LOS ANGELES – Notre Dame reached the BCS national title game Saturday night. And the Irish did it their way.
No. 1 Notre Dame defeated USC 22-13 in a game that had plenty of tense moments and featured a goal-line stand by the nation’s top scoring defense.
“That’s how we play,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We come up big defensively some time during the game. We did that again with an unbelievable goal line stand. … Then we ran the ball effectively in the fourth quarter when we needed to get those three points on the board.”
Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza matched a school record with five field goals, and Theo Riddick ran for 146 yards with a touchdown and caught three passes for 33 yards.
Irish linebacker Manti Te’o collected his seven interception of the season and had five tackles as Notre Dame held USC to 281 yards, and most importantly didn’t give up the one yard it couldn’t afford to the most to seal the win.
“We were just grinding it out,” safety Zeke Motta said. “Just every play, we were leaving our hearts out there. You know leave it all on the line, that’s what we had to do and we did it.”
Trailing 22-13 with 5:50 to play, USC got to Notre Dame’s 4-yard line thanks to a 43-yard kickoff return by Marqise Lee, which he followed with a 53-yard reception.
Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell was then called for pass interference on the next two plays to put the ball at the 1, but the Irish didn’t give an inch on back-to-back run plays by Trojans quarterback Max Wittek.
After a timeout, USC running back Curtis McNeal couldn’t move the ball and then Wittek’s pass to Soma Vainuku fell incomplete in the end zone.
“Whenever the ball is that close to the goal line, we have to tie them up and hold. That’s exactly what we did,” said Te’o, who has more than 100 tackles for the third straight season.
Notre Dame will likely face an SEC team in the Jan. 7 BCS championship game in Miami. It will likely play against the winner of next week’s SEC championship game between Alabama and Georgia.
“It’s going to be fun,” quarterback Everett Golson, who threw for 217 yards, of trying to end the SEC’s run of national champions at seven.
“It’s going to be a great game. I’m looking forward to it, just ready to go.”
Wittek, who made his first start in place of the injured Matt Barkley, went 14 for 23 foe 186 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Receiver Robert Woods caught seven passes for 92 yards, and Lee had five catches for 75 yards.
“They came on the road, won a tight game and finished it off, which is difficult to do,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said of Notre Dame. “They have great senior leadership. They are a very tight team.
“We had our shot, the game was close. We weren’t able to finish the game.”
Notre Dame took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter on Brindza’s 27-yard field goal and a 9-yard TD run by Riddick.
Robert Woods scored USC’s lone touchdown five second into the second quarter and then the teams exchanged field goals. Brindza connected from 29 and 52 yards out, and Trojans kicker Andre Heidari kicked a 39-yarder as the Irish took a 16-10 lead into halftime.
Brindza connected on a 33-yarder with 31 seconds left in the third quarter for a 19-10 lead.
Heidari connected on a 21-yard field goal with 9:20 left in the game to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 19-13.
And after a 39-yard kickoff return by George Atkinson III put the ball on Notre Dame’s 44, the Irish moved to the Trojans’ 2 before Brindza kicked his final field goal from 19 yards out to produce the final score and punch the Irish’s ticket to the title game.
“What is so exciting for us is that in this year that we’re No. 1 in the nation in graduation success rate to be ranked No. 1 in the BCS and go to the championship game,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “No one has ever done that before. That’s always been what the goal was and what we were about.
“To be able to pull it off in this year, one important game to go, to get to this point proving you can do it the way we do it is incredibly galvanizing and rewarding for us.”