Notre Dame pulls off perfect finish to unlikely unbeaten regular season
BY MARK LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org November 24, 2012 11:12PM
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly receives a dousing as other team members celebrate after Notre Dame defeated Southern California 22-13 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Updated: December 26, 2012 9:55AM
LOS ANGELES — Manti Te’o skipped his way off the field Saturday night and shouted to any teammate within earshot the same thing, over and over: “It doesn’t matter!”
A long pass to Marqise Lee and two pass-interference calls had set USC up with first-and-goal from the 1 with less than five minutes to play, 36 inches from making it a one-score game with too much time left on the clock.
A quarterback keeper, stuffed by Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Another quarterback keeper, stuffed by Stephon Tuitt.
A run up the middle, stuffed by Matthias Farley.
An incomplete pass.
One last goal-line stand for the Irish — their second game-deciding one, shades of overtime against Stanford. One more win — their 12th in as many tries. And now, after the 22-13 victory against hated USC, one more chance to prove what nobody could have believed a few months ago, that Notre Dame is the best team in the country.
On Jan. 7, the Irish will face the winner of next week’s SEC title game between Alabama and Georgia in the BCS championship game in South Florida. And it doesn’t matter whether anyone can believe it, grasp it, or fathom it.
“It doesn’t matter what they do, it doesn’t matter where the ball is,” Te’o said. “If we do our job, if we play to the best of our ability, then it really doesn’t matter.”
So no, it didn’t matter that Everett Golson entered the season as a redshirt freshman quarterback who didn’t even win the starting job until a camp-long battle with Andrew Hendrix, and whose coach didn’t trust him to run the two-minute drill against Purdue three months ago. It only mattered that Golson sliced up USC early with darts and dashes, and led a brisk two-minute drill to set up one of Kyle Brindza’s five field goals, a 52-yarder at the half that sent the Irish into the locker room up 16-10.
It didn’t matter that tailback Theo Riddick entered the season a retrofitted receiver who won the starting job by default when incumbent Cierre Wood was suspended. It only mattered that Riddick clutched the game ball in the tunnel beneath the Coliseum, having run for 146 hard yards, spinning out of tackles and powering through defenders with the same tenacity with which he clung to the job.
And it didn’t matter that Te’o was expected to go to USC four years ago, not leave Hawaii for the harsh winters of Northern Indiana on a hunch and a prayer he still can’t really put into words, It only mattered that Te’o ran off the field yelling, “We’re going to the natty!” after making his seventh interception of the season — bolstering his Heisman campaign, but more importantly elevating his team’s championship campaign.
“I can’t believe we’re going to the national championship game,” Te’o said a short while later, shaking his head and smiling.
Who could? Even athletic director Jack Swarbrick — coach Brian Kelly’s most-ardent believer — admitted he never saw this coming. Nobody did.
The schedule was too difficult. The quarterback was too young. The secondary was too inexperienced. The program was fading into irrelevance, a golden dome tarnished by mediocrity and — perhaps worst of all — national indifference.
Yet here the Irish stand, atop the college football world, waiting for one last giant to slay, one last chance to prove once and for all that, yes, Notre Dame is back.
“It’s crazy to think back to where we started in Ireland,” Brindza said.
Its been a generation since Notre Dame won a national championship, 1988, before any of the current players were even born. “I wasn’t even thought of yet,” Riddick said.
But six weeks from now, against all odds — thanks to Riddick and Golson and Te’o and a defensive line that just won’t budge — these Irish have a chance to be thought of forever in the annals of Notre Dame history. Yes, they barely beat Purdue. Yes, they caught a lucky break against Pittsburgh. Yes, they’ll almost certainly be significant underdogs to the SEC champion on Jan. 7.
Ask Te’o what he thinks about all that. He’ll tell you it just doesn’t matter.
“Throughout this whole season, we didn’t look at the big picture,” Te’o said. “After it was over, we looked at the scoreboard and saw that we won, and it was like, ‘What’s next?’ Oh, it’s the national championship. Oh, man, I can’t believe it.”