LOS ANGELES -- We all can relish when Lilliputians rise.
When some obscure football ne'er-do-well like this "Notre Dame" suddenly ups and makes the big-big game, its players exultant on the floor of the great Coliseum, well, in a word, Aw.
When a program in this century has lost 38-0 to Michigan, 38-0 to Michigan again, 38-0 to Southern California, 37-0 to Florida State, 38-3 to Southern California, 41-9 to Oregon State, 45-14 to Southern California, 44-13 to Southern California, 41-10 to Southern California, 33-3 to Georgia Tech, 41-14 to LSU, 47-21 to Michigan, 38-12 to Syracuse, 41-16 to Purdue, 37-14 to Stanford, 28-6 to North Carolina State, 31-10 to Penn State, 24-3 to Texas A&M and 44-24 to Southern California, plus losses to Navy and Tulsa among others, we can nod approvingly when it does fumble around and find its flashlight.
When a program whose last 12 bowl appearances include losses in three Fiesta Bowls, two Gator Bowls, one Orange, one Sugar, one Independence, one Insight and one Champs Sports for a world-class collection of bowl losses then gets to 12-0 out of the blue, you should not belittle its long-parched fans for staying in the Coliseum just to see star linebacker Manti Te'o do an interview on the ESPN set. They have earned the right to spend part of their Saturday evening waiting to look at a linebacker in a tight-fitting tank top.
"We set out this season to build our program and get it back into the national discussion when you're talking about championship programs," head coach Brian Kelly said. "And we're in that discussion." These overmatched, underprivileged football plebeians just wanted people to talk about them, and maybe even not say bad things, and now they get these giddy closing seconds of the season of which running back Theo Riddick said, "I was just in shock, man."
People say this "Notre Dame" has a gaudy history, but this alleged prominence was so last-century, occurring way, way back when people talked on telephones connected to wires that were attached to walls. They say it has its own TV network in NBC, but that was long presumed just another excellent NBC turn at irony, the trumpeted showcasing of a so-so football team, how funny.
In the Associated Press preseason poll this year, the sage commentariat did throw a little charity Notre Dame's way, ranking it first in the "Others Receiving Votes" category just below the list, patting it on its puppy head. Other than that, it ranked Notre Dame behind only Southern California, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Oregon, Georgia, Florida State, Michigan, South Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Clemson, Texas, Virginia Tech, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Stanford, Kansas State, Florida, Boise State and Louisville.
It just goes to show what can happen if a bumpy season with two overtime wins features a kicker from Pitt missing a game-winning 33-yard field goal, a running back from Stanford squirming for the end zone but not getting the call, and Purdue and Brigham Young coming up just short, plus soaring wins at Oklahoma and Southern California.
It also goes to show what can happen if a defense allows -- get this -- only nine touchdowns all season, only seven on drives of more than 50 yards, and only two -- two! -- on drives of more than 58. Maybe this team from this anonymous program from somewhere in the Midwest couldn't get attention because people just don't pay enough attention to defense.
Yet by the time it reached Game 12, and by the time Southern California reached the Notre Dame two-yard line with 5:36 remaining and Notre Dame ahead by nine, this upstart had congealed into something fierce. From that moment, in a mind-boggling sequence, the Trojans lined up for eight plays, including four from the one-yard line and two from the 2. Yet after one false start, two interference penalties, two meek quarterback sneaks, one frighteningly obvious handoff, one fullback's dropped pass in the end zone and some clock management bad enough to make somebody want to dial up a radio station, USC still had not scored. So stout did "Notre Dame" become that it seemed Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell might just keep interfering with the great receiver Marqise Lee on play after play so the officials could keep inching the ball half the distance while the Trojans could keep not scoring.
"Well, if you followed us at all this year," Kelly said, "that's how we play. We come up big defensively at sometime during the game."
Te'o summed up the feeling on the defense during the sequence: "They're not gonna score."
And then he summed up the feeling on the defense as it returned to the sideline after the sequence: "I told you they're not gonna score."
And then he summed up what they have become: "Everybody was calm."
Now this fabulously gritty team that on one day looked just about as good as Pitt but wound up beating everybody from here to Oklahoma and beyond will get a chance to play one of the titans from the Hercules Conference of the Southeast. Now there will be a solid six weeks for this Little Program That Could to get some attention. Maybe now it can become almost famous. Even in a geography-challenged nation, a whole new generation of Americans will have the chance to learn the location of this "Notre Dame."