SOUTH BEND, Ind. - This campus was ready for a program-changing Notre Dame victory. Bustling a bit after sunrise, even with a late-afternoon kickoff, students wore their green and hung a 15-foot high "Here Come the Irish" sign off the side of Zaum Hall.
The alumni was ready, too. Rocket Ismail represented it at a Friday night pep rally, where in six minutes of ranting he explained that the next day's date with USC carried more significance than any other single game.
"We're talking legendary stuff," Ismail told the shivering crowd, and it roared back in approval.
Trouble is, this Notre Dame football team was nowhere near ready for what rolled into its home field Saturday. The Irish lacked the muscle up front to stifle the Trojans' pass rush, and coach Charlie Weis and crew haven't recruited the speed to run with USC's receivers.
Credit the hosts for the usual late-game gallantry — ND, down 20 points with 11 minutes to play, rallied hard to make the final score 34-27 for USC. That comeback gives credence to the notion of Notre Dame winning out for a 10-2 regular season and a likely BCS bowl berth. And it should quiet the calls for school administrators to can Weis and start from scratch for the third time in nine years.
The Irish thought that over their past five games, they showed everyone they had the talent to take down the Trojans. They spent the last two weeks talking about how much they believed in themselves, and how a win would quench a victory-thirsty university.
None of that panned out. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen, courageous during the comeback, spent much of the game avoiding sacks instead of finding receivers. The pass defense, ranked No. 110 of 120 schools in the nation coming in, allowed USC freshman Matt Barkley to complete 7-of-8 third-quarter passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. And defensive coordinator John Tenuta didn't help matters with a pair of curious corner blitzes, which left two Irish defensive backs covering three USC receivers.
The charge at the end muted some of those issues and left a sellout Notre Dame Stadium crowd energized until the final snap. It brought the game to the brink of the legendary status about which Ismail raved the night before.
But like in every other way Saturday, the Irish fell a bit short. They were a team not quite ready to beat one of the big boys.
Junior QB Everett Golson didn't put up any staggering numbers in Notre Dame's 84th annual Blue-Gold game, but Keith Arnold writes in the spring edition of Five Things that numbers can't show how much he's improved in the offseason as a leader.
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