Nationals

No. 1 Notre Dame has underdog in its DNA

No. 1 Notre Dame has underdog in its DNA

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) The rankings say Notre Dame is No. 1 going into the BCS championship against Alabama. Plenty of folks aren't buying it, starting with the oddsmakers who currently have the Crimson Tide as about a touchdown favorite for the Jan. 7 meeting in Miami between two of college football's proudest programs.

The Fighting Irish aren't sweating the point spread. In fact, it's pretty much business as usual for Notre Dame, which has a chance to become the first team since 1984 to start the season unranked and end it as national champions.

``Everybody thought everybody was better than us,'' defensive tackle Louis Nix III said Monday. ``Oklahoma was better than us. USC was better than us.

``We get it. We know how everyone thinks. We're just Notre Dame. Overrated Notre Dame. No one gives us credit for anything. Just the luck of the Irish, I guess.''

History suggests that being the underdog in the BCS title game hasn't been a bad thing. Of the 14 BCS championship games played since the system was implemented in 1998, seven have been won by the underdog.

Alabama was a slight underdog last year after losing to LSU in the regular season, and then shut out the Tigers with the national title on the line.

In the 2005 championship game between Texas and Southern California, Vince Young and the Longhorns felt as if they were being talked about as nothing more than a speed bump on the road to USC's coronation as one of the greatest teams in college football history. Plus, Young was still seething over coming in second to USC's Reggie Bush in the Heisman Trophy voting.

The result: Texas 41, USC 38, and a performance for the ages by Young.

The following season, Ohio State reached the national championship game with a perfect record, No. 1 ranking and a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Troy Smith. Florida was the Buckeyes opponent and the question was: Did the Gators even belong in game?

Urban Meyer, the Gators' coach, made sure his players got that message. Even if it meant stretching the truth a bit. After a month of being told that nobody thought they had a chance to beat Ohio State, the Gators routed the Buckeyes 41-14 to start the Southeastern Conference's run of six straight BCS championships.

It's impossible to quantify what, if any, effect being the underdog has actually had on any of those ``upsets.'' Any team that gets to a championship game must be good in the first place.

Whether Notre Dame can or will use the slights - real or perceived - as motivation remains to be seen.

``I've used the technique before during my time as a head coach,'' Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said about playing the underdog card. ``I don't know that that is pertinent because it's a one-game deal. It's all or nothing.

``Both teams have different dynamics to deal with because of the long layoff. Preparation is more important than any kind of fire and brimstone speech that I can bring to them.''

Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said the coaches don't even need to bring it up. The Fighting Irish have played all season like a team with something to prove.

``I think it's a little bit part of our kids' DNA now,'' he said. ``We don't have to use it as much as maybe early in the year when we went on the road to Michigan State and they were ranked eighth and nobody was thinking we were very good. I think we've kind of just built it into who we are. Everybody likes telling us what we're not good at - which is fine by us. One of our strengths is knowing what we're not very good at. We try to play to our strengths and play away from our weaknesses.''

It's a style that has led to more than a few close calls on the way to Miami.

Notre Dame beat Purdue and BYU by three points each. The Irish needed three overtimes to beat Pittsburgh by a field goal and went to overtime against Stanford, too. In both the Pitt and Stanford games, Notre Dame caught a few breaks. A missed field goal here, a questionable call by the officials there.

Meanwhile, except for its upset loss to Texas A&M, Alabama has rarely been challenged on its way to a third BCS title game appearance in the past four seasons.

The Tide is outscoring its opponents by an average of 28 points per game. Notre Dame's average margin of victory is 16 points per game, as the Irish have leaned on Heisman Trophy finalists Manti Te'o and a stellar defense while they developed first-year starting quarterback Everett Golson.

``I understand why people say Alabama's going to win,'' said Nix, the 325-pound anchor of Notre Dame's defensive front. ``Great offensive line. Good quarterback. Great guys on the edge. They've been in the national championship twice in the last three years. I would probably pick Alabama, too.

``At the end of the day it's all about what's on the scoreboard.''

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap

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Stephen Strasburg dominates Marlins, Nationals salvage a win

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USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Strasburg dominates Marlins, Nationals salvage a win

The Washington Nationals beat the Miami Marlins, 5-0, Sunday afternoon to move back .500 at 10-10.

Here are five observations from the game...

1. Sunday became of a day of salvage for the Nationals.

Washington lost the first two games of its initial series against the Miami Marlins. One of those losses included a subpar Max Scherzer start. Game three provided Miami a surprising chance to sweep. Stephen Strasburg snuffed out that idea with eight scoreless innings. Ryan Zimmerman homered twice, Brian Dozier once.

Kyle Barraclough was on the verge of peacefully pitching the ninth inning to close the game before he walked back-to-back hitters with two outs. Davey Martinez replaced him with closer Sean Doolittle who ended the game in his 10th appearance of the season.

And, guess what? The Nationals are back to even. Again. The upshot for them is how flawed and jam-packed the rest of the National League East remains. The downside is dropping any series against Miami can leave a mark.

Assume the division winner takes 13-15 victories when playing the Marlins 19 times during the season. That idea would force Washington to go between 12-4 and 14-2 the rest of the way against Miami. A run like that -- even against bad teams -- is extremely difficult. Being swept by the worst team in the major leagues would have made it even worse. So, a necessary win was delivered Sunday.

2. Strasburg spent Sunday down in the strike zone, throwing curveballs at his leisure, dominating all afternoon.

Eight innings. Ten strikeouts. Two hits. No runs.

Strasburg threw an astonishing amount of curveballs Sunday: 45 of his 104 pitches were bending toward the plate. He threw 41 fastballs (mostly two-seam fastballs) and 18 changeups. Strasburg came into the game throwing his curveball 21.4 percent of the time this season, just a tick above his career average of 19.7 percent.

The curveballs led to 12 swinging strikes, six called strikes and four foul balls. So, half of them were not put in fair play. That’s a dominating pitch.

Most opposition hitters will mark Strasburg’s changeup as his best pitch -- especially now that his fastball velocity is down to 92-93 mph, generally. Sunday, his curveball commanded the game, an interesting turn with Kurt Suzuki behind the plate a start after Strasburg mentioned he thought predictability was part of the issue when he was knocked around in his last start against the meager San Francisco Giants offense.

3. Anthony Rendon was out of the lineup Sunday because of a bruised left elbow.

X-rays on Rendon’s elbow were negative. Though, he told reporters in Miami on Sunday the elbow remained stiff. Washington played with a three-man bench in the series finale because Rendon has not been placed on the injured list. It also underwent a lineup shuffle.

Victor Robles moved up to the No. 2 spot. Howie Kendrick played third and hit cleanup. Dozier hit seventh and Wilmer Difo was in the eighth spot.

Rendon’s absence is another dig at an offense already without Trea Turner for an unclear amount of time because of a broken right index finger. Both were off to outstanding starts for a team that is not. Rendon’s 1.223 OPS was fourth in the National League coming into play Sunday.

The Nationals are in the midst of a brutal schedule stretch, which means they can’t play with a short bench for long. They have a three-game series starting in Colorado on Monday. If they think Rendon could play Tuesday, they could survive another day with a three-man bench. If they think he won’t play in that series, it makes sense to put him on the 10-day injured list retroactive to Sunday. Thursday is an off day. So, ultimately, Rendon would miss seven games he otherwise would not.

The rub there is potent San Diego and St. Louis are coming to Nationals Park next week. Washington is already laboring. Does it want to deal with those teams without Rendon?

4. Interesting in the sixth inning:

Juan Soto struck out on a changeup. That’s not the interesting -- or surprising -- part. Kendrick was next. He drove a second-pitch changeup from Trevor Richards to deep center field for a sacrifice fly. Only Lewis Brinson’s jump and speed kept Kendrick’s fly ball from being a two-run double.

Kendrick appeared to be sitting on the changeup from Richards, his out pitch and one he used almost as often as his fastball throughout the day. Zimmerman hit a changeup for a home run. Dozier hit a changeup for a home run. Those vetered hitters appeared to adjust in a way Soto did not: instead of trying to push Richards into a fastball count, they sat on the changeup. Big results followed.

5. How about a couple strange things?

Robles bunted against the shift in the sixth inning. It was simultaneously the worst and best bunt in history. Robles bunted the ball so hard, it went almost to the outfield grass...in the air. Marlins first baseman Neil Walker did not get it because he was holding a runner. Second baseman Starlin Castro did not get it because he was shifted toward the middle. Robles was easily safe as a result.

Then a scare from an oddity: an eighth-inning foul ball roared into the Nationals dugout. When Max Scherzer moved to avoid it, he tweaked an intercostal muscle in his left rib cage, according to reporters in Miam. He was in enough pain director of athletic training Paul Lessard came to check on him. Scherzer was all right. That would have been the capper for the Nationals recent run of bad injury luck where balls coming from the opposition are causing fluke injuries.

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Todd Reirden on TJ Oshie's surgery: 'It's a tough situation for our team'

Todd Reirden on TJ Oshie's surgery: 'It's a tough situation for our team'

ARLINGTON — Capitals forward T.J. Oshie had a surgical procedure Friday to repair a broken right collarbone and remains out indefinitely.  

Oshie was not at Capital One Arena for Washington’s 6-0 win in Game 5 of its Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He was injured with five minutes to go in Thursday’s Game 4 loss in Raleigh when nudged from behind by Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele and slamming hard into the boards near full speed. 

“There's not one person who can take T.J. Oshie's spot for all that he is as a human being, player on the ice, off the ice all the stuff that he adds,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said at his media availability on Sunday afternoon. “But what I did notice is that everybody picked their level up last night. And that's what we're going to need going into Raleigh for [Monday]."

That’s when Washington, ahead 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, can eliminate Carolina in Game 6. It’s something it has done successfully on the road in recent years in Philadelphia (2016), Toronto (2017), Pittsburgh and Columbus (2018). All series the Capitals were up 3-2. In all four they won Game 6. 

But they won’t have Oshie this time and he is the emotional engine that has helped fuel some of those series-ending performances. There is still no exact timetable for Oshie’s return. The Capitals have avoided ruling him out for the season and Reirden artfully dodged a question about whether he’d be ready for training camp. 

A broken collarbone usually doesn’t take longer than two months to heal barring complications. But that’s almost certainly going to be after the playoffs ends even if the Capitals make a repeat run to the Stanley Cup Final. Last year they won it on June 7 in five games against the Vegas Golden Knights. 

“I do know that T.J. Oshie is going to do everything he can, and we're not willing to put a timetable on it right now with regard to any time,” Reirden said. “Just lots of these things take a different course in terms of how they rehab and don't rehab. I just know that I can tell you about T.J., he's all-in at all times, and that's a great person to have around our room at the very least." 

Oshie had 25 goals and 29 assists in 65 regular-season games. He missed 11 of 13 games with a concussion. He had eight goals and 13 assists in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season. He also plays the “bumper” role on the top power-play unit and kills penalties.

Oshie tweeted thanks to fans both before and after Washington’s 6-0 win on Saturday. In the third period, periodic “T.J. Oshie!” chants rang from the sellout crowd at Capital One Arena. 

“It was nice to see the crowd give [Oshie] a little love,” center Nicklas Backstrom said on Saturday.  

Added Reirden: “That's obviously a tough loss for us, but we're prepared to go without him as we saw last night. It's a tough situation for our team, but I certainly liked our response last night and was proud of our effort in terms of how we played and how we were playing with him in the back of our mind."

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