Irish have to clear one final hurdle

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Irish have to clear one final hurdle

LOS ANGELES -- Notre Dame's won a handful of big games this season, but none with the implications Saturday's showdown against USC will carry.
While Notre Dame has only played three true road games this season, they head to Los Angeles seasoned away from Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish went into a hostile environment in East Lansing and pasted Michigan State. An even more hostile environment yielded an even better result a month and a half later, with Notre Dame marching to a 30-13 win over Oklahoma in front of the largest crowd ever at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. And two weeks ago, Notre Dame dispatched a weak Boston College team while dealing with the knowledge of Alabama's stunning loss to Texas A&M that afternoon.
And those are just the road games. While there's plenty of luck to point to, Notre Dame learned what it takes to win close games, beating Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, BYU and Pittsburgh by an average of 4.6 points.
"We've been playing in big games all year and it's not like this is the first time we've had to go out and play a big opponent on a big stage," center Braxston Cave said. "We've been there, we've done that, and now it's just a matter of us going out, executing and playing our game."
While a chance to earn a title game bid accounts for plenty of motivation, there's an added bonus to beating USC for Notre Dame. It's a game that hasn't really been a rivalry in the last decade, with USC winning nine of the last 10 meetings.
"Well, it's not a great rivalry right now," coach Brian Kelly said. "We haven't won enough games. They've had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry."
Cave, who grew up a rabid Notre Dame fan, knows the history of the contest, and he'd rather be able to tell people he was part of the Notre Dame class that started to turn things around against USC.
"It's more of a self-pride thing," Cave explained. "Any time your name is associated with something, you want it to be in a positive way. You don't want be like yeah, I was part of that stretch where we only one one game or this or that."
Even a comment from Max Wittek -- Matt Barkley's replacement guaranteed a USC win -- won't be enough to reignite the Notre Dame-USC rivalry. That'll happen on the field.
"We're going to stay focused, we're going to stay poised, we're going to stay composed and that's what 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," senior wide receiver John Goodman said.
No matter the outcome of Saturday's game, though, the rivalry will be at its highest pitch since the 2005 Bush Push game. But no matter how important it is to Notre Dame players, coaches and fans, it takes a seat far in the back to the team's title aspirations.
The light is on at Grace Hall for the first time in 19 years, reminding anyone near campus that the Irish are No. 1. Notre Dame graced the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. One win means a trip to Miami to play for the national championship, which would be the first time Notre would enter a game playing for a title for the first time in 24 years.
Notre Dame, though, has dealt with plenty of outside distractions this year, both positive and negative. They're a mature group, one that hasn't been through this kind of success but has acted like it since narrowly escaping with a win against Pittsburgh.
"We know we got one shot to get to 12-0," Cave said, "and if we don't stay focused and do our job then we have no chance of accomplishing that."

Would the Bears consider selecting Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer?

Would the Bears consider selecting Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer?

Would the Bears consider selecting DeShone Kizer with the No. 3 pick in the upcoming draft?

At what point in the draft should they consider taking a signal caller?

Does it make sense for Ryan Pace and the Bears to take at least one quarterback in every draft?

We answer those questions in the video above in the latest SportsTalk Live segment.

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

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USA TODAY

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

Michigan's March magic finally ran out.

The guy who's been so fantastic throughout his senior season, point guard Derrick Walton Jr., missed a game-winning 3-point try at the buzzer, and the Wolverines fell to the Oregon Ducks by a 69-68 final score in the Sweet Sixteen.

It was an incredibly competitive game between the Big Ten Tournament champs and the Pac-12 regular-season champs, with neither side ever leading by more than six.

But Moe Wagner, who scored a career-high 26 points in Michigan's second-round win over Louisville, was pretty much a non-factor in this one, scoring just seven points on 3-for-10 shooting.

Still, seniors Walton and Zak Irvin kept an unusually cold-shooting group of Wolverines alive with a combined 39 points, 23 of which came after halftime. D.J. Wilson also scored in double figures with 12, all coming on 3-pointers.

But Michigan, which had been on fire offensively for much of the last month, shot just 43.1 percent from the field and missed 20 of its 31 shots from behind the arc.

The Wolverines actually shot under 40 percent over the opening 20 minutes as the two defenses did good work for these typically high-scoring squads. Michigan turned the ball over seven times before the break but trailed by just two as it went to the locker room.

The tit-for-tat nature of the game continued at the outset of the second half before Oregon reached its game-high six-point lead, but Michigan responded with seven straight and grabbed its first lead of the second half around the 11-minute mark. The Ducks answered that mini surge with six straight of their own, part of a larger 10-4 spurt, before Wilson and Walton hit back-to-back triples to once again give the Wolverines a narrow advantage, this time with a little more than four minutes remaining.

Oregon and Irvin traded buckets from there, and a Walton jumper was Michigan's sixth straight make from the field, putting the Wolverines up three with under two minutes to play. But Michigan didn't score again, and Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey got back-to-back layups, the latter the game-winning one ahead of Walton's missed 3-point attempt as time ran out.

Dorsey was fantastic for the Ducks, scoring 20 points, his sixth straight game with at least 20 points. Bell had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Oregon advanced to its second straight Elite Eight with the win.

Michigan's entertaining end-of-season run is over. Entering Thursday night's game in Kansas City, the Wolverines had won seven straight and 10 of their last 12. Those two losses came by a combined seven points. Add this loss in and just eight points separated Michigan from 13 consecutive wins.

Certainly this group of Wolverines will be remembered for its sensational four wins in four days at the Big Ten Tournament after that horrifying aborted takeoff, as well as for reaching the third Sweet Sixteen in the last five seasons under John Beilein.