Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis says his quarterback, Jimmy Clausen, has a chance to prove himself as a player Saturday.
"He'll be judged by what he does against USC," Weis said.
Everyone thought this would've occurred before now, a signature on-field performance for Clausen, who his high school coach often called "the LeBron James of football." It hasn't, though. Not for Clausen and not for Weis, who may as well have been discussing his own coaching fortunes.
A big performance against USC and a lot of things change for both.
Until then, the enduring memory of Clausen's football career – and arguably even Weis' – came on an April 2006 afternoon at South Bend's College Football Hall of Fame. It has more to do with Notre Dame's chances against No. 6 USC than most realize.
It's the day Clausen, then a junior at Oaks Christian High School (Calif.) and the nation's No. 1 recruit in the class of 2007, held a press conference to announce he would attend Notre Dame.
Rather than do it in his high school gym, he chose a place that immortalizes the greats, 2,000 miles away. The event included a limo, a police escort and a publicist. It featured lines from Clausen about trying "to get four national championship rings" and ending "up [in the Hall] one day."
It was beyond brash.
It was widely bashed.
As the days have played out since and Clausen and Notre Dame have struggled for two seasons, it became, for some, the defining moment of a program, a coach and a spiky-haired quarterback that all had outsized opinions of their abilities.
They were all talk, all interception.
Notre Dame went 10-15 the past two seasons. Now it's 4-1 and ranked No. 25. Clausen, after throwing 23 interceptions in 23 games, is the nation's top-rated passer. He's tossed 12 touchdowns against two picks and led come-from-behind fourth-quarter drives in four consecutive games.
He's beginning to look like the quarterback he was supposed to be. Notre Dame is beginning to look like the team Weis promised.
"It's different coming from high school into college," Clausen said. "You think you're good and you think you can step right in and play, but it's just something that's extremely tough. … It's taken me two, three years to get to this point."
Neither coach nor QB say they've accomplished anything yet, certainly not until they beat USC. The Trojans have delivered the lowest moments of these low seasons for the Irish – USC has won seven consecutive games and outscored Notre Dame 76-3 the past two years.
"These are the type of moments where you really get judged on how well you do when you go against the really, really good guys," Weis said.
In their worst nightmares, neither Clausen nor Weis could've envisioned the journey to this moment. Yet through all the losses and all the barbs and all the doubts about each man's future, they've grown even closer.
Weis always has Clausen's back (although he's never placed blame on his players). Clausen has never wavered that this was the right choice, rather than going to USC, where a star-studded team was already built.
It's a situation that's aided the transition of Matt Barkley, USC's current freshman starter and himself a former L.A.-area prep star.
"I think that Jimmy wasn't around as good a supporting cast," Weis said, laughing as he compared the two players' first seasons. "That might be the biggest understatement I might ever say, but I'm trying to be politically correct."
Not that Clausen was going to be an instant Joe Montana, but the Irish were so bad he barely stood a chance. Against Penn State in 2007, Notre Dame rushed for -8 yards. A week later against Michigan, he was sacked eight times. No freshman is surviving that.
It wasn't a surprise. Clausen and Weis both knew a talent vacuum was coming, and that's one of the things that prompted the Hall of Fame press conference. Clausen may have been ripped for his bravado, but it wasn't an act of naivete.
It was just over-the-top aggressiveness. While it was much panned, it was also much publicized – just as Clausen hoped. He wanted the vision of the No. 1 player in the country choosing Notre Dame over USC seared into the mind of every high school player in America.
"I'm going to try to make this the No. 1 recruiting class," Clausen promised that day.
The press conference wasn't just about him, it was about doing everything he could to build the program. If he took some shots for the effort, well, that comes with the job of quarterbacking the Irish.
"It all comes down to Coach Weis," he said of his decision, hoping everyone was listening.
Notre Dame didn't get the No. 1 class, but it did start landing the kind of talent that the critics had said was no longer possible.
From 2003-05, Notre Dame had signed just 11 players ranked four stars or better, according to Rivals.com. In the three classes since the day Clausen committed, it brought in 42 of them. Just this weekend, Weis will host an eye-popping 18 more.
Clausen and his limo didn't make it happen, but a lot of things changed that day.
"We've already lived through the tough times," Weis said. "We're on the other side of that arrow. That arrow went and flipped."
As those players have gained size and seasoning, the offensive line has finally strengthened. The defense has become faster. The skill players around Clausen – Golden Tate, Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd (out with injury) – will all play on Sunday. Almost everyone is back next year, which is why talk of Weis' job hinging on this one game is ridiculous.
The Irish may not be BCS title contenders, but they should, at last, have the kind of players to at least compete with USC.
"This is probably the first time since I've been here where the players really believe they're going to win," Weis said.
Presumably that begins with Clausen, who gambled on a coach and a program that needed a pioneer and a promoter as much as a quarterback. He's delivered on the first two, now he knows it's time for the last one, the one on the field.
Beat the Trojans on Saturday and that old, bold press conference might even be appreciated as a good idea.
- Jimmy Clausen