LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California had four chances to go one yard in the waning minutes for a touchdown that would make Notre Dame's unbeaten season awfully uncomfortable.
Just as in so many similar situations in their wildly disappointing season, the Trojans came up short.
Theo Riddick rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown, Kyle Brindza kicked five field goals, and No. 1 Notre Dame earned a spot in the BCS title game with a 22-13 victory over USC on Saturday night.
Notre Dame's impenetrable defense made the decisive stand, keeping USC out of the end zone on four plays from the Irish 1 with 2:33 to play. After three straight runs yielded minuscule gains, freshman Max Wittek threw incomplete to fullback Soma Vainuku, setting off a leaping, chest-bumping celebration on the Notre Dame sideline and in the Irish sections of the sold-out stadium.
The Trojans (7-5) could only lament a season that began with a No. 1 ranking and will end in a lower-tier bowl game after four losses in their last five games.
"I'm disappointed, too," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "I know those are not our standards here, regardless of the scholarship situation. We have to do better, and that obviously starts with me."
Wittek passed for 186 yards with two interceptions in his first career start for the Trojans, filling in capably for injured Matt Barkley. Marqise Lee caught five passes for 75 yards, yet still broke the Pac-12 single-season receptions record established last year by teammate Robert Woods, who had seven catches for 92 yards.
"For a freshman, Max did a great job," Lee said. "We just had a lot of mistakes again tonight. I made mistakes. We have to get better."
Everett Golson passed for 217 yards as the Irish (12-0) completed their first perfect regular season since 1988, earning a trip to south Florida on Jan. 7 to play for the storied program's first national championship in 24 years. Notre Dame's raucous locker-room celebration reverberated through the thick concrete walls of the 89-year-old Coliseum after an Irish win for the ages.
"I'm still in awe," Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "I don't think it's hit anybody yet. We're trying to relish the moment."
Although they did little with flash on an electric night at the Coliseum, the Irish woke up more echoes of past Notre Dame greats with a grinding effort in this dynamic intersectional rivalry with USC.
"Well, that's who we are," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "It's been our defense all year. Our offense is able to manage enough points."
After spending more than a decade looking up at the Trojans, the Irish are back on top of this rivalry with two straight wins in Los Angeles. The school of Knute Rockne, the Four Horsemen and Paul Hornung has new heroes now, from the Heisman Trophy hopeful Te'o to Kelly, who took the Irish from unranked to start the season to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the first time in 19 years.
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