LOS ANGELES -- Braxston Cave let out a primal scream, pointing to the legions of delirious Notre Dame fans crowding the front rows of the stands at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Carlo Calabrese raced up and down the wall, high-fiving anyone with a free hand and a Notre Dame jersey. Manti Te'o and Brian Kelly, the emotional leader and coach, embraced in the tunnel leading away from the field where Notre Dame beat USC 22-13, securing an undefeated regular season and berth in the BCS Championship Jan. 7 in Miami.
"We set out this season to build our program and get it back in to the national discussion when you're talking about championship programs," Kelly said after the game. "And we're in that discussion."
Notre Dame isn't just in the discussion. They're at the center of it, with the winner of next week's SEC Championship between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia awaiting in South Beach.
The Irish got to that point by doing what they've done all year on Saturday. A stout defense effort was punctuated by another miraculous goal-line stand, with Notre Dame keeping USC out of the end zone on four tries from inside the one-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Theo Riddick shed countless tackles and gained 146 yards with a touchdown on 20 physical carries. And Everett Golson didn't put up a flashy stat line, but didn't turn the ball over.
That's exactly the formula that got Notre Dame to where they are today, and that's a spot in the BCS Championship.
"It was just football at its best, you know," safety Zeke Motta beamed.
But that formula hasn't been perfected yet, despite a perfect record. Kyle Brindza had to kick six field goals -- he hit five -- as Notre Dame consistently left points on the board, allowing USC to stay within striking distance until the dying embers of the game.
"We definitely have to improve," Riddick said. "We're not there yet, we don't feel like it. We're going to go back next week, look at the tape, figure out what we can get better at and do that during that week. We have time. Coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to. We have to get better at that being in the red zone. We're going to do that, and we're going to be okay."
The on-field formula still needs work, as plenty will be quick to point out when the Irish open as underdogs to either Alabama or Georgia. But big-picture, Notre Dame's formula for success is clear. It's also one few predicted would work in today's college football landscape.
"What's so exciting for us is to be in this year that we're No. 1 in the nation in graduation success rate, to be ranked No. 1 in the BCS and go to the championship game. No one's ever done that before," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "And that's the proof of concept for us. That's always been what the goal was and what we were about. To be able to pull it off, this year, another important game to go -- but to get to this point, proving you can do it the way we do it is incredibly galvanizing and rewarding for us."
Few expected Notre Dame to be here, certainly not as soon as 2012. Even Swarbrick admitted he thought 2013 was going to be the year Kelly and the Irish finally broke through. But despite a greenhorn quarterback, a pair of injuries to starters in the secondary and plenty of near-misses at home, make no mistake: Notre Dame is back.
"I was just speechless, man," Riddick said of his thoughts when the clock hit zero. "I was just in shock. It was like a dream come true."
In a historical context, Notre Dame's win was probably shocking. The Irish haven't won a game this big in nearly a quarter of a century. But nothing went terribly wrong, like things did in 1993. There were no crippling turnovers, the likes of which stamped out any hopes of Notre Dame taking a step forward in 2011. This is 2012, and Notre Dame won in Notre Dame fashion. That's hardly surprising.
"This was another clear indication of how we got to 12-0," Kelly said. "Our guys have incredible resolve, regardless of the circumstances, of coming up and finding ways to win. That's all we talk about. We don't talk about style points, anything else, just find ways to win. And these guys continue to do that."