Holy Holtz, the Irish are back in the national championship.
No. 1 Notre Dame punched its ticket to Miami Saturday night with a typical, gritty 22-13 win in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The victory was sprinkled with the shades of a season that began in Dublin 5,174 miles to the east when the chances of playing for a crystal ball seemed just as far away.
Notre Dame played to its strengths, running for 222 yards (126 in the second half) and winning the turnover battle. A stingy Irish defense sealed the final step, again, with a goal line stand — a globetrotting journey melted down to a few final inches.
“If you followed us at all this year, that’s how we play,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We come up big defensively at some time during the game. We did that again.”
With five minutes left in the last chance for a Notre Dame opponent to end the unlikely undefeated run, USC got off to a good start. Sophomore superstar Marqise Lee returned a kickoff nearly to midfield. On the next play, he slipped behind the Irish secondary and pulled in a 53-yard pass two yards from the end zone. The Trojans lined up for seven more plays, and seven times they came up short in a convincing closing argument for the Irish defense.
USC went backwards on three attempts to push their way past the Irish, and then failed to complete a play action pass on fourth down. From there, a vocal contingent of Notre Dame fans counted down the seconds to their first trip to a title game in the Bowl Championship Series era.
“You have to make plays in those situations,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “You are not going to be the No. 1 team in the nation kicking field goals instead of getting touchdowns.”
That, apparently, is a game plan reserved only for the No. 1 team. Kelly and the Irish offense rode the strong right leg of sophomore Kyle Brindza throughout the night. The first-year starter tied a school record by making five field goals, cashing in for an offense that consistently skidded to a halt inside the red zone.
Notre Dame racked up 277 total yards in the first half while cutting big chunks out of the Trojans defense. The Irish doubled USC’s production and time of possession in the first quarter, but took a slim 16-10 lead into the break.
Brindza kicked three first-half field goals, including a 52-yarder as time expired in the second quarter. That kick, the second longest in program history, was set up by an interception from freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell on a home run attempt to Lee.
Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson (15-for-27, 217 yards passing) engineered the type of two-minute drill offense he wasn’t capable of earlier in the season. He connected with seniors John Goodman and Robby Toma on long passing plays before time, not the Trojans, forced Brindza on to the field.
USC quarterback Max Wittek, making his first collegiate start in place of an injured Matt Barkley, followed up his first career interception by planting his next pass firmly in the shoulder pads of Irish linebacker Manti Te’o to start the second half. The pick again opened the door for Notre Dame to pull away from the Trojans, but the Irish weren’t able to convert golden field position into any points.
A fade attempt to tight end Tyler Eifert failed on the ensuing third down, and Brindza pulled a 34-yard attempt to the left for his only miss of the night. He rebounded — as he has done is just about every previous close game this season —with two more successful kicks to end the night 5-of-6 on his first trip to the hostile Coliseum.
“After that missed field goal some [fans] were heckling me. My teammates were there to pick me up. They have confidence in me, and I have confidence in myself. They helped me pull through and then I helped them pull through,” Brindza said.
Such has been the order of operation for Notre Dame this year, a team that found ways to pull each other to wins on a weekly basis. No one on offense carried more weight in the final win than senior running back Theo Riddick.
Riddick set up Brindza’s final kick with runs of 20 and 14 yards that both looked doomed to be losses at the start. He carried 20 times against the Trojans, spinning and churning his way to 146 hard-earned yards. His nine-yard draw and dive through the middle of the USC defense gave Notre Dame its only touchdown of the game and a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
“If you want to know about the Fighting Irish you just need to look at Theo Riddick,” Kelly said. “He broke countless tackles and got us the tough yards that we needed today. You just look at his jersey after the game and there’s no wonder why this team has the toughness it does.”
USC responded to Riddick’s score by riding its own offensive workhorse to its only touchdown of the game. Junior wide receiver Robert Woods made three catches on the drive that followed, including an 11-yard reception in the middle of the end zone on the first play of the second quarter. Woods torched the Irish in South Bend a year ago and led his team again with seven catches for 92 yards and a score.
Wittek, despite his two turnovers, played fearlessly against a team that came into the game with the top-ranked scoring defense in the nation. He completed 14 of 23 passes for 186 yards and took two sacks. He tested the Notre Dame defensive backs with deep balls early and often, but never really connected until his late bomb to Lee in the fourth quarter, which set up a dramatic goal line stand for the Irish.
“Outside of a few mistakes, I thought I did well in my first game,” he said.
The loss stripped USC and Kiffin of its last chance to salvage a stormy season in Southern California. A team bursting with talent that rightfully started the season as the No. 1 team in the country and a favorite to win a national championship fell to 7-5 with the loss. Instead, Notre Dame switched places with the Trojans. The Irish were supposed to be the team answering questions about hot seats and disappointing 7-5 records on this night. They certainly weren’t supposed to be clinching a seat in the final game of the year and storming the Trojans field to celebrate as the last seconds ticked away.
“It’s easy to say I’m surprised,” Kelly said. “But when you go in that locker room and you’re around the guys that I’m around, you’re not surprised. With the commitment that they’ve made, they’ve done everything I asked them to do. Everything.”
All that’s left to do now is wait and watch next Saturday to see who will meet them in Miami.