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Week 12: USC

Andrew Owens | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

LOS ANGELES – After the final seconds of a perfect regular season vanished and the Irish celebrated at midfield, Brian Kelly put his arm around his daughter and paced toward the tunnel. On his way to the jubilant locker room, he looked toward the Notre Dame fan contingent on the south side of the Los Angeles Coliseum and lifted his index finger.

No. 1 Notre Dame had risen to the task for the 12th time this season, and now a championship berth in Miami awaits the undefeated Irish following a 22-13 defeat of archrival USC (7-5).

“It was as you would’ve expected,” Kelly said of the postgame scene in the locker room. “There was a lot of singing, dancing. It was what you would expect it to be for a team that’s this close and has won so many games in that fashion. It was fun to be in there.”

With the conquest of the Trojans, the Irish will play the winner of Saturday’s SEC championship game between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia in Atlanta. A win would secure Notre Dame’s first national championship since 1988, with the current 24-year drought serving as the longest in program history since the Irish won their first in 1924.

Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick, who hired Kelly nearly 36 months ago, had one word for the feeling as he celebrated with players on the field.

“Phenomenal.”

The Irish held their opponent to fewer than 20 points for the 11th time this season, and the final instance might have been the most impressive, even with USC quarterback Matt Barkley watching from the sidelines with a shoulder injury. Outside of a 53-yard reception by sophomore Marqise Lee, the Notre Dame secondary largely held the receiver and his talented teammate, Robert Woods, in check.

“I think Notre Dame showed me they have phenomenal senior leadership,” embattled USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “You can see those guys understand the game and they really play well together. They’re really physical and pretty old school – that’s why they have so many close scores – but they don’t screw up. You have to play really well to beat them. They don’t hand you things.”

Leading by nine points with a little more than five minutes remaining, Notre Dame’s defense buckled down and held USC out of the end zone with another iconic goal-line stand. The Irish took over on downs with 2:33 remaining after a dropped pass by fullback Soma Vainuku, a symbol of how the archrivals’ fortunes have changed since last season’s 31-17 USC victory at Notre Dame Stadium.

“If you followed us at all this year, that was how we play,” Kelly said. “We come up big defensively at sometime during the game. We did that again. Unbelievable goal-line stand to hold any program, any team … to get inside your two and come up with a great goal-line stand.”

Notre Dame’s offense outgained USC’s 439 yards to 281 and more than doubled the Trojans’ rushing output. Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson and senior running back Theo Riddick fueled the Irish offense, with the former once again showing no nerves on the road and the latter breaking countless tackles to secure precious yardage and field position.

Golson completed 15 of 26 passes for 217 yards and added another 47 rushing yards as he improved to 10-0 in his first season as a starter.

“He’s making better decisions with the football,” Kelly said. “I guess the difference is he’s not careless with the football. Careless I can’t take. He’s going to make some bad decisions every once in a while, but he’s not careless with the football.

“We couldn’t win the game if we were going to control the game [in a conservative] fashion. I felt all week that you can’t come in here hoping that USC doesn’t play well. You’ve got to come in here and take it from them. Our gameplan was to let [Golson] play.”

Golson engineered scoring drives on Notre Dame’s first three possessions, as the Irish jumped out to a 13-7 lead midway through the second quarter. As has been the case during much of the season, Notre Dame stalled inside the red zone, one of the points Kelly said he needs to address during the six weeks and two days leading up to the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7.

“It means there’s things we still need to work on,” said Kelly of an offense that scored just one touchdown in six red-zone appearances. “We’re not a perfect team. We know that. Here’s what we like: We know that’s going to get better as our quarterback matures.”

But sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza converted five of six attempted field goals, the longest of which he booted from 52 yards out to give the Irish a 16-10 halftime lead.

“I know [Kelly] has confidence in me and it’s a great thing to have from a coach, rather than having a coach trying to rip your head off,” Brindza said. “He’s a great guy and is able to go up to everyone, even if they made a mistake and be able to talk to them about what you did wrong and what you did right and be able to instill the confidence that you’re going to go out there the next time and do the right thing.”

Brindza contributed with a key special teams tackle as well. Lee, a Heisman candidate, found a seam in the Irish kickoff coverage with the Irish up 22-13 with 5:58 remaining in the game, but it was the Notre Dame kicker who forced the speedster out of bounds at the Trojan 45.

“That was one of my nightmares all week,” said Brindza on being the last man between Lee and the end zone. “It was a nightmare and when Lee was running up, I was a deer in the headlights. It was like a nightmare coming back to me, but then I turned it off and I realized I had to make the tackle and I was glad I was able to help my team.”

After the ensuing goal-line stand and expiration of the clock minutes later, senior linebacker Manti Te’o, who recorded his seventh interception of the season in the third quarter, found his coach in the tunnel and had a simple message for him.

“I said, ‘I love you.’ I love him,” Te’o said. “[Our relationship] was bumpy at first, but it’s great [now]. I’m happy to be part of this and have him as our coach. He’s the best coach in college football.”

Te’o said the Irish reached a goal with the 12-0 regular-season finish, but that there’s one remaining chapter in the 2012 book yet to be written.

“We’ve brought a lot of pride back to Notre Dame,” he said. “I’m grateful to be a part of it.

“We’re the best team. We’re No. 1.”

Notre Dame will have the opportunity to finish as the best team and win 13 games for the first time in program history at the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7 against either No. 2 Alabama or No. 3 Georgia.

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu