- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Brian Kelly emerged from the Coliseum field flanked by security guards left and right, looking nearly disheveled. He held his white Notre Dame baseball cap up toward the sky in a brief moment of bravado, his ensuing toss falling a good 10 feet short of the fans.
The coach of the nation's No. 1 team was already near his locker room by the time the cap landed, his star player rushing to catch up to him. Kelly and Manti Te'o embraced, the 51-year-old bear-hugging the linebacker, looking more excited than any of his players were after they had just pulled off the unthinkable.
"I can't remember what I said," Kelly recalled of the moment. "But what we've been saying all along is that we're in this together. It's really been about both of us, player and coach, driving this thing. And I think we were probably sharing that embrace, that we got it one step closer."
From South Bend, Ind., to Southern California, the Fighting Irish now will march on to South Beach, one step closer to holding up that prized crystal football. They will do it after winning Saturday night at rival USC, 22-13, to clinch a spot in the BCS National Championship Game, which will be played Jan. 7 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
They will go there under a third-year coach, the standard for all legendary Notre Dame leaders, four of whom won national titles with the Irish in Year 3 and have statues on campus to show for it.
They will go there under the nation's best defensive player, who has emerged as an icon amid personal tragedy, who might or might not have some hardware already in hand after another interception Saturday, his seventh of the season.
"If a guy like Manti Te'o's not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award," Kelly said afterward. "Give it to the offensive player every year, and let's just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week, and showed it tonight again with another key interception and a great play in the end zone on Marqise Lee to save another touchdown.
"If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I just don't know how Manti Te'o is left out of that conversation."
With the Irish up 19-10 early in the fourth quarter, Te'o hit Lee, USC's Heisman candidate, in the back of the end zone on a third-and-goal play, forcing the ball to the ground and forcing the Trojans to settle for a field goal.
Te'o and the Notre Dame defense returned to that area of the field on USC's next drive, after a 43-yard Lee kick return and a 53-yard Lee reception. Backs against the wall, a 22-13 lead and a little more than five minutes from a perfect regular season, the Irish lined up, prepared to stop a first-and-goal play from the 2.
Eight plays and three minutes later, the visitors sideline was coming apart at the seams, Notre Dame's fate all but sealed. The Irish had kept USC's lethal attack out of the end zone, again. They had made a remarkable goal-line stand, again.
Six weeks earlier, against Stanford, Notre Dame had kept the Cardinal out of the end zone on four consecutive overtime plays from inside the 5. That was the moment everything came to fruition for athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who confessed Saturday night that this season's title run had come a year earlier than expected.
"Coming into the year, I thought Stanford was the test," Swarbrick said. "I just think in the past two years they were more physical than we were, bigger and tougher than we were. I thought, 'That's going to be our benchmark.' And when we survived that, especially the way we did, I thought this team had a chance."
Swarbrick came to Notre Dame as a student in 1973, just in time for Ara Parseghian's second national title. He graduated in the spring of 1977, just missing Dan Devine's first.
He came back to his alma mater four years ago, before a season that ended in this same building, the reporters that time surrounding him for comment about the status of former coach Charlie Weis after another blowout loss here.
"It's what gets you up in the morning," Swarbrick said of restoring the Notre Dame lore.
He helped do that by hiring Kelly, who now has a 12-0 team for the second time in four years. His previous one, at Cincinnati, did not get to play for the national title. This one, after entering the season unranked, after enduring questions from quarterback play to recruiting methods to injury concerns, will.
"We believed in each other," Te'o said of the journey, which took a detour last season after a loss to USC, leading to Kelly comments that threatened to fracture the locker room. "Our coaches believed in us, and we believed in our coaches. It showed the type of camaraderie we have on our team. It's the camaraderie on our team that has helped us be successful."
Upon reaching the visitors locker room after Saturday's win, Kelly greeted a group of players who were, in his words, singing and dancing and laughing. He said a few words to them before presenting the game ball to Theo Riddick, who had carved up the Trojans for 146 rushing yards.
Then Te'o, the leader who spurned USC four years ago for Notre Dame, who spurned the NFL last season for this moment, stood up unexpectedly. He said a few words himself, these ones about his coach, and then he presented Kelly with a game ball of his own. Teammates called it a speechless moment.
Notre Dame is back on college football's grandest stage. Not much else is left to be said.
15hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information