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Notre Dame is on the verge of its first unbeaten season and opportunity at a
national championship since 1988. How did the top-ranked Fighting Irish (12-0) arrive at this opportunity?
Let's take a look:
The Irish traveled to Dublin, Ireland, to open the 2012 campaign and did so in convincing fashion against a team that had given them difficulty over recent years.
This was the first sign that perhaps the Notre Dame defensive unit would be able to be decent this season, as that unit limited the Midshipmen to just 149 rushing yards and forced five Navy fumbles (recovering three) and an interception.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly also gave Irish fans a glimpse as to how he was going to manage his new starting quarterback, sophomore Everett Golson.
Golson threw 18 passes (completing 12), but more importantly, the Irish ran the ball 46 times for 293 yards. Kelly let notice be served that his formula for success would be to go slow with Golson, while allowing the defense, rushing attack and minimizing turnovers (Golson had one interception) result in victories.
This narrow win over the Boilermakers demonstrated just how popular a backup quarterback – any backup quarterback – can be.
After Notre Dame blew a 17-7 fourth-quarter lead, Kelly chose last year's starter, junior Tommy Rees, to orchestrate a game-winning drive in the final minutes.
Because Rees served a suspension against Navy, this was his first action since the loss to Florida State in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, a game in which he played very poorly, ultimately costing him his job.
Golson got shaken up on a hit late in the game, and Kelly elected to trust Rees over a first-year player in his first pressure situation. Rees delivered. He connected with John Goodman and Robby Toma on critical third downs, and the Irish eventually got a 27-yard field goal from Kyle Brindza with seven seconds remaining to secure the win.
It would not be the last of dramatic moments this fall.
Golson gave Notre Dame fans a sign of the future as he bounced back from being benched against Purdue to play very well on the road against the 10th-ranked (but would ultimately prove to be overrated) Spartans.
Golson connected with Goodman for an early score and later ran for a 6-yard touchdown, but this game was all about the Irish defense, which was showing its potential.
Notre Dame held the vaunted Michigan State running game to just 122 yards on 34 carries, including giving up just 77 yards on 19 carries to heralded Spartans tailback Le'Veon Bell.
Golson was bad in this game and got benched again. But Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson was worse.
Robinson turned the ball over on five possessions spanning two halves (four interceptions), and again, Rees (8 of 11) came into the game and was solid after Golson (3 of 8) struggled.
Michigan threw interceptions (one by a tailback) on five consecutive attempts.
The Irish defense was now on everyone's radar, and Manti Te'o was at the center of the attention. The senior linebacker intercepted a pair of passes, and Notre Dame forced the aforementioned turnovers and went a second game without allowing the opponent to score a touchdown.
OK, at this point, the Irish defense was simply getting ridiculous.
After the 'Canes blew several early opportunities to burn the young Notre Dame secondary, the Irish settled down and began to dominate in this game at Soldier Field in Chicago. They did so by managing the clock and getting another good “bounce-back” effort from Golson.
The young quarterback completed 17 of 22 passes without an interception, and Notre Dame also had two players (Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III) rush for at least 118 yards. The Irish totaled 376 yards on the ground, and the bad luck of 2011 (lots of turnovers) began to turn into good fortune in 2012, as they fumbled twice but did not lose either.
The Irish had climbed inside the top 10 (ranked ninth) entering this game, and it was the third consecutive game that an opponent did not score a touchdown.
The first of several magical moments to highlight the 2012 Notre Dame season came in overtime of this game matching two physical, nationally ranked teams.
With Golson on the sidelines after getting his bell rung, Rees again came in on relief and performed. He guided the team in place for Brindza to boot a game-tying field goal in the final seconds of regulation, and then the quarterback found receiver T.J. Jones in the end zone in the extra session.
Stanford then tried to run the ball through the Notre Dame defensive front on fourth- and- goal, but the Irish held Stepfan Taylor out – or so the officials said.
The Cardinal coaches disagreed, but the play was reviewed and the call stood.
After still not allowing an offensive touchdown (four consecutive games), the Notre Dame -hype machine was in full gear by this point.
No one said the 2012 Fighting Irish season would be pretty, and the close call over Brigham Young wasn't.
The fifth-ranked Irish struggled most of the day and were trailing 14-10 in the final period before Atkinson III ran in for an early fourth-quarter score.
Notre Dame ran for 270 yards, passed for just 119, and Irish fans were perfectly fine with that as long as their team won.
Theo Riddick and Wood were showing just how dangerous a running tandem they could be. It was clear at this point that the Irish had the run game, enough offensive balance, a good enough line and a strong enough defense to make this season much better than anticipated. But how much better?
A lot better.
The fifth-ranked Fighting Irish traveled to Norman and left everyone in the college football world speechless with a resounding thrashing of the eighth-ranked Sooners.
That high-powered Oklahoma offense? Squashed.
That athletic Sooners defense? Ran by, passed over and gone through.
Golson was good (13-of-25 passing and 64 yards rushing), Riddick and Wood were good (74 yards each), and the rest of the Irish offense (more than 400 total yards) showed that it wasn't all about the phenomenal Notre Dame defense (but that unit was great, too).
Not only was the “Notre Dame to the BCS title game” hoopla swirling like an Oklahoma twister by now, but the “Manti Te'o (he had another interception late in this game) for the Heisman Trophy” campaign was in full force and would eventually carry him to New York.
If every successful team needs some luck at certain points of the season, Notre Dame used five years' worth on a single Saturday.
The fourth-ranked Irish trailed unranked Pitt 20-6 in the fourth quarter before surviving because of a couple of miracles. They were now 9-0 and avoided the bad luck of the 1993 team (8-0 and then lost to unranked Boston College).
Golson was picked off in the end zone in the final quarter after being benched earlier in the game, only to return.
Wood fumbled while diving in for a score in the second overtime.
Following that miscue, Pitt's kicker barely missed a 33-yard field goal that would have won the game for the Panthers. On that play, Notre Dame had two players wearing the same jersey number, which would have resulted in a penalty and a re-kick, but as luck would have it, the officials didn't see it.
Ultimately Golson scored on a 1-yard run in the third overtime to keep his team's championship dreams alive.
The Eagles have proved to be a nemesis in years past, but BC had fallen on very hard times (ultimately firing its coach) this season and this victory was never in doubt.
The most significant event of the day occurred thousands of miles away when Alabama lost to Texas A&M earlier in the day and gave fans of fourth-ranked Notre Dame hopes of climbing high enough to secure a spot in the BCS title game.
Now ranked third, the Irish had gotten their wake-up call against Pitt and were being very methodical in their drubbing of overmatched opponents.
Notre Dame raced out to a 21-0 lead in the opening quarter and never was threatened as the Irish defensive unit continued to demonstrate its greatness.
The win closed out a perfect home season for the first time since 1998, and Notre Dame was 11-0 for the first time since 1989. Former Bishop Dwenger High School standout Tyler Eifert caught his 130th pass, which set an Irish career mark for receptions by a tight end.
Again, another significant moment on this day took place elsewhere, as both Oregon and Kansas State lost, which would propel Notre Dame to the top spot nationally.
The Irish withstood a late rally by the host Trojans and got their signature moment in doing so.
Notre Dame held a 22-13 lead in the final minutes, but the Trojans advanced to the Irish 1-yard line and had a first-and-goal from 3 feet. Actually, 18 inches after a pass interference penalty by the Notre Dame secondary.
USC continually tried to run the ball through the Notre Dame defense and failed. And failed. And failed. And failed again.
Four plays, each of which ate valuable time off the clock for the Trojans, and the Irish defense would not budge.
The result was a trip to Miami for the national championship. It will be Notre Dame's first trip back to the title game since 1988.