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.

White Sox expect Chris Sale's return to be 'fairly normal'

White Sox expect Chris Sale's return to be 'fairly normal'

It doesn’t sound as if there’s much ambivalence among the White Sox about Chris Sale’s expected return on Thursday.

Manager Robin Ventura said Wednesday he expects things to be “fairly normal” as Sale is scheduled to pitch the finale of the Crosstown series after serving a five-game suspension for insubordination and destruction of team property. Adam Eaton said teammates should have no reservations about Sale’s coming back after his actions Saturday left them in a bit of a bind. And pitching coach Don Cooper said he’s the first to forgive and that everyone has situations they might later wish they’d handled differently.

“Open arms,” Eaton said. “He’s our teammate. He’s our guy. All of the things that are swelling around about his character, who he is as a player … he’s my brother and I enjoy every second with him on and off the field. Can’t be a better person. I’ll be excited to see him and I’m sure he’ll be in the same form he’s been the entire year — go out and perform and be Chris Sale.

“I’m sure he’ll be well-rested and a clear mind for him I’m sure is going to be a good thing. We’ll welcome him back.”

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The pitching staff could use some innings from Sale without question. When he didn’t pitch Saturday, the White Sox filled those innings with a committee of relief pitchers. Prior to Tuesday’s win, the bullpen had pitched 19 1/3 innings the previous four games.

But the White Sox have handled the drama extremely well. They’re 4-0 with one game left in Sale’s suspension and they look forward to having their ace back. Cooper said he hopes to move on, sentiments that were previously echoed by Ventura and executive vice president Kenny Williams.

“Welcome back, let’s go,” Cooper said. “Let’s go to work. Let’s move on. Listen man, who would want to be held responsible for the (stuff) they did at 22, 24, 26, 27, you know what I mean? He’s way too good of a kid. I don’t think anybody would. Everybody screws up from time to time or has some missteps.”

One of the actions that has caught Sale flack is his criticism of Ventura’s handling of the situation. Neither Ventura or Williams responded to Sale’s comment on Tuesday that “Robin is the one who has to fight for us.” Ventura said he wouldn’t have done things any differently and Williams applauded how Hahn and Ventura handled a difficult, “unique” situation.

Ventura said he doesn’t expect much out of the ordinary.

“I think it’s going to be fine,” Ventura said. “Players always have their teammates’ backs, and that’s no different with our clubhouse, and it’s going to be fairly normal, as far as he’s going to be prepared to pitch and our guys are going to prepare to play and it’s going to go from there.”

White Sox C Dioner Navarro has a good story behind the best game of his career

White Sox C Dioner Navarro has a good story behind the best game of his career

There’s a good story behind the best game of Dioner Navarro’s 13-year career. 

On May 29, 2013, Navarro — then playing for the Cubs — hit three home runs and drive in six in a 9-3 Crosstown victory at Wrigley Field. Both were career highs. 

And Navarro did it without a whole lot of preparation. 

“I got to the ballpark and I didn’t see the lineup, I thought I wasn’t playing,” Navarro recalled. “So we go out for stretch and the first group is hitting and they called my name and I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And they said ‘You’re playing.’ It was already too late to get into the group so I went inside.”

Navarro only took two rounds of batting practice in his haste to get ready. But he also took those swings thinking right-hander Jake Peavy was going to start for the White Sox, so he hit left-handed during batting practice. 

The White Sox, though, were starting left-hander John Danks, so the switch-hitting Navarro wound up batting right-handed when the game started. 

The pregame mixup hardly hurt Navarro, as it turned out. He homered off Danks in his first and second at-bats, and then launched a three-run homer in the seventh off White Sox right-hander Brian Omogrosso. 

“It was one of the best experiences of my career,” Navarro said.

Navarro is one of a handful of people to play for both the Cubs and White Sox since the two teams began their annual interleague series in 1997 (others include pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Bob Howry, Edwin Jackson and Neal Cotts, among others). His perspective from playing off the Addison and Sox/35th Red Line stops is one he said he’ll cherish after his career is over. 

“I’m really fortunate to be part of it from both sides,” Navarro said. “A little bit bittersweet because the Cubbies had lost 100 games the year before and we were onto our way to lose 100 more games that year (2013). But still the rivalry against this team was something that people always talked about. Being part of it with the Cubs and now being part with the White Sox is a tremendous experience, something I look forward to share with my kids when I get older.”

White Sox happy to retain, and drink beer from, Crosstown Cup

White Sox happy to retain, and drink beer from, Crosstown Cup

The White Sox had a little fun with the Crosstown Cup trophy after securing it for the third consecutive year.

Well, at least one player did for sure: Left fielder Melky Cabrera, according to first baseman Jose Abreu, drank some beer out of the trophy after the White Sox beat the Cubs, 3-0, Tuesday night at U.S. Cellular Field. 

The White Sox retained the Crosstown Cup by virtue of winning the season series in 2014 (three wins, one loss), splitting in 2015 (three wins, three losses), and assuring themselves of at least a split in 2016 (two wins with two games to play). 

This isn’t like a college football rivalry trophy that gets passed between campuses every year. And baseball players generally aren't keen to over-emphasize four or six games over the course of a 162-game season. 

But the Crosstown Cup is still a trophy, and it’s one White Sox right fielder Adam Eaton appreciated receiving again. 

“Any time you win an award — I don’t care if my grandma gives me an award during checkers, I’m excited,” Eaton said. “I don’t really care. But if you play for anything there’s some extra emphasis there. I definitely do think guys take pride in it for sure. But more pride in it that our side of town is happy with us in that sense that we’ve taken the cup back. 

“You don’t want to put too much emphasis on any particular series. But at the same time, if it makes our fans happy that we got the cup back then that’s what we do.”