Before this season, Notre Dame was viewed as little more than a pest on Southern California's journey to an unprecedented third straight national title. Much of the same Fighting Irish cast that finished last season 6-6 returned to face a schedule so grueling players recalled outsiders predicting an 0-6 start.
Just five games into his Notre Dame career, Coach Charlie Weis has transformed today's game from a USC coronation into what some have whimsically hailed as the latest "Game of the Century." By overhauling the Fighting Irish's attitude as well as their offense, Weis has engineered a metamorphosis.
"I definitely think we're different players," safety Tom Zbikowski said. "We play with a lot more confidence. We go into each game thinking about that week, not the previous week or the year before."
Weis opened his motivational strategy for this game by reminding his players of the "magic number" 31, a reference to three consecutive 31-point losses to USC. Then, he spent the remainder of the past two weeks convincing them that they can beat the Trojans, who feature three Heisman Trophy hopefuls in the backfield and have won their past 27 games.
Weis's tactic was a microcosm of how he approached the season. When hired from the NFL's New England Patriots in December, Weis announced at his first news conference that "you're a 6-5 football team [before a loss against Oregon State in the Insight Bowl]. And guess what? That's just not good enough."
He spent the next nine months getting players to believe they could win all 11 games on the schedule. He wanted them to exhibit a "swagger," a "nasty" on-field attitude, traits Weis said he acquired through his New Jersey roots.
USC quarterback Matt Leinart is sure some teams face the 5-0 Trojans "knowing they can't win. They convince themselves they can, but inside, they know they can't. Notre Dame is a great team. They are not going to be afraid."
Notre Dame players said as early as the week of the season opener at Pittsburgh that they believed Weis prepared them for every conceivable on-field possibility. To that end, Weis earlier this season gave a detailed answer to a reporter's question about how and why the team practices allowing an intentional safety with a six-point lead late in a game.
As meticulous as he appears, Weis remains intent on not overwhelming players. Wide receiver Maurice Stovall acknowledged Weis's playbook initially looked like "Arabic." Running back Darius Walker compared the first days looking through it to scanning a dictionary.
"He did a great job of taking it piece by piece and breaking it down to the bare nuts and bolts of it," tight end Anthony Fasano said. "He really made us learn the philosophy of the offense, what he's trying to do, instead of just learning what you do on which play."
The player with the most to grasp was quarterback Brady Quinn, who after Weis was hired began to envision himself in the shoes of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Quinn said he has felt extremely comfortable with the offense since the beginning of the season, as evidenced in the Sept. 3 victory at Pittsburgh. Quinn completed 11 consecutive passes and led his team on a 20-play, 80-yard touchdown-scoring drive. "An overall confidence bleeds through the huddle," wide receiver Jeff Samardzija said.
Even when Notre Dame's offense has sputtered, Quinn has looked at everyone in the huddle and simply said: "Let's go. It's time." Through five games, Notre Dame has 10 scoring drives of 10 or more plays.
"When you have to drive 98 yards," Fasano said, "he just would come in and say, 'Relax, this is our first drive; let's get going.' It's not big rah-rah, a fake speech. You know he's serious and to the heart. That's the biggest change."
It can't be overlooked that the offensive line entered the season with 99 career starts, the most at Notre Dame in at least 20 years. Quinn has been sacked only six times after being brought down behind the line of scrimmage 25 times last season. Extra time has allowed Quinn, who has had three straight games of at least 300 yards passing, to dissect defenses with precision.
The most exciting emergence, however, has been Samardzija, who has more catches through five games (28) than in the previous two years combined (24). Samardzija said he has merely taken advantage of opportunities that in the past he had let slip through his fingers, perhaps literally.
"One of the things he [Weis] does best is be unpredictable," Quinn said. "Anytime you are able to have a percentage of plays called on certain downs or in certain situations that are from all across the board, it allows you to become tough to predict."
Weis is not as concerned with yardage as he is with three other statistical categories: red zone efficiency, turnover margin and third-down conversions. Notre Dame is 10th in turnover margin after finishing 32nd last season. The Irish are ranked 18th in third-down conversions. And red zone efficiency has been particularly impressive, with Notre Dame scoring 19 touchdowns and three field goals on 23 possessions inside the 20-yard line.
Weis treats each game almost like a separate Super Bowl, changing his game plan week to week. Southern Cal Coach Pete Carroll, who coached against then-New York Jets offensive coordinator Weis when Carroll was the head coach of the New England Patriots, said: "In the NFL, you get so familiar with your opponents, you can't do the same thing week in and week out; people will catch up on you. They have brought that same concept."
There is another aspect that, in the minds of many Irish fans, should not be overlooked in the turnaround: Notre Dame mystique.
Consider this oddity: Today, Weis coaches his first home game against USC, which is ranked No. 1 and has beaten the Irish by a combined 93 points the past three meetings. Seventeen years ago to the day, Lou Holtz coached his first home game against Miami, which was ranked No. 1 and had beaten the Irish by a combined 93 points the past three meetings.
Notre Dame scored 31, the "magic number" both in 1988 and today. Miami scored 30. One reporter this week asked Walker if he believed in leprechauns.
He did not dare say no.