NORMAN, Okla. -- Despite an undefeated record and No. 5 BCS ranking, Notre Dame went into Oklahoma nearly a two-touchdown underdog against the No. 8 Sooners. It was only the second true road game for the Irish in 2012, and it was coming in a venue in which Oklahoma had only lost four times in 83 games under coach Bob Stoops.
But Notre Dame, led by a quarterback making just his sixth career start, went into Norman and beat the Sooners 30-13, a drubbing that vaulted the Irish squarely into the nation's national title race.
"For us, we knew what we could do, so today's no surprise," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "We knew that if we came to work, that if we came into today with confidence and everybody doing their job, we would be fine."
Few thought Notre Dame would be fine, though, heading into the wood chipper that is Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Plenty pointed out Notre Dame's strength of schedule had lost some clout, while others didn't think the Irish offense was good enough to compete with an OU attack that was fresh off a 52-7 torching of Kansas.
All that doubt provided a little extra fuel for Notre Dame on Saturday.
"I kind of like playing away," Everett Golson said. "I think it's because I like when people count me out, that's how I've always been."
"It just shows that everyone doubts us and doesn't respect us," cornerback Bennett Jackson added.
Notre Dame earned plenty of respect on Saturday, though, with what will go down as a signature win for the Irish. But getting to that point was hardly easy.
With the score tied at 13 midway through the fourth quarter, Golson found freshman Chris Brown downfield for a 50-yard completion. He then snuck the ball in from OU's one for what wound up being the game-winning touchdown with 5:05 remaining.
Notre Dame could've been content to try to plod upfield and run the clock, aiming for a field goal attempt. Instead, Brian Kelly, Chuck Martin and Notre Dame's offense made a bold call to throw it deep for Brown.
"I wanted to win the game," Kelly said. "I thought that we needed to throw the football and get a big-chunk play. We wanted to win and there was no way that we were going to turn down that opportunity."
But the key to Notre Dame's win, as has been the case all year, was on defense.
Against a high-powered Oklahoma offense that had scored 156 points in its last three games, Notre Dame's bend-but-don't-break defense held OU to 39 points fewer than that three-game average.
"We were going to give up yards to keep the points down," Kelly said. "We could not let the points get out of reach for us. This was the first time that we showed we could be on our own a bit offensively and put some points on the boards. But we could not have won this football game if the points got up into the numbers that were probably out of reach for our offense."
Blake Bell powered his way in for a rushing touchdown early in the fourth -- the first score of its kind any team has had against Notre Dame this season. That TD tied the game, but Notre Dame's response on both sides of the ball wound up being key in their 17-point margin of victory.
"I think with this defense when somebody scores, we get really frustrated," Te'o said. "And I think it showed our maturity by how we rallied after that touchdown. We just kept going and I'm very proud of our guys."
Notre Dame's defense was aided by a handful of critical mistakes made by the OU offense. Late in the second quarter, it looked like Bell had found the end zone, but his five-yard rush was called back for a holding penalty. OU running back Brennan Clay dropped a pass at the five that might have gone for a touchdown, and all the Sooners could manage was three points.
"I don't think they made a single mistake," OU linebacker Tom Wort said. "We made a couple mistakes. When you go against a good team like that, you can't make mistakes."
Notre Dame hasn't played mistake-free football all season -- just look to Golson's performances against Michigan and Stanford, for example. But facing about as hostile an environment as college football has to offer (Oklahoma's announced crowd of 86,031 was the largest in stadium history), Notre Dame avoided any momentum-shifting turnovers. That was arguably the biggest key to a signature win for the Irish.
Kelly and Notre Dame's players have explained to anyone within earshot about tuning out the noise this year. That will become a more difficult task when Sunday's BCS rankings are released, with national championship discussion shifting toward South Bend (as well as staying in Tuscaloosa, Manhattan and Eugene). So for Kelly, he feels as if Notre Dame stops to admire their position, it'll wind up costing them it.
"If we start listening to national championship and the BCS, we'll lose a football game," Kelly said. "And they're a pretty smart group, and they know if they stick with what we've done and stick with the process of just preparing for Pittsburgh, they'll be fine. But if they start thinking about all those other things and listening, we'll lose.
"It's what I told them in the locker room. Enjoy a great victory against Oklahoma, now let's find a way to beat Pittsburgh next week."