Notre Dame sticks with winning formula to earn BCS title shot
LOS ANGELES -- Manti Te'o seemed surprised by the question. His team had just beaten USC to clinch a spot in the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game, and a reporter wanted to know whether he'd be watching next week's de facto play-in game between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia.
"Is that who we're playing?" said Notre Dame's All-America linebacker. "Oh."
While the rest of us have spent the season crunching BCS computer numbers, Te'o and his fellow Irish defenders have been preoccupied with crunching opposing linemen and running backs. They did just that on a six-play goal-line stand with 2:33 remaining against USC to seal Notre Dame's 22-13 victory at the Coliseum. In doing so, they neatly encapsulated the story of the top-ranked Fighting Irish's 12-0 regular season.
"If you followed us all year," said coach Brian Kelly, "that's how we played."
Notre Dame's improbable rise from the "Others Receiving Votes" category of the preseason AP Poll to the No. 1 ranking and a trip to Miami was the result of a 12-game run replete with many such may-the-best-man-win moments. It started inconspicuously, with a last-minute drive to beat Purdue and a defensive stonewalling of Michigan State star Le'Veon Bell. Things turned serious on Oct. 13, when the Irish made a goal-line stand to beat Stanford in overtime, and even more so two weeks later when they went to Oklahoma and held the high-powered Sooners to 13 points. They endured a three-overtime scare from mediocre Pittsburgh, then took care of two overmatched foes to set up this defining date with USC.
The Trojans came in reeling at 7-4, with star quarterback Matt Barkley shelved by injury. The Irish figured to feast on his backup, redshirt freshman Max Wittek, and they did indeed control the contest from the beginning, never trailing. They scored on their first two possessions to go up 10-0, but this being Notre Dame, the night didn't lack drama. As Wittek found his footing and the Trojans found success on the ground, USC managed to stay within one score until 5:58 remained, when the Irish drove 54 yards on eight plays to go up 22-13.
At that point, Trojans star Marqise Lee -- whom the Irish had kept largely in check on the night -- returned the ensuing kickoff 43 yards, then hauled in a 53-yard pass from Wittek down to the Notre Dame two. A USC false start and two Irish pass interference penalties later, the Trojans had first-and-goal at the Irish one. Wittek tried a sneak, only to be met by Irish linemen Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Wittek tried again on second down, and was again stuffed by Tuitt. On third down, Wittek handed to running back Curtis McNeal, who ran smack into Lewis-Moore and safety Matthias Farley.
On fourth down, Wittek rolled out and had wide-open fullback Soma Vainuku in his sights, but the ball came out a bit too low, and the last threat to Notre Dame's championship aspirations fell to the end zone turf.
Afterward on the giddy sideline, monstrous Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix strolled near the bench and bellowed to a teammate: "They got to earn that s--t! They got to earn it!"
Notre Dame, facing what appeared this preseason to be a preposterously difficult schedule, earned its championship berth thanks to a formula very familiar to the two teams playing in the SEC title game next weekend. The Irish do not put up 50 points per game like some of their Big 12 or Pac-12 brethren. Quarterback Everett Golson does not attempt 40 passes. Notre Dame does not boast a receiver like Lee or Tavon Austin, capable of breaking off 70-yard touchdowns.
The Irish run the ball and they stuff the run -- just like every recent SEC national champion. And they did it again Saturday night.
"The entire game was managed how we manage each game," said Kelly. "We minimized the big plays and we ran the ball, and our quarterback was able to manage the run game for us. That's how we played the game all year. That's how we got to 12-0."
In a very similar offensive script to the Oklahoma game, redshirt freshman Golson came out throwing with marked precision. In the first quarter he completed 7-of-8 passes for 100 yards in staking the Irish to a 10-0 lead. But Kelly was simply building toward his usual end game of running the ball, then running some more. Tailback Theo Riddick finished the night with 146 yards on 20 carries. The Irish ran 42 times for 233 yards.
USC, conversely, managed 95 rushing yards on 27 carries. That put the onus on first-time starter Wittek, who showed flashes of his much-talked about arm strength on a pair of deep passes to Lee (both of which could have been touchdowns; Lee dropped the first and the Irish interfered on the other) but struggled to handle Notre Dame's pressure. He threw a pair of picks (one to Te'o, the senior's seventh of the season) and was sacked twice.
It was hardly Notre Dame's finest offensive showing. Five times the Irish reached the USC red zone only to settle for field-goal attempts. Penalties were a factor. And yet, the outcome only seemed in doubt during that one, ill-fated USC goal-line sequence -- except of course to the participants.
"They're not going to score," Te'o told his teammates between plays. "Everybody was calm. We got the call, we lined up, we knew what they were going to do. Just don't let them score.
"We're going to fight. We're the Fighting Irish. That's our name."
Te'o may not win the Heisman, but he'll likely head to New York in the culmination of a remarkable four-year career. The heralded recruit from Hawaii arrived at the tail end of the Charlie Weis tenure, at a time when "Notre Dame" and "national championship" didn't seem remotely close to belonging in the same sentence. The previous season had ended with a Hawaii Bowl victory. Lewis-Moore, a redshirt on that 2008 team, made this same Thanksgiving weekend trip to L.A., where the Irish lost 38-3.
"The year before I got here , Notre Dame had the worst year in the history of the program," said Lewis-Moore. "Now to be playing for the national championship, it's incredible."
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, then in his first year on the job, also made that 2008 trip to the Coliseum. Afterward, he stood against a wall in the cramped visiting press tent surrounded by reporters grilling him about Weis' future. On this Saturday night, he stood in nearly the same spot to discuss a far more cheerful topic.
On Jan. 7, his storied program will play for its first national championship since 1988.
"I always thought it [would be] next year," Swarbrick said of his anticipated timetable for Kelly's restoration. "So it's cool to be ahead of schedule."
Now that they've completed their own schedule, maybe Te'o and his comrades will finally notice the landscape around them. Surely plenty of them will tune in for next week's SEC title game. Then they'll face five long weeks of preparation for the BCS championship game.
"We've still got one game left to play," said Lewis-Moore. "We want to win the 'natty' and everything, but we're going to relax and enjoy the moment."
It will be the first time all season the Irish defense has rested.