FORT WAYNE – Notre Dame entered the season unranked in the Associated Press poll and faced what was regarded as the most difficult schedule.
The No. 1 Irish began the year with untested first-year starter Everett Golson at quarterback and with questions about a secondary that was starting two first-year cornerbacks.
Notre Dame (12-0) answered any questions about its team by going undefeated for the first time since 1988 and earning a spot in the BCS championship game against No. 2 Alabama (12-1).
Here is how the Irish got there:
Game 1: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10
The Irish dismantled Navy in the first U.S. college game in Ireland since 1996, racing off with a 40-point victory in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
Running backs Theo Riddick and George Atkinson each scored two touchdowns as they combined for 207 rushing yards, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt returned a fumble 77 yards for a score in front of a crowd of 49,000.
In his first start Golson went 12 for 18 for 144 yards, throwing a touchdown pass to tight end and Bishop Dwenger graduate Tyler Eifert.
Game 2: Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17
Notre Dame returned home ranked No. 22 and played host to in-state rival Purdue, and the Irish got all they could handle and started an early-season quarterback trend in the three-point victory.
Coach Brian Kelly took Golson out of the final drive in favor of last year’s starter Tommy Rees with the game tied at 17 and 2:12 to play and Notre Dame on its 35-yard line.
Rees connected on passes for 4, 10 and 21 yards, and Riddick got the Irish to the Boilermakers’ 8-yard line with two runs that went for 12 yards.
Kyle Brindza gave Notre Dame the lead with a 27-yard field with 7 seconds left, and Bennett Jackson intercepted a pass to seal the win.
Game 3: Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 3
In the first true road game of the season, Notre Dame showed a glimpse of what kind of season this year could be.
The Irish, who came in ranked No. 20, knocked off then-No. 10 Michigan State for their first win over a ranked team in seven tries and their first win over a top-10 team in seven years.
Notre Dame had a sloppy start as George Atkinson III ran into a teammate on the opening kickoff return, then ND was called for a false start and had to take a timeout before the first snap.
Golson settled in to lead the offense, completing 14 of 32 passes for 178 yards with a 36-yard touchdown pass to receiver and Dwenger grad John Goodman and a 6-yard scoring run. And Brindza connected on two fourth-quarter field goals as the Irish held the Spartans to just three points and 237 yards.
Linebacker Manti Te’o played in the game just days after his grandmother and girlfriend died in a 24-hour span, and the senior led the defense with 12 tackles, two pass breakups, an interception and recovered a fumble.
Game 4: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6
Notre Dame’s defense ruled as the Irish, who came in ranked No. 11, intercepted five Michigan passes, forced a fumble and twice kept the Wolverines from scoring from the 10-yard line in a night game at Notre Dame.
Te’o had two interceptions and eight tackles, and Jackson had nine tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. KeiVarae Russell and Nicky Baratti also had interceptions.
Rees relieved Golson for the second straight time at home, entering with 6:10 to play in the first half after the sophomore threw two interceptions. Rees went 8-of-11 passing for 115 yards and scored the game’s only touchdown on a 2-yard run.
Brindza connected on two field goals.
Game 5: Notre Dame 41, Miami 3
After a bye week, Notre Dame traveled to Chicago’s Soldier Field ranked No. 9 and dominated Miami.
Cierre Wood and Atkinson gave the Irish their first pair of 100-yard rushers in one game since 2002, and Golson came off the bench to complete 17 of 22 passes for 186 yards and run for 51 yards. Rees started and played the first series because Golson was late to a meeting during the week leading up to the off-site home game.
Wood ran for 118 yards with two touchdowns; Atkinson ran for 123 yards with a touchdown; and Notre Dame’s 376 rushing yards where the most it had in a game since 200.
Notre Dame’s defense held Miami to 285 yards as the Irish finished with a 39:08-20:52 advantage in time of possession.
Game 6: Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13 (OT)
Notre Dame made a stand at home as the Irish, who entered the game ranked No. 7, stopped two plays from the 1-yard line in overtime to end a three-game losing streak to then-No. 17 Stanford.
The Irish stopped Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor on back-to-back runs from the 1 with the last attempt coming inches from the goal line, withstanding a video review that determined a whistle ended the play before Taylor was able to reach out across the goal line.
Rees replaced Golson, who was knocked out of the game after a helmet-to-helmet collision, with 3:27 to play and led a scoring drive that ended with a 22-yard field goal from Brindza to send the game to overtime.
Rees then hit TJ Jones for a 7-yard touchdown in overtime, and the Irish overcame their first deficits of the season to improve to 6-0 for the first time since 2002.
Game 7: Notre Dame 17, BYU 14
Notre Dame’s running backs did most of the work as the Irish, who entered the game ranked No. 5, held off BYU at home.
With Rees starting for Golson, who was recovering from a concussion, Theo Riddick ran for a career-high 143 yards; Wood ran for 114 yards; and Atkinson scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 2-yard run 2:08 into the fourth quarter.
Rees went 7 for 16 for 117 yards with a touchdown pass to Eifert and an interception. He only attempted three passes after halftime as the Irish finished with 270 rushing yards
Notre Dame gave up two touchdowns to BYU after not giving up an offensive touchdown for 17 quarters, but the defense shut out the Cougars in the second half.
Game 8: Notre Dame 30, Oklahoma 13
Notre Dame traveled to Norman, Okla., as the Irish, who entered the game ranked No. 5, made their biggest statement of the season by handing then-No. 8 Oklahoma a rare home loss.
It was Notre Dame’s fourth win over a Top 25 team and second win over a team that was ranked in the top 10 at the time.
Golson returned from a concussion to throw for 177 yards and run for 64 yards, including the game-deciding touchdown. Wood and Riddick each rushed for 74 yards with a touchdown.
Te’o got people to seriously consider him for the Heisman Trophy with a late interception to go along with his 11 tackles and a sack as the Irish improved to 8-0 for the first time in a decade.
It was the Sooners’ fifth loss at home under coach Bob Stoops.
Game 9: Notre Dame 29, Pittsburgh 26 (3OT)
Notre Dame withstood its biggest scare of the season thanks to resiliency and a little bit of luck as the Irish, who were ranked No. 4 entering the game, overcame Pittsburgh at home.
Golson, who was temporarily replaced by Rees in the second quarter after missing reads and progressions, led Notre Dame back from a 20-6 fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime.
After the teams exchanged field goals in the first overtime, Pitt kicker Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal that would have won the game in the second overtime. Harper should have gotten a second try at the missed field goal because Jackson and Chris Brown, who both wear No. 2, were on the field to try and block the attempt.
But the game went to a third OT, and after giving up a field goal, Notre Dame won on Golson’s QB sneak as the Irish improved to 9-0 for the first time since 1993.
Game 10: Notre Dame 21, Boston College 6
Notre Dame entered the night game against Boston College knowing that then-No. 1 Alabama had fallen leaving only Oregon or Kansas State in its way to reach the BCS championship game.
The Irish, who entered the game ranked No. 4, produced a workmanlike victory over Boston College, which had ended two of Notre Dame’s national champion bids in the past.
Golson threw for 200 yards on 16-of-24 passing and hit Troy Niklas for a 7-yard score and Goodman for an 18-yard touchdown. The sophomore quarterback also ran for a 2-yard score.
Te’o grabbed his school record (for a linebacker) sixth interception to end the Eagles’ last real scoring chance with less than six minutes remaining, and Riddick ran for 104 yards and caught six passes for 67 yards.
Game 11: Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 0
The real action started after the Irish, who entered the game ranked No. 3, shutout Wake Forest on Senior Day as the team went undefeated at home for the first time since 1998.
Hours after Notre Dame’s first shutout since opening the 2009 season with a 35-0 win over Nevada, Kansas State – which was No. 1 in the BCS standings – fell 52-24 to Baylor, and Oregon – then No. 2 in the BCS – lost to Stanford 17-14 in overtime.
Those two losses, coupled with Alabama’s 29-24 loss to Texas A&M the week before, vaulted the Irish to the top of the BCS standings and left only a road game at USC between them and the BCS championship game.
Against Wake Forest, Golson threw touchdown passes to Eifert (2 yards), Goodman (50 yards) and Jones (34 yards), and Wood ran for a 68-yard touchdown.
Game 12: Notre Dame 22, USC 13
Notre Dame earned its trip to the BCS championship game with another goal-line stand.
Host USC ran four straight plays from the No. 1 Irish’s 1-yard line and couldn’t gain an inch as Notre Dame finished undefeated for the first time since 1988.
The stand came with 2:33 to play with freshman quarterback Max Wittek, who started in place of the injured Matt Barkley, throwing an incomplete pass after Wittek was stopped twice for no gain and Curtis McNeal couldn’t gain a yard on another rush attempt.
Brindza connected on field goals of 27, 29, 52, 33 and 19 yards, and Riddick scored on a 9-yard run and finished with 146 rushing yards. Golson threw for 217 yards without an interception.
Te’o recorded his seventh interception of the season and became the second Irish defender to have three seasons of 100 tackles or more.