LOS ANGELES -- Notre Dame is headed for its first BCS championship game in school history after the Irish defeated USC 22-13 on Saturday night before a crowd of 93,607 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The Irish dominated the game from the outset, though the score was closer than the final statistics as USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek gave a plucky performance in his first career start filling in for Matt Barkley.
Notre Dame's defense solidified the trip to Miami for the title game with a tremendous goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter, stopping USC on two quarterback sneaks from the 1-yard line and then nailing tailback Curtis McNeal for a 1-yard loss. On fourth down, Wittek threw a pass to fullback Soma Vainuku, who dropped it in the end zone.
"It doesn't matter where the ball is, we're going to protect the end zone at all costs," said Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy hopeful Manti Te'o, who intercepted his seventh pass of the season.
Jubilant Irish players ran around the field in celebration after the game.
"Unbelievable goal-line stand," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "That's how we got to 12-0. Our guys have an incredible resolve regardless of the circumstances of coming up and finding ways to win. It feels great."
Te'o said, "It's a blessing. I can't believe it. I'm really happy."
Kelly said if Te'o didn't win the Heisman, the award should only go to an offensive player.
"I'd rather go to a national championship," Te'o said. "If I win, that'll be a great honor, but if I don't, I'm glad to get to Miami."
USC coach Kane Kiffin eschewed a field-goal attempt on the ill-fated drive late in the game to go for a touchdown. It ended up eating valuable minutes off the clock and the Trojans came away empty-handed.
"You're not going to beat the No. 1 team in the nation kicking field goals instead of getting touchdowns," Kiffin said. "They are number one on goal-line defense, and they did that to everybody, stopping guys from Stanford."
Perhaps in a sign of how unflashy the Irish (12-0) are despite being perfect, kicker Kyle Brindza was the offensive star with five field goals.
"We made big plays and ran the ball," Kelly said. "Our quarterback (Everett Golson) managed the run game for us. This was another clear example of how we got to 12-0."
The Irish should be No. 1 when the final BCS standings are released Sunday night. Their opponent likely will come from the winner of the SEC championship game next week pitting Alabama against Georgia.
Wittek finished 14 of 24 for 186 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Golson was 15 of 26 for 217 yards and no touchdowns.
"I didn't imagine at the beginning of the year," Golson said. "But all things are possible."
Brindza kicked his fourth field goal, from 34 yards, to extend the Irish lead to 19-10 with 31 seconds left in the third quarter. He added a 19-yard field goal with 5:58 left in the game.
Theo Riddick rushed for 146 yards and Notre Dame's only touchdown, a 9-yard run in the first quarter that gave the Irish a 10-0 lead.
USC ended a disappointing regular season with a 7-5 record and will await its bowl destination Sunday.
"I'd be disappointed too," Kiffin said when asked about upset fans. "I hear them. I feel them. Regardless of scholarship reductions, we've got to do better."
NOTES: The only Football Subdivision player with more interceptions than Teo's seven is safety Phillip Thomas of Fresno State. . . . USC quarterback Matt Barkley received a huge ovation from the crowd when he was introduced as part of the senior class playing their final game at the Coliseum. Barkley wore his right arm in a sling during pregame warmups but removed it for his introduction. ... Notre Dame's defense has allowed only 10 touchdowns all season.