The only undefeated team left, with something to play for. No one would have put their money on Notre Dame to be a huge success this season, let alone finish it undefeated and be the only team to clinch their spot in the BCS national championship game while the rest are still battling for their place in their pecking order.
Once the Notre Dame season got going and everyone understood this is going to be a special season, two games were marked on the calender – the visit to Oklahoma and the rivalry game vs USC to end the season, a game Notre Dame one only once since 2002 heading into South California.
The Oklahoma win, a 30-13 rout of a team that never loses big games at home, changed the perception about the Irish this season. True, their offense was standard at best, without any impressive passing game. But the defense, oh the defense, which helped Theo Riddick put up impressive numbers on most weeks.
Once again, vs USC, a team without Matt Barkley but with the exceptional Robert Woods and Marqise Lee to throw to, it was the defense that stepped up. They limited USC to only 281 yards, as Max Wittek was intercepted twice. Silas Redd, SC’s running back, seemed to be the only thing working for Lane Kiffin who ends the season (well, not completely over yet) he started as the coach of the number one team in the nation with a 7-5 record, including 5-4 in the conference and losing in every meaningful game his team had.
The Irish, if you remember, were unranked at the beginning of the season on the AP Poll. With a 12-0 record on a brutal schedule, suddenly not even the SEC speed, history and allure seems to be something too frightening for a team that has a defensive Heisman hopeful, a rarity in College Football, with Manti T’eo leading a pack that is fearsome and intelligent. More importantly, it comes up with the big play each and every time, regardless of what their offense leave for them on the field.
While Theo Riddick (146 yards, one touchdown) gets the game-ball for the most impressive individual effort in the game, and Notre Dame’s running attack deserves more than mere credit for the win, averaging 5.3 yards on the ground with 222 yards on 42 carries, it was the defense that kept them together as USC came surging in the fourth quarter.
How good? How about stopping USC eight straight times inside the 10-yard line, getting the ball back with 2:33 left and a nine-point lead. To finish all that great smashmouth work by the defense and the running game, Kyle Brindza hit 5-6 on his field goal attempts, including a 52 yarder that gave ND a 16-10 lead at half time. USC never led in the game, but every time they got close, there was someone to make the stop for the golden helmets.
And now it’s on to the first national title chance since 1988, the last time the Irish finished the season undefeated. Incredibly, this season, that began with no outside expectations, can end with the Irish being crowned as national champions and have their linebacker, with 7 interceptions this season, win the Heisman trophy.