Irish have to clear one final hurdle


Irish have to clear one final hurdle

LOS ANGELES -- Notre Dame's won a handful of big games this season, but none with the implications Saturday's showdown against USC will carry.
While Notre Dame has only played three true road games this season, they head to Los Angeles seasoned away from Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish went into a hostile environment in East Lansing and pasted Michigan State. An even more hostile environment yielded an even better result a month and a half later, with Notre Dame marching to a 30-13 win over Oklahoma in front of the largest crowd ever at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. And two weeks ago, Notre Dame dispatched a weak Boston College team while dealing with the knowledge of Alabama's stunning loss to Texas A&M that afternoon.
And those are just the road games. While there's plenty of luck to point to, Notre Dame learned what it takes to win close games, beating Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, BYU and Pittsburgh by an average of 4.6 points.
"We've been playing in big games all year and it's not like this is the first time we've had to go out and play a big opponent on a big stage," center Braxston Cave said. "We've been there, we've done that, and now it's just a matter of us going out, executing and playing our game."
While a chance to earn a title game bid accounts for plenty of motivation, there's an added bonus to beating USC for Notre Dame. It's a game that hasn't really been a rivalry in the last decade, with USC winning nine of the last 10 meetings.
"Well, it's not a great rivalry right now," coach Brian Kelly said. "We haven't won enough games. They've had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry."
Cave, who grew up a rabid Notre Dame fan, knows the history of the contest, and he'd rather be able to tell people he was part of the Notre Dame class that started to turn things around against USC.
"It's more of a self-pride thing," Cave explained. "Any time your name is associated with something, you want it to be in a positive way. You don't want be like yeah, I was part of that stretch where we only one one game or this or that."
Even a comment from Max Wittek -- Matt Barkley's replacement guaranteed a USC win -- won't be enough to reignite the Notre Dame-USC rivalry. That'll happen on the field.
"We're going to stay focused, we're going to stay poised, we're going to stay composed and that's what we need to be able to get our game plan in and get whatever we need to do in place before we get worked up about a comment," senior wide receiver John Goodman said.
No matter the outcome of Saturday's game, though, the rivalry will be at its highest pitch since the 2005 Bush Push game. But no matter how important it is to Notre Dame players, coaches and fans, it takes a seat far in the back to the team's title aspirations.
The light is on at Grace Hall for the first time in 19 years, reminding anyone near campus that the Irish are No. 1. Notre Dame graced the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. One win means a trip to Miami to play for the national championship, which would be the first time Notre would enter a game playing for a title for the first time in 24 years.
Notre Dame, though, has dealt with plenty of outside distractions this year, both positive and negative. They're a mature group, one that hasn't been through this kind of success but has acted like it since narrowly escaping with a win against Pittsburgh.
"We know we got one shot to get to 12-0," Cave said, "and if we don't stay focused and do our job then we have no chance of accomplishing that."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

It was a tough day for the North Siders.

The Cubs got obliterated by the Cardinals as Matt Carpenter had a three-homer, two-double day. Ben Finfer, Seth Gruen and Maggie Hendricks join David Kaplan on the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast to talk about the blowout.

Was Jon Lester due for this kind of terrible outing? And do the Cubs have enough to swing a big trade before the deadline?

Plus, the panel discusses Matt Nagy’s first training camp practice in the rain and Roquan Smith’s absence in Bourbonnais.

You can listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North


Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

NBC Sports Chicago’s John "Moon" Mullin talked with The MMQB's Albert Breer, who shared his thoughts on where the Bears stand — and if they’ll be able to compete — in a highly competitive NFC North.

Moon: The Bears have made upgrades, but they’re in the NFC North and not many divisions are tougher, given the strength at quarterbacks.

Breer: Yes. You look at the other three teams, and they all very much believe they’re in a window for winning a championship. The Packers are going through some changes, but they’ve gotten Mike Pettine in there as defensive coordinator and a new general manager who was aggressive on draft day. I know that internally they feel that’s going to give them a boost, and bringing Aaron Rodgers back obviously is the biggest thing of all.

Minnesota, all the things they did this offseason, signing (quarterback) Kirk Cousins, (defensive lineman) Sheldon Richardson, and they were knocking on the door last year.

The Lions have been building for two years under (general manager) Bob Quinn and (new coach) Matt Patricia, who lines right up with the general manager — the two of them worked together in New England. They really believe that Matthew Stafford is ready to take the sort of jump that Matt Ryan made in Atlanta a few years ago, where you see that mid-career breakthrough from a quarterback that we see sometimes now.

It’s one of the toughest divisions in football, and every team in the division believes that it’s in the position to contend right now.

Moon: We didn’t see a lot of Mitch Trubisky — 12 games — so it sounds possible that the Bears could improve and still lose ground.

Breer: The Lions were pretty good last year. The Vikings were in the NFC Championship game. And who knows where the Packers would’ve been if Rodgers hadn’t broken his collarbone. The biggest change is that Aaron Rodgers will be back, and that’s the best player in the league. It was a really good division last year, and you’re adding back in a Hall of Fame quarterback.

As far as the Bears, there’s going to be questions where the organization is going. It’s been seven years since they were in the playoffs. I think they certainly got the coach hire right. This is a guy who I know other organizations liked quite a bit and was going to be a head coach sooner or later.

And I think he matches up well with Mitch. I think the Bears are in a good spot, but as you said, they’re competing in a difficult environment, so it may not show up in their record.

Moon: A lot of love for the Vikings after they get to the NFC Championship and then add Kirk Cousins.

Breer: A lot of people look at Minnesota and think Kirk Cousins’ll be a huge improvement. And maybe he will be. I think he’s a very good quarterback, top dozen in the league. But Case Keenum played really, really well last year, so it wasn’t like they weren’t getting anything out of that position last year.

The NFC right now is clearly the strength of the league. If you picked the top 10 teams in the league, you could make a case that seven or eight of them are in the NFC. I think there will be NFC teams that miss the playoffs who could be in the Super Bowl coming out of the AFC. There’s a little bit of an imbalance there.

Moon: Trubisky projects as part of a wave of new quarterbacks league-wide, a sea change in the NFL.

Breer: The interesting thing is that this is probably as stable as the league has been at quarterback in a long time. There’ve been questions where the next great quarterbacks will come from, but I don’t know that there’s a team right now in the NFL like you looked at the Jets or Browns last year, where you say that team is definitely drafting a quarterback in 2019.

Everyone either has a big-money veteran or former first-round pick on their roster. One team that doesn’t is the Cowboys, but they’ve got Dak Prescott who’s played really well. Every team in the league has some stability at the position. I think the position is as healthy as it’s been in a long time, and you’ve got a lot of good young prospects.