There had to be days, and they weren't long ago, when Notre Dame fans had to wonder if they'd ever again experience a day like this.
Notre Dame, after a 22-13 win against USC, finished its regular season on top of the college football world, and will play for a national title in the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7 against the winner of the SEC Championship Game, Alabama or Georgia.
"It means everything," Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o said in the postgame interview with ABC. "It means everything to me, it means everything to my football family, and to my family back at home. I'm at a loss for words. I love my team."
The last three years of the Charlie Weis era in Notre Dame, the Irish went 16-21. Not one of those years ended with a regular-season record above .500, and there was a 3-9 campaign in 2007. By the time Weis was done after the 2009 season, Notre Dame was closing in on almost two decades of having a ceiling that reached pretty low. At the end of that last season under Weis, Notre Dame had a streak of 16 straight seasons with at least three losses.
Brian Kelly's first two Notre Dame seasons each ended with five losses. This team wasn't supposed to be too much better. Notre Dame was not ranked in the preseason Associated Press poll.
On Saturday, Notre Dame finished the regular season undefeated, No. 1 in the nation in every poll and on its way to the BCS Championship Game. Its win against USC epitomized how far Notre Dame has come in just a few months.
USC turned the rivalry against Notre Dame into a lopsided one over the past decade. The Trojans regained its status as a national power, with Heisman Trophy winners and BCS titles, getting the type of recruits that Notre Dame wasn't landing anymore. USC won nine of the last 10 games in the rivalry and many of those games were not close.
On Saturday, those roles flipped. Notre Dame came in at 11-0 and although it never pulled away in its victory, that's the trademark of an Irish team that has been in many close games this season and found a way to win them all. USC looked consistently disheveled and while Notre Dame probably doesn't have the same talent as the Trojans, the Irish were clearly the better team.
Notre Dame has caught some breaks this season, and this week was no different. USC quarterback Matt Barkley didn't play because of a shoulder injury, so the Irish got to face redshirt freshman Max Wittek in his first career start. In the fourth quarter, with USC trailing 19-10, USC coach Lane Kiffin sprinted down the sideline to call a strange timeout before a third and goal play. He got the timeout just before Wittek threw a touchdown pass, so it didn't count. Wittek threw incomplete after the timeout and USC settled for a field goal. That sums up Notre Dame's season, and disappointing USC's season as well.
Later in the fourth quarter, USC continued to run right into the line in a goal-to-go situation while the coaching staff mismanaged the clock. The Irish were too tough up the middle for USC to get in the end zone. The clock moved from about 4 minutes remaining to 2:33 left, when an incomplete pass on fourth down sealed Notre Dame's 12-0 season. That goal-line stand will be an enduring highlight from Notre Dame's great season.
Notre Dame won't be favored no matter who it plays in the BCS Championship Game. The winner of the Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship Game will advance to face the Irish for the national championship, and both teams are considered to be more talented than Notre Dame. Notre Dame has been mostly discredited because it hasn't dominated through its undefeated season, but that takes away from what Notre Dame does do well.
The Irish is a well-coached team that hasn't panicked in many pressure situations this season. The players have repeatedly talked about the incredible chemistry on the team. Notre Dame's defense, led by incomparable middle linebacker Te'o, is as good as any in college football. The offense is competent, especially as quarterback Everett Golson continues to improve. Notre Dame had 438 yards against USC. The Trojans had just 285 yards, and got in the end zone only one time against Notre Dame's tough defense.
Notre Dame is back. Nobody saw this coming.
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