LOS ANGELES -- Notre Dame is a victory away from its first national title in 24 years.
Theo Riddick rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown, Kyle Brindza kicked five field goals, and the No. 1 Fighting Irish secured a spot in the BCS championship game with a 22-13 victory over USC on Saturday night.
Everett Golson passed for 217 yards as the Irish (12-0) completed their first perfect regular season since 1988, earning a trip to Miami on Jan. 7 to play for the championship.
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. Their hard-nosed defense appropriately made the decisive stand in the final minutes, keeping USC (7-5) out of the end zone on four plays from the Irish 1-yard line.
"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 consecutive wins in Los Angeles. The school of Knute Rockne, the Four Horsemen and Paul Hornung has new heroes now, from inspirational linebacker Manti Te'o to Kelly, who took the Irish from unranked before the season to No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in 19 years.
Te'o, a Heisman Trophy hopeful, had a key interception against USC and became the second Irish defender with three 100-tackle
"It doesn't matter where the ball is," Te'o said. "We're going to protect the end zone at all costs."
After Brindza's school-record-tying fifth field goal put the Irish up by nine points with 5:58 left, Marqise Lee caught a 53-yard pass from USC freshman Max Wittek at the Notre Dame 2.
But after USC failed on three runs, 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 Coliseum.
"They've had a great goal-line defense all year," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "They've done that to everybody down on the goal line. ... It's just so hard to score touchdowns versus them. When the ball is on the 2-inch line, you'd think you could score touchdowns."
Wittek passed for 186 yards with two interceptions in his first career start for the Trojans, who completed their tumble from the preseason No. 1 ranking with four losses in five games in an enormously disappointing season. Wittek filled in capably for injured Matt Barkley, but USC is headed for a lower-tier bowl in the first year after its NCAA-mandated two-year postseason ban ended.
The grind-it-out win highlighted an unforgettable season for the Irish, who began the year with questions about their relevancy and survived some uninspiring performances and nail-biting finishes with their unbeaten record intact.