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LOS ANGELES -- Notre Dame no longer needed anyone ahead of them to lose. All they had to do was win, and an early January trip to Miami was in their grasp. Nobody had to lose on Saturday night but USC, and Notre Dame made that happen, securing a spot in the BCS Championship with a 22-13 win over the Trojans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
"We just find a way to win, week in and week out," running back Theo Riddick said. "That's our message."
Riddick was Notre Dame's offensive star Saturday, rushing 20 times for 146 yards and a touchdown. When the Irish needed yards, Riddick was the go-to guy, breaking tackles and garnering plenty of yards after contact.
That's pretty good for a running back-turned-wide receiver, who returned to the backfield for his senior season.
"If you want to know about the Fighting Irish, you just need to look at Theo Riddick," coach Brian Kelly said. "Here's a guy that was a wide receiver for me the first two years. We asked him to move back to running back, and in game 12 he manages (146) yards but broke countless tackles and got us the tough yards we needed today.
"You just look at his jersey after the game, there's no wonder why this team has got the toughness that it does."
Notre Dame's offense started strong, slicing through USC's defense to take a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Everett Golson looked calm and poised, while Riddick scrounged up a handful of important plays, including a nine-yard touchdown run late in the first. But Notre Dame wasn't able to pull away early, only managing field goals on a pair of promising drives bookending Riddick's touchdown and setting the tone for the team's offensive output Saturday night.
"I think not getting touchdowns came back to make it a little more difficult on us, and I knew it would," Kelly said. "Every time we had to kick a field goal where we missed an opportunity -- we're still in the process there. We're not there yet. When we start clicking down in the red zone, we'll be really good."
But the Irish didn't ultimately need to convert those red zone opportunities, although the collective blood pressure of Notre Dame may say otherwise. That's because the Irish defense once again locked down, only allowing a touchdown and two field goals to an offense that remained high-powered despite injured quarterback Matt Barkley spending the entire game in sweat pants on the sidelines.
After a shaky start, first-time starter Max Wittek settled down, completing seven straight passes and leading USC to 10 first-half points, keeping the Trojans within striking distance. Notre Dame couldn't capitalize off a Manti Te'o interception to open the second half, with Brindza missing a 34-yard field goal.
That interception, though, sparked a defensive struggle for most of the third quarter. Notre Dame and USC traded punts throughout the quarter until Golson hit Tyler Eifert for a 36-yard gain late in the period, setting up Brindza's third successful field goal of the game to put Notre Dame up by nine. USC only managed 24 yards in the third quarter.
"The entire game was managed the way we managed each and every game -- minimize the big plays, they had the one great completion late in the game," Kelly said. "We minimized the big plays and we ran the football, and our quarterback was able to manage the run game for us."
That big completion Kelly referred to was a 53-yarder to Marqise Lee, which set USC up on the Irish two-yard line late in the fourth. Even with Notre Dame leading by nine with time ticking away, the thought of a Trojans comeback was hardly far-fetched.
After a slew of pass interference calls on KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame stopped Wittek on a pair of QB sneaks, then dropped Curtis McNeal for no gain on the one-inch line. And when Soma Vainuku dropped what would've been a touchdown pass, Notre Dame pulled off another miraculous goal-line stand. Their last one led to a win over Stanford, which athletic director Jack Swarbrick saw as a benchmark for the team's title hopes.
"Coming into the year, I thought Stanford was the test," Swarbrick said. "I just think that in the past few years, they were more physical than we were, bigger and tougher than we were, and I thought that's going to be our benchmark. And when we survived that, especially the way we did, that's when I thought we had a chance."
Notre Dame survived Stepfan Taylor, and on Saturday, survived USC's goal-line efforts in the same manner.
Only this time, that goal-line stand is sending Notre Dame to Miami.