Notre Dame get rub of the green
American FootballA season that started in the late summer heat of Dublin will end in the winter warmth of Miami in January for Notre Dame, after they completed their first unbeaten season since 1988 by beating long-time rivals Southern California in front of a crowd of 93,607 at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday night.
Back in Dublin on September 1st, when Notre Dame hammered Navy 50-10 at the Aviva Stadium, many pundits tipped Southern California, or USC as they are better known, as the top team in the college football ranks.
But a tense 22-13 victory gives coach Brian Kelly’s ‘Fighting Irish’ side a chance to win their first national championship title since legendary coach Lou Holtz secured the crown 24 years’ ago. They are likely to face the winners of the Southeastern Conference final between Alabama and Georgia in the decider in Miami on January 7th.
As happened often on Saturday night, Notre Dame turned to their kicker, Kyle Brindza, he of the steel nerves and golden right leg who had written “composed” on his left hand.
His fifth field goal silenced the capacity crowd at the stadium used for the 1984 Olympics, giving him more points in the game than USC’s offence.
In the locker-room after the game, Brindza described the scene as crazy: “Everyone jumping up and down. Random cheers. It was like winning the Super Bowl, pretty much.”
Quarterback Everett Golson completed 14 passes for 181 yards, while running back Theo Riddick added 69 rushing yards and a touchdown score, but it was Notre Dame’s watertight defence that won the day .
The finish had its anxious moments. After field goal number five for Notre Dame, USC went right back down the field to the one-yard line, further proof that perfection would not come easily for Notre Dame.
Yet in a stand indicative of this season, behind its stout defensive front, they forced a turnover on downs. The home side ran three times into the teeth of the Notre Dame defence and each time they met a brick wall. On fourth down, a pass fell incomplete.
While USC helped ruin potential Notre Dame championship seasons in years like 1938, 1964 and 1980, and while USC won nine of the previous 10 games in this match-up, Notre Dame assumed control on Saturday. There would be no upset this time around, only the visiting team celebrating.
Leading the celebrations was their inspirational middle linebacker Manti Te’o, who has come through the trauma of the death of his girlfriend and grandmother on September 11th of this year, his girlfriend after a battle against leukaemia. Te’o played a huge part in upsetting the rhythm of USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek, who started in place of the injured Matt Barkley. The young playmaker enjoyed a solid first half that included an 11-yard touchdown throw to Robert Woods, which cut Notre Dame’s lead to 10-7 on the first play of the second quarter.
At the start of the second half, Te’o made his mark when he stepped in front of a pass Wittek never should have thrown and secured an interception. Should he become the rare defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy for the best college footballer, that play would seem like a good candidate to be his signature moment.
No team scored more than 20 points on them all season in regulation time, and USC’s failed final drive summed up the strength of the Irish side perfectly. “No matter where the ball is, we’re going to protect the end zone,” said Te’o.
“That’s our defence.”