SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – To beat Southern California, the Notre Dame players first have to believe they can.

After all, Notre Dame’s psyche has taken a beating against the Trojans of late, with the Irish losing the last three meetings by 31 points each.

“Just getting them to believe they had a chance to win the game is easier said than done,” coach Charlie Weis said.

Weis has himself partially to blame. When he arrived last winter one of his first messages to the Irish was that they were a 6-6 team for a reason. He then reminded his players they had lost by 31 to USC.

“I basically told them you are already down 31, let’s see where we can go from there. Let’s see if we can close the gap a little bit,” Weis said. “You start off embarrassing them. Then for the rest of the time all you do is try to build up their confidence.”

Weis said that’s what he’s focused on as the ninth-ranked Irish (4-1) prepare for this Saturday’s matchup against the top-ranked Trojans (5-0). He showed the team the first half of USC’s game against Arizona State, when the Sun Devils led 21-3 at halftime. He didn’t show the second half, when the Trojans outscored the Sun Devils 35-7.

“That’s a typical psychological ploy you use. To try to say, Hey, you play like this and just play it for 60 minutes, you are going to have a chance,”‘ Weis said.

Tailback Darius Walker said Weis also compared the two teams.

“When you compare apples to apples, it kind of seems like a very similar team in a way,” he said. “We understand if we just go out there and play our part, we can beat this team.”

The Irish players also watched USC’s 34-31 triple overtime loss to California two years ago, the Trojans’ only defeat the past two seasons.

“It wasn’t that Cal did anything spectacular. They just played their game,” Irish safety Tom Zbikowski said.

But the Irish players said they didn’t watch the Arizona State or California game tapes to feel better about themselves. They also didn’t need any convincing by Weis. They know beating USC is possible.

“All the talk in the off week was that we can play with these guys,” Walker said. “It really didn’t take coach Weis coming in and comparing apples to apples and telling us we could for us to know that.”

The players, however, do credit Weis with changing their attitude. It just isn’t in the past week. It’s been the message he’s sent to them since he arrived on campus.

“He came in here and told us he’s a winner and he expects for us to win,” guard Dan Santucci said. “He told us to win we have to be confident within ourselves and within our team. It’s an attitude you have to have.”

Defensive tackle Derek Landri believes the biggest challenge teams face against the Trojans is being intimidated by their two straight national championships and their winning streak, which now stands at 27 games.

“The media likes to build them up to this unbeatable force that’s unstoppable,” he said. “Nobody’s unbeatable.”

Landri said he saw opponents face the same challenge when he played for De Le Salle High School in Concord, Calif. The team won 151 straight games over 13 years before losing last season.

“People were beat before we even played them because they were so psyched out about how good we were and how we recruited and different things like that,” he said.

USC quarterback Matt Leinart agrees.

“I’m sure teams come in knowing they can’t win. Teams try to convince themselves, but inside they know they can’t,” he said.

Leinart doesn’t expect that from Notre Dame, though. Neither do the Irish.

So how confident is this year’s Notre Dame squad? Walker is hoping for a fourth straight blowout in the series, only this time with a twist.

“What our goal is to get out there and reverse that 31 points, put us winning by 31,” Walker said.

Is that a prediction?

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s a prediction,” Walker said, “but it’s definitely something I’d like to see.”

AP-ES-10-12-05 1728EDT

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