By Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune reporter
7:01 AM CST, November 25, 2012
LOS ANGELES — Deliverance arrived on a crisp southern California night, welcomed in a frenzy of leaps and hugs and arms wind-milling helmets and cathartic screams. Notre Dame waited decades for this, all right, the end to the interminable search for its long-lost promise. It just needed to climb to the top of college football to find it.
The Irish will play for a national championship in January, inextricably No. 1 and 12-0 after a 22-13 victory over USC before 93,607 witnesses Saturday night at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a sparkling moment of rapture in the City of Angels. Whether Notre Dame is back maybe isn't the point right now. It's that the Irish have arrived.
"We had a dream," linebacker Manti Te'o said, "and we put in the work to make sure that dream came true."
It was a grinding, imperfect but relentless effort Saturday to get there, and maybe there couldn't be any other way. Everett Golson, the redshirt freshman quarterback, cramped up but cut loose for 217 yards passing and was mistake-free. Theo Riddick, the senior tailback who was a slot receiver at this time last year, stampeded to 146 yards and a score.
And the Heisman hopeful, Te'o, picked off another pass and helped spearhead another adrenalized, fourth-quarter goal-line stand that stomped out USC's last hope and created a save-the-date for Jan. 7. There Notre Dame will play in the BCS title game, almost assuredly against the winner of the SEC, becoming the most galvanizing foil yet to that league's dominance.
"The way it's set up, only two teams can play for a national championship," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "It feels great that you have that opportunity."
One game now, to look upon everyone else from the summit for the first time since 1988.
"Ecstatic," Irish safety Zeke Motta said. "There's no other feeling like it that I could have ever imagined. You think about the hard work and the competing that we did in the offseason, and to witness it pay off, and to be in this position we're in right now, there's no other feeling like it."
There were other, substantially less exultant feelings swirling in the same stadium tunnel a scant four years ago. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick could laugh about that Saturday night: About being pinned against a wall to discuss the downward spiral of the Charlie Weis era then, and being cornered to talk about a head-spinning revival now.
A year after that utter demolition by USC in 2008, Swarbrick made his coaching change and brought in Kelly. He brought in his program-builder. He thought it was the perfect fit. He also thought it would take longer than this.
"I gotta tell you, I always thought it was next year," Swarbrick said. "From Day 1, I thought it was next year. So it's cool. It's cool to be ahead of schedule."
In fact, maybe the only guy not taken aback was the guy responsible for it all.
"You get this far into it, and now you start to look up and go, oh, we're 11-0 — you want to finish it off," Kelly said.
"It's easy to say well, yeah, I'm surprised. But when you go in that locker room and you're around the guys I'm around, you're not surprised. What they've done, the commitment they've made, they've done everything I've asked them to do. Everything. So it doesn't surprise me anymore."
Notre Dame had USC where it wanted the Trojans early, on-heels and tested, on the spot to demonstrate any mettle or desire at the end of a season gone wrong and going nowhere. The Irish thundered to a 10-0 first-quarter lead, first scoring on a Kyle Brindza 27-yard field goal and then a Riddick 9-yard score.
If this was the last hurdle to the BCS title game, it appeared knee-high. But USC showed it could be resolute, swiftly moving to an 11-yard Robert Woods touchdown reception to reignite some drama. From there, it was field goal after field goal after field goal for both sides, a constant thrust and parry, all the way to a Brindza 33-yarder that made it a 19-10 lead entering the fourth quarter.
"We understood that it was going to be a dogfight, and that's what it was," Te'o said.
Then Notre Dame watched in glee as USC coach Lane Kiffin began exacting self-torture. First came the pre-snap timeout that might have wiped out a touchdown catch, only to watch the ensuing pass sail out of the end zone.
And after the fifth Brindza field goal created a two-score cushion with six minutes left, the pain became excruciating. A 53-yard Marqise Lee reception after a long kickoff return set up a goal-to-go situation for the Trojans. Two pass interference penalties put them on the 1-yard line. They ran once. They ran again. They ran again. Then they threw an incomplete pass.
Notre Dame had made its stand, everyone exploding off the sideline and into celebration.
"If you have followed us all year, that's how we play," Kelly said. "We come up big defensively at some time during the game. We did that again."
All that remained were 21/2 minutes to burn. Irish fans in attendance counted down the Coliseum clock, as if it was New Year's Eve.
And then the celebration began, wild and joyous, for a date decades in the making. Players bobbed and chanted in front of the fans. Te'o grabbed Kelly in the tunnel in a spontaneous embrace, telling his coach he loved him.
Notre Dame will play for a national title. A moment so many waited for, and never saw coming.
"I haven't really grasped the whole situation," Riddick said, sitting on a table in a Coliseum tunnel. "What can I say? We're going to Miami."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC