The rejuvenated Irish embody coach’s style

The rivalry is finally back where it belongs.

With both USC and Notre Dame entering Saturday’s game ranked in the top 25, there’s a return to normalcy surrounding the annual intersectional clash. But the renewed sense of relevancy goes beyond the little numbers next to each team’s name.

The Trojans head to South Bend, Ind., riding a seven-game winning streak against the Fighting Irish. And save for the famous “Bush Push” game of 2005, the contests haven’t been close — USC has won the last three contests by a combined score of 120-27.

So despite there being three other games between top 25 teams on Saturday’s slate — including the storied Red River Rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas — the match between USC and Notre Dame could be back in the spotlight.

And as usual, there’s no shortage of story lines.

It’s nearly impossible to exhaust the ways to define the non-conference rivalry. But the game isn’t so much about the Midwest against the West or Catholics against, uh, whatever religion you would ascribe to USC (it seems like football is the denomination of choice here).

Saturday’s game will ultimately be defined by the coaches of the two teams. No two teams in college football may be more representative of their top dogs than USC and Notre Dame.

It’s easy to see how USC takes its cues from Carroll. If you made it out to one of the team’s open practices during the bye week, you could tell that the tempo was dictated by Carroll’s mile-a-minute mind. And you only need to listen to true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley drop a few Carroll-isms in a post-game press conference to see that the star and his coach use essentially the same vocabulary.

But Notre Dame and coach Charlie Weis have also taken on resemblance to each other, mostly because of their polarizing status within college football.

One way or another, everyone has an opinion about Notre Dame, no matter how well the team is performing. Similarly, no one will shrug their shoulders when asked what they think of Weis.

No one will ever mistake Weis for being someone who is concerned with others’ opinions of him. That much was clear when he told his players from the outset that they would have a “decided schematic advantage” every game so long as he was at the helm.

Through the highs of 2005 and the lows of 2007 all the way up to the present, Weis has remained a figure embraced by some and ostracized by others. The vitriol for the head coach has been persistent, as evidenced by a billboard reading, “Best wishes to Coach Charlie Weis for the fifth consecutive year of his college coaching internship” being erected in South Bend before the season began.

It’s hard to tell whether Weis’ players have collectively taken on a similar level of brashness toward their coach because Weis puts his team on a media lockdown that would make the CIA proud. But if quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s garish commitment ceremony in 2006 meant anything, the Fighting Irish aren’t short on confidence.

What Weis has given Notre Dame is an ability to bite back. When former coach Tyrone Willingham was in charge, he was able to generate his fair share of wins, but had the fight of the cartoon “Droopy dog.”

Of course, that style has also come back to bite Weis himself, as the last two years left the Fighting Irish with their tails hanging low. But this year’s team seems to have figured out its bearings — the Fighting Irish have won their last three games in tightly contested matches that could have gone either way.

Weis’ polarizing style is also evident on the recruiting trail. More than a few recruits have told stories of being put off by Weis’ approach — USC linebacker Chris Galippo told the Los Angeles Times that the Notre Dame coach didn’t even shake his hand on his official visit to the school. But Notre Dame’s roster features more than a half-dozen players from California and a few out-of-state targets that USC and Carroll wanted.

With so much at stake, each coach’s ego will be at the forefront of Saturday’s game. A win for Weis would be the signature victory of his career so far. Carroll needs a win to keep his team moving forward, but a loss would rile a USC fan base that has forgotten what it is like to lose to Notre Dame in recent years.

So in the words of a trite action movie star, this one is personal.

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