The Notre Dame football team has accomplished what no team since 1988 has.
In defeating the USC Trojans 22-13, the Fighting Irish have gone undefeated in the regular season and will play for the BCS National Championship January 7th in Miami.
It couldn’t have come against a better rival, or ended in any other way than it did. The Irish, leading 19-13 in the 4th quarter, kicked a field goal to increase the lead to 22-13 with 5:58 remaining in the game. All the defense had to do was slow down the Trojan offense, make them use up too much clock so that if they did score once, they wouldn’t have enough time to do it again.
So the Irish kickoff, and it is fielded by WR Marqise Lee. Lee promptly takes the ball all the way down to the 45 yard line. Ok, a 43 yard return, no problem. Just make some stops and use the clock. The next play, freshman quarterback Max Wittek (playing in place of the injured Matt Barkley) hurls the ball down the field 53 yards to Lee, who catches the ball on the 2 yards line. Rut-row. Could a historic, BCS destroying upset be in the making here?
On the very next play, flags fly. False start, USC. That backs the Trojans to the 7 yard line, first-and-goal. Senior RB Curtis McNeal takes the ball 3 yards to the four yard line. 2nd and goal. 2 Wittek passes are called next, both the Marqise Lee. Both wind up being defensive pass interference calls on Notre Dame, giving the Trojans first and goal at their own 1 yard line. No bueno.
A Wittek run up the middle. No gain. Another Wittek run up the middle. Again, no gain, 3rd down and goal. The clock now stands at 3:19, so USC head coach Lane Kiffin calls a timeout after running almost half of his time off already with no score. On 3rd down, the Trojans call a Curtis McNeal run – stuffed at line of scrimmage. Hints of the Stanford game are ringing through everyone’s mind now. It comes to one play, 4th and goal on the USC 1 yard line. Notre Dame’s National Championship berth is just one play away if they can get just one more stop. The ball is snapped. Max Wittek drops back, looks to his right, cocks the arm back and releases the ball. Freshman fullback Soma Vainuku is open in the end zone. The ball arrives – a tad low – but Vainuku is able to get his hands on it. The USC crowd at the LA Coliseum starts to roar. Then Vainuku bobbles the ball, and it pops out of his hands before the catch can be controlled. The pass is ruled incomplete, and USC turns the ball over on downs at their own 1 yard line after having eight different attempts to punch the ball in.
That wasn’t the ending sequence of the game, but it was by far the most significant.
Notre Dame gained possession with 2:33 to play, and wound up punting the ball. USC had one more chance to move the ball, though the game was all but out of hand at that point. The final play of the game ended when Irish defensive ends Prince Shembo and Kapron Lewis-Moore met and sacked Wittek as time expired. Notre Dame wins, and will be heading to Miami to play in the BCS National Championship game for the first time in the BCS era.
The final score really doesn’t indicate how dominant the Irish were in this game. The Irish only punted three times, including the one at the end of the game where they were just trying to waste clock. They had scoring drives of 66, 87, 67, 48, 70 and 54 yards. Notre Dame’s offense got inside the Trojans 20 yard line 7 different times and inside the 10 yard line 4 different times. Everett Golson threw for 217 yards, but the real offensive star was Theo Riddick. The WR/RB ran 20 times for 146 yards and a touchdown and caught 3 passes for another 33 yards. He was as close to an unstoppable force as the Irish have had all season.
On defense, the young corners were burned deep a few times by Marqise Lee, but that was to be expected. Overall, the defense held USC to 281 total yards (186 passing and 95 rushing) and the 13 points. Max Wittek was also intercepted twice – once by freshman CB KeiVarae Russell and the other by some linebacker named Te’o. By the way, that was Te’o's seventh interception of the season (and career). Expect to see him in New York for the Heisman presentation.
So what does it all mean? Not much right now other than the Irish have earned to right to play for the National Championship. We don’t even know who their opponent will be yet, though we’re sure it will be either Alabama or Georgia. Either team will present a tough match-up for Notre Dame, but both teams have shown vulnerabilities and are winnable games. For now, Irish fans, just kick back, relax, and bask in the Return to Glory.
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