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Gastelum: No. 1 ranking leaves no doubt as Irish head west (Nov. 19)

Andrew Gastelum | Monday, November 19, 2012

No. 1.

With that number, there is no need for an explanation. With that number, there is no need for a “What if?” With that number, Notre Dame is the best team in the country for the first time since 1993.

To put that in perspective, much of Notre Dame’s current freshman class wasn’t even born yet, Irish coach Brian Kelly was in his third season as a head coach at Grand Valley State and Grace Hall was still a men’s dorm.

But on Sunday night, a No. 1 shone brightly from the top of Grace Hall, signaling to the world of college football that Notre Dame was irrelevant no more.

For the first time ever, Notre Dame is No. 1 in the BCS standings.

For the first time in 23 years, Notre Dame is 11-0.

For the first time in 14 years, Notre Dame has gone undefeated at home, thanks to a 38-0 win over Wake Forest on Senior Day.

And it truly was a day for the seniors, by the seniors.

Senior running back Cierre Wood rushed for a season-high 150 yards, including a career-high 68-yard touchdown run on Notre Dame’s opening drive. Senior tight end Tyler Eifert had his best output since Notre Dame’s home opener with a 85 yards an a touchdown on six receptions. Senior wide receiver John Goodman caught his third touchdown of the year and second in as many weeks with another spectacular grab. And senior linebacker Carlo Calabrese led the Irish in tackles with seven.

Meanwhile, senior captains Manti Te’o and Kapron Lewis-Moore walked off the field to a standing ovation from 80,000-plus spectators, ending their careers at Notre Dame Stadium on the highest of high notes.

And now they head west, with it all on the line. One chance to complete an undefeated season and pack for the national championship in Miami. One chance to see it all slip away right at the finish line.

But to this team, there is no such thing as pressure. There is only a challenge, an opportunity to push past the improbable, and do the impossible.

“We started thinking about it as soon as the game was over,” Eifert said. “We know what’s at stake and how badly we want it, so we’re just going to go out there and lay it on the line like we have all year and make it happen.”

The challenge awaits against the two most talented receivers in college football in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. In the Los Angeles Coliseum on Thanksgiving weekend, the Irish do not have to worry about who is ahead of them in the standings, style points or the computers. It’s as simple as win and end the regular season as the best team in the country with a chance at the crystal ball. But maybe in this case, it’s not simple at all.

“We have one game left on our schedule,” Kelly said. “Our guys know what’s at stake now. This is about an undefeated season. They cannot do anything else but beat USC.”

Notre Dame was supposed to head into Los Angeles with a chance to ruin the national title hopes of one of its fiercest rivals. And now, in a bizarre set of circumstances, the field is flipped. And USC would enjoy nothing more than to do just that.

“There is no next week. It’s USC. There is no game after that,” Te’o said. “The USC-Notre Dame game is always a battle. So we understand that, and we’re going to prepare the way we know how.”

This was supposed to be the down year, following the departure of Aaron Lynch, starting a first-year quarterback and facing the toughest schedule in college football.

And now, the Irish find themselves at the top of it all.

One game awaits. One game, with a shot to prolong the dream.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.