LOS ANGELES In the fourth quarter, as the game tightened and the lead dwindled, it seemed as if all of Notre Dame's national following was holding its collective breath. Those clad in green and gold turned blue. Every second that ticked off the game clock felt like a minute.
Every minute felt like an hour.
At stake: only a berth in the national championship game and the first undefeated regular season for Notre Dame since 1988. Only the best season for the Fighting Irish in more than two decades, the best campaign since the days of Lou Holtz, back when Notre Dame symbolized on-field dominance, not off-field television contracts and 6-5 seasons.
As happened often Saturday, the Fighting Irish turned to their kicker, Kyle Brindza, he of the steel nerves and golden right leg who had written "composed" on his left hand. His fifth field goal silenced the capacity crowd at Memorial Coliseum, gave him more points in the game than USC's offense and led to Notre Dame's 22-13 victory.
Funny how it worked out. When the season started, before all the upsets, before this topsy-turvy November, many pundits tabbed USC as the top team.
Instead, Notre Dame (12-0) came here undefeated, and left that way, too, en route to the national championship game in Miami in January.
In the locker room after the game, Brindza described the scene as crazy: "Everyone jumping up and down. Random cheers. It was like winning the Super Bowl, pretty much."
The finish was not without its anxious moments. After field goal No. 5 for Notre Dame, the Trojans (7-5) went right back down the field, went right up to the 1-yard line, further proof that perfection would not come easily for Notre Dame.
Yet in a stand indicative of this season, behind its stout defensive front, the Fighting Irish forced a turnover on downs. USC ran three times into the teeth of that Notre Dame defense. Each time, the Trojans were turned back. On fourth down, a pass fell incomplete.
The Notre Dame offense took over with 2:33 left on the clock, a mere formality, the Bowl Championship Series title game now more than a hope; it is now a reality for Notre Dame's coach Brian Kelly in his third season at the helm.
While USC helped ruin potential Notre Dame championship seasons in years like 1938 and 1964 and 1980, and while USC won nine of the previous 10 games in this matchup, Notre Dame assumed control Saturday.
There would be no upset, only the visiting team celebrating on the field.
The Fighting Irish offense, the team's presumed weakest unit, moved the ball in the first half, moved it swiftly and easily, at least until it reached the red zone.
Quarterback Everett Golson completed 14 passes for 181 yards. Speedster Theo Riddick added 69 rushing yards and a score. Brindza made three field goals, including a 52-yarder at the end of the first half.
If Notre Dame's offense looked better than expected, its defense, a celebrated unit that had allowed only eight touchdowns in its first 11 games, looked worse. And it was facing a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first start.
The quarterback's name is Max Wittek, and for what he lacked in experience, he made up for in hubris. His gargantuan task: replace Matt Barkley, a probable first-round NFL draft pick, in perhaps the single most important game of this college football season so far, on national television, at a packed Coliseum, against a defense as feared as any in the nation.
The Trojans handed off four times before they let Wittek show off his right arm, which displayed some cannonlike tendencies, even though his first three attempts fell incomplete.
All in all, Wittek turned in a solid first half, despite circumstances best described as difficult. His 11-yard strike to Robert Woods cut Notre Dame's lead to 10-7 on the first play of the second quarter.
Notre Dame's defense dominated the third quarter in more typical fashion. No team scored more than 20 points on the Fighting Irish all season in regulation. Not with linebacker Manti Te'o and those big boys up front.
The question, then, was: Could Notre Dame score again? Could it put this final game out of reach and start dreaming about South Beach? Brindza atoned for a third-quarter shank with his fourth field goal, this time from 33 yards out.
That marked the fifth Notre Dame drive that stalled down near the end zone, a disconcerting trend for sure, but less so with that formidable defense. That defense held on late. The offense did enough.
USC slunk away, bowl eligible but not much more. Notre Dame, meanwhile, capped a stunning run with a stunning night.