Lead­ing OFF

Notre Dame seems differ­ent this time af­ter run­ning the table

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - Mike Ber­ardino

LOS AN­GE­LES – In the warm after­glow of last week’s 24-17 win over South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, a spot­less reg­u­lar sea­son and a likely Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off berth se­cured af­ter a first-half scare, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly turned play­ful.

He joked that this week, when he hops on a plane to throw his re­cruit­ing efforts into over­drive, he would walk through high school doors with a re­newed sense of mis­sion.

“I’ll say, ‘Why am I wait­ing for (Nick) Sa­ban? Let me in. I want to see that kid first. We’re un­de­feated,’ ” Kelly said of the Al­abama coach­ing le­gend.

Just three other Ir­ish edi­tions since 1950 could make the un­beaten/un­tied claim af­ter com­plet­ing the reg­u­lar-sea­son sched­ule: the na­tional cham­pi­onship teams of 1973 and 1988 and Kelly’s 2012 team, which got waxed by Sa­ban’s Al­abama jug­ger­naut in the Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries ti­tle game in Mi­ami.

These third-ranked Ir­ish seem differ­ent.

Al­ready they have snapped a fiveg­ame los­ing streak in these Cal­i­for­nia sea­son finales.

Al­ready they have de­feated four cur­rent mem­bers of the As­so­ci­ated Press Top 25 while trail­ing at any point in just three games: at Wake For­est (3-0), Pitts­burgh (14-6) and against a vex­ing Tro­jans team that jumped out to a 10-0 lead.

Al­ready they have ripped through 14 time zones and 12,551 round-trip air miles – ac­cord­ing to OneFootDown.com – while mak­ing stops in Win­ston-Salem, North Carolina; Blacks­burg, Vir­ginia; San Diego; Evanston, Illi­nois, and the Bronx in New York.

“We’re in L.A. this week — I think,” Kelly said with a laugh. “We’re like an (off)-Broad­way show: ‘We open up in a city near you.’ Travel affects peo­ple, and it doesn’t affect this group. So if you give us a lit­tle bit of a rest and al­low us to play in a neu­tral site, I think we’ll play even bet­ter.”

The sys­tem is differ­ent too, with it now tak­ing two post­sea­son wins to claim the ti­tle. Notre Dame won’t know its fate or its next op­po­nent un­til the matchups are set Dec. 2, but by the tenor of their postgame com­ments they will be more pre­pared for which­ever pow­er­house awaits them Dec. 29.

“We un­der­stand there’s so much left for us on the table now that we have to com­plete,” se­nior cen­ter Sam Mustipher said. “We know it’s not done yet. We un­der­stand what’s at stake.”

That’s why the Nov. 24 postgame cel­e­bra­tion, at least the on-field ver­sion, was rel­a­tively muted.

“Our goal was to win in Novem­ber, and we checked that goal off the list,” Mustipher said. “Our ul­ti­mate goals here at Notre Dame are to grad­u­ate and win a na­tional cham­pi­onship. So that goal is still out there.”

That goal re­mains be­cause they made the de­fen­sive ad­just­ments it took to slow down fresh­man quar­ter­back JT Daniels af­ter he started 18-for-19 pass­ing for 159 yards.

“It was just telling our­selves and re­as­sur­ing our­selves that one on one, man for man, we are the bet­ter team,” said corner­back Ju­lian Love, who led the Ir­ish with 12 tack­les. “We started play­ing more to that ten­dency. We started to get closer to the re­ceivers.”

Af­ter USC went up 10-0, its next seven pos­ses­sions re­sulted in six punts and a lost fum­ble in the red zone be­fore a garbage-time touch­down.

A na­tional cham­pi­onship re­mains as a goal for these Ir­ish play­ers and coaches be­cause they made the in-game tweaks on offense that broke Dex­ter Wil­liams free for a 52-yard go-ahead touch­down run four min­utes into the sec­ond half. Fel­low run­ning back Tony Jones Jr. added a 51-yard score on a sim­ple screen pass from Ian Book that made it a twoscore game with three min­utes to play.

“We were com­fort­able in the sense we were confident we could still win the game,” Mustipher said. “If there’s time left, we’re al­ways com­fort­able we can win the game. With the tal­ent that we have on this team, if there’s time left we have confidence.”

That’s not to say there weren’t some anx­ious mo­ments in the early go­ing. Play­ing for pride along with a pos­si­ble bowl berth and their coach’s job, this was a differ­ent USC team than the one Notre Dame had seen on tape.

“The anx­i­ety and that angst were there a lit­tle bit, but we over­came that,” Love said. “They were strug­gling this year, but they weren’t go­ing to hand it to us. We had to ad­just and take it from them.”

The slow start? Maybe they were still in shock from what hap­pened to fourthranked Michi­gan ear­lier in the day in a 62-39 loss at Ohio State.

“A lot of us saw it,” Book said. “That just shows you that any­body can win any given day. It just re­minded us how much harder we have to play. It was noth­ing that we talked about too much.”

Book let his play do the talk­ing with the Ir­ish down 10-0 in the sec­ond quar­ter. Slip­ping away from the USC pass rush on 3rd-and-11 from the Tro­jans’ 47, he slith­ered out to the left and low­ered his right shoul­der into corner­back Isa­iah Lan­g­ley at the first-down marker.

Lan­g­ley sagged. Book got the ex­tra yard.

Five plays later, Notre Dame was on the board when Book found Chris Finke for a 24-yard scor­ing strike.

“It was a huge play,” Book said of his scram­ble. “We needed that first down.”

It was Book’s right side, you’ll re­call, that took the brunt of the pun­ish­ment a few weeks ear­lier at North­west­ern. He finished that game with­out in­ci­dent but would miss the Flor­ida State game the next week with bruised ribs and a con­tused kid­ney.

On Nov. 24, when a coiled de­fender loomed and a side­line beck­oned, Book didn’t flinch.

“I just feel like those are the plays that, as a quar­ter­back, you have to make,” Book said. “You have to show your guys how com­mit­ted you are. I knew where the sticks were. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do when you run up to the side­line and you know that you’ve got to get one more yard.”

Two more wins, and such tales will be­come part of Ir­ish lore.

KIRBY LEE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Ath­let­ics direc­tor Jack Swar­brick and head coach Brian Kelly cel­e­brate the vic­tory against South­ern Cal­i­for­nia that com­pleted Notre Dame’s 12-0 reg­u­lar sea­son.

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