Blackhawks

Kelly happy with Notre Dame's demeanor after ascending to No. 1

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Kelly happy with Notre Dame's demeanor after ascending to No. 1

Brian Kelly wanted to get a gauge on his team's attitude toward being No. 1 this morning, so he eavesdropped on a few conversations his players were having in Notre Dame's training room. The result was exactly what he was looking for.

"A couple of the guys were congratulated by a couple of the trainers, and their first response was, yeah, but it doesn't mean much if you don't beat USC, so that's really all I needed to hear," Kelly said.

Kelly had about a dozen friends and family over at his house last night to watch Kansas State-Baylor and Stanford-Oregon, and responded with a "heck yeah" when asked if he joined in on the loud cheering for Baylor and Stanford.

"It's like being selected for the playoffs," Kelly said. "Now you know you're in if you take care of business, and you've got to win each week. I think it's more about just the feeling that you're included now in the race for a championship."

While the BCS won't give way to a playoff system until 2014, Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia play what amount to playoff games this week and next. For Alabama and Georgia, they'll need wins over heavy underdog rivals in Auburn and Georgia Tech before moving on to face each other in the SEC championship. For Notre Dame, a win over USC means they advance to the BCS title game.

The Trojans are in disarray, coming off a 38-28 loss to UCLA in which quarterback Matt Barkley suffered a shoulder injury that could keep him out of Saturday's contest. If he doesn't play, redshirt freshman Max Wittek -- who's thrown a total of nine passes at the collegiate level -- will get the start.

But regardless of who's under center for USC, Notre Dame's gameplan won't change.

"(Marqise) Lee and (Robert) Woods and the running back situation, they've got two great backs," Kelly said, referring to Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. "We're going to have to defend all of those players, not just one. Certainly if Barkley is playing, which we'll prepare for him like he is playing, the offense is still going to be about getting the ball to their play makers. So it really won't change much in terms of what we do."

While Woods' production has dropped off in recent weeks, he still has 66 catches for 721 yards with 10 touchdowns on the season. It's been Lee, though, who's emerged as USC's top wideout, with the sophomore racking up 107 receptions for 1,605 yards and 14 touchdowns. Barkley or not, defending that pair of receivers is a tall order for Notre Dame's secondary.

"Tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle and tackle," Kelly said of the key for Notre Dame's defense.
"They're incredibly skilled with the ball in their hand, and if they have a lot of space, they're going to make you pay. You know, we felt that we had to against Oklahoma limit some of the catches and the extended runs. We'll have to do a great job tackling, and that will be paramount to our success against USC."

Over the last month, Kelly has noted plenty of times that his team can't get ahead of itself, that it can't afford to overlook an opponent. Notre Dame did just that against Pittsburgh, and it nearly cost the team its shot at championship. The way Kelly has seen things early in the week, perhaps that experience will pay off.

"They understand the importance of the USC game," Kelly said. "I was happy to see that they had that kind of maturity to know that it's all about how we play against USC."

NHL Draft Profile: D Quinn Hughes

NHL Draft Profile: D Quinn Hughes

From June 17-21, Charlie Roumeliotis will profile two prospects per day — 10 total (five forwards, five defensemen) — leading up to the NHL Draft.​

Quinn Hughes

Position: Defenseman
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 170 pounds
Shoots: Left

Scouting report:

"He's got the puck skills, is a good skater, and is a guy with some high-end offensive talent. He wants to get right in there and play where it's hard and where you get rewarded. When he gets that puck on his stick, he wants to bury it."

NHL player comparable: Torey Krug/Kris Letang

Fit for Blackhawks:

It's no secret the Blackhawks are looking to restock their pipeline with some high-end defensemen. Henri Jokiharju and Ian Mitchell are on the way. But the former isn't a lock to be a full-time NHLer this season and the latter will continue playing in college for the 2018-19 season.

Hughes, who shined at Michigan and the IIHF World Championship with Team USA, would have the best chance of the three to crack the Blackhawks lineup first. The problem is, he likely won't be available at No. 8, so if Hughes is the guy they're locked in on, they'd need to trade up to grab him. 

If they did that, Hughes would give the Blackhawks a third blue line prospect they can get excited about. He's a left-handed shot, which evens out the balance in the system, and he would become a prime candidate to eventually replace Duncan Keith as the team's No. 1 defenseman.

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.