It’s funny how Notre Dame entered the college football season unranked, but now sits atop the Bowl Championship Series standings after holding off USC at the Coliseum last Saturday night, 22-13 as 93,607 fans looked on.

The Fighting Irish (12-0) will play the winner between Alabama and Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game to see which team they will face in the national title match.

At the Rose Bowl, UCLA had trouble with Stanford, falling 35-17, but will meet the Cardinal on Friday at Palo Alto for the right to represent the Pacific 12 Conference in the New Year’s Rose Bowl Game.

Notre Dame, which hasn’t won a national championship since 1988, has lived by its hard-hitting and top-ranked defense that is allowing 10.3 points, along with a powerful running attack that churned out 222 yards against the Trojans.

Notre Dame’s defensive prowess was evident in the final quarter with USC down nine points.

When Kyle Brindza nailed a 19-yard field goal with 5:58 left, Marqise Lee (75 yards and five receptions) returned the ensuing kickoff 43 yards as USC got the ball at its 45.

Max Wittek, who stepped in for senior quarterback Matt Barkley, who injured his right shoulder after being sacked by Anthony Barr in USC’s 38-28 loss to the Bruins, hit Lee on a 53-yard bomb, but four runs and an incomplete pass netted no points.

“This is what we’re about,’’ said Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly, who is in his third season at South Bend. “It’s very hard to go undefeated in college football.”

Irish senior linebacker Manti Te’o intercepted Wittek (14 of 23 for 186 yards and two picks) early in the third quarter, and is a candidate for the coveted Heisman Trophy.

“This is what we do,’’ said Te’o, who had three solo tackles and two assists. “We defend the goal line. These guys are like my family. I love these guys. I have my family and these guys.”

Notre Dame averages 24.5 points a contest, but against USC, the Associated Press preseason No. 1, Brindza made five field goals.

But it was tailback Theo Riddick (game-high 146 yards on 20 carries) who tallied the game’s initial touchdown, a nine-yard run late in the first quarter that gave the Irish a 10-0 lead.

The Trojans (7-5) have now lost four of their last five games, but had taken nine of 10 decisions from Notre Dame before Saturday’s clash.

Notre Dame redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson delivered a 15-for-26 performance and 217 yards with no picks, including 47 rushing yards on nine carries.

Brindza’s 27-yard field goal with 11:25 left in the opening quarter made it 3-0, but Wittek’s 11-yard pass to Robert Woods (92 yards and seven catches) early in the second quarter got USC (95 yards rushing) within 10-7.

Again Brindza came to the rescue with a 29-yard boot and 9:19 showing before the half that stretched the Fighting Irish advantage to 13-7.

It became a 13-10 affair when Andre Heidari converted a 39-yard kick with just under four minutes left in the second quarter, but Brindza’s career-long, 52-yard attempt with no time left before the half gave Notre Dame a 16-10 lead.

Heidari’s 21-yarder with 9:20 remaining in the fourth quarter closed the gap to 19-13.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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