Feeble Irish performance should end the Weis era

LOS ANGELES -- Even in retirement, Joe Montana still can feel the rush and evade it.

When he saw me coming in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum tunnel outside the Notre Dame locker room Saturday night, notepad in hand, Montana politely gave me the Heisman.

"Don't ask me about it," Montana said, holding up his palm before I even asked a question.

There was no need to define "it."

"It" is the job security of Charlie Weis, the Notre Dame football coach who surely ran out of real estate, rope and rational defenses in a humiliating 38-3 loss to relentless USC. What Syracuse began last week in South Bend, the Trojans finished here.

Whatever was left of Weis' worthless offensive genius façade crumbled on a night when the Fighting Irish were without a first down until the final play of the third quarter. They had four first downs and 91 total yards in an utterly feeble performance that should be Weis' last as head coach.

No amount of pretzel logic should save Weis now, no amount of finger-pointing at the previous regime, no amount of blue-skying about how recruiting rankings could beget future greatness. Unless the Fighting Irish brass refuses to spend what ESPN has reported is an outrageous sum to buy Weis out of his massive, millstone contract, he's done in South Bend.

There can be no other justification for keeping him. Not now, as his winning percentage dips to sub-Ty Willingham levels and his offense sinks to new lows.

It's very simple. If Willingham had to go after three seasons, Weis has to go with a worse record after four. Or the explanation for keeping him had better be brilliant.

If you want to measure how far from grace Weis has fallen in four seasons, measure it by Montana. As a guest of honor at Weis' first spring game, the quarterback spoke enthusiastically about the new head coach. Now he's avoiding saying a word about him.

"There's who you need to ask, right there," Montana said, pointing across the tunnel at luckless Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

He's new to the job and landed himself in a mess made well before his arrival. His first major decision as AD will be whether to retain or fire a guy his predecessor awarded a 10-year, $30 million-plus contract before Weis' first season was over.

Approached on the field just moments after the final gun, Swarbrick stayed cool in the pocket. Among his comments:

No decisions will be made until he has a chance to review the season. The two men meet every Monday, but because both he and Weis are scheduled to be out of town this week, they aren't likely to meet before next Monday, Dec. 8. The pitiful losses to Syracuse and USC the past two weeks will not necessarily make Swarbrick's decision for him: "You integrate all the information you get, and data comes in all the time," he said.

Asked about the cavernous gap between Notre Dame and its biggest rival, Swarbrick said, "We're at USC's level in a lot of sports. We've been at USC's level in this sport before."

What a long time ago that was. No amount of postgame spin could change that fact.

"Guys, we're not that far away," quarterback Jimmy Clausen said.

"I really don't think we're that far away," defensive end Pat Kuntz echoed.

Notre Dame is not that far away, all right -- from beating 3-9 Syracuse. But it is light-years away from beating USC or any other top-10 team. To insist otherwise is to lie to yourself and anyone within earshot.

Make no mistake, the Trojans have the best defense in America. But Weis' arrival in 2005 was supposed to catapult Notre Dame's offense to the national forefront, too. Instead, four years later, the Irish staged one of their most inept offensive performances in school history.

USC has done some painful things to Notre Dame in this stadium throughout the decades. There was the 1964 upset that ruined an unbeaten season in Ara Parseghian's first year. The six-touchdown splurge by Anthony Davis here in 1972, and the four-touchdown barrage two years later in a 55-24 crusher. The controversial nonfumble by Paul McDonald that spoiled an epic, Montana-led comeback in 1978. The 31-point defeat that signaled the end of the Willingham era in 2004.

This might have been the worst.

The school record for fewest first downs in a game is two, set in 1917. Notre Dame squeezed out its third first down with less than four minutes remaining, then tacked on a fourth on a late USC hit at the 2:31 mark.

Washington State, considered one of the worst Pacific-10 teams of all time, made four first downs against USC without aid of a penalty this season. Winless Washington, coached by that favorite Fighting Irish scapegoat, Willingham, racked up 15 first downs against USC and more than doubled Notre Dame's yardage.

Fitting that this nadir should come against the opponent that gave Weis the leverage needed to land that ludicrous contract in 2005. A close loss -- not a victory -- against the No. 1 Trojans was what made the swooning Irish administration reach for its wallet and spend like drunken sailors.

The difference between Weis on that October day in South Bend and this November night in Los Angeles is stark. Back then, Weis played the green-jersey trick and threw caution to the wind -- going for a fourth-and-1 at his own 19-yard line in the first quarter. This time, Weis sat back in a conservative shell and simply took his beating.

Trick plays? Zero. Fourth-down gambles? One -- with 34 seconds to play.

Even on a fourth-and-3 from the USC 23 early in the fourth quarter, Weis sent in the field goal unit to make the score 31-3. That at least accomplished one thing -- it stopped a 69-0 Trojans run during the past two meetings. But it didn't accomplish anything else.

After that last-second, three-point loss to Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, Weis declared that anyone expecting him to be happy with a moral victory would be wrong.

After losing by 35 here, Weis sounded like a guy begging to be granted a moral victory.

"I think one of the biggest aspects of today was whether we're going to play with passion and emotion," Weis said. "From the beginning of the game to the end of the game, we played with passion and emotion.

"Today, unlike last year (a 38-0 loss), when our guys got a little intimidated, I thought that wasn't the case at all here today."

So there you go. The plucky, passionate, unintimidated Irish managed to keep it within five touchdowns of USC. They almost covered Notre Dame's biggest underdog spread (31 points) on the Las Vegas books dating to 1975.

Just what the Subway Alumni are looking for, right?

The Notre Dame fans in the Coliseum didn't seem so easily satisfied. The 15-yard James Aldridge run that produced that initial first down also produced a standing ovation from the Irish fans. One guy literally jumped up and down with arms outstretched in mock jubilation. Others already had filed out of the place -- the third straight three-and-out of the third quarter had sent the shirtless Notre Dame fan in the green overalls and glittery leprechaun hat to the exit with plenty of company in his wake.

The question now is whether Notre Dame will send Weis to the exit.

"I'm the head football coach at Notre Dame," Weis declared afterward. "When the time comes sometime in my career, by my choice or their choice, I won't be."

The choice is obvious. We'll see whether Notre Dame makes it.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.