- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- You could hear the weeping from one end of the country to the other. From Gainesville, Fla., all the way to Eugene, Ore.
If you are a one-loss team not named Alabama or Georgia, your BCS national championship balloon was punctured for good Saturday evening at the Coliseum. Holding the working end of a knitting needle: Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish squeezed past USC 22-13 to put a very green bow on a season that began with modest expectations (by us, not them) and ended with an undefeated record and a No. 1 ranking. Best of all, Notre Dame is going to play in a national title game for the first time since ... ?
"Yeah, I think it was 1987 or '88?" said running back Theo Riddick, who cradled a game ball in his left arm.
It was 1988, three years before Riddick was born.
"I wasn't even thought of," Riddick said, laughing.
Neither was Notre Dame back in August. The Irish were such football afterthoughts that they weren't even ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 25. The coaches had them at only No. 24, probably just to be polite.
"Are you sure about that?" Riddick said. "Really?"
Yes, really. In fact, there's a certain sweet symmetry to how things worked out: The unranked team at season's beginning beats a USC team ranked No. 1 in that same AP preseason poll.
So the Irish are in. They're in because they're the only 12-0 team not serving time in the NCAA big house. Ohio State also finished the regular season with a dozen wins and zero losses, but that, and an autograph from Brutus, gets you nothing.
Notre Dame will face the winner of next Saturday's SEC championship. That means a January date with either one-loss Alabama or one-loss Georgia. It also means the SEC will be going for the BCS championship seven-peat.
"Is that who we play?" said ND linebacker Manti Te'o, who wore a postgame lei given to him by Irish coach Brian Kelly's daughter.
Te'o wasn't kidding; he really didn't know Bama and Georgia were on the BCS short list of opponents. He also wasn't completely sure the BCS championship was going to be played in South Florida. Instead, as he skipped happily toward the Coliseum tunnel and toward the visitors locker room, he yelled, "We're going to the natty."
As in, national championship.
"We just focused on week to week to week," Te'o said. "We didn't look at the big picture."
Instead, they looked at 12 little pictures. This last one -- the clinching win against USC -- is available for framing.
With the victory, Notre Dame saved the BCS from itself, to say nothing of final-week chaos and industrial-strength controversy. Had the Irish lost, one-loss Oregon and Florida -- neither of which is playing in its conference championship -- suddenly would have been in the BCS mix. Notre Dame would have been forced into full campaign mode. One-loss Kansas State would have attempted to make its case. There was even the possibility of another all-SEC national title game.
And now? Peace and tranquility -- except in Eugene and Gainesville, where Ducks fans and Gators fans must have been screaming at their plasmas as USC, trailing by nine points with 5:58 remaining in the game, had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line ... and failed to score.
"I'm glad," Irish safety Zeke Motta said. "I don't really care if we made anybody unhappy. We did what we had to do."
Oregon, Florida and K-State have only themselves to blame for their situations. If you have to depend on a 7-4 (now 7-5) USC team that features quarterback Matt Barkley in street clothes and with his arm in a sling, you've got problems.
Barkley's injured shoulder meant he would spend senior night on the sideline. It also meant redshirt freshman Max Wittek would make his USC debut as the Trojans' starting quarterback.
Wittek had his moments, but not enough of them. And USC did what it has done all season: tease and then disappoint.
"No one imagined losing five games with the talent that we have," said Wittek, who has a big boy arm and completed 14 of 23 passes for 186 yards, one TD and two interceptions.
And no one, except the Irish, imagined they'd be unbeaten and a BCS title game lock.
As recently as the morning of Nov. 17, they were on the outside looking in -- third in the BCS standings behind K-State and Oregon.
"Heart," ND linebacker Prince Shembo said. "And prayers."
Oregon and Florida had hoped for a football miracle Saturday. Instead, they saw another in a long line of workmanlike Notre Dame victories.
The Irish kill you with a thousand paper cuts. Or goal-line stands. You don't realize the blood loss until you look at the scoreboard.
There was no USC postgame outrage. The Trojans knew how and why they had been beaten. And when you asked star wide receiver Marqise Lee whether Notre Dame was the No. 1 team in the country, the answer came easily.
"Yeah, they did a great job," he said.
And when USC linebacker Hayes Pullard was asked the same question, he answered, "Most definitely."
Better than Oregon?
"Yes," said Pullard, whose Trojans had lost to the Ducks 62-51. "Better."
For the moment, Notre Dame is better than everyone. That's what the record says. That's what the BCS standings say. That's what the locker room celebration said.
"It was like winning the Super Bowl, pretty much," said Irish place-kicker Kyle Brindza.
Good for Brindza. Good for Notre Dame. And in a nice change, good for college football, too.
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