Notre Dame’s pursuit of its first national championship since 1988 — and first period during the BCS era — came down to a final week, road game against a longtime rival. For those Irish fans who remembered 1993, such a scenario had to bring back painful memories. Once there on Saturday, the season came down to a goal line stand against USC; more painful memories of missed opportunities past.
Saturday’s 22-13 defeat of rival USC was more than the culmination of a 12-0 regular season, the program’s first perfect run since 1988. It was more than a reclamation of the Jeweled Shillelagh. It was even more than the proverbial punching of a ticket to the BCS championship game. Saturday’s win wasn’t the full exhale, but it was a faint sigh of relief for a program that has is on its longest championship drought since Knute Rockne won the program’s first title in 1924.
Brian Kelly has a long way to go before his name is uttered in association with Rockne’s, Frank Leahy’s, Ara Parseghian’s, Dan Devine’s or Lou Holtz’s. But in just his third season since accepting the head coaching vacancy, Kelly has done what three regimes, an interim, and a George O’Leary over almost two decades couldn’t. Kelly is now much closer to those legends than he is Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, and his tenure will be discussed more in the context of wins than in Jumbotrons and alternate uniforms.
Kelly established his reputation at Central Michigan and Cincinnati on high-powered offenses. He led UC to consecutive Big East championships and BCS bowls, his 12-0 2009 ranking No. 4 in the nation with over 38 points per game scored. Kelly has installed his version of the spread offense in South Bend, but it’s been defense powering Notre Dame all season.
Saturday was no exception.
USC could muster just three points in the second half and one touchdown all night, but the coup de grace of another stingy defensive effort was a goal line stand late in the fourth quarter. USC ran seven plays in the red zone — seven! — including four from one yard out. The Irish front was tenacious, snuffing out Max Wittek twice. There would be no repeat of the Bush Push on a quarterback keeper. Then Curtis McNeal was hunted down just behind the line of scrimmage.
The final and decisive play was as indicative as Notre Dame’s season as it was USC’s. On fourth down, Lane Kiffin called a pass play. Wittek threw to fullback Soma Vainuku, who had just one reception on the night before then, and seven receptions all season. The floater hit the turf, letting out cheers from Irish nation and swears from the Trojan faithful.
A 12-0 season for Notre Dame meant a 7-5 season for USC in the quintessential role reversal from most pundits’ preseason projections.
Irish eyes are smiling on the Golden Domers. This Notre Dame team is about as battle tested as any that has or ever will play for the crystal ball. The win over USC was the Fighting Irish’s sixth — exactly one-half of the schedule — by single digits. All season long, naysayers have forecast Notre Dame’s demise, basing their doubt on the many close calls. But perhaps being so regularly tested built Notre Dame’s mettle.
Manti Te’o, Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt and the rest have seemed to thrive when the pressure was at its greatest; like lights out closers on the baseball diamond or a clutch jump shooter on the basketball hardwood. Notre Dame learned how to win in high stakes situations, and did every time, without fail.
Plenty of self-appointed prognasticators will come from the woodwork to predict the next time will be when Notre Dame is tripped up, when it faces either Alabama or Georgia on Jan. 7. And maybe they’ll be right. But so far, the Irish have continued to defy those odds.