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No. 1-ranked Notre Dame takes 'just win, baby' ethos to extremes

The 11-0 Irish have eked out several close wins, and aren't bothered by critics who doubt their legitimacy. One more win, versus USC, and they're in BCS title game.

November 20, 2012|By David Wharton
  • Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against Wake Forest.
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson celebrates after throwing a touchdown… (Michael Conroy / Associated…)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Public opinion doesn't count for much around Notre Dame these days.

The coaches and players don't seem to care that a large portion of the college football world remains skeptical about their No. 1-ranked team.

They don't mind that their undefeated season has included several unimpressive victories and close calls against opponents who were supposed to be heavy underdogs.

"Sure, you want to blow teams out every single game," receiver John Goodman said. "But if that doesn't happen, oh well."

Heading into Saturday's intersectional rivalry game against USC at the Coliseum, the Fighting Irish have chosen to focus on the positive: Their knack for pulling out victories — even ugly ones — has them just one step away from the Bowl Championship Series title game.

"Now we don't have to answer the questions about style points or politics or anything like that," Coach Brian Kelly said. "We get a chance to play for the national championship provided we win this week."

Almost a quarter century has flown by since the Irish won their last football title. Before Sunday night, they had never occupied the top spot in the BCS standings.

The computer rankings have put them at or near No. 1 for almost a month. Impressive victories against Michigan State and Oklahoma — both on the road — helped their case, as did an overtime win at home over Stanford.

But the human polls did not see them as championship material until Alabama, Kansas State and Oregon suffered upset losses in the last two weeks. Voters wondered about Notre Dame's strength of schedule and heart-attack endings at home against the likes of Purdue and Pittsburgh.

Even fans around South Bend have seemed apprehensive, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"It comes with the territory," Kelly said. "You're going to have those questions."

"Luck o' the Irish" might have played a role in a triple-overtime win over Pittsburgh on Nov. 3, the visiting team missing a 33-yard field-goal attempt that would have won it in the second overtime — after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead by way of mistakes and a questionable pass-interference call.

The Stanford victory on Oct. 13 came down to instant replay, officials blowing a fourth-down goal-line play dead just before Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor reached into the end zone for what would have been a tying touchdown (and extra point) in overtime.

Three other home games were decided by a not-so-grand total of 13 points.

"In all honesty, I don't think anybody on our team feels like we're [undefeated]," receiver Robby Toma said. "Not to take anything away from our wins, but we know we've left a lot of points on the field and I think there's a little bit of frustration because we know we're better than what we've been showing."

Still, Toma and his teammates see a silver lining in that they have prevailed on subpar days.

This is a proud football program that has endured a long stretch of mediocrity. Kelly arrived three years ago, telling fans the rebuilding process would be just that — a process.

The Irish enjoyed some success, mixed with disappointment, during his first two seasons.

This fall, players seem to have adopted the "quiet confidence" their coach preaches. Whatever is needed — a last-second field goal or a defensive stand — they have learned to succeed in situations in which they used to wilt.

"We've been on the other side of things," tight end Tyler Eifert said, thinking back to recent seasons. "It seemed like somewhere, something wouldn't go our way and we'd lose it. This year, when things don't go our way, we keep going."

Stopping opponents has been a key to the turnaround. Linebacker Manti Te'o leads a defense that ranks fifth against the run and has given up only 10 points a game, tied with Alabama for No. 1 nationally.

The offense has been less imposing, with redshirt freshman Everett Golson still finding his way at quarterback. But the rushing game has proved relatively steady at 200 yards a game and running back Cierre Wood broke loose for 150 yards against Wake Forest last week.

That was enough to convince Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe, who said: "I think they're as good a team as anybody in the country."

Now the Irish finish the regular season against an unranked USC team that has lost three of its last four and will be without Matt Barkley. Redshirt freshman Max Wittek will start at quarterback having thrown all of nine passes this fall.

"Obviously, this is not the way anybody pictured this team's season going," Coach Lane Kiffin said.

If nothing else, it seems the Irish have endured too many nailbiters to take USC lightly. Too many of them remember last season's stinging 31-17 loss to the Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium.

When his players filtered back after their momentous weekend, Kelly looked for signs of complacency after finally reaching the No. 1 slot.

"I think there's clearly a sense of pride and accomplishment that our football team is winning games," he said. "I think that's what we're more focused on."

The Irish have given up on worrying about rankings or skeptics. Better to let the scoreboard do the talking.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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