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An Insightful Loss for Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s third straight 31-point loss to USC on Saturday was followed by a brief meeting near the Coliseum tunnel between Irish Athletic Director Kevin White and three men in jackets.

Those were yellow jackets, by the way, not straitjackets.

Nothing was finalized, but it seemed almost certain after the men broke huddle that Notre Dame was going to accept a bid to the Insight Bowl in Phoenix.

Oh boy.

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We can’t imagine Knute Rockne envisioning this kind of postscript when he first brought his Notre Dame team west in 1926.

That was then, though, this is now.

The reality is the gap between USC and Notre Dame is wider than the one in David Letterman’s teeth.

So where have we seen this game before? USC started slow, finished fast, and polished off the Dome, 41-10.

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The Trojans are 11-0, No. 1 with a BCS bullet and one victory over UCLA from securing a spot in the Jan. 4 national title game at the Orange Bowl.

Notre Dame is 6-5, number something in the nation, and making plans for a second-tier bowl game.

The Insight Bowl, naturally, is thrilled Notre Dame has dropped into its mini-fiesta.

“Absolutely,” Insight chair-elect Mike Allen said afterward. “They’re young, have had a winning season and played one of the toughest schedules in the country. We’re very excited about them coming.”

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For Notre Dame, America’s most famous football program, this is about as good as it gets these days.

It has come to the point in this “rivalry” that even a push-comes-to-shove moment cannot develop any traction.

USC led, 34-10, late in the fourth quarter, when the Trojans executed a fake punt on fourth down that led to the final tack-on touchdown.

A couple of Notre Dame coaches pointed fingers at the USC sideline after the play. Exiting the field, one member of the Notre Dame traveling party called USC “classless.”

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Afterward, though, Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham said of Pete Carroll’s decision, “I have no problem with him going for that, not at all.”

Bottom line, Notre Dame has bigger problems than being shown up by a superior opponent.

The question of “where Notre Dame is at” is one that will be hashed out on chat rooms in cyberspace.

The Irish have clearly come to that fork in the road.

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Since raising hopes with his 8-0 start in 2002, Willingham’s record as Notre Dame coach is 13-15.

Willingham is finishing up his third season in South Bend and says the team is close to a breakthrough.

“There are a lot of things that are right there, right in place,” Willingham said. “We just have to make the plays.”

What to make of this year?

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Notre Dame defeated Michigan, the Big Ten champion, and Tennessee, which will be playing Auburn next week for the Southeastern Conference title.

The Irish have also lost to Brigham Young and Pittsburgh.

For a half Saturday, Notre Dame gave USC all it wanted. The Irish offensive line manhandled the Trojans’ vaunted defensive front and even managed an early touchdown and a 10-3 lead.

The Notre Dame defense held USC to 83 rushing yards.

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Yet, the Irish couldn’t make enough plays or sustain enough drives to stay with the nation’s No. 1 team.

“It’s been a tough season,” linebacker Mike Goolsby said. “A lot of ups and downs. A tough schedule ... I don’t know.”

What is known is that Notre Dame’s short-term future is firmly in Willingham’s hands.

While the program has hit the skids since that 8-0 start in 2002, the Irish are not in the business of terminating contracts after three seasons.

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Gerry Faust got five years, so did Bob Davie, so how can Ty Willingham not get five?

Irish players and coaches think they are close to another title chase, yet Notre Dame clearly lacks the kind of impact players USC used to beat the Irish again.

Notre Dame ran hard, played hard and fought hard, but that’s not a four-quarter recipe for Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn says the Irish are close to being what they were.

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“Extremely close,” he said. “It’s just plays here or there that keep us from sustaining drives.”

Freshman tailback Darius Walker, the closest thing Notre Dame has to a breakaway threat, would not predict Notre Dame will compete for a national title in his tenure.

“But I definitely think that this is a program on the rise and will get better in time,” he said.

How much time do Irish fans have?

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For now, all Notre Dame can do is make the best of its bowl situation.

The Insight Bowl really isn’t so bad is it?

If USC wins next week, Notre Dame’s likely opponent will be UCLA.

At this point for Notre Dame, any bowl game is good one.

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Notre Dame has not won a bowl game since beating Texas A&M; in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.

There were years when the school declined all bowl offers and other years, like 1996, when the Irish opted not to go a bowl after an 8-3 year.

This year, though, the quest for a seventh win is clearly Insight.

“We haven’t won a bowl game in a decade,” Goolsby, the linebacker, said. “That’s one big bright spot you can take out of the season.”

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