Leading 22-13 with 5:40 remaining in the regular season finale, decade foil USC stressed the Irish defense to its two yard line. More than three minutes, three penalties, seven snaps, one yard, and no points later, Notre Dame staked its claim to its first BCS Championship game appearance, winning 22-13 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Saturday night.
"An unbelievable goal line stand," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of his defense's heroic effort. "If you followed us at all this year, that's how we play. We come up big defensively at some time during the game. We did that again."
The goal line stand was, as always, a team effort, but defensive line standouts (as always) Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt played an integral role, both contributing to a pair of stops on three consecutive Trojans rushes for no gain before a fourth down pass from quarterback Max Wittek landed incomplete.
"As long as they don't score, we always have a chance, so that's our mentality no matter what," said senior safety Zeke Motta of the defense's approach at the goal line. "We can give up big plays but as long as they don't score. You gotta keep believing. You can't think this (stuff) is over, because it's not."
Notre Dame held USC to 281 yards of total offense, the eighth opponent Bob Diaco's unit has kept at or below 300 yards this season. The Irish gained 439 yards but scored just one touchdown, instead relying one five Kyle Brindza field goals to provide the margin.
"Yes sir, I'd hit from 50-plus in warmups, but the ball was in a spot I was worried about," said Brindza of a Coliseum turf that's seen better days. "It gave me confidence to know that coach Kelly trusts me to kick from (more than 50 yards out)."
Brindza hit five of six offerings, the former tied a program record held by Craig Hentrich (Miami 1990), Nick Setta (Maryland 2002 and Washington State 2003), and Nick Tausch (Washington 2009). His 19-yard field goal at the 5:58 mark provided a nine-point cushion the Trojans failed to dent.
Old SchoolNotre Dame's sixth game in excess of 200 rushing yards (and fourth outside of South Bend) provided Kelly's squad with nine minute possession advantage and allowed redshirt-freshman quarterback Everett Golson to play in advantageous down-and-distance situations for the majority of the contest.
Golson finished 15 of 26 for 217 yards while adding another 47 yards on nine rushes.
"We did a great job running the ball," said Golson. "They have great pass rushers but our line did a great job of holding them down."
Notre Dame didn't have a rush in excess of 20 yards but still averaged 5.3 per carry, finishing with 222 compared to 95 for the Trojans.
"Our quarterback was able to manage the run game for us," said Kelly whose offense enjoyed a career-best 146-yard, one touchdown effort from senior Theo Riddick. Riddick repeatedly broke tackles, careening from defender to defender in an effort to grind extra inches, feet, and yards following every hit.
"If you want to know about the Fighting Irish, you just need to look at Theo Riddick," said Kelly. "Here's a guy that was a wide receiver for me the first two years. We asked him to move back to running back and in Game 12, he managed 146 yards, but he broke countless tackles and gave us the tough yards we needed today.
"If you look at his jersey (stained and muddied) after the game, there's no wonder why this team has the toughness that it does."
Exultant on the field as the clock expired, Riddick was his usual unassuming self in post-game interviews.
"It was a great feeling, but it was a great feeling to see the offensive linemen doing their job and moving those big guys up front to make holes for us. Without them, there's no me…We started to get the best of them. The offensive line did a great job all game."
USC scored its only touchdown in the second quarter, an 11-yard post route to Robert Woods. The nation's top wideout, Woods' teammate Marqise Lee, finished with just 5 receptions and 75 yards, 43 of which came on a spectacular diving grab that led to Notre Dame's aforementioned goal line stand.
Lee finished the season with a Pac-10 record 116 receptions, breaking the mark of 114 set by Woods last season.
"They have a great offense. Marqise Lee had some plays on us but we limited that," said Motta. "I think our corners did a great job, Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae (Russell). I think we showed the nation we belong in this spot."
They're in that spot -- the nation's No. 1 team for either 44 more days or 10-plus months -- because no yard gained against them went unearned. No snap uncontested. No moment taken for granted, especially by a senior class that began at the school with a 6-6 record and a rudderless ship.
"It's who we are as a team. When you have 11 brothers out there that put it all on the line, then you can believe. You have to get after it every play, every snap, because you never know. It's fighting. Fight until you die."
Throughout the 2012 season, the Irish proved impossible to kill.