For Notre Dame, the formula equals a trip to the BCS Championship

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For Notre Dame, the formula equals a trip to the BCS Championship

LOS ANGELES -- Braxston Cave let out a primal scream, pointing to the legions of delirious Notre Dame fans crowding the front rows of the stands at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Carlo Calabrese raced up and down the wall, high-fiving anyone with a free hand and a Notre Dame jersey. Manti Te'o and Brian Kelly, the emotional leader and coach, embraced in the tunnel leading away from the field where Notre Dame beat USC 22-13, securing an undefeated regular season and berth in the BCS Championship Jan. 7 in Miami.

"We set out this season to build our program and get it back in to the national discussion when you're talking about championship programs," Kelly said after the game. "And we're in that discussion."

Notre Dame isn't just in the discussion. They're at the center of it, with the winner of next week's SEC Championship between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia awaiting in South Beach.

The Irish got to that point by doing what they've done all year on Saturday. A stout defense effort was punctuated by another miraculous goal-line stand, with Notre Dame keeping USC out of the end zone on four tries from inside the one-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Theo Riddick shed countless tackles and gained 146 yards with a touchdown on 20 physical carries. And Everett Golson didn't put up a flashy stat line, but didn't turn the ball over.

That's exactly the formula that got Notre Dame to where they are today, and that's a spot in the BCS Championship.

"It was just football at its best, you know," safety Zeke Motta beamed.

But that formula hasn't been perfected yet, despite a perfect record. Kyle Brindza had to kick six field goals -- he hit five -- as Notre Dame consistently left points on the board, allowing USC to stay within striking distance until the dying embers of the game.

"We definitely have to improve," Riddick said. "We're not there yet, we don't feel like it. We're going to go back next week, look at the tape, figure out what we can get better at and do that during that week. We have time. Coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to. We have to get better at that being in the red zone. We're going to do that, and we're going to be okay."

The on-field formula still needs work, as plenty will be quick to point out when the Irish open as underdogs to either Alabama or Georgia. But big-picture, Notre Dame's formula for success is clear. It's also one few predicted would work in today's college football landscape.

"What's so exciting for us is to be in this year that we're No. 1 in the nation in graduation success rate, to be ranked No. 1 in the BCS and go to the championship game. No one's ever done that before," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "And that's the proof of concept for us. That's always been what the goal was and what we were about. To be able to pull it off, this year, another important game to go -- but to get to this point, proving you can do it the way we do it is incredibly galvanizing and rewarding for us."

Few expected Notre Dame to be here, certainly not as soon as 2012. Even Swarbrick admitted he thought 2013 was going to be the year Kelly and the Irish finally broke through. But despite a greenhorn quarterback, a pair of injuries to starters in the secondary and plenty of near-misses at home, make no mistake: Notre Dame is back.

"I was just speechless, man," Riddick said of his thoughts when the clock hit zero. "I was just in shock. It was like a dream come true."

In a historical context, Notre Dame's win was probably shocking. The Irish haven't won a game this big in nearly a quarter of a century. But nothing went terribly wrong, like things did in 1993. There were no crippling turnovers, the likes of which stamped out any hopes of Notre Dame taking a step forward in 2011. This is 2012, and Notre Dame won in Notre Dame fashion. That's hardly surprising.

"This was another clear indication of how we got to 12-0," Kelly said. "Our guys have incredible resolve, regardless of the circumstances, of coming up and finding ways to win. That's all we talk about. We don't talk about style points, anything else, just find ways to win. And these guys continue to do that."

Preview: Lackey, Cubs face Scherzer, Nationals today on CSN

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Preview: Lackey, Cubs face Scherzer, Nationals today on CSN

The Cubs take on the Washington Nationals today, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 12:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: John Lackey vs. Max Scherzer

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist never made it to the sit-down his camp had scheduled with the Washington Nationals at the winter meetings, which took place at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, not far from his offseason home. 

The Cubs were quietly hitting their multiple bank shot, trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren and getting Zobrist to Chicago for the physical to finalize a four-year, $56 million contract.   

The Nationals found their Plan B for second base by Christmas Eve, agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Daniel Murphy, the new Mr. October who crushed the Cubs during the National League Championship Series.

Murphy and Zobrist intersected again on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs winning Round 1 of this four-game series between National League heavyweights by a 5-2 score. 

The fans booed Murphy for last year’s NLCS MVP performance with the New York Mets, while Zobrist drew first blood with a two-run single in the fourth inning and a going-for-the-jugular two-run homer in the eighth. At 21-6, the Cubs are dominating every phase of the game after winning the offseason.   

“We knew that we were going to be good,” Zobrist said, “but sometimes you start slow. We got off well the first week and we kept it going. There’s something to be said for getting the ball rolling in the right direction early. And that makes a huge difference.”   

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s steady presence on defense, his leadership in the clubhouse and a different dimension for their lineup. Zobrist earned his championship ring with the Kansas City Royals, handling New York’s power pitching in the World Series.  

Murphy cooled off by that point after a ridiculous four-homer power surge during the NLCS sweep, which included his memorable momentum-shifting swing against Jake Arrieta in Game 2. Murphy reached so far down for that Arrieta curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, lifting it out toward Citi Field’s right-field seats for a two-run homer and a 3-0 first-inning lead.   

“There’s not enough adjectives to explain how good Jake has been over the last year-and-a-half,” Murphy said. “I think he just put together – I was reading – (something) like the best 25-game stretch of anybody ever. So I was able to get a pitch that he probably felt like he executed pretty well. 

“I didn’t hit it great. I just happened to wrap it around the pole. With Curtis Granderson and David (Wright) in front of me, they had really good at-bats, and our pitching was throwing the ball really well. Fortunately, that kind of ended up being enough for us.”

Something clicked for Murphy, who after an 0-for-4 night is still hitting .382 with four homers and 17 RBI for a first-place Washington team (19-9) the Cubs might face in the playoffs. 

But the Cubs now believe they might have their own Mr. October, who didn’t go that far down the road negotiating with the Nationals. Zobrist turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants for the chance to make history in Chicago. 

“There’s a great mix of the way guys are playing,” Zobrist said, “the way they’re feeling, the way they’re having conversations with each other. It’s the way that they’re just out there having a good time. We celebrate well together. We battle well together.

“That’s great on May 5th to get that feeling already. Sometimes you won’t get that feeling of a good team until later in the season. We’re going to have to weather some storms. We know that. But right now, we’re just trying to play great baseball.”

Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

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Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

Three hours after being ejected, Dexter Fowler was still fuming.

Fowler - who leads Major League Baseball in on-base percentage - only got two at-bats Thursday night against the Washington Nationals before he was directed to hit the showers by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Fowler struck out looking in his first two times to the plate and expressed his frustration with Carapazza on the field after his third-inning at-bat.

It didn't take long for Carapazza to give Fowler the boot.

Here's the rundown of the conversation, according to the Cubs's leadoff hitter:

Fowler: Was that pitch at the top of the zone?
Carapazza: Yes.
Fowler: Are you going to call them away, too, and down? What are we doing? I wanna know the strike zone.
Carapazza: That's enough.
Fowler: Enough of what? I'm asking you a question.

"And he threw me out," Fowler said. "I was surprised he didn't answer the question. He just walked away and said, 'That's enough.' I said, 'You're not gonna answer my question?' And he threw me out.

"I figure I got two more at-bats; I wanted to know the strike zone. Are you gonna call them up? Are you gonna call them away? Whatever. Just let me know. That's all."

Fowler said he has never been ejected from a game in his life at any level.

He admits he's said more than that before and hasn't gotten tossed. And he's also occasionally asked umpires where their strike zone is.

"People have answered my questions and I walked off," Fowler said. "That's all you want is an answer. ... Everybody knows I'm respectful. I wasn't being disrespectful at all. I just asked a question. It sucks I got thrown out of the game."

Fowler has been the Cubs' most productive offensive player this season, but his teammates still found a way to earn a 5-2 victory over the Nationals in his absence.

Joe Maddon was on his way out to argue when Fowler was tossed, but the Cubs manager wasn't as interested in getting into the whole ordeal after the game like his centerfielder was.

"I was arguing that we are a team that does not expand our strike zone," Maddon said. "That was my argument."