LOS ANGELES – Notre Dame wasn’t perfect Saturday night against USC.
The Irish were just themselves.
And that was enough to secure a 22-13 victory to push No. 1 Notre Dame to 12-0 and into the national championship game.
“I wouldn’t say perfect game, but we did enough to win,” said running back Theo Riddick, who ran for 146 yards with a touchdown and caught three passes for 33 yards against the Trojans (7-5). “So that is all that counts.”
The Irish can now count themselves among the two teams that will play in the BCS championship game on Jan. 7 in Miami.
Notre Dame will have to wait a week to find out its opponent, but its foe for the title game will likely come out of next week’s SEC championship game between Alabama (11-1) and Georgia (11-1).
“The way it’s set up, only two teams can play for a national championship,” coach Brian Kelly said. “It feels great that you have that opportunity.”
The opportunity to play for the school’s first national championship since 1988 was not expected from this Irish team.
After back-to-back 8-5 seasons in Kelly’s first two years, even athletic director Jack Swarbrick admitted to reporters after the game that he thought Notre Dame was a year away from competing for national championship.
“We came into the season unranked,” Riddick said. “We have something to prove, and the mentality was if we win all of our ballgames, we have a chance at the national title. And we did that. So look at us now.”
Swarbrick may see the Irish as being ahead of schedule, but he knew he brought in the right coach when he replaced former coach Charlie Weis with Kelly after the 2009 season.
“He knew how to build a program,” Swarbrick said of Kelly. “He could explain it. He could articulate every element of it. He could tell me exactly what all of those elements were and how he was going to address them. That is what we were missing, the program elements.
“As you can see, we had some really talented kids, great leaders, and our problem was the other stuff. And he knew how to build that stuff, and he demonstrated it.”
Notre Dame demonstrated championship-caliber resolve with a second season-saving goal-line stance this year.
USC flew down to Notre Dame’s 4-yard line eight seconds after Kyle Brinda kicked his school-record tying fifth field goal with 5:58 to play, giving the Irish a 22-13 lead.
Trojans receiver Marqise Lee did all of the damage by first returning the kickoff 43 yards then hauling in a 53-yard pass from Max Wittek, who made his first start in place of the injured Matt Barkley, to get to the 4.
Wittek tried to go to Lee on the next two plays, but both times Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell was called for pass interference to put the Trojans on the 1-yard line.
What followed was reminiscent of Notre Dame’s goal line stand against Stanford in Week 6.
Wittek was stuffed by defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore on his first attempt to get in from a yard out, and the USC redshirt freshman was stopped again by Tuitt on a second try.
Then after a timeout, USC running back Curtis McNeal got the ball only to be stopped by safety Matthias Farley and Lewis-Moore, and finally the Trojans’ threat ended when a pass to Soma Vainuku fell incomplete with 2:33 to play.
“It doesn’t matter what they do, it doesn’t matter where the ball is,” linebacker Manti Te’o, who had his seventh interception of the season and finished with five tackles to push him past 100 for the third year in a row, said.
“If we do our job, if we play to the best of our ability, then it really doesn’t matter.”
All that matter Saturday night was the Irish did enough to win.
Quarterback Everett Golson complete 15 of 26 passes for 217 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Brindza connected on field goals of 27, 29, 52, 33 and 19 yards.
And the only points USC got were from an 11-yard touchdown catch by Robert Woods and field goals from 39 and 21 yards out by Andre Heidari.
“You get this far into it, and now you start to look up and go, ‘Oh, we’re 11-0’ – you want to finish it off,” Kelly said.
And now Notre Dame can finish it off with a championship with just one more win after a 12-0 season.