Weis just as overmatched as the day he was hired

BY foxsports • October 18, 2009

After getting beat 34-27 by No. 6 Southern California at home, Notre Dame almost certainly will.

The game ended with the Irish at the USC 4 following three straight incompletions in the end zone by quarterback Jimmy Clausen in the closing seconds. It was the eighth straight time USC has tamed its once-fierce rival, but the final score marked the first time in the last four meetings that Notre Dame has been closer than 20 points, let alone had a chance to win.

But the lesson wasn't simply that Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is just as overmatched as the day he took the job in 2005. It's that the Trojans, at least at this juncture, hardly resemble the smart, opportunistic squads that coach Pete Carroll has managed to round into peak form just as the national championship picture comes into focus year after year.

USC had the game in hand, 34-14 less than two minutes into the fourth quarter before a handful of stupid penalties and blown coverages gave the Irish a chance to crawl back into the game.

"Unfortunately, the way it turned out, we kept giving opportunities back, let these guys hang around," Carroll said.

But a moment later, he brightened. "It's really special for the SC family to continue to be on top of the rivalry. I know they're going to enjoy the heck out of it. They deserve it and I'm grateful to give it to them."

Speaking of the past, the week leading up to the game seemed like one long flashback. The Irish, ranked No. 25, were 4-1 by virtue of three last-minute wins and more than a few people connected to the program made a point of saying the anticipation on campus hadn't been this sky-high since USC came to South Bend in Weis' first season, already being hailed as one of the best college football teams ever.

The Trojans won that one, 34-31, but only after quarterback Matt Leinart spun off one tackle and stumbled into the end zone after a shove from tailback Reggie Bush, a controversial play that is still recalled in infamy around here as "The Bush Push" - a violation the NCAA subsequently dropped from the rulebook because it proved too difficult to enforce.

All that dwelling on what could have been, however, only served to remind some people that after 55 games midway through his fifth season, the closest thing Weis had to a signature win was actually that singular loss. Despite having the length of his original five-year contract doubled soon after that, Saturday's loss again proved the Fighting Irish aren't much closer to a return to national prominence than then they were then.

A few of Weis' critics even suggested a blowout loss might convince the higher-ups at Notre Dame to take another look at the contract, and especially the language in the escape clause. Weis denied feeling any heat all week, but what he said afterward was revealing.

"If you would have told me before the game, hey you can have the ball on the 5-yard line with a chance to tie it or win, I probably would have taken that," he said. "I'm really disappointed for those guys in there because they're fighters."

Weis hasn't had a problem recruiting and motivating players, developing them, though, is another story. He's now brought in three consecutive recruiting classes that were picked as consensus top 10s, before slipping into the low 20s last year. Yet it's hard to look beyond Clausen and wide receiver Golden Tate and figure out where the rest of the talent is being deployed.

As many as two dozen blue-chip high school stars were in the stands again Saturday, but it's going to be a harder and harder sell. Weis' two best seasons in South Bend came at the outset, when he took the Irish to back-to-back BCS bowls after 9-3 and 10-3 seasons, mostly with players he inherited from predecessor Ty Willingham. He's gone 14-17 since, including seven straight losses to teams ranked in the top 10.

Worse still, this loss likely bounces the Irish from the Top 25, and even a closing rush to 10-2 might not propel them as high as No. 14, where Notre Dame needs to finish to have a shot at the BCS bowl. And if they don't win out, well, the comparisons to the legion of great Irish coaches that were mentioned upon Weis' arrival will get thrown back into storage.

Instead, people will start asking more and more how he's managed to hold onto a job when Willingham couldn't with almost identical accomplishments.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org


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