Notre Dame knew what it had to do Saturday night against the Southern California Trojans, and it took care of business with a 22-13 victory over its West Coast rival.
With the dramatic victory, the Irish sealed their BCS National Championship berth. They will await the winner of the SEC championship, but Brian Kelly's team is heading to Miami.
USC had a chance to make things interesting with less than five minutes remaining and trailing 22-13, but the daunting Irish defense had other ideas. Slamming the door on the Trojans inside the five put a perfect cap on Notre Dame's magical regular-season run.
Notre Dame used Max Wittek's inexperience to its advantage early, jumping out to a 10-0 lead behind a Kyle Brindza field goal and a Theo Riddick touchdown run.
Wittek was able to get his team on the board early in the second quarter though, using the attention Marqise Lee commands to find Robert Woods for an 11-yard touchdown toss.
With the score 10-7, Brindza hit another field goal, only to have Andre Heidari answer with a boot of his own to make the score 13-10 in favor of the Trojans.
USC was able to force a punt on the ensuing Irish possession, putting itself in position to end the half on a high note. However, Wittek was picked off trying to find Lee on a deep ball down the sideline.
Rather than sit on it, Everett Golson and the Irish put a drive together, putting Brindza in position for his third field goal of the half. Brindza nailed a career-long 52-yard kick to close the half, giving the Irish momentum and a 16-10 halftime lead.
Neither team scored until Brindza made his fourth field goal with 31 seconds remaining in the third quarter to give Notre Dame a two-possession lead. It appeared that the Fighting Irish would get on the board earlier in the quarter after Manti Te'o intercepted Wittek in USC territory, but Brindza missed that attempt.
The Trojans battled into the fourth quarter, trying to cut into the 19-10 lead. Heidari hit a short field goal with 9:20 remaining in the game to make the score 19-13, but USC allowed a big return on the kickoff. Brinza's fifth field goal of the night put the Irish back up by nine shortly after.
That was the trend all night long. Yes, Notre Dame failed to put the Trojans away, but USC couldn't make the critical plays. Notre Dame held onto momentum because the Trojans couldn't capitalize on their mistakes, using its defense to maintain its margin.
USC's final chance to make the game interesting was the perfect example. Lane Kiffin managed the offense poorly, managed the clock poorly and didn't even take the points as a last resort.
Notre Dame fans are ecstatic, but USC fans had written this season off weeks ago.
Let's recap this one a little more with some Twitter reaction and a player of the game award.
Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel makes a great point about the game's clinching drive:
Why risk it on fourth down if you need two scores? Swallow your pride, take the field goal and try again. Game over.— Pete Thamel(@SIPeteThamel) November 25, 2012
Associated Press reporter Greg Beacham gave Marqise Lee his due:
Marqise Lee's 53-yard catch breaks Robert Woods' single-season Pac-12 receptions record.— Greg Beacham (@gregbeacham) November 25, 2012
ESPN Stats & Info points out how good Theo Riddick has been this season:
Theo Riddick has 4 games with 100+ rushing yards this season, most by a #NotreDame player since Darius Walker (6, 2006)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 25, 2012
Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel pointed out Lane Kiffin's poorly timed timeout:
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Lane Kiffin just erased his own team's touchdown.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 25, 2012
ESPN Los Angeles reporter Arash Markazi showed that Notre Dame will always have some haters, even if he does make a good point:
If Notre Dame wins they deserve to go to the BCS title game but they don't look like the No. 1 team in the country.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) November 25, 2012
ESPN Stats & Info made a point toward Manti Te'o's Heisman Trophy candidacy:
Manti Te'o:7th interception of season (most among FBS linebackers) #NDvsUSC— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 25, 2012
Notre Dame's senior associate athletics director for media and broadcast relations John Heisler showed the elite company Te'o entered in the first half:
That puts Manti Te'o at 100 tackles this season -- he's only 2nd ND player to record 100 or more in three straight seasons (also Bob Crable)— John Heisler (@NDHeisler) November 25, 2012
Notre Dame's director of football media relations Brian Hardin gave this tidbit after the first quarter:
#NotreDame leads USC 10-0 at end of 1st quarter. Irish have outscored their opponents 85-9 in the 1st quarter this year.— Brian Hardin (@NDHardin) November 25, 2012
Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde made a good point about Notre Dame's first half:
Notre Dame unstoppable between 20s, but only 13 points. See if Irish have some D adjustments after Wittek carved 'em up last possession.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) November 25, 2012
Player of the Game: Theo Riddick
Riddick paced Notre Dame's offense. Golson played very well himself, but being able to lean on Riddick out of the backfield made a huge difference. Whether he was running hard between the tackles or making defenders miss:
Riddick did his thing for four quarters. He racked up 146 yards on 20 carries and also found the end zone one time.
The Fighting Irish boast the nation's best defense, but their offense has lagged behind throughout the season. Golson can be dynamic, but he needs a steady presence to complement his passing game.
Riddick's versatility makes him an underrated weapon. He runs well, catches the ball and can also pick up blitzers in pass protection. If it weren't for him, Notre Dame probably wouldn't have been in the position that it was Saturday night against the Trojans.
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