Notre Dame tops USC to move on to Miami

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Notre Dame tops USC to move on to Miami

LOS ANGELES -- Notre Dame no longer needed anyone ahead of them to lose. All they had to do was win, and an early January trip to Miami was in their grasp. Nobody had to lose on Saturday night but USC, and Notre Dame made that happen, securing a spot in the BCS Championship with a 22-13 win over the Trojans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"We just find a way to win, week in and week out," running back Theo Riddick said. "That's our message."

Riddick was Notre Dame's offensive star Saturday, rushing 20 times for 146 yards and a touchdown. When the Irish needed yards, Riddick was the go-to guy, breaking tackles and garnering plenty of yards after contact.

That's pretty good for a running back-turned-wide receiver, who returned to the backfield for his senior season.

"If you want to know about the Fighting Irish, you just need to look at Theo Riddick," coach Brian Kelly said. "Here's a guy that was a wide receiver for me the first two years. We asked him to move back to running back, and in game 12 he manages (146) yards but broke countless tackles and got us the tough yards we needed today.

"You just look at his jersey after the game, there's no wonder why this team has got the toughness that it does."

Notre Dame's offense started strong, slicing through USC's defense to take a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Everett Golson looked calm and poised, while Riddick scrounged up a handful of important plays, including a nine-yard touchdown run late in the first. But Notre Dame wasn't able to pull away early, only managing field goals on a pair of promising drives bookending Riddick's touchdown and setting the tone for the team's offensive output Saturday night.

"I think not getting touchdowns came back to make it a little more difficult on us, and I knew it would," Kelly said. "Every time we had to kick a field goal where we missed an opportunity -- we're still in the process there. We're not there yet. When we start clicking down in the red zone, we'll be really good."

But the Irish didn't ultimately need to convert those red zone opportunities, although the collective blood pressure of Notre Dame may say otherwise. That's because the Irish defense once again locked down, only allowing a touchdown and two field goals to an offense that remained high-powered despite injured quarterback Matt Barkley spending the entire game in sweat pants on the sidelines.

After a shaky start, first-time starter Max Wittek settled down, completing seven straight passes and leading USC to 10 first-half points, keeping the Trojans within striking distance. Notre Dame couldn't capitalize off a Manti Te'o interception to open the second half, with Brindza missing a 34-yard field goal.

That interception, though, sparked a defensive struggle for most of the third quarter. Notre Dame and USC traded punts throughout the quarter until Golson hit Tyler Eifert for a 36-yard gain late in the period, setting up Brindza's third successful field goal of the game to put Notre Dame up by nine. USC only managed 24 yards in the third quarter.

"The entire game was managed the way we managed each and every game -- minimize the big plays, they had the one great completion late in the game," Kelly said. "We minimized the big plays and we ran the football, and our quarterback was able to manage the run game for us."

That big completion Kelly referred to was a 53-yarder to Marqise Lee, which set USC up on the Irish two-yard line late in the fourth. Even with Notre Dame leading by nine with time ticking away, the thought of a Trojans comeback was hardly far-fetched.

After a slew of pass interference calls on KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame stopped Wittek on a pair of QB sneaks, then dropped Curtis McNeal for no gain on the one-inch line. And when Soma Vainuku dropped what would've been a touchdown pass, Notre Dame pulled off another miraculous goal-line stand. Their last one led to a win over Stanford, which athletic director Jack Swarbrick saw as a benchmark for the team's title hopes.

"Coming into the year, I thought Stanford was the test," Swarbrick said. "I just think that in the past few years, they were more physical than we were, bigger and tougher than we were, and I thought that's going to be our benchmark. And when we survived that, especially the way we did, that's when I thought we had a chance."

Notre Dame survived Stepfan Taylor, and on Saturday, survived USC's goal-line efforts in the same manner.

Only this time, that goal-line stand is sending Notre Dame to Miami.

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

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USA TODAY

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

There were six teams deserving of reaching the College Football Playoff this season. But there were only four spots.

But what if there were more spots?

An expansion of the Playoff field to eight teams has seemed inevitable from the day the four-team system was announced. Four more Playoff games means oodles more TV viewers, which means oodles more dollars.

And then we wouldn't be having all these arguments, either — but that's nonsense because of course we would, trying to figure out who got snubbed from the expanded bracket.

But this season's emphasis on the conference-champion debate might kick the efforts to expand the Playoff into high gear. Just take it from NCAA president Mark Emmert.

Now, technically speaking, there are 10 FBS conferences, each of which crowns a champion at the end of every football season. Emmert is obviously referring to the Power Five conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. He might want to pick his words a bit more carefully, considering he represents the other five conferences — the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt — too, but his point remains understood.

This season has sparked a ton of controversy as the Playoff selection committee opted for the first time to include a team that did not win its conference, Ohio State, and it picked the Buckeyes over the Big Ten champs, Penn State. Plus, Big 12 champion Oklahoma was passed over in favor of non-champion Ohio State, too, actually falling behind another non-champion from the Big Ten, Michigan, in the final Playoff rankings.

With that decision brought the reasonable question of how much a conference championship should matter in getting a team into the final four and competing for a national championship.

The Playoff committee's mission is to pick the country's four best teams, and there aren't many people out there that will argue that Ohio State isn't one of the country's four best teams. But there's something to be said for winning a conference championship because if the Buckeyes can waltz into the Playoff without even playing in the Big Ten title game, why even have a conference championship game — besides, obviously, earning one more night of big-time TV money.

And so the call for an expanded Playoff bracket has reached perhaps its greatest volume in the short time the Playoff has existed. The obvious solution to Power Five conference champions continually being boxed out is to lock in five spots on the bracket for the five conference champions. Then, guarantee a spot for the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences, and you're left with two "at-large" spots that this season would've gone to Ohio State and Michigan, two of the highest-profile programs in the country sure to drive TV viewership in battles against conference-champion Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma teams. And P.J. Fleck's undefeated Western Michigan squad takes the final slot.

That's quite the field. But if you think it would've solved all this year's problems, you're wrong. Still there would've been outcry that red-hot USC didn't make the field. The Trojans are playing so well that they could very well win the whole thing, despite their three early season losses. That debate over snubs will exist forever, no matter the size of the field, something we see play out each and every season in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Also, what a damper an expanded bracket would put on the final few weeks of the regular season. Ohio State's game against Michigan, the highest-rated game of the college football season with more than 16 million people watching, would've been effectively meaningless. No matter who won or lost, both teams would've made that eight-team field, right?

Additionally, another round of Playoff football would expand the season to 16 games for some teams. That means more physical demands on student-athletes and a season cutting deep into January, which would impact their educational and time demands.

But again, an expansion of the Playoff bracket has always seemed inevitable. There's too much money to be made, and at the same time fans seem to be all about that idea. People love the postseason for good reason, and the win-or-go-home nature of the NFL playoffs make those games the most-watched sporting events of the year.

Now the NCAA president is chiming in with hopes of an expanded field. So really isn't it just a matter of time?

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

CSN's Chris Boden and Tracey Myers have the latest on the Blackhawks in the Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda Dealers.

From an injury standpoint, it's been a tough few weeks for the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks are down two key players in captain Jonathan Toews and goaltender Corey Crawford, and now may be without defenseman Brent Seabrook who sustained an upper-body injury in Tuesday's victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

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While the Blackhawks haven't had much luck on the injury front, their upcoming two opponents are in the same boat.

"You look at the New York Rangers, a very talented team, but this is what every team goes through every season. Your depth gets tested," Myers said.

Check out what else Boden and Myers had to say about the team's upcoming matchups in this week's Honda Road Ahead