No. 1 Notre Dame (11-0) enters its regular-season finale at USC (7-4) needing one final victory to clinch a spot in the BCS national championship game in Miami, where the team would likely play the winner of the SEC Championship game for the opportunity to claim its first national title since 1988.
How exactly did the Fighting Irish come this far in head coach Brian Kelly's third season following back-to-back 8-5 campaigns?
Quite simply, the Irish have relied on a prolific power run game, a dominant defense led by a fierce front seven and just enough good quarterback play at the right time from dual-threat Everett Golson and traditional pocket passer Tommy Rees. And for those who believe that the Irish have benefitted from incredible luck as well, Kelly will have no part of that discussion.
“I told our team I felt like they were the best team in the country,” Kelly told reporters this week.
While the Irish have dodged some bullets this season, most notably in a home overtime thriller against Pittsburgh, they have also taken care of business against their toughest opponents. Of course, no one can forget the goal-line stand in the final minute against Stanford that best captured the sheer will of this team when its backs were against the wall...
But the biggest play of the season, in my opinion, was Golson hitting freshman receiver Chris Brown against Oklahoma when Notre Dame needed to respond to a momentum swing by the Sooners.
If you remember, after leading most of the game, the Irish gave up their first rushing touchdown of the season to mammoth OU backup quarterback Blake Bell in the fourth quarter. The score tied the game, so Golson returned to the field in a hostile environment on the road against a Top 10 team needing to put together a drive to get the Irish back on top.
The redshirt freshman QB proceeded to march the offense down the field and re-take the lead for good. In the grand scheme of things, not only did it continue ND's drive to perfection, but it was the defining moment of Golson's career thus far. And here was the key play on that drive, a play-action pass on 2nd-and-2...
Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin believed in Golson, and they believed in Brown. That 50-yard connection set up a rushing score a few plays later that gave the Irish a lead they would never relinquish. And that resiliency has carried the team to an 11-0 mark heading into the showdown at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Can ND remain perfect after Saturday?
Despite the Trojans missing quarterback Matt Barkley, backup Max Wittek is dripping with upside, and some believe he has a stronger arm than former 'SC great Carson Palmer. Wittek even predicted this week that the Trojans were going to win. And keep in mind that USC has won nine of the last 10 meetings, losing only in 2010 when receiver Ronald Johnson dropped a TD pass in the final minutes of a 20-16 ND victory.
However, these teams are drastically different from those in years past. Perhaps the biggest difference is in Notre Dame's belief that it can win every time it steps on the field. And that belief was proven true on an October night in Norman, where the entire team grew up before the nation's eyes.
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