TELANDER: Like it or not, Notre Dame giving us greatness
BY RICK TELANDER firstname.lastname@example.org November 24, 2012 11:08PM
Notre Dame team members celebrate after defeating Southern California 22-13 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Updated: December 26, 2012 9:54AM
LOS ANGELES — When Notre Dame is the highest-ranked team in the nation, it sure gets people’s attention.
As the Fighting Irish took the field here at the Coliseum, they were booed like ants at a picnic. This USC-Notre Dame rivalry is a hot one at any time, but nothing seems to tick the world off as much as when Notre Dame is ranked No. 1.
This game was already about as big as it could get for the undefeated Irish. Not since 1988 has Notre Dame won a national championship, and beating the Trojans would propel it into the BCS title game on Jan. 7 against the winner of the Southeastern Conference, either Alabama or Georgia.
As stellar USC wide receiver Marqise Lee said after the 22-13 Notre Dame win, ‘‘Are they best team we’ve played? I think I can say yeah. And Manti Te’o, he’s a great guy, a guy who can lead them all the way.’’
As the game began, Notre Dame’s redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson seemed unfazed by the angry din. He deftly completed two passes for 35 yards and rushed for 24 yards in the opening drive, leading Notre Dame to a short field goal and a 3-0 lead with just over three minutes gone.
The difference the elusive 6-0, 185-pound playcaller has made for Notre Dame’s offense is dramatic. When you have a dual-threat quarterback like Golson, the bootleg plays and the quarterback draws and the scrambles have to be respected. That wasn’t the case when strong-armed but lead-footed quarterback Tommy Rees was leading the way. Remarkably, Golson threw for 346 yards a week ago against Wake Forest while playing just 2 1/2 quarters.
In this game, Golson would run for 49 yards and throw for 217. We saw Rees for just one play, when Golson’s helmet was knocked off on a run and the rules dictated he had to sit out a play. (Hand it to Rees — the guy got USC to jump offside and hand Notre Dame a first down.)
With Notre Dame holding a 19-10 lead going into the fourth quarter, however, it was USC’s teenage backup quarterback, the huge Max Wittek (6-4, 245) who suddenly drew all the cheers. The kid who has taken the place of injured senior star Matt Barkley has an arm that could blow the gold off a Domer helmet. But he is a little erratic, especially when he goes for deep bombs, which he likes to do. Indeed, in the first half, he threw three passes that sailed more than 60 yards in the air. Two were incomplete, though one drew an interference penalty on Notre Dame. The other soared off like a cannon shot and was intercepted by Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell, a bomb that drove Russell back 58 yards from the line of scrimmage.
But Wittek was strong on his short-to-medium throws, and he drove the Trojans to what could have been a key TD. As happened all through the night, however, all that came of it was a field goal. With the score 19-13 Notre Dame, this seemed the time that white horse Traveler and all those tubas and dancing girls and screaming USC fans in the crowd of 93,000 could put the stopper in.
And indeed, there it started to come. Wittek cocked and launched another 60-plus-yard skyrocket, this one hauled in for a 53-yard gain by USC’s record-setting Lee. USC had what seemed like a hundred chances to score from within the 3-yard line. But this is where the Notre Dame defense, the province of Heisman Trophy candidate linebacker Te’o and his ferocious pals, rose up and sent Notre Dame to the BCS title game. Again and again they threw back USC’s rushes and finally broke the Trojans for good when Wittek’s low rollout pass into the end zone was dropped.
Good enough to win — that’s Notre Dame in a nutshell. Good enough to beat anyone. Everyone. Good enough to go 12-0 and have that date with the SEC champ for all the marbles. The defense is so good that even giving up 13 points was almost three over its average.
Imagine, Te’o’s guys have yielded only nine touchdowns, total, for the year.
A lot of folks out here don’t like Notre Dame. Still, there were a few blue and white ‘‘Shake Down the Thunder’’ T-shirts in the crowd, and a bunch of green shamrock leis, in honor of Te’o, a native of Hawaii. But this was a hostile arena, an unwelcoming group.
Asked about his own colorful lei, which he wore proudly after Can the game, Te’o said he got it from a coach’s family: ‘‘It’s great to represent the Notre Dame family in the right way.’’
Notre Dame was not expected to be unbeaten this season. It did it quietly, relentlessly, the way it should be done. A couple more T-shirts popped up in the stands as the Irish ran off into the tunnel after the win. Those read, ‘‘Play Like a Champion Today.’’