The scene was perfect for a spoiler: Top-ranked Notre Dame visited talented but underachieving USC in the regular-season finale at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
With USC coming off a bad loss to UCLA the week before, beating Notre Dame would have sweetened the sour feelings some fans had for coach Lane Kiffin and this season in general.
Notre Dame needed to win to reach the national championship game. A bunch of recruits were in attendance. It was a night game, senior night, the whole shebang. Perfect timing for an upset to ruin the Irish's title hopes.
Yet, here came Notre Dame in its golden helmets methodically dismantling USC, taking an early lead, holding on to a halftime advantage, stuffing the Trojans at the goal line late in the game. The Irish won 22-13 to seal their fate. Playing for a national championship can do as much for recruiting as nearly anything else.
Notre Dame's patient, methodical approach helped it reach the national title game, and it also has helped the Irish recruit the state of California in recent years. It has continued to 2013 and beyond. Offers aren't thrown out everywhere, but by targeting certain schools and certain types of players, Notre Dame has found riches recruiting the state.
"I wouldn't say Notre Dame is necessarily spending more time in California than some of the other top talent-producing states, but it has certainly been more visible since the end of the regular season," IrishIllustrated.com recruiting analyst Jake Brown said.
"After beating USC, the Irish coaching staff really took that rivalry to the Trojans on the recruiting trail. It has certainly been a productive time for Notre Dame in California, and kudos to area recruiter Mike Denbrock for his tireless work."
Don't think USC won't be the cream of California recruiting. It will. The Trojans have the top-rated class by Rivals.com, and the state's top players still yearn and dream to play for them.
UCLA has made a push with its new, aggressive coaching staff and successful season. Stanford and California have phenomenal academics, and that's a draw. Oregon picks and chooses top guys and goes after them hard. Every Pac-12 school recruits Southern California because there are so many players to pick up.
As an outsider, though, Notre Dame has done a spectacular job of getting talent from the area. Former quarterback Jimmy Clausen was a California kid. Running back Cierre Wood hails from Oxnard (Calif.) Santa Clara. Tight end Troy Niklas is from Anaheim (Calif.) Servite. And the coaches have also hit Northern California with George Atkinson and USC transfer Amir Carlisle.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has taken California recruiting seriously. Otherwise, he wouldn't spend time at Mission Viejo to recruit Max Redfield, who recently was dropped by Oregon because the five-star safety said the Ducks' coaches were convinced he was going to sign with the Irish. Notre Dame figures to be Redfield's leader, but he plans to take an official to USC this weekend.
USC commit Eddie Vanderdoes was visited by Notre Dame coaches, and he's looking at an official visit to South Bend. Four-star wide receiver Sebastian LaRue, another USC pledge, wants to visit Notre Dame, too.
Chris Hawkins, a four-star cornerback committed to the Trojans, visited Notre Dame and loved it, but he has decided to stick with his pledge. Notre Dame made a serious run at a bunch of California recruits and will continue to do so into 2014.
That's why Kelly or other ND coaches were recently at Gardena (Calif.) Serra to recruit early five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson and four-star linebacker Dwight Williams and to take a look at others.
They were at La Mirada, Calif., to recruit early four-star athlete Tyler Luatua, who has offers from major powerhouses across the country including the Irish. They stopped at Fresno (Calif.) Central East to recruit Michiah Quick, one of the state's top players, and check in on Nick Wilson, whose junior highlight film is outstanding. They've reportedly offered quarterback Brandon Dawkins from Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian, who plays like a bigger version of Everett Golson.
Notre Dame doesn't blanket California with offers and it doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time chasing players who have dreamed about playing in the Pac-12, but it targets top recruits and goes after them hard. It gets them on campus, it shows them the tradition, and some California kids fall in love. Holy Moly, Touchdown Jesus.
"I thought it was an honor for Coach Kelly to stop by our school," Jackson said. "Especially after they just beat SC. That shows that they're really humble talking to us."
This is all a little surprising to Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell, especially because Notre Dame had no luck in the last recruiting cycle with Fresno (Calif.) Washington Union teammates Tee Shepard and Deontay Greenberry.
That debacle is one for the recruiting history books and a page the Notre Dame faithful would like to turn. In short, Shepard and Greeneberry swore throughout the recruiting process that they would play together in college. Well, Greenberry signed with Houston and Shepard didn't even have time to unpack his bags before he left South Bend.
According to SoonerScoop.coom, Shepard will enroll at Oklahoma in January.
Notre Dame essentially got burned by two four-star studs from California yet came back in the state to go after more top talent. The resilience could pay off.
"Notre Dame has had recruiting success in California in years past, but after getting disappointed last year with Shepard and Greenberry, you might think they'd be a bit gunshy putting so much effort back into the state," Farrell said.
"However, they are hitting it as hard as ever, and with the No. 1 ranking and playing in the national title game, they have as much power as they've had in recent years, so they can march into any state and be successful. With USC having such a disappointing season, it's no surprise that the Irish are targeting their commitments big time."
That's Notre Dame's recruiting story in California -- chugging along on the recruiting trail, chugging along right to the national championship game.
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