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."

Robert Streb shoots 63 and joins Jimmy Walker in lead at PGA

Robert Streb shoots 63 and joins Jimmy Walker in lead at PGA

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. (AP) -- In a major championship season of endless theater, the PGA Championship lived up to its end of the bargain Friday.

Robert Streb led the way, even if hardly anyone noticed.

As thousands of fans crammed into the closing holes at Baltusrol to see if Jason Day could finish off his amazing run and Phil Mickelson could make it to the weekend, Streb hit a 6-iron into 20 feet on his final hole at the par-3 ninth for a shot at 63.

He made the birdie putt during a TV commercial break, making him the 28th player to shoot 63 in a major, and the third in the last 16 days.

"It was pretty noisy for the 15 people that were out there," Streb said.

No matter where anyone was at Baltusrol, there was no shortage of entertainment.

Mickelson hit his opening tee shot off the property and onto a side street and made triple bogey, only to rally to make the cut. Rickie Fowler finished birdie-eagle to get back into the picture. Rory McIlroy only needed to birdie the par-5 18th, the easiest hole on the course, to make the cut. From the fairway, he made bogey and was headed home to figure out what was wrong with his putting.

A second round that began in rain with one group given the wrong hole location on No. 10 ended with Streb and Jimmy Walker sharing the lead and becoming the eighth and ninth players to match the 36-hole record in the PGA Championship at 131.

Walker had to settle for a 4-under 66, right when he had the 36-hole record for all majors (130) within his reach with two par 5s remaining. But he hit into the hospitality area well left of the 17th and scrambled for par, and then his tee shot narrowly missed its mark and found the water on the 18th, leading to bogey.

Even so, he was tied at the halfway point of a major.

"It's going to be a new experience, and it will be fun," Walker said. "You still have to go perform. Doesn't matter what tournament it is."

Day dropped to even par with a double bogey on No. 7, and that appeared to wake up the world's No. 1 player. Day went on a tear with seven birdies over his next eight holes, two of them from 18 feet, one of them from 35 feet. Suddenly, he was on the verge of a shot at 63 until he hooked his tee shot to the base of the hospitality area on the 17th, and pushed a driving iron into the right rough on the 18th. He settled for pars at both for a 65.

Day was right where he wanted to be, three shots behind going into the weekend, his name high on the leaderboard for everyone to see. At stake is a chance to join Tiger Woods as the only back-to-back PGA champions since the stroke-play era began in 1958.

Day was joined at 7-under 133 by Emiliano Grillo, the talented young Argentine who worked hard on his putting at Baltusrol and watched it pay off. Grillo got this afternoon of birdies going by making five of them in a seven-hole stretch on the back nine until he cooled on the front and had to settle for a 67.

This is new territory for him, too.

Just like Walker and Streb, he has never even contended in a major.

"I've never been in this situation, and I'm not afraid of it," Grillo said. "I'm going to go out and enjoy it."

By the end of the day, it was easy to overlook a familiar figure - Henrik Stenson, the British Open champion who made eagle on the 18th at the turn and polished off another 67. He was only four shots behind in his bid to match Ben Hogan as the only players to win two straight majors at age 40.

Mickelson made the cut, and that might have been the most entertaining of all.

He began his round with a tee shot so far left that it sailed off the property, bounced along Shunpike Road and caromed to the left down Baltusrol Way. Wherever it finished, it was out-of-bounds, and Mickelson had to scramble for a triple bogey. He spent the rest of the day battling to get back, and he delivered on the 18th with a birdie to post a 70.

"I think in the history of the PGA Championship, that's the worst start of any player's round. I'd have to look it up," Mickelson said.

No need to. Someone pointed out that Nicolas Colsaerts piped two over the fence and made 8.

"I'm having a difficult time right now managing my expectations, because I know how well I'm playing and I'm so result-oriented that I'm not playing very relaxed, free golf like I did at the British, like I did in the preparation here," Mickelson said.

Two weeks ago at Royal Troon, where Mickelson opened with a 63 and Stenson close with a 63, it was just those two players in a duel that ranked among the greatest.

At Baltusrol, a dozen players were separated by five shots going into the weekend, a group that included Martin Kaymer (69). Jordan Spieth was finally back in the mix, at least on the fringes, after a hot start that led to a 67. He was in the group six shots behind.

The biggest surprise was Streb, who became the fourth player with a 63 at Baltusrol. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf each had 63 in the opening round of the 1980 U.S. Open, and Thomas Bjorn shot 63 in the third round in the 2005 PGA Championship.

Streb hasn't had a top 10 on the PGA Tour since he tied for 10th in the PGA Championship last year. He found something in his swing a few weeks ago, birdied the last four holes a week ago Friday in the Canadian Open just to make the cut, and grabbed a sliver of history at Baltusrol.

Justin Morneau returns to White Sox lineup, Target Field for first time

Justin Morneau returns to White Sox lineup, Target Field for first time

MINNEAPOLIS -- If the White Sox needed a reminder how much they missed having a left-handed bat earlier this season, the last two games without Justin Morneau confirmed it.

Forced out of the lineup because of National League rules, Morneau on Friday returned to a White Sox lineup that struggled in his absence in a pair of losses at Wrigley Field. It’s the same issue that has dogged the White Sox throughout the regular season until Morneau was activated two weeks ago after Adam LaRoche unexpectedly retired.

Friday’s contest also marked Morneau’s first regular season appearance at Target Field against his former since he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013.

“When he’s not in there it really changes a lot of the dynamic for us of where guys are, how deep your lineup is, as well as just having a really good left-hander in the middle of it, a consistent guy who not only can hit, but takes pitches, walks, is a threat and he’s not a half bad guy,” manager Robin Ventura said. “He’s back here and I think guys are happy for him that he’s back here as well.”

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]

There’s little doubt the White Sox missed Morneau at Wrigley Field when they combined for 10 hits and were outscored 11-2 by the Cubs in two losses. Even though he’s only two weeks removed from the disabled list, Morneau has already offered the White Sox the balance they desperately needed in the middle of the order since LaRoche called it quits.

Morneau, who had elbow surgery in December and then rushed to get back as quickly as he could after he signed in June, likes how his swing has progressed so far. Perhaps the one upside to his absence -- Morneau said the two-day break has him feeling even better as the White Sox opened a three-game series at the Minnesota Twins.

“The swing feels good,” Morneau said. “A couple days off helped my body recover a little and sort of recharge the battery coming in here. I feel I can go up there and battle, like I can put at-bats together, guys in scoring position all that stuff. It’s fun to be out there in situations, that’s what I kind of enjoy the most.

"The amount of work it takes to get ready isn’t the fun part, but stepping into the batter’s box and battling those guys is really all we play for. I’m comfortable doing that, and it’s good.”

Even with the addition of Todd Frazier’s team-leading 29 home runs, the White Sox offense has only shown slight improvement this season in part because the team was so right-handed heavy until Morneau was activated on July 15. The White Sox entered Friday having scored four runs per game, which is up from 3.84 in 2015. The team carried a .699 OPS against right-handers into the game.

Even though LaRoche had the worst season of his life in 2015, the White Sox were short-handed once he retired. The original plan had been a rotation between Melky Cabrera-Austin Jackson-Avisail Garcia and LaRoche between two outfield spots and the DH role. Instead, Garcia was forced into full-time action and Ventura often had to bat Melky Cabrera in the fifth spot to break up a run of four straight right-handed bats in the middle of the order.

Despite improved production from Frazier and Brett Lawrie at second, the White Sox have been inconsistent all season. Thursday’s loss was the 49th time in 102 games they scored three or fewer runs. Ventura said the need for a lefty bat implored the White Sox to take a risk and sign Morneau without knowing what they’ll receive.

[RELATED: Robin Ventura doesn't want to see Sale or Quintana traded]

“I think that’s the reason why we ended up going on a limb a little bit and going with him knowing we’d have to wait to have him in our lineup,” Ventura said. “Once we lost Adam we became very right-hand dominant. It’s tough to have for Jose and those guys to be in there and not have that left-right combo that you’d like to have.”

Morneau received the welcome he expected from the Twins fanbase. Even though he now wears a White Sox uniform, Morneau was received well. The American League Most Valuable Player in 2006, Morneau played for the Twins from 2003-13. His wife’s family lives locally and Morneau said he spends part of every offseason here.

“You never know when you go to a rival or play for a team in the same division that we battled against for so many years here, and to go on the other side of it, some people’s feeling might not be as warm as you’d hope them to be,” Morneau said. “But for the most people have been great to me and I don’t think I’d really expect anything else.”

Preview: Arrieta, Cubs look to stay hot vs. Mariners Saturday on CSN

Preview: Arrieta, Cubs look to stay hot vs. Mariners Saturday on CSN

Jake Arrieta and the Cubs look to stay hot against the Mariners on Saturday, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 12:30 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.

Starting pitching matchup: Wade Miley (6-8, 5.23 ERA) vs. Jake Arrieta (12-4, 2.76 ERA)

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