NORMAN, Okla. -- As a throng of giddy Notre Dame players headed off the field and up a ramp to their locker room Saturday night, two Fiesta Bowl scouts trailed closely behind.
"We're not going there!" a Fighting Irish fan in the front row shouted at the gentlemen in yellow blazers. "We're going to Miami."
Notre Dame fans go into every season with grand expectations. Normally they're rendered delusional by the end of September. But following a surprising 30-13 victory over No. 8 Oklahoma Saturday, the 8-0 Irish can legitimately be called national title contenders heading into the final month of the season -- the first time since 1993 that sentence can be written.
"It's good to know we're headed in that direction," said star linebacker Manti Te'o. "8-0 means we have a chance. That's all it means."
It'd been a nice run for third-year coach Brian Kelly's team prior to Saturday, but this was where it was supposed to end. Though the pollsters ranked the Irish fifth, Vegas dubbed Notre Dame a double-digit underdog at Oklahoma. Te'o and the defense, so dominant through seven games but having faced mostly modest offenses, would finally meet their match against Landry Jones and the Sooners. And with locals calling this the biggest nonconference game in Norman since at least the 1960s, surely a stadium-record crowd of 86,031 would overwhelm Irish redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson.
"What we've been hearing was a lot of people didn't think we could win this game," Golson said afterward. "That kind of added fuel to my fire."
If ever Golson was going to crack, it would have been with just under nine minutes remaining, after Oklahoma tied the score 13-13 on a one-yard touchdown run by Blake Bell -- the first rushing touchdown Notre Dame has allowed all season. For three-plus quarters, the Irish had employed, a safe, methodical approach, leaning on running backs Theo Riddick (19 carries, 74 yards) and Cierre Wood (seven carries, 74 yards) while occasionally mixing in designed runs for Golson (11 carries, 64 yards). It cut down on the possibility for turnovers while milking clock and keeping Jones and Co. off the field. Through three quarters, Golson had completed just nine passes.
"That was the plan -- we were willing to give up yards to keep the points down," said Kelly. "We are not offensively at a point where we can outscore a team like Oklahoma."
But at that particular moment, right after Oklahoma had tied the game and presumably amped up the pressure on Golson, Kelly put trust in his young quarterback's arm. On second-and-two from his own 35-yard line, Golson faked a handoff, saw man coverage and heaved the ball downfield. On what would be his first collegiate catch, freshman receiver Chris Brown -- the Irish's fastest player, according to Kelly -- beat All-Big 12 cornerback Demontre Hurst and burst into the open field for a 50-yard gain down to the Oklahoma 15.
"I wanted to win the game," said Kelly. "I thought we needed to throw the football and get a big chunk play."
Five plays later, Golson ran a keeper into the end zone to reclaim the lead, 20-13, with 5:05 remaining. Four plays after that, on a first down from the Oklahoma 41, Te'o (11 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack), the Irish's ubiquitous playmaker, dove and intercepted a Jones' pass off a deflection (and arguably an uncalled pass interference) by linebacker Dan Fox, all but sealing the Sooners' fate even before Notre Dame tacked on 10 more points.
"[The Irish] really made the key plays down the stretch when they had to have them," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who dropped his third home game in two seasons after losing just two in his first 12 years. "There's a little over five minutes to go in the game, and it's a 13-13 game. You're where you want to be to have a chance to win. ... but in the end of that stretch they made some plays and we didn't."
That's been the formula all season for Notre Dame, from beating Purdue on a last-second field goal to stopping Stanford at the goal line in overtime to preserving a 17-14 lead against BYU for the last 13 minutes of the game. Week after week, Te'o and the defense make it a slow night for the scoreboard operator, even when employing an admitted bend-but-don't break philosophy against Jones (35-of-51 for 356 yards, no touchdowns and one interception).
But there was something different about Saturday's performance than in Notre Dame's previous seven wins: While the defense was stellar, the offense did its own part -- and that started with the quarterback.
Golson (13-of-25 for 177 yards), who missed last week's BYU game and has been pulled for starter Tommy Rees in the past (Rees filled in for one play Saturday), was surprisingly unaffected by the crowd. In fact, sitting on the bench in the final moments, he exhibited nary a bead of sweat nor a single grass stain.
"I'm not the kind of guy to be iffy under pressure," he said. "My goal was to lead this team and say, 'We can do this.'"
Asked how it was that Golson had his best performance to date against Notre Dame's toughest opponent to date, Kelly replied: "He's grown up. ... Tonight was a big step up for our quarterback, and our offense elevated itself against a great competition on the road."
Notre Dame returns home next week to face Pittsburgh, as the Irish seem well aware. The word "Pittsburgh" came out of virtually every player's mouth in postgame interviews in an attempt to diffuse any bigger-picture speculation. "If we start listening to 'National Championship' and 'BCS,' we'll lose a football game," said Kelly.
But it would take quite the collapse at this point for Notre Dame to lose at home to the 4-4 Panthers -- or 2-6 Boston College and 4-4 Wake Forest after that. Which means there's a decent chance the Irish could be a once-unimaginable 11-0 going into their season finale at USC. And the 6-2 Trojans, which lost Saturday at Arizona, are certainly vulnerable themselves.
Entering Week 10, Notre Dame will stay near the top of the BCS standings with fellow unbeatens Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State (which also claims a win at Oklahoma), but if history is any indication, it's highly unlikely that four major-conference teams will finish the year without a loss. In fact, three (Florida, Oregon State and Rutgers) went down Saturday alone.
Not that Notre Dame hype ever truly subsides, but it could swell to unimaginable proportions in the coming weeks. That usually ticks off the large, anti-Notre Dame contingent of the college football public. But so far at least, this particular Irish team does not seem to be eliciting much negativity. For once, it's hard for any reasonable person to argue they haven't earned their lofty ranking.
Just don't tell Kelly the Irish belong in conversations with the Crimson Tide or Ducks.
"This does not mean we have in any way shape or form 'arrived,'" he said. "We've got a lot of work to continue but it's a real big step for our team to know we can go on the road play with anybody."
The first seven wins established the 2012 Irish as BCS contenders. Saturday night legitimized them.