Senior College Football Columnist

Notre Dame fight to season's finish for rightfully earned BCS title-game berth


Brian Kelly: 'Our guys have incredible resolve regardless of the circumstances ...' (US Presswire)  
Brian Kelly: 'Our guys have incredible resolve regardless of the circumstances ...' (US Presswire)  

LOS ANGELES -- So of course before the Fighting Irish would conquer USC in a 22-13 gut-turner to punch their ticket to the BCS title game, there would be another goal-line stand. And yes, it would take place underneath the Olympic torch atop the Coliseum in the end zone surrounded by USC's six Heisman jerseys.

"It is typical for us to win this game like that," said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, looking on as Brian Kelly, the head coach he hired three years ago, stood at midfield for his postgame TV interview. "So much has happened in this stadium. It's really great for us to do it here."

The way that Notre Dame punctuated this victory defines this 12-0 Fighting Irish squad that had started the season unranked and has been doubted every step of the way to Miami.

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"If you followed us at all this year, that's how we played," Kelly said. "We come up big defensively some time during the game. We did that again. Unbelievable goal-line stand."

There were five minutes left in the fourth quarter Saturday night when the archrival Trojans sent the USC crowd into a frenzy. Notre Dame was up 22-13. The Irish had just surrendered a 53-yard pass play from the Trojans freshman QB Max Wittek to their star wideout Marqise Lee, putting the ball at the 2-yard line.

The question that was probably in the minds of many in the Coliseum wasn't whether the Trojans would score, but how quickly would they get the game to within a field-goal. The home team still had two timeouts, but it wasn't like there was much faith in the USC defense to get a three-and-out. But the vibe on the Irish sideline was different. They weren't conceding anything.

First, there was a false-start penalty by USC. Then the Irish snuffed a running play. Consecutive passes to Lee were thwarted by pass interference calls, which set the Trojans up with first-and-goal at the 1.

But the Irish stuffed repeated attempts at a quarterback sneak by the 240-pound Wittek. There would be no Bush-Push help, either, as the clock kept ticking. On third down, the Irish stuffed Curtis McNeal before a fourth-down pass to fullback Soma Vainuku fell to the ground.

Same result as against Stanford six weeks ago: the Irish D wouldn't be conquered. Only now there were no hurdles left to get to the national title game. Their sideline celebrated. Their massive D-line, which looked so much like those vaunted SEC D-lines, were congratulated like heroes, as was Manti Te'o, the team's superstar middle linebacker. One baby-faced ND staffer walked around with a sledgehammer. Notre Dame great Joe Theismann slapped backs and shook hands.

Kapron Lewis-Moore, ND's 306-pound defensive lineman, just sat on a navy training table watching his teammates struggle to contain themselves.

"I wanna see zeros on that board," the bearded fifth-year senior yelled. After all, there were still two minutes left in the game.

Lord knows Moore would be one of the last people on that sideline to take anything for granted.

The year before he arrived in South Bend the Irish had their worst season in school history. That was the program he committed to. He was a freshman on an ND team that came to the Coliseum and was pummeled 38-3. The Irish couldn't manage to even get their first first down of the game until the final play of the third quarter.

"Stop [bleeping] shaking hands," shouted another player.

"They gotta earn that [bleep]," replied 340-pound nose guard Louis Nix.

USC, just like the 11 others Notre Dame had conquered, couldn't. The Irish were just too ... well, determined.

You can say solid. Or sound. Or tough. Any of those would fit, too. The Fighting Irish, who came into the game No. 1 in the nation in defense, bottled up the most explosive team they faced, holding the Trojans to 281 yards and just 1 for 8 on third downs. USC had averaged 41 points in its previous five games, but none of those opponents play quite like the Irish do.

Several ND players talked about how they've embraced the team's name. The Fighting Irish. It's not just a nickname. It has become their mindset.

Te'o said Notre Dame's mentality is one of "it just doesn't matter." As in it doesn't matter whether the ball's at midfield or the ND 1-yard line, they're not letting you score. It just doesn't matter -- as in whether the outside world is still skeptical about how good the Fighting Irish are. Just like it won't matter whether the so-called "experts" make the Fighting Irish a big underdog when they get matched against some SEC heavyweight in the BCS title game in January.

Asked why this team has been able to do things other Notre Dame teams haven't, Moore, one of the leaders of the team, said it is a good question. He acknowledged that other Notre Dame teams have also had great senior leadership.

"I don't know if we're closer," he said. "I guess it's just a big jumble."

Said USC coach Lane Kiffin: "Notre Dame showed me that they have phenomenal senior leadership. I think Coach Kelly said at the luncheon they have 28 seniors on the team. You can see those guys understand the game. They play well together. They are very physical. They are not very exotic, but they don't give things up. You can see that today that they went 69 plays without allowing a turnover."

Better still, the Fighting Irish only allowed 48 points in its six road games this season. Some teams give up that many in one game.

"The entire game was managed how we manage each game," Kelly said. "Minimize the big plays -- they had one great completion late in the game. We minimized the big plays and we ran the ball and our quarterback was able to manage the run game for us. That's how we play the game all year. That's how we got to 12-0. Our guys have incredible resolve regardless of the circumstances of coming up and finding ways to win. That's all we talk about. We don't talk about style points or anything else. Just find ways to win."

Swarbrick said he expected this when he hired Kelly. But this soon? After just three seasons?

"It's happened a year faster [than I thought]," the AD said.

The Fighting Irish are 12-0 for the first time since 1988, the last time they won the national title. Their players weren't even born then. Tailback Theo Riddick joked he wasn't even a thought in anybody's mind back then.

"I can't describe this feeling," Moore said. "It is the best feeling in the world. I'm still in awe."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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