LAKE BALBOA, Calif. - Most kids before big games these days find hometown area code stickers to peel onto their high cheek bone.
Not Milton Knox.
The 5-foot-8, 200-pound senior running back from Birmingham-Lake Balboa sticks a "P-A-C" decal beneath each brown eye.
"It stands for Pacoima, where I grew up," Knox said of the city about 10 miles from Lake Balboa. "That was a very special place for me. I just didn't want the area code like everyone else. I wanted to be different."
Oh, Knox is different all right.
His coach called him the best running back in the country after the UCLA-bound bowling ball rushed 32 times for 136 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots pulled off another upset, this one 28-21 over nationally-ranked Notre Dame-Sherman Oaks before about 5,000 fans and live ESPN2 television audience.
Knox scored on runs of 1, 16 and 4 yards as Birmingham, ranked 15th in the state by calhisports.com, beat third-ranked Notre Dame (2-1) for the first time in school history.
The Patriots (3-1) had lost to the Knights (2-1), ranked 19th nationally by USA Today, five consecutive years.
They had what looked to be commanding leads of 14-0 and 21-7 but then held off Notre Dame and the remarkable Dayne Crist, considered one of the top quarterbacks in the country, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 253 yards and rushed 14 times for 55 more.
It was the second upset over a nationally-ranked opponent in three weeks for the Patriots, who shocked then 7th-ranked Long Beach Poly 20-7 two weeks ago.
Knox said this win was bigger.
"This just proves that win wasn't a fluke," he said. "We showed everyone on national television we're for real."
Not only did Knox score his seventh, eighth and ninth rushing touchdowns of the year (he now has 593 yards) but he ran out the clock with four straight runs after the Knights closed to 28-21 with 2:10 left on a 1-yard run by Thaddeus Brown, his second TD of the game.
With nine Notre Dame defenders stacked in the box, Knox carried three times for nine yards to the Knights' 40. Instead of taking the safe bet and pinning Notre Dame deep with a punt, coach Ed Croson went for the first down.
With a big lead block from fullback/linebacker Donovan Carter, Knox, like he did all night, found a slight crease and burrowed his way for 6 yards.
Birmingham, which is now a legitimate Division I Southern California State Bowl game contender, ran out the clock.
"Frankly I didn't even consider anything else," Croson said. "If you can't get one yard with the best running back in the country then you don't deserve to win."
But the Patriots definitely deserved this one, combining Knox's bullish running with excellent run defense and perhaps most important, timely special team's play.
The most opportune was an 82-yard kickoff return for touchdown by junior De'Von Flournoy with 9:19 left in the third quarter.
It came after Notre Dame, coming off a listless first half, went 66 yards in six plays capped by an absolutely gorgeous 27-yard touchdown pass from Crist to Jeff Dickmann (11 catches, 115 yards).
Crist, a strong and mobile 6-5, 225-pound senior committed to Notre Dame in South Bend, had two other completions for 31 yards on the drive before dropping a pass to the only spot Dickmann could grab it, in the left corner of the end zone, cutting the lead to 14-7.
"We knew Crist was good," Croson said. "We knew he was very good. But even we didn't think he was that good. He's the real deal."
But Flournoy squealched Notre Dame's momentum by taking a short kickoff on a bounce, then absolutely exploding through a big gap. He bounced off a couple would-be tacklers and then was gone.
Flournoy, one of the state's top sophomores last year, is proving last season was no fluke.
"Whenever we need a big catch or big return, he's always there," said Carter, who himself played an outstanding game, especially from his linebacking spot.
Notre Dame was undeterred by the big runback and closed to 21-14 with 4:42 left in the third on Brown's first touchdown, a 6-yard run over the left side, capping a 6-play, 70-yard drive.
Crist did most of the damage through the air, completing passes of 15, 25 and 19 yards to three different receivers.
"We definitely stepped it up and got into a rhythm the second half," said Crist, whose team gained 267 of its 354 yards after intermission. "But that was after stinking up the place in the first half."
Another scintillating kickoff return, this one of 48 yards by Mathew Robertson, set up another Birmingham scoring drive, this one of 48 yards in 10 plays capped by Knox's third touchdown on a 4-yard run after a shot pitch from Morey Croson.
The junior quarterback (6 of 16, 97 yards), the coach's son, has filled in nice since starter Exavier Johnson, a highly-touted transfer, broke his hand just before the season opened.
It obviously helps to have a workhorse like Knox, who carried the ball seven times on the scoring drive and converted two third-down situations, including the touchdown.
"I've known Milton since he was 5-years-old and he's always been impossible to stop," Crist said. "He always gives whatever it takes to win. I respect that guy a lot."
Notre Dame moved at will in the fourth quarter, but only had a 1-yard TD run by Brown to show for it, capping a 53-yard drive.
The Knights missed on a golden opportunity to start the quarter when it drove 77 yards in 14 plays but came away empty.
With virtually no running game - Birmingham allowed just 92 yards on 26 carries, most of those coming on nice scrambles by Crist - Notre Dame had to go to the air. Crist completed four passes for 27 yards and rushed twice for 30 yards, setting up a 2nd-and-goal from the 1.
But Crist fumbled an exchange with Brown, setting the ball back at the 5.
Under heavy duress from the imposing Jackson twins, Mali (6-5, 230) and Marquis (6-4, 232), Crist was flushed from the pocket on two straight downs and his hurried throws fell harmlessly incomplete.
"You can't make mistakes like that (the fumble) and expect to beat a team like Birmingham," Crist said. "I give it up to those guys. They earned the win."
The Knights continued to battle and when Crist, again under severe duress, completed a 4th-and-10 play on an 18-yard Hail Mary pass to Dickmann that put the ball at the Birmingham 2.
It took three runs by Brown to get into the end zone, to close the gap to 28-21 with 2:10 to go.
With Knox powering forward, Notre Dame would never get the ball again.
"That (Knox) is a very tough kid," Notre Dame coach Kevin Rooney said. "Even when you hit him at the line he still finds a way to get a yard or three."
Said coach Croson of Knox: "Off the field he's quiet, respectful, a real sweetheart. On it, he'll kick your (butt)."
As far as his team's offensive output, Rooney said: "You make things very difficult on yourself when you can't run. Nobody has been able to run on Birmingham all year, but I thought we'd find ways to make it easier to run."
It's evidently tough for Notre Dame to hold down coach Croson.
This was the third time he's beat Notre Dame for the first time in a school's history. The others were at St. Genevieve and Chaminade.
"They all felt good, but this one feels particularly so," Croson said. "It hasn't quite sunk in yet."
It already had for Crist and his troops. Their chances of being picked in the State Division II bowl game was hurt significantly. And Crist knew it.
"It would have been nice to get the ball just one more time," he said. "But make no mistake. They made the big plays when they needed to most and we didn't."
E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for Mitch Stephens' write up of Friday's big Southern California showdown in Ventura County between defending Div. III state champion Oaks Christian-Westlake Village (No. 13 in the state this year according to calhisports) and No. 2 St. Bonaventure-Ventura, which is led by one of the nation's top running backs Darrell Scott.\