NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Manti Te'o emerged from the locker room with a Rose Bowl float around his neck, more than a half-dozen authentic leis gifted to the All-American linebacker after his last game inside Notre Dame Stadium.
Like his first appearance here, this one was a shutout too as No. 3 Notre Dame demolished Wake Forest 38-0 on a night with more than a tangential link to history. The Irish finished off their first perfect home season in 14 years, standing at 11-0 for the first time in almost a quarter century.
Tyler Eifert became Notre Dame's most prolific tight end. Cierre Wood rushed past George Gipp on the all-time rushing list. And Brian Kelly moved two victories away from setting a new school standard for most wins during a coach's first three seasons in South Bend.
Getting there could mean delivering Notre Dame's 12th national championship.
"Our guys know what's at stake now," Kelly said. "This is about an undefeated season. They cannot do anything else but beat USC. The rest is up to other people to decide. But they can clearly focus.
"I told them tonight I'm proud of them. I voted them No. 1 in the country for a reason because I think they're the best team in the country, and I think they played like that tonight."
For the first time all season at home, Notre Dame applied polish to its performance, out-gaining Wake Forest 584-to-209 with an explosion of big play touchdowns. Wood snapped off a 68-yard touchdown run to start it. John Goodman caught a 50-yard score from Everett Golson to close the first quarter with a 21-0 lead. TJ Jones had a 34-yard scoring catch in the second quarter.
Wake Forest (5-6) punted 10 times and went three-and-out four times. Not only did the Demon Deacons not enter the red zone, they ran just nine offensive plays in Irish territory all game.
Not that Notre Dame was trying to prove something to anyone outside the stadium.
"Where the hell did style points come from?" asked Louis Nix. "I hate that. I don't believe in style points. I believe in winning."
Rarely has Notre Dame looked more prepared to win than Saturday, bulldozing through the emotional minefield of Senior Day that definitively capped the home careers of Te'o, Eifert and Kapron Lewis-Moore. The fourth captain, Zack Martin, said he was uncertain if he'd be back next year.
With everything at stake, Notre Dame played like a program used to carrying the burden. Maybe the national championship implications were just the focusing factor the Irish craved.
"We use the motivation as being 12-0, being undefeated," said TJ Jones. "We're not thinking BCS yet because you never know what can happen, especially if we lose this game."
There was never a doubt Notre Dame would win this one, despite winning its five other home games by a combined 23 points, needing four overtimes to get that job done. Wake Forest simply played the part of lumber for Notre Dame's buzz saw.
That's what a maturing Golson can deliver, the sophomore setting a career-high for passing yardage before halftime. He finished 20-of-30 for 346 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He carried just once, pitching to Wood on his 68-yard score.
Wood's run marked Notre Dame's longest play of the season.
"Man, Everett, he played the best game of his life," Goodman said. "He's that guy that we want to lead us to the Promised Land."
Even if travelling there isn't completely under Notre Dame's control at this exact second, the Irish looked more capable of playing for a BCS National Championship today than at any point this season.
The offense showed it could help the cause in the upset of Oklahoma. It showed it can be a force of nature against Wake Forest. The 584 yards total offense were just three off the season-high set against Miami.
"We've talked all year about how the defense is great and they do their job, but we've got to do something besides just doing enough to win the game," Martin said. "All the coaches have been harping that it's gonna click. I think the last couple weeks it's starting.
"This is a good time of year to start clicking on offense."
Notre Dame didn't take its foot off Wake Forest until securing the final margin with a George Atkinson III touchdown run with 3:30 left in the third quarter. From there Kelly played three other quarterbacks, closing the game with a Charlie Fiessinger kneel down.
By that point Kelly had already been doused by green Gatorade, delivered by Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore. The All-American linebacker said he got his own sports drink shower too after Kelly honored the team's starting defense by subbing out its stars one-by-one at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Te'o blew kisses to the crowd while walking to the sideline, soaking up his final moments before getting soaked by teammates.
"Just magic," Te'o said. "Like everything's come full circle, just very grateful."
The 80,795 inside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday felt the same way.
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