Irish show fight, but still lose to USC

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame can't beat USC at home. It can't beat USC at the Coliseum.

It can't beat USC during the afternoon. It can't beat USC at night.

It can't beat USC with a three-year starting quarterback. It can't beat USC when the Trojans start a true freshman quarterback.

It can't beat USC in October or November.

It can't beat USC with trick plays, with four senior offensive linemen, or with the Trojans' defense phoning it in during the fourth quarter.

And so far it can't beat USC with Charlie Weis.

So in this, the season in which Weis and the Fighting Irish have said they're letting their play do the talking, USC duct-taped Notre Dame's mouth shut for an eighth consecutive year. You can almost set your calendar to it. If the leaves are changing, then it's time for another Irish beatdown by USC.

At least this latest loss wasn't the traditional ND disaster film. USC won 34-27, but not before Notre Dame took a chainsaw to a 20-point Trojans fourth-quarter lead and had one, two, three … four chances from inside the USC 10-yard line to score the game-tying touchdown and extra point. Instead, four consecutive Jimmy Clausen incompletions.

"Well, anyone who doesn't realize the fight that's in the Fighting Irish is missing the boat,'' said Weis, who is 0-5 against the Trojans.

Maybe so, but Weis' boat is now 4-2 and won't be docking at the BCS Championship Game this season. That little preseason dream is officially underwater.

And if Notre Dame isn't careful against Boston College at home on Oct. 24, the Irish could be out of the BCS bowl equation. BC has a six-game win streak against Notre Dame.

But one mind-numbing streak at a time, OK? For the eighth straight time, Notre Dame's defense gave up 34 points or more to USC. It doesn't matter who the USC quarterback is -- Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez, true freshman Matt Barkley, or one of the Song Girls -- the Trojans score points. Lots of them.

"I feel like we have just as much, if not more talent than them,'' said Notre Dame wide receiver Golden Tate. "We [both] got two great coaches. We both have great players. … No, I don't think they have better athletes. I don't think they have better coaching.''

Uh, so if USC doesn't have better coaches and players, then how do you explain the Trojans' eight-peat?

"They just come out and outplayed us a few times,'' said Tate. "I think this year was different. I think we lined up well against them and I thought we competed. Someone's got to win and it just happened not to be us this week.''

Or in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

"We're starting to catch up,'' said Irish senior center Eric Olsen. "We're starting to compete with those guys.''

But a loss, however encouraging and dramatic, is still a loss. Draw all the smiley faces you want on the scoreboard, but Notre Dame still can't figure out how to beat USC. And if you're keeping count -- and the fans filing out of Notre Dame Stadium definitely were -- Weis has exactly one victory against a top-10 team, and it isn't against the fellas from Troy.

"Another signature Charlie Weis loss,'' grumbled someone in a green hoodie as he walked down the stadium stairs.

The simple, depressing truth for Irish followers is that USC is what Notre Dame football wants to be when it grows up. Olsen said as much.

The good news: There are signs of an Irish growth spurt. USC outscored Notre Dame 76-3 in the previous two football sitcoms. The Irish were down 34-14 in Saturday's game and then took advantage of USC brain cramps and letdowns. It was inspired, thrilling stuff.

The bad news: It didn't matter. They lost.

"We showed heart, but we didn't get the job done,'' said Notre Dame linebacker Brian Smith.

Heart is nice. Heart is important. Heart is what helped Notre Dame avoid losses to Michigan State and Purdue in September and Washington in October. Otherwise, ND's record could be 1-5.

But at some point you have to start beating the USCs of the world. You want to measure Notre Dame's progress? Then you have to compare it to its longtime rival from the West Coast, USC. The Trojans didn't defeat Notre Dame from 1983 to 1995. But they regrouped, eventually hired Pete Carroll, won two national championships and now use the Irish as their personal seat cushions.

"I just know that when we play them we wind up winning,'' said Carroll, "and we play better football on those days. … There's not a whole lot more you can enjoy when you're at SC.''

Notre Dame lost this game because its defense isn't very good. The Irish safeties spent most of the afternoon in the fetal position. And it's never a good thing when you trail USC by 20 early in the final period.

Notre Dame lost because Barkley the freshman outplayed Clausen the three-year starter. Clausen didn't play poorly (24-of-43 for 260 yards and two touchdowns). It's just that Barkley needed only 19 completions to throw for 380 yards and two scores. It also helped to have 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end Anthony McCoy (five catches, 153 yards), who was last seen dragging ND's safeties around the field like little kids clinging to dad's pants leg.

Notre Dame lost because it couldn't score once from the USC 8-yard line and three times from the USC 4 in the final 35 seconds of the game. Some luck of the Irish: On the final play of the game, Notre Dame wide receiver Duval Kamara, in for an injured Robby Parris, slipped while coming out of his cut. Incompletion.

"I'm proud of the fight,'' said Weis. "I'm disappointed with the losses. It's never OK to lose. But they're a bunch of fighters. Down three scores, about everyone in the house figured it's probably time to throw in the towel. Not this group. No way. Not happening.''

And once again, neither was a win against USC.

Gene Wojciechowski is a columnist for ESPN.com.