Notre Dame-USC: A low point in 2011, high point in 2012

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Notre Dame-USC: A low point in 2011, high point in 2012

If Notre Dame's loss to USC a year ago served as the low point of 2011, Brian Kelly's comments the week after were the exclamation point of that nadir. But Notre Dame's win over USC in 2012 brought them to a high point, only 13 months after some very public splintering.

"You can see the players that I recruited here," Kelly said in late October of last year. "You know who they are. We've had one class that I've had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along. But it's a process. It can't happen overnight. They're getting there. We're making good progress."

Notre Dame's upperclassmen -- who were recruited to the school by Charlie Weis -- took exception to the remarks, with Manti Te'o tweeting "playin for my bros and that's it!!!" A day after Kelly's comments, he cleared the air with his players from the previous regime, and all parties involved moved on.

And after Notre Dame's latest game against USC, the tone of the team was decidedly different.

"It was bumpy at first, but now it's great," Te'o said of his relationship with Kelly. "I'm happy to have him as my coach. He's the best coach in college football."

"I was just speechless, man," running back Theo Riddick, another Weis recruit, added. "I was just in shock. It was like a dream come true."

Thanks to efforts from both sides, Notre Dame players have bought into Kelly's system. For Kelly, he began the season by being more accessible to players.

"As you develop closer relationships with your players they starting to go, oh, I now know what you were talking about," Kelly said earlier in November. "I think we're at that point now."

Those bonds helped breed confidence within the program, which hadn't sniffed a somewhat realistic championship bid in a decade.

"I believed it was possible when we were working out in the offseason," senior safety Zeke Motta said after Saturday's win over USC. "I believed it then based off the way we competed every day and visualized our goal. And from then until now, it was always in our mind."

Perhaps the third-year-at-Notre-Dame trend isn't so random. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national championships in their third season in South Bend, and Kelly has a chance to join that group in early January. Implementing a system doesn't happen overnight, especially when so many key players weren't brought in by the new coaching staff.

Those bumps in the road are in the past. All that matters is what's in the future, and that's a date with Alabama or Georgia in the BCS Championship Jan. 7 in Miami.

"We believe in each other, our coaches believe in us and we believe in our coaches," Te'o said. "It's showed the type of camaraderie we have on our team. That's what's helped us be successful."

Programming note

On Saturday, Dec. 22, NBC will air "Undefeated: 2012 Notre Dame football season in review" at 1 p.m. CST, a behind-the-scenes look back at the program's first undefeated season in 24 years. It'll feature interviews with Kelly and Te'o and comes on the heels of the most-watched season of Notre Dame football on NBC since 2005.

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Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks host Lightning tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks host Lightning tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Grab the first goal.

The Blackhawks have scored the game's first goal in seven of the last eight games, and of those seven, they've won six of them. Meanwhile, the Lightning have scored the first goal only 17 times in 48 games this season, and are 12-5-1 in those games. They're 9-17-4 when they allow the first goal, so getting out to a lead first will be important against a struggling Lightning team looking for signs of life.

2. Will the floodgates open for Jonathan Toews?

After a four-point game in a 4-2 win over Vancouver, the Blackhawks captain matched his point total over his previous nine games. He's up to 26 points on the season, which is now fifth among Chicago forwards. When Toews has offensive droughts, they usually last longer than they should. But when he gets hot, he gets extremely hot. Perhaps we'll see the floodgates open offensively.

3. A chance for the team lead in scoring.

With an empty-net goal on Sunday, Marian Hossa tied Artem Anisimov for the team-lead with 18 goals. Artemi Panarin is right behind with 17, and Patrick Kane isn't far either at 15. The Blackhawks had four 20-goal scorers last season, and haven't had more than that since the 2013-14 season. They're definitely on pace to hit four, but could they surprass that? Richard Panik, who scored another goal Sunday as well, is fifth with 11 goals while Ryan Hartman has 10. Toews is at eight, but a flurry after a drought could make things interesting.

4. The triplets reunited?

In an effort to jumpstart a struggling offense, Lightning coach Jon Cooper reunited the triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat that was so successful during their 2015 playoff run in their latest game, a 5-3 loss to Arizona. It's unclear whether they will begin tonight's game on the same line, but if not, it's worth watching throughout the game whether they do. The Blackhawks have been coming at opponents in waves lately, so Cooper could look to separate the three to distribute the scoring.

5. Take advantage on special teams.

The Lightning have racked up the fifth-most penalty minutes in the league, and own a bottom-10 penalty kill unit at 80.1 percent. The Blackhawks are the second-least penalized team, and have converted on 17.9 percent of their power plays, which sits at 16th. But they haven't scored one on the man advantage in five straight games, going 0-for-9 during that span. Here's a chance to change that.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

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