By MICHAEL WANBAUGH
THE GOSHEN NEWS
On the campus of the University of Notre Dame, football legends tend to blend into the crowd and the reality of whatever is happening at the moment always seems to be challenged by the vacuum of an iconic past.
Well, what’s old is new again in South Bend.
With a win over Southern California late Saturday night, No. 1 Notre Dame punched its unlikely ticket to the Bowl Championship Series National Championship game on Jan. 7, 2013 in Miami.
There have been so many special seasons in South Bend over the decades.
There was the 1966 national championship team that went 9-0-1 behind a defense that allowed just 38 points all season and accumulated six shutouts along the way.
There was the perfect 1973 team that upset No. 1 Alabama, 24-23, in the Sugar Bowl.
There was the 11-1 team in 1977 that won 10 straight games and vaulted from No. 5 to national champion with a Cotton Bowl domination of No. 1 Texas, 38-10.
And, of course, there was the 1988 Irish that edged Michigan to open the season, toppled No. 1 Miami in October and then beat No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to claim a record 11th national title.
Even with all that history in the foggy rear-view mirror, this could be one of the most special teams in Notre Dame history.
This Notre Dame team wasn’t even ranked in the season’s first Associated Press Top 25 poll. An online poll in The Goshen News before the season started asked how people thought Notre Dame would do this season. Out of more than 400 votes, only 19 people felt the Irish would play for a national championship.
The Irish managed to raise the nation’s eyebrow with a season-opening crushing of Navy in Dublin, Ireland back in August. But, as many people reasoned, that was a very weak Navy team and Notre Dame was bound to come back to earth once they got back from across The Pond.
Most of those opinions were reinforced the following week in Notre Dame’s home opener in South Bend when the Irish needed a field goal in the waning moments to beat unranked Purdue, 20-17.
An impressive 20-3 road win at No. 10 Michigan State, followed by a home victory against No. 18 Michigan, gave us a glimpse at the emerging defensive identity of this team and lifted the Irish into the Top 10 for the first time since 2006.
At that point, many experts had predicted Notre Dame to be 2-2 or 3-1 at best. Notre Dame was 4-0 instead, but serious questions remained about a pedestrian offense led by freshman quarterback Everett Golson.
After a 41-3 domination of Miami (Fla.) in Chicago, Notre Dame found itself at a crossroads on Oct. 13. With some heavy hitters remaining on the schedule, there were still two ways this season could take. The Irish managed to eke out an overtime win against a very good Stanford team, which propelled them into the Top 5 of the rankings.
Suddenly a BCS bowl game seemed likely and a spot in the national championship game, while still remote, seemed possible.
Following a home scare against BYU, Notre Dame traveled to perennial power Oklahoma. Again, Notre Dame was considered an underdog against the eighth-ranked Sooners. The Irish left Norman, Okla., with a 30-13 win under their arm, but still an uphill climb to the title game.
Notre Dame dodged a bullet the next week at home when Pittsburgh missed a potential game-winning field goal in overtime. Golson later scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak and the Irish were 9-0. A lunch-pail road win at Boston College and a thrashing of Wake Forest at home moved Notre Dame to 11-0, but it still stood at No. 3 in the BCS rankings.
Then, the same day as the Wake Forest victory, the BCS seas parted for Notre Dame. Later that night No. 1 Kansas State was upset by Baylor and No. 2 Oregon was defeated in overtime by Stanford. Just like that, Notre Dame, an afterthought 11 weeks earlier, was No. 1. Students on campus — just 25 miles from Goshen — poured out of their dorms to celebrate and a lighted “#1” sign was plugged in high atop Grace Hall.
All that stood between Notre Dame and a trip to the national title game was a win over arch-rival USC in Los Angeles Saturday night.
Behind the hard-nosed rushing of running back Theo Riddick, the leg of kicker Kyle Brindza and the defensive magic of linebacker Manti Te’o, the Irish beat the Trojans, 22-13. It was the first victory by a No. 1-ranked Notre Dame team since Goshen’s Rick Mirer led the visiting Irish past Tennessee on Nov. 10, 1990.
Up next for Notre Dame is presumedly the winner of this coming Saturday’s SEC championship game between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia. More than likely the Irish will again be the underdog as an SEC team has won the past five national championships.
Notre Dame has also not performed well in major bowls over the past 12 years. Since 2000 the Irish have qualified for three BCS bowls — the Fiesta in 2000 against Oregon State, the Fiesta again in 2005 against Ohio State and the Sugar in 2006 against LSU. Notre Dame lost all three of those games by a combined score of 116-43.
Is Notre Dame the best, most talented team in the country this year? Probably not. Has it had some luck along the way to be at 12-0? Of course, any national championship team has. Has it found ways to win and deserve to play for a title? Absolutely.
Despite the picture some try to paint, success is nothing new at Notre Dame. This season’s success, though, seemingly came out of nowhere and has taken the college football world by surprise. That is what makes it so special.