoiled Children," they'll lose. All the Trojans have to do, then, is prove UCLA fans wrong. They're good at doing that. On Saturday night, they must... at least if they want to defeat a very formidable--and revenge-minded--opponent.


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