When Jimmy Clausen made a trip to Notre Dame in 2006, he announced his commitment to the school with Hollywood flair, arriving at the news conference in a stretch Hummer limousine.
The flamboyance raised some eyebrows and made the glare of the spotlight on him even hotter. At the time, most experts considered the Westlake Village Oaks Christian High product the nation's top quarterback prospect -- and the focus of an intense recruiting battle between the Fighting Irish and USC.
"I just wanted to get away from California, just grow up in a different place," Clausen said this week of his decision to attend Notre Dame. "I just wanted to be away for a few years, and I'll probably go live in California in the future. But just to get away and come to Notre Dame and be here, be coached by Charlie Weis, and just have something special here at Notre Dame."
But the experience he surely envisioned at the time has hardly gone according to script. The Irish, 6-5 this season, have lost 14 games in his two seasons and the coach Clausen came to play for is fighting for his job.
Today, Clausen is back in Los Angeles to face USC for the first time. He started nine games and played in 10 last season as a freshman, but did not play in a 38-0 loss to USC or a 46-44 triple-overtime loss against Navy.
True to form, his actions leading up to the game have been noteworthy. During his weekly news conference, Clausen said of the 9-1 and fifth-ranked Trojans: "To be honest, they really don't like Notre Dame and don't really respect Notre Dame. I think Notre Dame respects USC like they should any team. But it's a great rivalry."
Clausen will see a lot of familiar faces on the opposing sideline today -- he said he knows about half of USC's players. One of them, reserve tailback Marc Tyler, a high school teammate of Clausen's, fired a salvo of his own this week, telling The Times: "Hopefully he'll leave here walking. I hope he makes it out of the Coliseum alive."
Clausen took Tyler's comments with a laugh.
"He doesn't play defense, so he's not going to knock me out or anything like that," Clausen said.
But all kidding aside, USC's No. 2-rated defense will be a big test for Clausen and the young Irish offense, giving them a chance to show how far they have come under the tutelage of Weis.
After last year's 3-9 season -- in which Clausen passed for 1,254 yards and seven touchdowns with six interceptions -- Notre Dame seemed to have turned a corner earlier this season.
Clausen set career highs for yards passing in three consecutive games and Notre Dame was 5-2. Then, the Irish began to look like the team from 2007. Notre Dame dropped three of its next four, beginning with a four-overtime loss to Pittsburgh. Clausen played with flu and had four passes intercepted in a 17-0 loss at Boston College. And last week, even though Clausen passed for 291 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, the Irish lost, 24-23, to 3-8 Syracuse.
"We've been consistent here and there," Clausen said. "But whether it's finishing the game or starting out fast in a game, it's just little things here and there that's making this team a 6-5 team [rather than] a 9-2 team."
Clausen has been under the microscope since he arrived in South Bend, where his predecessor, Brady Quinn, led Notre Dame to two Bowl Championship Series bowl appearances. However, Quinn didn't become a Heisman candidate until his junior year, and Clausen's high school coach predicted this week that Clausen will soon be one of the top quarterbacks in the country.
"I think Notre Dame will be very proud of Jimmy and their football program," Oaks Christian Coach Bill Redell said. "They just need to hang in there and let these kids develop and they'll be OK."
The hot topic in South Bend right now is whether the players would be better off developing under a new coach. Alumni, students and fans have grown increasingly frustrated with Weis, who in his fourth season has a record of 28-20.
For Clausen, the criticism of Weis hits close to home.
"It hurts a little bit," Clausen said. "Me and Coach Weis have a great relationship and he's not the one going out there making blocks, throwing passes, catching the ball, making tackles. It's not the coaches that are out there playing. It's all the guys in the locker room, and I just feel really bad for him and his family to get all of this criticism."
A victory today could be Weis' best chance to save his job. For all the doom and gloom, Clausen said Notre Dame is moving in the right direction with Weis at the helm.
"Last year was way worse. It was a tough year, not only on myself but this whole team. The coaches, everyone associated with Notre Dame," Clausen said. "That was tough. And this year, we've had a few losses that we let slip away for whatever reason, but we're ready to go and we're fired up to play USC."
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By the numbers
0 Points by Notre Dame against USC last season in a 38-point loss, the Irish's most lopsided at home since 1956.
1 National rank of the USC defense in scoring (8.3 points), passing (132.3 yards) and pass efficiency (84.3).
2 USC's national rank in total defense (222.5 yards).
3 Shutouts this season by the Trojans' defense.
4 Notre Dame offensive linemen who have started every game this season.
5 Where USC stands in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
6 Consecutive wins by USC over Notre Dame, the Trojans' longest winning streak in the series.
7 Jersey number of Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has never lost a game in California or against a team from the state, a streak of 46 games -- 42 in high school, four in college.
8 Opponents USC has held this season to 100 yards rushing, 250 total yards or 14 points or fewer.
9 Victories by USC in 21 games against unranked Notre Dame teams.
10 Touchdowns given up this season by USC.