Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame has made a habit of walking tightropes at the end of games. After Saturday's literal last-second loss to No. 6 USC, the Irish performed a balancing act with their emotions.
In one heartbeat, the players could say they finally moved into the same zip code as USC, which had beaten Notre Dame by a combined score of 76-3 the past two years. No Irish team had come this close to the Trojans since 2005.
One pulse later, they would realize that there are no moral victories in South Bend. It's still a disheartening loss for a program seeking a validating victory under Charlie Weis, one that had put so much emphasis the past two weeks on ending the seven-game losing streak in this now one-sided rivalry.
"It's tough," center Eric Olsen said, describing that inner balancing act. "At least it wasn't 38-0 again or a blowout. But at the same time, we're not in a conference, so we can't look forward to a conference championship. It's BCS or bust for us."
Olsen then acknowledged the grim reality for the 4-2 Fighting Irish: They almost certainly will have to win their last six games to get into consideration for a BCS berth. And even then, they would need some help.
"Anything is possible," he said, hopefully. "I saw some of the scores around college football today. We'll have to run the table, and then it will be up to the polls."
There's not a ranked team left on the schedule, though Pittsburgh could well move into the Top 25 this week. An optimist would say this team can play with anyone in the country if it can battle the No. 6 Trojans to the final tick of the clock.
Jimmy Clausen had three pass attempts from the 4-yard line in the final nine seconds to tie the score at 34. Had you offered that scenario to Weis, Clausen or any Irish fan at any time before 7 p.m. local time on Saturday, they would have snatched it and run away giggling.
Notre Dame also continued this season's newfound resiliency by refusing to go away after falling behind 34-14 with 13:33 remaining. Spike Lee and Will Ferrell were squirming on the sidelines just moments after a blowout seemed certain.
"We don't really care what the score is," receiver Golden Tate said. "We're going to keep playing."
Yet as much as the gap appears to have narrowed between the Irish and USC, Weis's team displayed some of its more disturbing 2009 trends.
The defense let a true freshman quarterback, Matt Barkley, shred it for 380 passing yards. The offensive line, whose improvement was touted as reason for belief this week, allowed Clausen to be sacked five times, or one more time than in last year's 38-3 humiliation. The line couldn't get enough push on fourth-and-1 from the USC 29 early in the third quarter, which helped the Trojans seize momentum.
And then there is the maddening tendency to play up or down to whatever competition comes along.
"When you live on the edge like that, you're not always going to come out on the winning side," Clausen said.
Weis declined to reveal what he said to the team after the game, calling it private. It would have been interesting to hear, because even he seemed conflicted about the outcome.
"It's never OK to lose," he said. "But they're a bunch of fighters."
None of the players looked like they were crying at the end of this game, unlike the Michigan loss. Though they were down, they didn't seem crushed during postgame interviews like some losses in the past. There's not much time for dwelling on this one, because another rival with a long winning streak arrives in South Bend next week: Boston College.
Until then, the Irish will have to keep balancing the divergent emotions from this game, while trying to lean toward the positive.
"We showed a lot of heart today," Olsen said. "That's something that is a little bit of light in a lot of darkness."