Tue, Jan 03, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Irish keep fighting after taking tough USC loss at home

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA

Immediately after Notre Dame's three-point loss to Southern California in one of the best games of college football's regular season, coach Charlie Weis told his Fighting Irish, "You have lost your last regular-season game of the year."

But there were five games left. It could have been a tipping point for a 4-2 team, according to defensive end Victor Abiamiri.

"A lot of people counted on us to kind of cash it in after such an emotional loss," Abiamiri said. "We battled back to go 5-0 to end the season. It's kind of a testament to our team and our coaching staff."

Now, Notre Dame has a bonus game in its revival season, Monday's Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Both prestigious powerhouses from the Midwest are 9-2. The Buckeyes are ranked fourth, the Irish fifth.

Brady Quinn, the Notre Dame quarterback, said the Irish felt more pressure than the Buckeyes because "I definitely think there are people who still doubt" that Notre Dame has restored itself to elite status.

"We want to prove everyone wrong," Quinn said. "With everything we've done this season, it doesn't mean anything unless we finish with a win against a quality team like Ohio State."

The skeptics may have reason to defer judgment about the Irish, who have not won a postseason game since defeating Texas A&M, 24-21, in the Cotton Bowl after the 1993 season.

Another Notre Dame revival seemed in progress in 2002 when the Irish went 8-0 at the start of Tyrone Willingham's tenure as coach. But they went 13-16 after that until Willingham departed for the University of Washington last winter.

Weis, a Notre Dame graduate, seems to project that air of self-esteem that flourishes beneath the Golden Dome on the South Bend, Indiana, campus during successful football seasons.

Darius Walker, the tailback, was asked what Weis meant when he said he wanted a nasty attitude on his team.

"Having a swagger about yourself, the way you walk, the way you talk," Walker said. "Maybe it's a little bit of a New Jersey-type deal, coach Weis being from New Jersey. I think it's just a level of confidence."

Weis, a burly man with a crew cut, certainly projects self-assuredness. As he took the stage in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe for a news conference late last week, he quipped, "I feel like a rock star."

When asked which rock star he would be, Weis named two other "Jersey guys," Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. "No one else really matters," Weis said.

Weis acknowledged Notre Dame's recruiting advantages from its national television contract and its nationwide schedule independent of any conference. Weis said the university would be foolish not to use these edges.

Regarding competition in recruiting, Weis said: "I'm not a cheater. Other people do that. I try to live by the letter of the law."

"There's a lot of people I'd say maybe get jealous," Weis said. This brought a tight smile to the face of Anthony Schlegel, a senior for Ohio State, one of three long-haired linebackers thought to be the strength of the Buckeyes.

"Comparing themselves to the Yankees, that's a pretty big statement," Schlegel said. "The Yankees have won how many World Series titles? How many national championships has Notre Dame won?"

The Yankees have won the World Series 26 times while Notre Dame claims 11 national championships.

Schlegel said film study taught him that Notre Dame's top receivers -- Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall and Anthony Fasano -- often run pass patterns without hindrance.

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