LOS ANGELES - Escorted up the Coliseum tunnel by a swarm of security, Brian Kelly got swept up in the moment. Saluting the Irish fans packed into the sellout crowd here to watch No. 1 Notre Dame finish off a perfect regular season, Kelly took off his white hat and attempted to whip it into the stands.
The throw wasn't close, the hat falling down in a puddle. Kelly paused, shrugged and kept charging into the arms of Manti Te'o, coach and All-American sharing an hug that explained how the Irish got here with tickets now punched to the BCS National Championship in Miami.
"What we've been saying all along is that we're in this together," Kelly said. "It's really been about both of us, player and coach, driving this thing. I think we were probably sharing that embrace that we got it one step closer."
Notre Dame took that final step on Saturday night with a familiar formula, built on the back of Te'o and the rest of the Irish defense.
USC never led. It only threatened. And when the Trojans postured to make a game of it in the final minutes, marching to a first down at the Irish one-yard line, Notre Dame held. Four plays. No yards. Game over. Title shot earned.
"It brings a pride back to Notre Dame," Te'o said. "I'm just grateful that I'm part of it."
Te'o was more than a part against the Trojans, finishing with five tackles and one interception. His seven picks are the most by an FBS linebacker in 12 years. He directed Notre Dame's defense that defused USC's explosive offense, holding it to 281 yards with freshman quarterback Max Wittek at the controls.
Receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee combined for 12 catches, 167 yards and one touchdown. Wittek completed just two other passes and was picked off twice.
"They've got some great defensive linemen," Lee said. "They did a great job. I hope they win it (all)."
The Trojans finished with 281 yards offense, one yard above its season-low. Notre Dame dominated time of possession by almost 10 minutes. USC ran just 51 offensive plays.
"That's how we've played the game all year," Kelly said. "This was another clear indication of how we got to 12-0. Our guys have incredible resolve, regardless off the circumstances of coming up and finding ways to win."
Tonight that meant riding Theo Riddick, and Kelly could have used the senior more when the Irish offense repeatedly stalled in the red zone, leading to six field goal attempts from Kyle Brindza. The sophomore connected on five, tying a single-game school record. His 52-yard field goal at the first half gun was the second-longest made kick in Irish history.
Riddick finished with 20 carries, 146 yards rushing, one touchdown, three catches and 33 yards receiving. He had nearly as many grass stains on his jersey by game's end as he did total yardage.
"If you want to know about the Fighting Irish, you just need to look at Theo Riddick," Kelly said. "In Game 12, he managed 140 yards but broke countless tackles and got us the tough yards that we needed.
"You just look at his jersey after the game, there's no wonder why this team has got the toughness that it does."
Riddick's bruising style let Everett Golson play a complementary role at quarterback when needed, although Kelly asked the sophomore to close out drives inside the 10-yard line with mixed results. Golson went 15-of-26 for 217 yards and continued to click with tight end Tyler Eifert for four catches and 69 yards.
Golson also ran nine times for 49 yards, although he directed six drives into the red zone that resulted in just one touchdown. Regardless, he did not commit a turnover.
"We definitely have to improve," Riddick said. "We're not there yet. We don't feel like it."
Notre Dame may be an imperfect national championship candidate, but its record has the shine of a crystal football now. The Irish will play the winner of the SEC Championship between Alabama and Georgia for the school's 12th title, a rise under Kelly so fast that it's exceeded expectations of nearly all outside the visiting locker room here.
Underneath the Coliseum the players talked about the moments that made them believe this was possible, going back to summer workouts, team chemistry and other goal line stands. All those moments have now added up. The sum will put Notre Dame on college football's ultimate stage on Jan. 7.
"It's like a dream come true," Riddick said.
As Notre Dame spilled off its sideline in delirium as the clock ran out, Prince Shembo high-fived athletics director Jack Swarbrick, Dan Fox chest bumped with Eifert is disbelief and Brian Kelly sought out the best player he's ever coached in the tunnel.
As much as Kelly had a message for Te'o, the linebacker had one right back.
"Just that I love him. That's it. I love him," Te'o said. "I'm happy to be part of this and to have him as my coach. He's the best coach in college football."
That coach might have the best team in college football too.
Large selection without the Bookstore sticker shock
Click Here to view this Link.