Notre Dame Poised for Probable Championship Berth With Victory

The University of Notre Dame defeated the University of Southern California 22-13, all but ensuring the “No. 1” sign above Grace Hall will stay lit for six more weeks and the Fighting Irish will play for college football’s national championship on Jan. 7.

Notre Dame’s Kyle Brindza kicked five field goals and Theo Riddick rushed nine yards for a touchdown as the team finished 12-0 for its first undefeated season since 1988.

“The way we’ve had to fight against USC on the road and Oklahoma on the road -- we’ve got great players, great coaches,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “I’m so proud of the players and coaches.”

The program that produced legendary football figures such as Knute Rockne and George Gipp has 865 victories and eight Associated Press national championships, tied with the University of Alabama for the most titles since the poll began in 1936.

Illuminated whenever one of the school’s teams is ranked No. 1, the eight-foot sign on Notre Dame’s South Bend, Indiana, campus was turned on last week after the football squad was awarded the top spot in the Bowl Championship Series rankings.

The previous time the No. 1 sign was lit was in 2010, when the women’s soccer team won the national championship.

Top of BCS

The only undefeated team at college football’s highest level, Notre Dame will probably remain at the top when the BCS releases its weekly rankings today and its final list on Dec. 2.

Notre Dame’s possible opponents in the national title game include defending champion Alabama (11-1), which held the AP poll’s top spot for 10 weeks this season. Alabama, which defeated Auburn 49-0 yesterday, will play Georgia for the Southeastern Conference championship next week.

Heading into last night’s games, Notre Dame had surrendered nine offensive touchdowns this year, five fewer than any other team, and had allowed 10.9 points per game, tied with Alabama for fewest in the country. The Fighting Irish’s 287.8 yards allowed per game ranked sixth best in the country, while the offense was 50th in total yards and 73rd in points scored.

Everett Golson completed 15 of 26 passing attempts for 217 yards for the Fighting Irish. Riddick carried 20 times for 146 yards.

Tough Defense

“The unity of this team has been tremendous,” said Golson. “We have to keep going.”

The Trojans threatened to score in the fourth quarter, getting as close as the one-yard line before the Fighting Irish defense stopped them.

“No matter where the ball is, we’re going to protect the end zone,” said linebacker Manti Te’O. “That’s our defense.”

USC, which had won nine of its previous 10 meetings with Notre Dame, played without starting quarterback Matt Barkley because of a shoulder injury.

Max Wittek connected with Robert Woods on an 11-yard scoring pass in the second quarter and Andre Heidari kicked two field goals for USC. Wittek completed 14 of 23 passing attempts for 186 yards and two interceptions.

Notre Dame is a Catholic institution with about 8,000 undergraduate students and a $6.3 billion endowment in fiscal 2011, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Its football team, one of four independents at the sport’s top level, generated $68.8 million of the athletic department’s $94.5 million in revenue, according to reports filed with the Department of Education.

Iconic Helmets

The team’s golden helmets have become iconic in college football, along with a tradition that includes the Four Horsemen, the nickname of the backfield from championship teams in the 1920s; Rockne, their coach in 1918-30 who led Notre Dame to three national championships, and Daniel Ruettiger, whose story was told in the movie “Rudy.”

The Fighting Irish have produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, the most of any school, and have their own national television contract with Comcast Corp.’s NBC that reaches the university’s national alumni network.

“Notre Dame is the only team in the country that never plays a road game,” the late college football historian Beano Cook once said of the Fighting Irish, who have had 13 losing seasons in their 123-year history.

Five of Notre Dame’s opponents this season were ranked in the AP’s Preseason Top 25, including No. 8 Michigan, No. 13 Michigan State, No. 4 Oklahoma and USC, picked No. 1 in August. It won those five games by a combined 105-48.

Close Games

The Fighting Irish also had some close calls this season. They beat Purdue on Sept. 8 on a field goal with 15 seconds remaining; topped Stanford in overtime on Oct. 13; overcame a seven-point halftime deficit against Brigham Young University a week later, and had to rally from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Pittsburgh in triple overtime on Nov. 3.

The BCS National Championship Game, the last of the BCS bowls, will be played Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. Notre Dame had never before been No. 1 in the BCS rankings, which began in 1998, and last sat atop a national poll in 1993.

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