Irish poised for bigger things

Originally Published: October 13, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- This is how you become relevant again:

You win when you shouldn't.

You win in overtime and do it with a goal-line stand.

You win when your starting quarterback gets knocked out of the game.

You win when you fumble five times, losing three of them, and commit nine penalties.

You win when you trail at halftime and again late in the fourth quarter.

You win in the rain.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhEven at 6-0, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is having his team take things one game at a time.

"I'm so excited," Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix said. "I'm ready to call my momma."

The seventh-ranked Fighting Irish remain undefeated and in the middle of the BCS championship conversation because they won the kind of game they used to lose. Their 20-13 win against Stanford was as pretty as Saturday's weather here -- dreary, overcast and rainy -- but artistry is sometimes overrated.

"They came from behind, right?" Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "They didn't luck into it. ... They won that game. They earned that win."

Sunday evening, when the first BCS standings are released, we'll find out just how much an often-sloppy 7-point win against the then-17th-ranked Cardinal is worth. At the very least, the Fighting Irish will move ahead of the football myth that was once West Virginia. After that, who knows?

Of course, don't mention any of this to Kelly. Ever since this 6-0 run began, Kelly has reminded his team no more than, oh, a gajillion times that none of this means bupkus yet.

Kelly is like Pravda in the old days. He issues the state-run media line, and his players recite it word for word.

Well, almost word for word.

"Our mentality is week to week, team by team," said linebacker Manti Te'o, who had 11 tackles. "We are 6-6 and we are very lucky to be 6-6."

Pause.

"I mean, 6-0. Sorry, guys."

No apology is necessary. First of all, Te'o was knocked to his knees in the end zone metal bleachers by a teammate during the postgame celebration. Second, he was part of that goal-line stand in overtime that stopped (depending on your point of view) Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor four consecutive times from inside the ND 4.

First-and-goal from the 4. From the 3. From the 1. And then from the 1 again.

"Those are the moments you dream of," Te'o said.

Those also are the moments that get reviewed by video replay.

"Stepfan swore to me that he got in and that he put the ball over the goal line on the second effort," said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose temper was on simmer after the game. "Officials looked at it and they said he didn't get in, so we didn't get in."

Shaw wasn't in much of a hurry to compliment Notre Dame. Instead, he mentioned how the officiating crew screwed up a ball spot in the game. "And they put the ball on the wrong hash," he said.

He also volunteered that his players stopped playing in a fourth-quarter, third-and-2 situation from the Notre Dame 3 that resulted in a 7-yard loss by Taylor. Reason: an alleged whistle from the crowd.

"It was verified, it was heard," Shaw said. "The play did not stop."

Stanford settled for a field goal and 13-10 lead with 6:12 left in regulation.

"I did not hear a whistle, no sir," said Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley, who made the Taylor tackle.

Stanford had beaten Notre Dame three consecutive times, and had done it with Andrew Luck and a more physical style. This time the Fighting Irish weren't afraid to trade body blows.

That's the difference between the past, irrelevant versions of the Irish, and this new and improved version. You hit them, they hit you back. Hard.

Are they perfect? Hardly.

First-year starting quarterback Everett Golson is capable of top-10 and bottom-10 plays in the same series. He finished 12-of-24 for 141 yards and one touchdown. Texas Tech's Seth Doege, he wasn't.

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
Matt Cashore/US PresswireStopping Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor four straight times gave Notre Dame the victory.

Golson was sidelined with less than four minutes to go because of a helmet-to-helmet hit. In came Tommy Rees, who led Notre Dame to the tying field goal and then the win in OT.

That's the difference. Notre Dame recovered. It didn't freak out. It persevered.

"I told them at halftime, I said, 'Listen, what did you think -- we were going to go the whole year and not trail?'" Kelly said. "You don't do that in college football at any level."

Notre Dame hadn't given up an offensive touchdown in its last four games. It has given up only 52 points during the first six games -- the best for an ND team since 1976. And the win against Stanford means the Fighting Irish have beaten three top-25 teams in the same season for the first time since 2005.

They aren't the best team in the country, but they're one of the best. And they still have a schedule to work their way higher.

"As long as we're getting closer to No. 1, that's all I care about," Te'o said. "We want to look at the rankings at the end of the season."

Notre Dame is taking baby steps closer to the top spot. But it still has next week's home game against BYU and then the Oct. 27 game at Oklahoma. OU, by the way, turned Bevo into hamburger Saturday at the Cotton Bowl, beating Texas by 42 points.

There's also the regular-season-ending trip to USC.

So this is no done deal. But at least people are talking about Notre Dame, as opposed to ignoring it.

Relevancy has its perks.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

ALSO SEE