The stakes couldn’t be higher for Notre Dame

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It started a little less than a month ago, the words trickling in to the Irish vernacular shortly after the final whistle blew in their victory at Oklahoma. All of a sudden, it was no longer taboo — or far-fetched, for that matter — to start throwing around the term “national championship.” Escaping Pitt amplified it, routing Boston College and Wake Forest ratcheted it up further, and last Saturday’s Kansas State and Oregon double-whammy made it not just realistic, but probable.

Notre Dame is 60 minutes of football away from playing for a national championship. All that stands in the Irish’s way is USC tonight at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. And there’s no way the Irish won’t be thinking about that when they take the field in an hour.

How they handle that thought, particularly against a struggling but uber-talented USC team with nothing to lose, could determine tonight’s outcome, and whether the Irish head to South Florida after New Year’s, or New Orleans, Phoenix or Los Angeles a week earlier.

“It’s going to add pressure obviously, it’s going to add pressure to everyone,” Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “But you can’t get too caught up in it. You’ve got to keep that in the back of your mind and play with a chip on your shoulder for that reason — if we play the way we know we can play, this is where we could be.”

Even Notre Dame’s veterans have never played in a game with stakes this high. So there’s no way to know for sure how they’ll respond.

“Nerves, not so much,” safety Zeke Motta said. “Probably with a lot more on the line, we’ll probably play with a lot more passion, a lot more excitement, a lot more fun. Because in games like these where a lot’s riding on the game, you’ve got to play to your best capabilities. I see that as a challenge. I like when I’m challenged and I don’t really get too nervous about things like that anymore. I compete at a high level, and when I get down on the field, I’m confident in my preparation.”

Preparation time is over. All that’s left is the game — 60 minutes for a chance to win it all.

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