A coach with tepid support from the Irish fan base and 10 losses over his first two years entered the year with an untested quarterback from South Carolina against an apparently impossible schedule. He completed an undefeated regular season with a physically dominating victory over Southern Cal.
I know, you’ve heard it before. Louis Leo Holtz made his legend with a 27-10 win over Southern Cal and a Fiesta Bowl win. But it’s all ancient history. No team can possibly lead the nation in graduation rates and the national polls. It has all passed Notre Dame by. The college game is now all about getting athletes who care little about schoolwork and simply want to remain eligible for three years and reap millions in the NFL.
Oh wait. It’s 2012 and a high character team from Notre Dame, with a 99% graduation rate, dominated U.S.C. to finish 12-0 and ensure a berth in the national championship game. To be sure, Notre Dame will have its doubters when it faces the winner of the Alabama-Georgia game. If Alabama wins, Notre Dame will likely be a 10-point or so underdog. If Notre Dame plays Georgia, the line will be closer but will favor Georgia.
It matters not. Undoubtedly one of the stories leading into the national championship tilt will be that Notre Dame played a soft schedule. Your correspondent is baffled, however, by any such assertion. Notre Dame played a schedule whose teams who are a collective 80-42 in non-N.D. games, and included 10 likely bowl teams and two potential conference champions.
Oh, to the game. Notre Dame lost the toss and took the ball to begin the game. The Irish began with a crisp up-tempo drive that nicely mixed the run and the pass. It stalled and N.D. converted on a field goal to stake the visitors to a 3-0 lead that they would never relinquish.
U.S.C.’s redshirt frosh quarterback Max Wittek, who early in the week took to the L.A. airwaves to guarantee a victory (which seemed only logical after U.S.C. coach Lane Kiffin had guaranteed after U.S.C.’s humiliating 2010 defeat that the Trojans would “never again” lose to N.D. while he was coach), was too amped up and killed a U.S.C. drive with overthrows.
The inspired Irish drove down the field and N.D. game offensive M.V.P. Theo Riddick tore through the Southern Cal defense for a nine-yard run that would be the visitors’ only touchdown of the evening.
What appeared as though it might be a comfortable evening for Irish fans quickly became uncomfortable. The Trojans went on a nifty 60-yard drive with all of the yards covered in the air. With Notre Dame’s defense concentrated on the ultra-fast Marquise Lee, his counterpart Robert Woods got inside position and notched a touchdown to make it 10-7.
The Irish, as they have all season, refused to wilt. The N.D. offense drove down for a 29-yard Brindza field goal to make it 13-7.
The hosts, however, inhospitably refused to acknowledge that the game was over. Notre Dame then had a three-and-out sequence that forced the first Irish punt of the evening.
A nice Ben Turk punt put U.S.C. back at its own 28 with just under two minutes to go. A deep throw by Wittek was intercepted by Notre Dame’s frosh CB Russell who maintained beautiful inside position.
N.D. went on a clutch drive to the U.S.C 35 and Kyle Brindza hit a career-long field goal of 52 yards to stake the Irish to a 16-10 lead at halftime.
The second half began about as well as N.D. fans could have hoped. U.S.C. took the second-half kickoff and Wittek threw an interception to T’eo, his seventh of the year and certainly cementing a trip to New York. A nicely executed basketball pass to George Atkinson III netted 15 yards, but the Irish stalled and Brindza missed a short field goal and Irish hearts crept closer to their throats.
N.D.’s defense bowed up and forced punts on the next two Trojan possessions. The Irish then went on a critical drive that would end with an N.D. field goal that would stake N.D. to a two-score lead that would prove critical down the stretch.
U.S.C. drove to the N.D. four-yard-line but the drive stalled and U.S.C. correctly called for the field goal to make it an uncomfortable margin of 19-13 in favor of the visitors.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but N.D. showed impossible heart and character in the face of adversity. George Atkinson III set the Irish up with a nice kickoff return to near midfield. The determined Irish drive stalled at the U.S.C. two-yard-line but Brindza converted again to make it 22-13 and return the game to a two-score affair.
The most critical sequence of a tense affair began with a nice return by the Trojans’ Lee to the U.S.C. 45. With just under six minutes remaining Wittek hit Lee on a 53-yard bomb that looked as though it might be the play that defined Irish frustration.
What unfolded, however, was one of the most gutsy sequences in the proud history of N.D. defense. The Trojans, apparently in business at the Irish two-yard line, committed a false start penalty. On consecutive plays, U.S.C. drew pass interference penalties on Russell trying to defend Lee (the second appeared dubious but would have no effect on the outcome).
With first and goal at the one-yard line, Kiffin channeled his inner David Shaw. Wittek sneaked. No gain. Wittek sneaked. No gain. Handoff to McNeal. No gain. Play action pass: incomplete.
It was all over but the shouting. Riddick burst through for a first down. Two kneel down plays and N.D. punted to U.S.C. with under 20 seconds to go. A couple of futile U.S.C. offensive plays and the game was over and N.D. headed to Miami.
This correspondent would venture that a bettor could have gotten 10,000 to 1 to odds that if this game were to involve at team that was 11-0 and playing for a berth in the national championship game and the other was 7-4 that the teams would be N.D. and U.S.C. respectively. But, as they say, that’s why they play the games.
The tale of the tape shows that this game was not as close as the score. N.D. outgained U.S.C. 438 to 285 and outrushed the over-matched Trojans 221 to 99. N.D. won the turnover battle 2-0. The only thing that kept the game close on the scoreboard was that N.D. had to attempt six field goals after deep drives into Trojan territory.
This Notre Dame team will not lose the national championship game. This Irish team has too much heart and the nation’s best player in Manti T’eo. Though constantly disparaged by national pundits, this Irish team has some of the best talent and coaching in the land. Ever since the picture of T’eo with two illuminated light beams on his shoulders, plausibly seen as being the angels of his late girlfriend and grandmother, it has been clear that this is a Notre Dame team like no other.
Now here are answers to Vannie’s prescient questions:
Can Golson and the Irish keep their emotions in check and get off to a solid start?
A resounding “yes” this one. The lead would swing between three and 10 points, but the Irish would never relinquish it.
Will Notre Dame’s secondary minimize USC’s yards after catch with proper angles and crisp tackling?
Yes. Notre Dame’s defense gave up a couple of long pass plays, but did not hand U.S.C. any big gains on screens.
Can USC stop the run while keeping its safeties back in a Tampa-2 defense?
No. N.D. out-rushed U.S.C. and the Trojans’ poor tackling victimized them all night.
Will Wittek have time to display the poise and accuracy the Trojans will need?
This one is close. Your correspondent is concerned that Wittek will be a nuisance in years to come. For a player making his first start in a game of this magnitude, he has little about which to hang his head. One of his few poor decisions turned into an interception by T’eo. A more experienced Q.B. probably would have soft tossed the pass for a T.D. on U.S.C.’s last meaningful possession. But the outcome would have been the same with Barkley. U.S.C.’s early rushing success was largely a result of the N..D. defensive staff’s attempt to anticipate the daffy Kiffin’s play calling.
Can USC’s offensive line repeat last year’s domination of the Irish front seven?
No. A thousand times no. Last year, N.D. was attempting to play a one-legged Aaron Lynch at defensive end and U.S.C. correctly diagnosed this as the weak link in N.D.’s defense and ran over him all night long. This year, N.D.’s stout defensive line gave up a few runs of some length early, but showing its mettle, held the Trojans under 100 rushing yards and mostly threw U.S.C.’s offensive line around like they were rag dolls.
Will this be the game that special teams play finally costs Notre Dame a victory?
No. Each team got one return of moderate significance. Special teams were not a factor.
Which struggling kicker will come through for his team?
Both kickers performed admirably. Brindza was 5 of 6 on field goals and U.S.C. was two of two. Brindza forced touchbacks and U.S.C.’s kicker could not reach the endzone, but gave up only one significant return. Place kicking was a push.
Will the referees dare to call holding on the Trojans?
No. Actually, there appeared to be a fair amount of holding on both sides, which accounted for the low sack totals. The referees did an admirable job of avoiding making themselves the story.
This is the Notre Dame team that the mockers confidently proclaimed would never happen again. Time after time, Notre Dame has been declared “irrelevant” by national pundits. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s it was confidently declared that the Irish would never be back. But what should have been a national championship in 1964, and a national championship in 1966 and 1973, proved the doubters wrong.
In the late 1970’s, it was clear to the national pundits were sure that the charismatic Ara could not be replaced. Dan Devine’s 1977 team proved that wrong.
After nearly a decade of futility, the Irish hired Lou Holtz who won the national championship, and deserved one in 1989 and 1993.
After flashes under Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis the national pundits cluck-clucked again and assured the rest of the nation that N.D. would never be back again.