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Notre Dame can set sights on title game with win over Oklahoma

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (5) celebrates with StephTuitt after his interceptifourth quarter Saturday night. | Sue Ogrocki~AP

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (5) celebrates with Stephon Tuitt after his interception in the fourth quarter Saturday night. | Sue Ogrocki~AP

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:51AM

NORMAN, Okla. — It all changes now for Notre Dame.

Saturday night’s defining 30-13 victory over Oklahoma — no, at Oklahoma — speeds everything up. It’s no longer about wondering if Everett Golson is ready to handle being the QB at Notre Dame; it’s about wondering just how good he can be. It’s no longer about avoiding the noise; it’s about making a lot of it. And it’s no longer about going to a BCS bowl game; it’s about going to the BCS bowl game — the national championship game.

“We knew what this game meant,” receiver T.J. Jones said. “We see the big picture.”

That picture came into focus in a taut second half, as Golson — Notre Dame’s beleaguered redshirt freshman — came into his own.

Coming off a concussion that forced him to sit out last week, Golson took command of the huddle with nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The record crowd of 86,031 at Memorial Stadium was shaking down its own thunder after the Sooners’ dormant offense woke up and tied the game 13-13 on Blake Bell’s one-yard run — the first rushing TD surrendered by Notre Dame all season. But Golson, who admitted to succumbing to the pressure at home against Michigan, a game in which he was yanked in the second quarter, answered the challenge.

His beautiful 50-yard pass to Chris Brown over the top set the Irish up at the Oklahoma 15. And after stalling out in the red zone all day — heck, all season — Golson hit Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert to set up third-and-goal from the 1, then shoved his way into the end zone, shoving Notre Dame into the national championship conversation.

“He led,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He was confident, calm. All those things you need to see from your quarterback when you’re on the road against very good opposition.”

All told, it’s a shocking development. Shocking because the Irish (8-0) entered the season facing an unbeatable schedule with a presumably beatable secondary and a rookie quarterback. Shocking because the Irish entered this game as 11-point underdogs. And shocking because, well, the Irish looked absolutely overmatched early on.

“What we’ve been hearing was a lot of people didn’t think we could win this game,” Golson said. “So that added that fuel to my fire that was already burning. I wanted to come out and show them that we could.”

Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones (35-for-51, 356 yards) shredded the Irish defense in the first quarter, facing no pressure in the pocket and seemingly no coverage in the defensive backfield. But Kelly said that was the strategy — keep the Sooners in front of you; bend, don’t break. And sure enough, OU’s first two impressive drives yielded only three points.

And when Cierre Wood busted through the middle for a 62-yard run two snaps after the Sooners’ field goal, he gave the Irish more than just a 7-3 lead. He gave them confidence and calmness in the storm of Sooners fans. When the Irish forced two consecutive punts after that, the crowd quieted, and the Irish took control of the clock, and of the game.

The Irish took a tenuous 10-6 lead into the locker room and came back out with a purpose — running the ball down the Sooners’ throats. A 44-yard Kyle Brindza field goal made it 13-6 early in the fourth quarter, capping another character-defining drive for Golson, who showed off skills, savvy and toughness. He finished 13-for-25 for 177 yards and had 54 rushing yards.

And when Oklahoma showed new life by tying it up with 9:10 to go, Golson showed his killer instinct.

After the go-ahead score, Manti Te’o — who else? — sealed the win with a diving interception of a tipped ball. ND added a 46-yard Brindza field goal and a 15-yard Riddick TD run, sending the Irish into a three-game stretch of weak opponents and a potential 11-0 record when they travel to USC for the season finale, a game that — remarkably — could have everything on the line.

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