By Coleman Clarke
The ghosts of Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen had to be smiling down on the Fighting Irish who conquered the USC Trojans on Saturday night in the Los Angeles Coliseum with a final score of 22-13. This was the first time since 1988, that Notre Dame has been undefeated in the regular season—a fact made even more compelling since Notre Dame was not even ranked at the beginning of the season with little chance, it seemed, of getting an invite to the BCS national championship game in Miami, Florida on January, 7th.
So, Saturday night’s win over the University of Southern California, USC, surrounded by a frenzied USC crowd capped a Cinderella season that has pollsters gasping and now unanimous in voting the Irish #1.The atmosphere before the opening kick-off was electric with anticipation as injured starting quarterback for the Trojans, Matt Barkley ran onto the field as Phil Collin’s “In the Air Tonight” pumped over the PA system.
The Trojans looked ready for a challenge knowing that a win over Notre Dame would salvage their season while the Irish needed this win to secure a berth to the national championship game, their first invite since 1988.
The Irish jumped out to an early ten point lead ending the half with a score of 16-10 – not a real secure lead. In the second half, the Trojans, sputtered as the Irish defense smothered their running game and harassed backup quarterback, Max Wittek, who had guaranteed USC victory days before.
Despite Notre Dame offense moving the ball against USC, with senior running back Theo Riddick, the game’s MVP, they could still only manage field goals against the Trojans, keeping them within striking distance With around five minutes left, USC Quarterback Max Wittek found a streaking Marqise Lee for a 53 yard gain to the Irish 5 yard line.
With Notre Dame’s season hanging in the balance of four and a half minutes of play, the Irish would make a legendary stand for the ages. Twice, USC got the ball in the end zone and drew two pass interference penalties against Notre Dame, giving the Trojans automatic first downs and a seemingly easy opportunity for a touchdown to draw within 2 points of the Irish.
But something amazing happened. The Irish silenced the Trojans three times on the one yard line. The Irish simply refused to relinquish a touchdown as the Trojans tried desperately to run the ball with All-American Silas Redd, who was demolished by the Irish defense as he tried to bulldoze his way into the end zone. Wittek tried a quarterback sneak that was also snuffed out by the Irish defense.
Then as the clock ticked for the Trojans, USC Head Coach Lane Kiffen frantically called the plays in to his team for the fourth down play that would decide the fate of the Irish. On fourth down, Wittek threw a pass that fell incomplete in another goal line stand as the jubilant Irish savored the victory.
Irish Head Coach Brian Kelly has evolved into a superb coach in his third year and his team has unanimously bought into his program. He has succeeded in changing the culture of losing that had taken hold for so long at Notre Dame and built a championship defense by recruiting players like Stephan Tuitt and Louis Nix, two stalwarts on the Notre Dame defensive line. Now, he is on the verge of leading the Irish to their most improbable championship ever.
This Notre Dame team has taken on all comers with the stubborn resolve of their feisty head coach; exhibiting remarkable poise. They showed their first signs of greatness with a convincing win on the road at Michigan State.
This is a Cinderella season that Hollywood turns into movies—the tale of a true underdog that rallied around a leader in Heisman candidate Linebacker Manti Te’o, who embodies all that is great in college sports.
The Irish will have to wait for 41 days to compete for the national championship—against either Alabama or Georgia. If they win the national title, we will be talking about this team and Brian Kelly like we have talked about the Four Horsemen and Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine and Lou Holtz.