Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Charlie Weis keeps a hat in his office that is emblazoned with the words, "USC owns Notre Dame."
A Trojans fan mailed him the hat a few years ago, along with a letter containing disparaging remarks about his daughter, Hannah, who is developmentally disabled. Weis won't divulge what the letter writer said, but he keeps the hat as a reminder.
"When we've won a game (against USC), that cap won't be around anymore," Weis said.
The hat provides a stand-in for an albatross, which is what USC has been to Weis and Notre Dame.
Notre Dame has lost seven straight games to its intersectional rival since 2001, and most of them haven't been close. Weis doesn't own a signature victory during his tenure, and in fact his most memorable moment is probably his near-miss against USC in 2005. Notre Dame has lost six in a row against Top 10 opponents under Weis, and this year's 4-1 record does not include a victory over a team with a winning record.
So, yeah, beating USC this week is crucial, both for Weis's job security and for the program's stature.
"Winning this week would do wonders for my spirits," Weis said. "But it would not just be my spirits. It would be everyone affiliated with Notre Dame."
"Our university really could use this win. It's not just me personally or our football team. It's our university. We know the challenge we have at hand, we not oblivious to that fact. It's been a long time coming, and we're going to give it a fair go."
Notre Dame is once again a significant underdog, even at home. But it is taking a different mentality into this meeting.
"Our players believe they're going to win," Weis said. "They understand the talent level they're going against. But this is probably the first time since I've been here that they believe they're going to win. They might be in the minority, but they certainly believe that."
One of the biggest reasons for confidence is the play of the offense behind quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Make no mistake, this is a big game, too, for Clausen, who is currently being mentioned as one of the top Heisman Trophy contenders after his magnificent play in the first five weeks. This isn't the same, though, as toppling Purdue or Washington.
"These are the type of moments where you really get judged," Weis said. "I'm not being disrespectful to our first five opponents, but this is a what-have-you-done-for-me type of position. He won't be judged by bringing us back three times in a row or four times in a row, for that matter. He'll be judged by what he does against USC."
Weis openly embraces the Heisman talk because that means Notre Dame is winning games. Clausen -- a Southern California native who chose the Irish over the Trojans on the recruiting trail -- has something else at stake.
"Jimmy has a lot of buddies over in that other locker room and he's been hearing a lot of abuse from them for a couple of years," Weis said. "We can talk about the Heisman, we can talk about the team being 5-1 and now all of a sudden skyrocketing in the ratings. But more than anything else, him being able to pick up the phone and call all his boys in the other locker room would be the greatest thing for him personally."
Weis said he's been using little motivational tricks for the past week to get his players fired up for the game, but he doesn't have to do too much. The Irish won't be breaking out the green jerseys, for instance, like they did in 2005.
"It's easy to get up for a game against USC," he said. "You can get them to a fever pitch. But you still have to go play against USC on Saturday."
And for Weis and the entire program, they need to find a way to beat USC on Saturday.