Both Notre Dame and Oklahoma play like champions

College football fans big winners in battle between top-10 teams

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NORMAN, Okla. -- Legends often grow from games the stature of Saturday night's college football showdown at Memorial Stadium, so naturally Notre Dame tradition came to mind as the Irish took Owen Field against Oklahoma.
 
They were missing a gifted running back named George who had fallen ill back in South Bend. Domers don't have to know how many national championships Knute Rockne won for that narrative to sound familiar. This time the sick player was speedster George Atkinson III, not Gipp.
 
But Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly didn't need any Rockne-esque speeches to inspire a bunch of guys who produced the program's biggest victory in nearly 20 years in a 30-13 rout of Oklahoma.

"I told them I was very confident in their ability to go on the road and play good football and they exhibited that confidence,'' Kelly said.

Indeed, Notre Dame's intensity was as high as its hopes in a game the Irish proved they belonged in the national championship conversation that has ignored them for too long. They did so with execution that matched their motivation and with a quarterback in Everett Golson who got up, figuratively and literally, every time he or his team got knocked down. They did so with a defense that looked good enough to stop anybody in holding an Oklahoma team averaging 45 points per game to a touchdown and two field goals.

"The whole week they didn't talk about Oklahoma,'' Kelly said. "They talked about what they had to do to play well today. That's why I was confident.''

When running back Cierre Wood burst up the middle for a 62-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to stun a red-and-white striped record Sooners crowd of 86,031 into silence, Notre Dame announced its arrival back into the BCS discussion. When legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate linebacker Manti Te'o intercepted his fifth pass of the season with 4:27 left, the Irish punctuated their presence back among college football's elite.

"He represents all things the Heisman Trophy espouses,'' Kelly said. "Character, integrity ... (but) I think Manti's more interested in beating Pittsburgh.''

If the moment was supposed to be bigger than Notre Dame, Oklahoma showed the most signs of skittishness. A shot-gun snap over Landry Jones' shoulder on Oklahoma's opening series lost 19 yards. The Sooners drew a flag for having 12 men on the field. A holding penalty nullified a TD run. By halftime, somewhere across the state's dusty plains, an irked Okie considered re-launching FireBobStoops.com.

Stoops redeemed himself with a gutsy call on fourth-and-2 from the Notre Dame 9 trailing 13-6 with 9½ minutes left. He inserted running quarterback Blake Bell -- Oklahoma's version of Tim Tebow -- who faked run and then hit fullback Trey Millard. On the next play, Blake scored the first rushing touchdown Notre Dame had given up in 2012.

If not for the guts of Golson, Oklahoma might have regained momentum. But on the following series, Golson completed the biggest pass of his life on a 50-yard beauty to freshman Chris Brown. It was a great throw and even greater call on second-and-2.

"He's got elite speed,'' Kelly said of Brown. "He's a guy we've been trying to get on track. We knew we had one-on-one coverage.''

Golson came back from his concussion like a guy who forgot he was his offense's weakest link. The sophomore showed more confidence than any game since Miami and moxie by returning from a third-quarter hit that knocked the wind out of him. Against an Oklahoma defense whose first unit hadn't given up a TD in 11 quarters, Golson took what the Sooners gave him and controlled the game with his feet until his late dagger of a completion. Nothing seemed to overwhelm Golson in particular and Notre Dame overall.

"I thought Everett Golson led our team,'' Kelly said. "He had been challenged to continue to grow. It's been a process. But tonight was big step up."

The last season Notre Dame played and won here, in 1966, ended with the Irish No. 1. They arrived Friday to a crazed football campus aware what winning in this environment would mean to their legitimacy. The last time Notre Dame won a game in which both teams were ranked in the Top 10 came in 1996 against Texas -- eight years after Notre Dame's last No. 1 season.
And Oklahoma fans think it has been a while since the Sooners' last national title in 2000.

Notre Dame flirted with hiring Stoops twice since then; in 2001 and 2009. Both times Stoops chose to keep building on a football heritage every bit as impressive as Notre Dame's. Together the schools have combined for 15 national titles and countless tales that enrich the history of the sport and this series, like the debate over who coined "Play Like A Champion Today." When Holtz brought the slogan to Notre Dame in 1986, Oklahoma had been living by those words for decades.

They trace back to a sign made by Oklahoma coaching legend Bud Wilkinson back in 1947. On a mural in a hallway Oklahoma players passed Saturday night, the same phrase known to inspire Notre Dame reminded the Sooners.

Both teams played like champions on a terrific night for college football but only one emerged still capable of winning it all. They were the guys in the gold helmets, who restored the luster with resilience that demanded Notre Dame should be taken seriously as a national-title contender -- sooner rather than later.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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