“Make no mistake — the Irish are relevant again,” Brent Musberger declared as Notre Dame pulled ahead with an insurmountable advantage over Oklahoma on Saturday night in Norman. After week upon week of surviving by the skin of its teeth, the Fighting Irish left no doubt with a 30-13 defeat of the Sooners: this team is squarely in the hunt for the BCS championship.
The defense that buoyed Notre Dame through ugly offensive performances against Purdue, Stanford, Michigan State, Michigan and BYU showed up against the explosive Oklahoma offense. Right in the middle of virtually every play was linebacker Manti Te’o, who is after the Heisman with his tremendous play. But Notre Dame finally got the offensive production to supplement the defense that has often been lacking, the rushers combining for 215 yards against a Sooner defense that entered the game one of the nation’s stingiest.
First, let’s talk the Irish defense. The 13 points Oklahoma scored were the Sooners’ fewest since last year’s Bedlam Game. Landry Jones threw for 356 yards, but was held out of the end zone. It was a true bend-don’t-break effort. At the middle of it all, as he has been for much longer than just 2012, was Te’o.
Te’o’s Heisman candidacy has been criticized as the result of Notre Dame’s aura, a media creation manifested from the Fighting Irish. But make no mistake (h/t Musberger), Te’o has produced at a level that deserves Heisman consideration.
The award that is intended for college football’s best player is often limited to the best offensive player, and the best offensive skill position player at that. Te’o is bringing attention to linebackers who fulfill quarterback-like roles on the defensive end. And tonight, he was at his best in that role. His interception in the fourth quarter slammed the door on a Sooner rally effort.
On the opposite end, if the offense is clicking this Notre Dame is dangerous. Defense wins championships and all that, but a team needs some points. Aside from a Week 1 rout of desperately over-matched Navy, tonight was the benchmark offensive showing from the Fighting Irish. That doesn’t bode for the rest of the nation. If Notre Dame can consistently establish its rush, and Everett Golson can limit errors in the passing game, there are few teams that can beat UND.
In particular, there are no teams on the Irish’s remaining schedule that can challenge it. Wake Forest, Boston College and Pitt are still to come, leading up to the season finale at USC. The annual rivalry pairing with the Trojans is the best chance for Notre Dame to be toppled, but the USC offense will be hard pressed to create opportunities against this defense.
Where Notre Dame might factor into a BCS title hunt is going to be a hot topic for the coming weeks. The Irish is hurt by the collective underachievement of the Big Ten, as both Michigan and Michigan State are failing to match expectations. USC’s loss at Arizona today diminishes a potential win over the Trojans somewhat, especially if Oregon beats the Men of Troy next week.
And Oregon looks unstoppable in the Pac-12. The Ducks are crushing all competition, and have the possibility of finishing 13-0. Such a mark would trump Notre Dame’s 12-0, as well as a hypothetically undefeated Kansas State.
The season has a way of settling such matters, so until the first weekend of December this discussion is meaningless. But that Notre Dame heads into November in these hypothetical scenarios is a testament to the job Brian Kelly is doing restoring this proud program to relevance.