Bears

Notre Dame moves one win away from shot at title

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Notre Dame moves one win away from shot at title

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There was no letdown, no signs of a trap, no heart-pounding finish, as there were in Waco and Eugene. Notre Dame's 38-0 win over Wake Forest was the first blowout the Irish built in South Bend, and it teed up next week's crucial matchup against USC in Los Angeles with an berth in the BCS Championship on the line.

With Kansas State's 52-24 loss to Baylor and Oregon's 17-14 loss to Stanford, it'll be with a BCS Championship berth on the line for the Irish, which will sit at No. 1 when the BCS standings are released Sunday. After Notre Dame's 38-0 win over Wake Forest, most players said they'd either have a passing interest or no interest at all in what Kansas State and Oregon were to do Saturday night.

"I'm not going to worry about it," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "I could literally just go eat, go to sleep, and wake up tomorrow and figure out what happened. I'm not too concerned."

Bet that stance has changed. Saturday was the first time since 2007 both Nos. 1 and 2 in the BCS have lost on the same weekend.

When Notre Dame sits at No. 1 in the poll Sunday, it'll be the first time the Irish have occupied the top spot in the AP poll since 1993. Notre Dame has never been No. 1 in a BCS poll.

That No. 1 ranking means all the Irish will have to do to reach the BCS Championship is beat USC, which lost 38-28 to crosstown rival UCLA Saturday. Adding misery to an already-disappointing season in Los Angeles was an injury to quarterback Matt Barkley, who reportedly suffered a separated shoulder against UCLA.

It was Notre Dame that was supposed to have the disappointing season, the one that put its coach on the hot seat. Not USC. But the script has played out with the roles reversed, with plenty calling for Kiffin's head in California while others effusively praising Kelly in Indiana. Notre Dame-USC will have championship implications, but not for the team most would've expected in August.

Despite an 11-0 record, Notre Dame has sat on the outside looking in of the BCS Championship picture for the entire season. First and foremost, Notre Dame needed to win out, but just as crucial to the team's title hopes was for the teams ahead of them to lose.

Texas A&M took care of half that equation last weekend, beating then-No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. On Saturday, it was Baylor downing K-State in Waco and Stanford winning in overtime on the road against Oregon.

"Coach has been telling us it's all going to work itself out, we just need to take care of what we can take care of," Notre Dame wide receiver John Goodman said. "That's what we did tonight, last week and the weeks before. So we're 11-0, that's all that really matters right now, we're going to go into USC 11-0 and hopefully leave 12-0."

A lack of style points -- or, more accurately, a few nail-biting home wins against lesser competition -- has been part of the reason why Notre Dame hasn't been among the top two teams in the BCS standings this year. At 11-0, though, Notre Dame players were far more concerned with their unblemished record than margin of victory.

"Where the hell did style points come from?" defensive tackle Louis Nix asked rhetorically. "I hate that. I don't believe in style points. I believe in winning, and that's what you do playing football. You don't need to do style points."

Notre Dame put up style points Saturday, with Everett Golson leading the way. The redshirt freshman completed 20 of 30 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns in his best collegiate game, and Cierre Wood added 150 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

Still, Irish wide receiver T.J. Jones -- who caught six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown -- insisted "style points, to me, are irrelevant."

With K-State and Oregon's losses, those style points became exactly what Jones said they are -- irrelevant.

As Notre Dame climbed the BCS standings, coach Brian Kelly preached taking things one game at a time and not looking ahead to a larger goal. That cliche took on real meaning after Notre Dame nearly lost to Pittsburgh a week after beating Oklahoma by 17 in Norman, and it's one that'll persist among Irish coaches and players heading into Los Angeles.

"Our guys know what's at stake now," Kelly said after Notre Dame's win and before the two monumental losses ahead of them Saturday night. "This is about an undefeated season. They cannot do anything else but beat USC. The rest is up to other people to decide."

But Notre Dame has only beaten USC once in the last decade. Despite all the trials and tribulations at USC this year, they remain a talented team, one that certainly could spoil Notre Dame's title hopes on Nov. 24.

"We've got to take care of USC before we can be talking about what to do," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "We've got one more game to go. If we don't beat USC, there is no need to say whether you deserve it or not. You have to beat USC first."

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

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USA Today

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

If you squint, you can start to see the Bears forming an identity. The offense, at its best, will control the game with Jordan Howard and an offensive line that’s improving with cohesion over the last few weeks. The defense will stop the run, rarely blow assignments and — at least last week — force a few turnovers. 

Those can be the makings of a team that's at least competitive on a week-to-week basis. But they also leave out a critical segment of this group: Special teams. And that unit is obscuring whatever vision of an identity that may be coming into focus. 

Jeff Rodgers’ special teams unit ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and is below average in all five categories the advanced statistics site tracks: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. 

Had the Bears’ just merely "fine," for lack of a better term, on special teams Sunday, they would’ve controlled a win over the Baltimore Ravens from start to finish. But a 96-yard kickoff return (after the Bears went up 17-3) and a 77-yard punt return (which, after a two-point conversion, tied the game in the fourth quarter) were the Ravens’ only touchdowns of the game; they otherwise managed three field goals. 

Rodgers didn’t find much fault with the way the Bears covered Bobby Rainey’s kickoff return — he would’ve been down at the 23-yard line had the officiating crew ruled that Josh Bellamy got a hand on him as he was tumbling over. But the Bears players on the field (and, it should be said, a number of Ravens) stopped after Rainey hit the turf; he got up and dashed into the end zone for a momentum-shifting score. 

“A lot of our players stopped, all their players stopped,” Rodgers said. “There were players from both teams who came on to the field from the sideline. So there’s a lot of people on that particular play who thought the play was over.”

That return touchdown could be chalked up to an officiating-aided fluke, but Michael Campanaro’s punt return score was inexcusable given the situation of the game (up eight with just under two minutes left). The Bears checked into a max protect formation, and no players were able to wriggle free and get downfield toward Campanaro (Cre’von LeBlanc, who replaced an injured Sherrick McManis, was knocked to the turf). Rodgers said O’Donnell’s booming punt wasn’t the issue — it didn’t need to be directed out of bounds, he said — and instead pointed to a lack of execution by the other 10 players on the field. And not having McManis isn’t an excuse here. 

“We expect everybody to play at the standard at which that position plays,” Rodgers said. “I don’t put that touchdown on one guy getting hurt, but you’d always like to have your best players on the field.”

In isolation, the special teams mistakes the Bears have made this year can be explained — beyond these two returns, Marcus Cooper slowing up before the end zone was baffling, yet sort of fluky. But while the Bears’ arrow is pointing up on defense and, at the least, isn’t pointing down on offense, these special teams mistakes collective form a bad narrative. 

“We take those players, we practice it, and like all mistakes, you admit them and then you fix them,” coach John Fox said, “and then hope to God you don’t do it again.”

Fantasy Football Fix Podcast: Midseason trade targets and who you should sell high on

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USA TODAY

Fantasy Football Fix Podcast: Midseason trade targets and who you should sell high on

Rotoworld and NBC Sports fantasy analyst Josh Norris joins the Fantasy Football Fix Podcast to discuss if Derrick Henry's time in Tennessee has finally arrived. Plus, the CSN Fantasy crew analyzes which players you should sell high on and who you should target in midseason trades.