Despite top ranking, Irish still embrace underdog status

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Despite top ranking, Irish still embrace underdog status

While a favorite mantra of Brian Kelly has been to tune out the noise, Notre Dame players have relished their role as underdogs during the 2012 season. After beating Oklahoma, multiple players mentioned getting added motivation from the "haters" (one player specifically mentioned ESPN's Mark May by name) who picked the Irish to lose by double digits in Norman.

Even at No. 1, though, there are plenty who don't think Notre Dame will beat USC -- and even if they do, the Irish would be double-digit dogs to Alabama, if the Tide wind up winning the SEC to advance to the BCS Championship.

"There's still haters out there that say 'they don't deserve to be No. 1, they aren't that good, they've had so many close games, blah, blah, blah,'" senior wide receiver John Goodman said. "A win's a win. Right now we're 11-0 with a possible 12-0 season, and that's all that matters."

One person who doesn't think Notre Dame will win on Saturday is USC's quarterback, Max Wittek, who rankled some with comments on an ESPN Radio affiliate in Los Angeles guaranteeing his team would beat the Irish. But Notre Dame players weren't bothered by the comment, at least publicly.

"He said what he said, but at the end of the day he's not going to go out and say that they're going to lose," center Braxston Cave. "Any guy who's a competitor is going to try to motivate his team and do whatever he can to get his team ready to go, and he was given his opportunity to get a start and he's excited for that. He can say whatever he wants to say. We're going to come out and play our game Saturday night."

Cave's point is pertinent, since any player is going to say they're confident about winning, no matter who the upcoming opponent is. Wittek -- a redshirt freshman -- just wasn't politically correct in his comments, although his sentiment is hardly unique.

"We still have two practices left and a lot of traveling to do before we let that set in, but we're going to stay focused, we're going to stay poised, we're going to stay composed," Goodman said. "We need to be able to get our game plan in and get whatever we need to do in place before we get worked up about a comment."

But Notre Dame players may take a little added motivation from Wittek's comments, even if they won't admit it before the game. If Wittek didn't make those remarks, though, the location of the game may have been enough to cultivate that us-against-the-world mentality.

"Any time you go on the road, you're going to be considered the underdog, especially when you're playing your rival, and when you're the No. 1 team in the country everyone's out to get you," Cave said. "We know we're going to have to go out there and play our best game."

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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.

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