Nov 25, 2012, 5:28 AM EDT
A goal line stand. Against their biggest rival. On the road.
That kind of stuff only happens on Friday Night Lights, right?
In the shadow of Hollywood, what sounds like a finish for Coach Taylor and the Dillon Panthers, instead became the true story for Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish.
Behind the tenacious running of Theo Riddick, the reliable right foot of Kyle Brindza, and fittingly, the stonewall strength of the Irish defense, Notre Dame defeated USC, 22-13 to cap off a perfect regular season.
Notre Dame is #1. The blue & gold will play for a national championship on Jan. 7 in Miami. It’s hard to imagine, really.
And as the story has been for much of the season, it’s thanks in large part to the stellar play of Bob Diaco’s defense.
After Brindza’s fifth field goal of the evening made it 22-13 with 5:58 remaining, Marqise Lee picked up 96 yards on two plays. Clinging to a nine-point lead, the Fighting Irish stopped three consecutive runs from the one-yard line, before USC quarterback Max Wittek’s fourth down pass fell incomplete.
Turnover on downs. Game over. Domers everywhere scrambling to book flights to the Sunshine State.
It was not in overtime, nor was it in the pouring rain. And a dropped pass certainly was not as memorable as stuffing Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor just short of a touchdown, but tonight’s goal line stand will go down forever in Fighting Irish football lore, just like the one six weeks ago in South Bend.
No, tonight wasn’t always pretty. With the way Everett Golson guided the offense down the field, it probably could have been 35-13.
On numerous occasions, drives stalled in the red zone. Instead of picking up seven, Notre Dame settled for three, leaving the fan base on the edge of its collective seat. It seemed like a matter of time before one of USC’s big-play receivers would make the Irish pay.
But it never happened. Like the Midshipmen, Cardinal and Sooners before them, the Trojans found the end zone just once (but hey, that’s more than the Spartans, Wolverines, Hurricanes, Eagles and Demon Deacons can say they accomplished).
Three months ago, they said it couldn’t be done. There was no way that this team, with inexperience at quarterback and question marks in the secondary, could navigate this schedule unscathed.
Even when Notre Dame beat BYU to improve to 7-0, few analysts gave the Irish a chance of winning at Oklahoma.
Yet here we stand, on the second-to-last weekend of the college football season, and Notre Dame is the only unbeaten team in the BCS standings.
It’s Notre Dame who will be watching the SEC championship next week, waiting to see which opponent – Alabama or Georgia – it will meet in South Beach on Jan. 7.
For the first time since 1988 – before I was even born – Notre Dame will be playing for a national championship.
I’ve been watching sports since I was five years old. I’ve seen the Red Sox win two World Series, the Celtics raise a 17th banner to the Garden rafters, and the Packers hoist two Lombardi trophies (Yes, I’m a Packers fan, not a Patriots fan, but that’s a different discussion for a different day).
None of it can top the joy of seeing my school – the place I called home for four years – get back to the pinnacle of college football. This season has given us the type of moments that we’ll talk about decades from now, the kind of memories we’ll tell our own kids about, so many times in fact, that they’ll probably get sick of hearing them.
The journey’s not over. There’s still work to be done.
But as I said before tonight’s game, no matter what happens, 2012 has been a magical season. Winning 12 consecutive games is difficult – for any team, at any level of college football.
The Fighting Irish have proven once and for all, that they can – and will – compete on the national stage for years to come.
Notre Dame is the #1 the team in the country. That sign atop Grace Hall will shine brightly for the next six weeks (and hopefully, many more).
And on Jan. 7, we’ll have one last chance – 60 more minutes – to watch this special band of brothers that we call our team.
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