Notre Dame secondary goes from shaky to solid

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Notre Dame secondary goes from shaky to solid

In August, few outside Notre Dame's locker room expected the Irish to play for a National Championship. Part of that pessimism revolved around the Irish starting an inexperienced quarterback, but another -- and probably larger -- reason involved the team's secondary.

Lo Wood's ruptured Achilles' tendon, suffered late in fall camp, thrust KeiVarae Russell into a starting role. Wood was expected to be a top contributor to a shaky group, but instead, a true freshman who never even played cornerback until August was thrust opposite of Bennett Jackson on the team's depth chart.

While Wood's injury looked to be a critical blow to Notre Dame's pass defense, those who had seen Russell in preseason practice had far more confidence.

"He was very athletic and he had a really quick first step, really quick first movements," Jackson said of his first impressions of Russell. "I thought he was someone who once he got tuned in a little bit would be a great benefit to the defense."

Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks saw the same thing.

"Some guys are just natural with feet and flipping their hips, and (have) gifted athletic ability," Cooks explained. "So he was one of those guys that I identified from day one, just having the ability to play corner and be able to do the jobs, to move lateral, to cover one-on-ones. You knew that once you saw him running around, that if he was willing to, he could be special."

By all accounts, Russell has put in the time and effort necessary for a greenhorn at his position. Cooks said Russell will incessantly ask him for feedback, as well as getting tips from Jackson and the rest of Notre Dame's cornerbacks.

"You got a kid like that's whos willing and open to expose himself to criticism and coaching, what more could you ask for?" Cooks said.

There's still plenty of room for Russell to improve, which can be said about the rest of the Irish secondary. But Notre Dame will enter the BCS Championship with the nation's No. 21 pass defense, allowing 194.4 yards per game and only seven touchdowns -- the same number of passing scores allowed by Alabama, and only bested by Boise State, Vanderbilt and Florida.

Related: Kelly's growth leads Notre Dame down championship path

As improbable of an achievement as that would've seemed before the season, after safety Jamoris Slaughter tore his Achilles' tendon against Michigan State, that kind of success seemed even less likely.

Slaughter's injury thrust Matthias Farley -- who redshirted as a wide receiver in 2011 -- into Notre Dame's starting lineup. While Farley played a little safety in high school, he admitted that experience didn't exactly carry over to college, especially when he trained as a receiver for his first year on campus.

He flipped to safety in time for spring practice in 2012, but had a ways to go before he could be considered as a viable backup.

"I thought hed probably help us on special teams and would be a guy that would learn through the year," safeties coach Bob Elliot said. "I thought he probably would need this year to figure out how to play defense."

Farley's high football I.Q. and dedication between spring and fall camp transformed him from an afterthought into a legitimate option. He's leaned heavily on Elliot, referring to the seasoned coach as being "monumental" to his growth. Having Motta -- the lone veteran among Notre Dame's secondary -- in his corner has been an asset, too.

"Just to see the way hes evolved, his reads and his understanding of the game has been pretty impressive," Motta said.

Inside the Irish: All-American center Jones key to line battle

Notre Dame's pass defense success isn't just the product of quality play from its four starters. Danny Spond has carved out success as Notre Dame's "dog" linebacker in its 3-4 formation, and Manti Te'o nearly leads the nation with seven interceptions.

Some will point to the ability of Notre Dame's front seven to put pressure on a quarterback as another reason for the success of the team's secondary, too. That's a fair assessment, although it's one Jackson bristled at earlier in the year. This is a prideful group, one that has used its doubters as motivation.

For this unit, a lack of experience hasn't mattered. Learning on the job has been par for the course, and so far, it hasn't come back to burn Notre Dame.

"They just took those baby steps, and finally youre starting to see them piece it all together," Cooks said. "And its been fun to watch that group go from zero to 10 by the end of the season. And now, their confidence is high, as well as it should be."

White Sox crush four homers to support Jose Quintana in win over Mariners

White Sox crush four homers to support Jose Quintana in win over Mariners

Fireworks Night started early for the White Sox on Saturday night.

The White Sox homered four times to support Jose Quintana in their 9-3 win over the Seattle Mariners at U.S. Cellular Field in front of 27,318 fans. Quintana, who set a career high in season wins last week, notched his 11th victory of the season.

"This year is special for me," Quintana said. "Now we have momentum. (We have to) try to keep (it) going to get more for my team. It’s really good. I’m trying to do my job."

Quintana was on point again right from the get-go. After allowing a double to the first batter of the game, the 27-year-old southpaw retired the next 11 batters.

Quintana pitched 7.2 innings with eight strikeouts and two runs on five hits and a walk. He lowered his ERA to 2.77 on the year.

"He's pretty consistent," said manager Robin Ventura. "I think that's the biggest thing for him. Mentality wise and just focus, just his attitude and everything that goes with him is pretty consistent. You're never going to really tell what's going on with him on the game.

"He's had so many games that were close or tied or even behind that he never changes. I think that's what endears him to a lot of guys. He's consistent."

While Quintana has been consistent all year, the offense hasn't been. But on Saturday, the team gave their starter a healthy dose of run support.

"What was really impressive was the offense tonight was really good for us and for me," Quintana said. "It’s fun when you’re throwing when a lot of runs are scored."

The Mariners opened up the scoring with a sac fly from Robinson Cano in the first. But the White Sox answered back right away.

Melky Cabrera drove in Tim Anderson, who tripled in the previous at-bat, with a sac fly. The next batter, Jose Abreu, crushed his 18th homer of the year to put the White Sox in front. Cabrera was the only White Sox who didn’t record a hit in the game.

The White Sox offense began to heat up in the fourth after a quiet second and third from both sides.

After the first two batters of the inning were retired, the next four White Sox got on. It cleared the path for Tyler Saladino’s RBI single, which put the Sox up 3-1. Saladino finished the night with one homer and three RBI.

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The White Sox added four more in the fifth inning.

The scoring started with an RBI triple from Justin Morneau — the team’s second three-bagger of the night.

Back-to-back homers from Avisail Garcia and Alex Avila made it 7-1. It was the fifth time the White Sox hit two consecutive homers this season.

"I think Q's probably the happiest guy of anybody. He was great," Ventura said. "Any time you swing the bat as well as we did tonight and you get some add ons with the homers, you like seeing that kind of offense and you like seeing balls over the fence.

"Guys had a good night of just being patient and being able to cash in."

The Mariners added a run in the sixth from an RBI single by Guillermo Heredia and a sac-fly Franklin Gutierrez in the ninth.

Avila went 1-for-3 with a solo homer and walk in his first game since July 5.

Garcia, who had five extra base hits in June and July, had three on Friday night.

Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

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Preview: Cubs-Dodgers Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 2:30 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.

CSN will also carry the live audio call of Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasting legend Vin Scully during Sunday's game as the SportsNet LA audio feed will be featured during the third inning.

Sunday’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester vs. Kenta Maeda

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

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— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

Defensive mistakes, red card cost Fire in ugly loss at D.C.

Defensive mistakes, red card cost Fire in ugly loss at D.C.

RFK Stadium hosted one of the stranger games of the Chicago Fire’s season on Saturday.

It also may end up being a killer blow to the Fire’s playoff hopes.

The Fire lost 6-2 to the host D.C. United, falling nine points out of the playoffs with nine matches remaining.

Patrick Mullins had a hat trick and former Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko played a role in three of D.C.’s goals. The six goals were the most the Fire have allowed this season.

Fire midfielder Khaly Thiam received a red card in the 34th minute in a match-changing moment. Thiam fouled Nyarko then argued with the ref and dropped the ball on Nyarko’s face while Nyarko was still on the ground.

Nyarko keyed the opening goal in the 25th minute with a backheel in the box to Marcelo, whose low cross was finished off by Mullins.

Michael de Leeuw answered for the Fire (5-12-8, 23 points) by tucking away a big rebound from goalkeeper Bill Hamid after Matt Polster hit a half-volley at Hamid. The relief was short-lived for the Fire because Thiam was sent off a few minutes later.

Nyarko set up Mullins for a goal in the 40th minute and then Luciano Acosta did the same for Mullins in first half added time to make it 3-1 D.C. (7-8-11, 32 points). Razvan Cocis got the Fire back within one on the final kick of the half with a long shot that took a big deflection, lofting the ball perfectly over Hamid and into the net.

However, Nyarko quickly restored D.C.’s two-goal lead out of halftime with a goal in the 51st minute. Mullins finished off his hat trick in the 76th minute and Nick DeLeon finished the scoring in the 89th.

David Accam, who was favoring and icing his left leg after Wednesday’s draw with LA, did not start the match. He subbed on at halftime. He and David Arshakyan, who made his Fire debut off the bench, will both leave for international duty and miss next weekend’s match against Philadelphia.