Forget Miami. Forget Tennessee. Forget Colorado.

Notre Dame's matchup today against Southern California is the biggest test this year for the Irish. More than any other game, it will show their character.Raghib "Rocket" Ismail is banged up and not at 100 percent, but that is not the biggest problem for the Irish this week. They are bruised and battered emotionally.

They threw away a golden chance for another national championship with a sickly second-half performance against Penn State.

With the big prize now only a remote possibility, the question becomes whether the Irish will fold for the season or regain the pride of the winner they once thought they were.

The way the Irish talk, there is reason for their fans to be worried.

"We're wondering why we lost and how it happened," said co-captain Ricky Watters. "For a little while, people started pointing fingers at others. You heard comments from a lot of the guys: Why should we play now if we're not playing for the national championship?

"I told them we have to play hard because we came to Notre Dame to win and 10-2 sounds a lot better than 8-4."

There is also precedent for worry.

In 1987, the Irish were 8-1 and then lost a heartbreaker, 21-20, to Penn State. Then Lou Holtz made the decision to go for the win rather than a tie and Tony Rice was sacked on an attempted two-point conversion run with 31 seconds to go.

The Irish closed out that season with embarrassing losses to Miami, 24-0, and Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, 35-10, to finish 8-4.

Holtz said he, too, is worried about the mental attitude of his 8-2 team right now.

"You work so hard, you go so long, you get right up to the end and then you let it slip through your hands. That's very, very discouraging," he said.

Holtz said to ease the pain, he ran his squad through lighter-than-usual drills this week, without pads.

"With their emotional condition the way it is," he said, "that's when injuries happen during practice."

In contrast to the Irish, Southern California is feeling heady. In what might have been the most thrilling contest of the 60-game series with UCLA, USC scored with 16 seconds to play on a 23-yard pass from quarterback Todd Marinovich to win 45-42.

Last week, Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer had his worst game of the season, throwing two interceptions in the second half that gave Penn State 10 points and the victory.

Against UCLA, Marinovich was superb, completing 16 of 25 throws for 215 yards, including 6 of 8 for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the Trojans' final two drives.

Marinovich, who was touted as a Heisman candidate before the season, has had his ups and downs, even being suspended for a game; but he is back, as good as ever, according to his coach.

"I personally think, right now, he is in the best frame of mind that I've seen him - even during last year," said Larry Smith.