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Notre Dame defense epitomized by these four goal-line stands

Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor is stopped short goal line fourth down by host Notre Dame defenders Irish’s 20-13 overtime

Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor is stopped short of the goal line on fourth down by a host of Notre Dame defenders in the Irish’s 20-13 overtime victory Oct. 13. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: February 7, 2013 6:46AM

Third-and-goal for Stanford from the 6-inch line. Overtime. Notre Dame has eight down linemen and three players just a yard or two off the line, including linebacker Manti Te’o, who’s shifted to the left side of the Stanford line. The ball is snapped, and nose guard Louis Nix III immediately is cut at the knees and pushed back a full yard into the end zone. Te’o shoves the 330-pound Nix aside and leaps forward, his right shoulder meeting tailback Stepfan Taylor’s right shoulder at the goal line. Safety Zeke Motta jumps in to help, and Nix — after regaining his balance — dives in and gives Taylor a final pull back. Stuffed.

The 36-inch patch of chewed-up grass between the last hash mark on the football field and the goal line — this is where Notre Dame’s defense lives, and this is where opposing offenses die. This is where the Irish established their identity as a tough, fight-to-the-finish defense, and where they established themselves as national-championship material.

Stanford in overtime: four Taylor runs, beginning at the 4-yard line, the last two inside the 1. The Cardinal got nothing.

USC in the fourth quarter: four snaps from the 1. The Trojans got nothing.

If either Stanford or USC gets maybe six measly more inches on any of six different snaps, Notre Dame isn’t undefeated and in South Florida to play Alabama on Monday night in one of the most anticipated national championships in memory.

You want defining moments in football? They don’t get any more defining than 22 guys lined up within mere feet of each other on either side of the goal line, pushing, shoving, leaping, lunging — and maybe gouging, scratching and clawing a bit, too — with the game on the line. This is where Notre Dame carved out its identity and its path to the title game.

“As long as you put the ball down and the ball’s not in the end zone, we’re gonna fight,” said Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. “If there’s time on the clock, we’re gonna fight.”

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Fourth-and-goal for Stanford from the 6-inch line. Overtime. Again, the Irish crowd the line. Again, Josh Nunes turns and hands it to Taylor, who runs off the right guard. Bennett Jackson — a cornerback playing on the outside of the eight-man line — darts off the edge and grabs Taylor’s left thigh, slowing him down as he hits the mass of humanity in front of him. Linebacker Prince Shembo practically picks up 6-4, 248-pound fullback Ryan Hewitt and drives him back into Taylor. Motta jumps in, finishing the job. Taylor fights for the goal line, but officials rule his forward progress stopped. Stuffed.

It’s not for the faint of heart down there. Nobody is going to get called for holding or grabbing a face mask or jamming a thumb in someone’s eye. Not in that mess of bodies. It’s the Wild West in there, like the bottom of a pile-on after a fumble.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t dirty in there,” said Alabama guard Chance Warmack, who has seen enough film to say the Irish “have their hair on fire” in goal-line situations. “But, hey, man, that’s football. Anything can happen. One time, somebody ripped somebody’s mouthpiece off. It was just dangling there. That’s football, man.”

Of course, it hasn’t always been Notre Dame football. But the Irish are no longer about finesse. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said the first step to building a championship defense simply is being bigger than everybody else. The second step is that “hair on fire” mentality, one the Irish found during this championship run.

“We take on the same mentality that we do on every down, whether it’s the 40-yard line or the 6-inch line,” linebacker Danny Spond said. “But how often do you get a chance to stop a team that has to try to get 6 inches? That’s the most fun. As a defense, that’s what you live for.”

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Second-and-goal for USC from the 6-inch line. Late in the fourth quarter. The ball is snapped, and Lewis-Moore and Nix plow straight ahead into USC center Khaled Holmes, creating a wall weighing nearly a metric ton for quarterback Max Wittek to try to get through. He can’t, and linebacker Carlo Calabrese knifes through the left side of the line and brings down Wittek. Stuffed.

The rules are simple to understand, if not simple to execute. Plug gaps. Move forward. Stand your ground.

“I just can’t get moved,” Nix said. “I have to be a behemoth, a wild man in the middle. I can’t get pushed back. If there’s a new line of scrimmage, it has to go backward.”

It often does. In goal-to-go situations, Notre Dame has allowed minus-28 rushing yards, minus-5 total yards and five touchdowns (just one on the ground). The Irish lead the nation in each of those statistics.

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Third-and-goal for USC from the 6-inch line. Late in the fourth quarter. By the time Curtis McNeal even gets the handoff and takes one step, Irish safety Matthias Farley, pinching from the left side, is already wrapped around his legs. Nix deftly out-leverages Holmes, shoots forward and brings down McNeal. Stuffed.

On fourth down, all that remained for USC were those same measly 6 inches of chewed-up grass. By that point in the game, the Trojans already had racked up 289 yards of offense — 10,404 inches worth. But those last 6 were just too much. After three rushes for a grand total of zero yards, USC threw it on fourth down. The pass fell incomplete. Game essentially over.

A 12-0 season couldn’t have ended any other way for these Irish.

In the tunnel beneath the L.A. Coliseum, Irish players whooped and hollered, chest-bumped and fist-pumped. Motta, a quiet sort, was almost shouting at reporters, his words as emphatic as the Irish’s play at the goal line moments earlier.

It wasn’t a goal-line stand. It was a mission statement.

“We can give up big plays, but as long as they don’t score, you’ve got to keep believing,” he said. “You can’t think this [stuff] is over because it’s not.”

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