On Saturday afternoon, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, off to a 10-0 start for the first time since 1993, took the field of Notre Dame Stadium for Senior Day versus the 5-5 Wake Forest Demon Deacons. The Irish, huge favorites to win the game, found themselves on the outside looking in at a shot to play in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. Ranked No. 3 in the BCS behind the Kansas State Wildcats and Oregon Ducks, Coach Brian Kelly and the Irish were “just trying to win football games.” If Notre Dame were to defeat Wake Forest and USC in their final two games, they would complete the school’s first perfect regular season since 1988, the year of Notre Dame’s last national championship. Before ousting West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl that season to win the title, the No. 1 ranked Irish had one final regular season test; go on the road and beat USC. Saturday afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium ended in a 38-0 victory over Wake Forest and to complete a perfect regular season, the Irish found themselves again with one more test; go on the road and beat USC. However, the Irish were in a position where they could go to USC, beat the Trojans, and still not be chosen to play in the BCS National Championship Game. They needed help…and boy would they get it Saturday night.
Everybody thought the top-ranked Kansas State Wildcats had one more test before the Big 12 Championship Game; the Texas Longhorns. Everybody was dead wrong. Heisman trophy front-runner Collin Klein and the undefeated Wildcats traveled to Waco, TX to face the 4-5 Baylor Bears Saturday night, a game that figured to be quite one-sided. Instead, the Bears stunned K-State by jumping out to a 28-7 lead with just 2:54 to go in the first half. Frantically, Klein and the Wildcats scored ten quick points before halftime and headed to the locker room relieved, only down 28-17. The feeling of relief would go away quickly in the third quarter, as Baylor ran all over a reeling Wildcats defense, blowing the game wide open and seemingly crushing K-State’s title hopes. As the teams lined up to begin the final 15:00, the scoreboard read Bears 52 Wildcats 24. That would be the final, as Baylor used 342 yards and 5 TDs on the ground to knock Kansas State out of the BCS title chase. With Notre Dame fans elated at what had just taken place, things were about to get even better.
2,080 miles away, in Eugene, OR, the No. 2 ranked Ducks had their hands full as well. After averaging more than 19ppg in the first quarter, through their first ten contests, Oregon was blanked in the first against a stout Cardinal defense. A Marcus Mariota TD pass late in the second quarter knotted the game at 7-7 and that’s how it stood at halftime. For the second straight game, Heisman hopeful RB Kenjon Barner was held to under 70 yards rushing and 0 TDs. Despite Barner’s struggles, De’Anthony Thomas put the Ducks up 14-7, midway through the third, capping Oregon’s most impressive drive of the night, one that covered 95 yards in 16 plays. But the Ducks could not put the Cardinal away and a miraculous TD catch in the back of the end zone, by Zach Ertz, tied the game with 1:35 to go. Oregon’s title hopes hanging in the balance, the game headed to overtime. A quick three and out by the Ducks culminated in a missed 41-yard field goal, kicker Alejandro Maldonado’s second miss of the night on just his third attempt of the season. With a field goal enough to win it, Oregon was in trouble. On a 4th and 5 from the Oregon 20-yard line, kicker Jordan Williamson, just 12 for 21 on the season, lined up a 37-yard field goal. As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sailed into the No. 1 ranking in the nation for the first time in nineteen years.
The help the Irish so desperately needed had come and in doing so, Baylor and Stanford had also re-opened the BCS National Championship Game door for the SEC (Southeastern Conference), most likely Alabama or Georgia. Barring an improbable loss to 3-8 Auburn on Black Friday, the Crimson Tide will meet the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game on December 1st, the winner playing for the national title. Saturday night was complete and utter chaos and the BCS world was flipped upside down. And while the SEC is almost once again assured a spot in the title game for seventh consecutive year (the past six winners have all come from the SEC), the Fighting Irish still have work to do. It’s been a long time since Notre Dame has won or even played in a national championship game. How long? Nobody on the current Notre Dame roster had been born yet when Tony Rice, Rocket Ismail, and Michael Stonebreaker led the 1988 Fighting Irish to the title, but heading into the final week of the 2012 season, this Irish team faces the same hurdle the ’88 team faced; go on the road and beat USC. Carrying the No. 1 ranking with them, this time it’s Everett Golson, Manti Te’o, and Tyler Eifert’s turn to prove they belong in the BCS National Championship Game.