SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – Coach Brian Kelly was doing the same thing Notre Dame fans around the country were doing last Saturday night, flipping back and forth between the Kansas State and Oregon games and cheering loudly for one of the top two teams in the BCS standings to lose so the Fighting Irish could have a shot at the title game.
When both went down, though, he says he felt neither a sense of elation nor satisfaction. It was more a feeling of control. The Fighting Irish (11-0) were now in control of their own destiny, knowing a win Saturday over rival Southern California (7-4) puts the Irish in the BCS title game.
“We get a chance to play for the national championship provided we win this week,” he said.
It’s been 19 years since the Irish were last able to think like that. Actually, 18 years, 11 months and 29 days. But who’s counting?
That’s how many days it had been since Notre Dame was last ranked No. 1. That’s a span that began after Boston College shocked the Fighting Irish with a 41-39 victory in 1993 a week after second-ranked Notre Dame upset top-ranked Florida State to claim that No. 1 ranking.
That’s the same ranking the Irish held in 1990, 1989, 1988 and for 77 games over the years until ending the longest streak ever without a No. 1 ranking in Notre Dame history with a 38-0 win over Wake Forest last Saturday.
The Irish aren’t just No. 1, they are a unanimous No. 1 in the Associated Press poll after improving to 11-0 for the first time since 1989. A week earlier some scoffed at Kelly for ranking the Irish No. 1 in the coaches’ poll. This week 55 of his 59 colleagues agreed with him. Kelly said he didn’t feel any sense of vindication.
“I was just being consistent with my rankings,” he said. “I told our team that I felt like they were the best team in the country because I knew more about our team than the other two.”
The longest Notre Dame had ever gone previously without being ranked No. 1 was 10 years and 30 days, which was the gap between the time No. 19 Purdue beat a top-ranked Notre Dame squad coached by Terry Brennan in 1954 and the Irish coached by Ara Parseghian reclaimed the top-ranking after a 40-0 win over Navy in 1964.
That team’s hopes for a national title fell just short when the top-ranked Irish were upset by Southern California 20-17.
USC will be trying to end Notre Dame’s title hopes again this week, and it has the manpower to do it. After all, the Trojans were the preseason No. 1, while the Irish started the year unranked. But the Irish are undefeated, while the Trojans have lost three of their last four and will be without quarterback Matt Barkley, who suffered a sprained right shoulder in a 38-28 loss to UCLA last Saturday.
That gave the Bruins the Pac-12 South title, although USC coach Lane Kiffin has been assured he will be back next season.
“We’re extremely disappointed with this season,” Kiffin said. “We’re too talented to have that many losses.”
Filling in for Barkley, freshman Max Wittek will have quite the stage to make his first career start Saturday, facing a Manti Te’o-led defense that has allowed one total touchdown in three road games. Wittek will have some great weapons, though, with Marqise Lee having totaled 924 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in his last five games.
Notre Dame will still have a first-year starter under center, but Everett Golson is looking more and more like a seasoned veteran. The sophomore posted career highs with 346 yards and three touchdown passes against Wake Forest, his third straight game with three total TDs.
“He played the best game of his life and it just shows how much he’s grown as a person and as a player,” receiver John Goodman said. “He is taking his coaching and taking his leadership and he’s the guy that we want to lead us to the promised land.”
The Trojans have dominated this rivalry in recent years, posting a 12-5-1 record over Notre Dame since the Irish were last ranked No. 1.
That includes a 38-0 loss by Notre Dame in 2007, a 38-3 loss in 2008, 31-point losses in 2002, ’03 and ’04 and the 34-31 loss in 2005 that became known as the “Bush Push” because USC tailback Reggie Bush nudged quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone with 3 seconds left. During that time the Trojans have won national championships in 2003 and 2004, finished No. 2 in 2005 and No. 3 in 2007 and 2008 and fourth in 2002 and 2006. Notre Dame finished No. 2 in 1993 and No. 9 in 2005. That’s it for top 10 finishes.
So there’s no arguing USC has been the better team in recent years. The Trojans have won nine of the last 10 games in the rivalry, the only win for the Irish a 20-16 victory in Los Angeles two years ago. Despite that, Kelly said the current Irish squad doesn’t feel dominated by the Trojans.
“I don’t think they look at USC and think of dominance,” Kelly said. “They felt like last year they let a game slip through their hands with sloppy play. Beat them at their place. So, no, our guys are excited about playing a rival in USC. But there’s no trepidation. There’s a great deal of respect for USC and what they’ve done. But our guys are very confident in themselves as well.”