LOS ANGELES – There are about a thousand different areas that Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly could be praised for during what has evolved into a stunningly successful season this autumn. However, perhaps his best trait is to be cognizant of what his team truly is. And that is a flawed group that is capable of being spectacular in certain facets and mentally tough enough to never get rattled.
The No. 1-ranked Fighting Irish followed the same gameplan that they have implemented 12 different times this season on Saturday and came away with a 22-13 victory over rival USC in front of 93,607 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“That's how we play,” Kelly said afterward. “We came up big defensively… and then we ran the ball effectively in the fourth quarter when we needed to. Those were the two critical parts of the game for us.”
With the victory, the perfect Fighting Irish (12-0) will most assuredly remain atop the final regular season version of the BCS Standings and earn an opportunity to play for their first national championship since 1988.
The national title game will be played in Miami on Jan. 7.
Kelly said during the week that his team was “going to do what we do” in terms of strategy against the Trojans (7-5). He said “it would be crazy” to alter a formula that has been successful all season long. And he held true to his words.
Here are the common traits that Notre Dame has exhibited in almost every single game this season:
USC entered Saturday's game averaging over 36 points per game and the Irish defense limited the Trojans to 23 fewer points than their average. That strength was never more evident than when USC quarterback Max Wittek connected with All-American candidate Marquise Lee for a 53-yard gain to the Notre Dame two-yard line in the final minutes.
A couple of plays later, the Irish had consecutive pass interference penalties, which gave the Trojans a first-and-goal from the one-yard line.
They never scored.
“An unbelievable goal-line stand,” Kelly said. “To hold any program to get inside your two-yard line and come up with a great goal-line stand.”
Run, Irish, run
Notre Dame needed to run the ball well against USC in order to keep the explosive Trojan offense off of the field and the Irish did that – in particular Theo Riddick.
The senior running back rushed for 146 yards and averaged 7.3 yards per carry.
“If you want to know about the Fighting Irish,” Kelly explained, “you just need to look at Theo Riddick.”
A balancing act
The Irish kept the Trojan defense off balance enough by utilizing a balanced offense.
Notre Dame rushed for 222 yards and passed for 217.
The Irish gained 24 first downs and 12 came from running the ball, 11 by throwing it and one courtesy of a Trojan penalty.
Good enough Golson
First-year Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson (15 of 26 for 217 yards) had his shining moments – as usual. However, the Irish offense also had its struggles – as usual.
Kelly's team reached the Red Zone six times and scored one touchdown.
“Not getting touchdowns came back to make it a little bit more difficult on us and I knew it would,” Kelly said. “Every time we had to kick a field goal we missed an opportunity. We're still a process (offensively).”
Turnovers? We don't got no stinking turnovers
A year ago the Irish were plagued by mistakes, as they racked up 29 turnovers (17 interceptions). This season Notre Dame has minimized their mistakes and Saturday was a perfect example.
The Irish did not turn the ball over a single time against the Trojans.
Manti the magnificent
Irish All-America linebacker Manti Te'o has picked off opposing quarterbacks more times (seven) than any other player at his position in the country. That trend continued on Saturday, as he picked off Wittek.
“If a guy like Manti isn't going to win the Heisman Trophy, then they should just make it an offensive award,” Kelly said. “Just give it to the offensive player every year and let's just cut to the chase.”
Te'o also made five tackles in the win.
Brindza boots it through – mostly
Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza has been pretty reliable this season. However, with seven misses in his 25 attempts, he is far from perfect.
That trend continued on Saturday as the sophomore banged in a 52-yard kick (second longest in Irish history) just before halftime. However, in the third quarter Brindza misfired on a relatively makeable 34-yard attempt.
“I felt all week that you can't come in here hoping that USC doesn't play well,” Kelly said. “You've got to come in here and you've got to take it from them.”