For Notre Dame, USC, the preseason script is flipped

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For Notre Dame, USC, the preseason script is flipped

LOS ANGELES -- Three months ago, Notre Dame was on the outside looking in. Nobody projected them to make a BCS bowl, let alone challenge for a national championship. The idea of having a Heisman candidate was just as far-fetched, and many wondered if another mediocre season would put coach Brian Kelly squarely on the hot seat.
USC, on the other hand, topped plenty of preseason polls, with Matt Barkley tabbed to lead the Trojans to the BCS Championship about a month after garnering the Heisman Trophy. It was supposed to be Lane Kiffin's signature year, one that returned USC to the level set by Pete Carroll over the previous decade.
Notre Dame-USC has championship implications, features a Heisman candidate and a coach that, despite a reassurance from his athletic director, could be on the hot seat -- just as everyone predicted. Except the teams are flipped.
"It's a long season, it's college football, it's 18 to 21 year olds," coach Brian Kelly said. "There are so many factors go into this."
If Notre Dame beats USC, they'll move on to play for a national championship, which would be the program's first in 24 years. Manti Te'o is the legitimate Heisman candidate, and is likely to wind up in New York while Barkley remains home. And a season that could see USC lose as many as six times has many questioning Kiffin's ability to lead USC to the kind of success it enjoyed over the last decade.
"We get asked all the time, hey, did you expect to win 11 or 12?" Kelly said. "We know the unexpected is always out there, so we try to stay focused on the next practice. If we did what you did and did that big picture stuff, it would drive us crazy, too."
Nobody's faulting the preseason predictions that had Notre Dame winning eight or nine games at the most. And nobody's questioning why USC, with all its offensive firepower, was the preseason No. 1. Both were logical projections in August, as illogical as they may look now.
"Preseason predictions are mostly based off the year before," Notre Dame center Braxston Cave said. "Last year was last year, this year's this year."
That's a simple way to put it. But with Everett Golson quarterbacking the Irish offense, the team hasn't experienced the devastating spate of turnovers that plagued the team for much of the 2011 season. Despite losing Michael Floyd and seeing Tyler Eifert's production drop off, Notre Dame's offense has been good enough to support one of the nation's best defenses. Led by Te'o, Notre Dame's defense is only allowing 10.1 points per game -- the best average in the country.
"We've put ourselves in this position, and Manti's played unbelievable this year and he's also put himself in the position that he's in the way he's worked this year, not because of last year," Cave said. "It feels like everything's coming in to place."
Notre Dame's meteoric rise has coincided with USC's decline, with the Trojans failing to register any truly impressive wins in their 11 games. Shootout losses to Arizona and Oregon have combined with a close loss to Stanford and a lackluster performance against crosstown rival UCLA, with that loss to the Bruins dropping USC out of the top 25. No team since 1964 began the season the AP No. 1 and fell out of the top 25 -- at least, until this year.
Barkley has thrown the second-most interceptions of any FBS quarterback with 15, casting a dark cloud on some other impressive totals. Sophomore Marqise Lee emerged as a go-to option and arguably the nation's best receiver and Robert Woods remained effective despite a decreased presence in USC's offense, but the Trojans have turned the ball over 29 times -- the fifth-highest total among FBS teams.
Make no mistake, USC still holds powerful cards in its offensive deck, even with Barkley on the shelf for Saturday's game. But Monte Kiffin's defense has let USC down, too, allowing 392.2 yards and 24.8 points per game -- averages that land the Trojans squarely among college football's mediocre defenses.
It hasnt turned out so far how wed have liked or how we anticipated," USC athletic director Pat Haden told reporters earlier in the week. "We were probably over-hyped at the beginning of the season to be perfectly honest."
But this is where we are, with Notre Dame one win away from a berth in the BCS Championship. This was supposed to be USC's moment, not Notre Dame's. It was supposed to be Barkley's trip to New York, not Te'o's. And it was supposed to be Kelly looking over his shoulder, not Kiffin.
It's a fascinating flipping of the script, and one that Kelly could only chuckle at when confronted with it earlier this week.
"That's why they play the games, you know."

Morning Update: Dwyane Wade comes up clutch in close win vs. Kings

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AP

Morning Update: Dwyane Wade comes up clutch in close win vs. Kings

Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

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Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

It was a gift and the Bulls weren't going to look it in the mouth as Dwyane Wade was poised to finish off another one of his sterling defensive plays with a breakaway dunk with the game tied and Arron Afflalo and DeMarcus Cousins trailing.

Lightly touched by the small of his back by Cousins, Wade miscalculated his liftoff and missed the dunk but was bailed out by the refs for a foul with 14 seconds left.

Then, he bailed the Bulls out.

Wade had his fifth fourth-quarter defensive play, stripping Cousins on a steal on the ensuing possession with the Sacramento Kings having a chance to win, leading to a Michael Carter-Williams dunk and finishing a 102-99 win Saturday night at the United Center.

It was a clock-turning performance for Wade on both ends of the floor, even if his missed dunk is a reminder that he is 35 years old. 

"I took off too far as I look at the instant replay," Wade said. "I should've took maybe one more dribble. Can't say I felt 35, I just took off too far (laughs). But hey, sometimes you get calls, sometimes you don't. I'm a person who hasn't gotten a lot all year so I'm not gonna apologize for nothing."

Stripping Cousins on his spin move was the finale, but he swatted an Arron Afflalo corner triple in the fourth, smothered Ty Lawson at the rim twice for blocked shots to end the third and tortured Lawson again in the fourth for another steal that led to him following up a Jimmy Butler missed layup with a follow and foul.

"Just a read," said Wade on stripping Cousins. "We knew he was gonna go to DeMarcus at that point. Once we forced him left, I knew he had to come back to the right hand. And being in the right place at the right time, the ball was right there for me."

Wade played like a desperate and motivated man, putting up 30 with six rebounds and four assists on the second night of a back-to-back is proof positive he took Friday's loss to Atlanta personally and used his play to back up those feelings.

He took to twitter to apologize for the poor effort against the Hawks, producing his best all-around performance as a Bull.

"We've been good in desperate moments," Wade said. "We haven't been good in non-desperate moments, when we win three in a row or playing a team that we should beat. But (in) the desperate moments I like us."

He scored 13 in the fourth, along with the last of his four blocked shots and all three of his steals took place in the final 12.

"I thought he was terrific," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He was aggressive all game long, taking the ball to the basket, getting to the line 15 times. He came up with two big plays."

Hoiberg threw out different lineups and rotations, playing Paul Zipser as a sixth man and having the second-round draft pick close the game. Zipser took advantage, hitting three triples and scoring 13 points.

"I thought it was night and day from last night," Hoiberg said. "Our energy was really good all night long. We got just enough stops to find a way to win."

Cousins dominated the game with 42 and 14 rebounds in 35 minutes, the only Kings player in double figures all night.

"He was pretty much unguardable for the majority of the game, Taj did a solid job on him," Hoiberg said. "When Robin was on him, they put him on the perimeter and let him shoot threes. He's a monster."

Back-to-back triples from Cousins gave him 40 and tied the game at 97, as a third one rimmed out with a little under two minutes left.

Cousins dominated the start of the third quarter, hitting midrange jumpers over Lopez and taunting the Bulls bench after hitting a jumper to put the Kings ahead, 70-63 midway through the third.

But the Bulls stayed close, with Hoiberg choosing to sit Rajon Rondo for the second half after playing him six minutes in the second quarter, using Wade as a point guard and going with Carter-Williams for defense, along with Zipser, who didn't look scared of the moment.

"I like the wrinkle coach put in there, putting him in early," Wade said. "He gave him an opportunity and he helped us big time."

Butler scored 23 with seven assists and five rebounds in 39 minutes, didn't have to play the hero for once and made fun of Wade's apology tweet.

"He was due for a big night," Butler said. "He can tweet again if he can come out again and give us 30 and some big steals and big dunks."

"I think that's what called of him, to score baskets and guard. It's kinda sneaky. You never really expect it until it happens."

It looked like the worst was over when the Bulls made a short run to end the third, surviving the onslaught from Cousins — and surviving their own experimenting with Zipser instead of going with Denzel Valentine, switching things up altogether.

But the tone was set by the leaders, who can only manufacture but so much urgency on a nightly basis.

"I like this team when we're desperate," Wade said. "A desperate team, we're not bad."