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Defense records another goal-line stand

Allan Joseph | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

LOS ANGELES – Yet again, the game was on the line. Yet again, the opponents were at the goal line. Yet again, the Irish were defending a perfect season. And yet again, the Notre Dame defense came through.

“This was another clear indication of how we got to 12-0,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Our guys have an incredible resolve regardless of the circumstances of coming up and finding ways to win. That’s all we talk about.”

No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) had entered Saturday’s showdown at the Los Angeles Coliseum preparing for a pair of explosive receivers in USC’s Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Yet through 54 minutes, the Irish had contained the USC passing attack, holding redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek to just 124 yards on 12-of-18 passing with two interceptions.

But facing a 22-13 deficit with 5:50 left at their own 45-yard line, the Trojans (7-5) came to life. Wittek found Lee down the left side of the field for a 53-yard completion to the 2-yard line, bringing the flow of USC fans leaving the stands to a loud and immediate halt.

With its back in the shadow of a flaming Olympic torch on the stadium’s east end, the Notre Dame defense dug in and refused to yield a game-changing touchdown.

“To be honest with you, with us, as long as you put the ball down and there’s time on the clock, we’re going to battle,” graduate student defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “We played hard, we got some pressure and we had 11 guys on the field believe.”

The Trojans immediately backed up five yards on a false-start penalty before running back Curtis McNeal pushed USC to the 4-yard line on first down.

On second down, Wittek lofted a pass toward Lee in the corner of the end zone, but freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell committed pass interference and gave the sophomore receiver no chance at catching the ball – and then did the same thing on the same play call on the very next snap.

The penalties brought the Trojans to first and goal from the 1-yard line with 4:07 to go. With just three feet separating the Trojans from a two-point game, the situation was reminiscent of Notre Dame’s overtime win over Stanford six weeks ago – and the Irish defense knew it.

“It gives you confidence that we have done it before, that it can be achieved, that it’s possible,” Lewis-Moore said. “Yeah, we’ve been here before, so that should give us a little more energy. We’ve done this before, so what’s the difference between then and now?”

There wasn’t much of one, as it turned out. Wittek plunged forward twice in an attempt to get the yards himself, but the Notre Dame defensive line held firm, anchored by junior nose tackle Louis Nix.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Lewis-Moore said. “He’s a big guy and he’s really active in the backfield.”

With precious seconds bleeding off the clock after two consecutive failed rushing plays, USC coach Lane Kiffin burned a timeout – and came out of it with a running play for McNeal. Irish safeties Matthias Farley and Zeke Motta crashed in from the edges and Nix blew through blockers in the middle to stuff McNeal yet again, bringing up 4th-and-goal.

“Whenever the ball is that close to the goal-line, we have to tighten up and that’s what we did,” senior linebacker Manti Te’o said.

On fourth down, Wittek found Soma Vainuku, but the fullback couldn’t hold on to the low pass and the ball bounced to the ground, giving the Irish another goal-line stand in a season full of memorable moments.

“We did it,” Lewis-Moore said. “We did it. It’s crazy, you know? No. 1 and keeping that No. 1 and being 12-0 and playing for a national championship, it’s something spectacular.

“It’s awesome. You just put the ball down and if there’s time on the clock we’re going to battle. We’re not going to give up. This team and this defense, we’ve got a lot of character. We’ve got a lot of guys that play hard, and they play with heart. As long as you put the ball down and they’re not in the end zone we’re going to fight.”