Kelly happy with Notre Dame's demeanor after ascending to No. 1

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Kelly happy with Notre Dame's demeanor after ascending to No. 1

Brian Kelly wanted to get a gauge on his team's attitude toward being No. 1 this morning, so he eavesdropped on a few conversations his players were having in Notre Dame's training room. The result was exactly what he was looking for.

"A couple of the guys were congratulated by a couple of the trainers, and their first response was, yeah, but it doesn't mean much if you don't beat USC, so that's really all I needed to hear," Kelly said.

Kelly had about a dozen friends and family over at his house last night to watch Kansas State-Baylor and Stanford-Oregon, and responded with a "heck yeah" when asked if he joined in on the loud cheering for Baylor and Stanford.

"It's like being selected for the playoffs," Kelly said. "Now you know you're in if you take care of business, and you've got to win each week. I think it's more about just the feeling that you're included now in the race for a championship."

While the BCS won't give way to a playoff system until 2014, Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia play what amount to playoff games this week and next. For Alabama and Georgia, they'll need wins over heavy underdog rivals in Auburn and Georgia Tech before moving on to face each other in the SEC championship. For Notre Dame, a win over USC means they advance to the BCS title game.

The Trojans are in disarray, coming off a 38-28 loss to UCLA in which quarterback Matt Barkley suffered a shoulder injury that could keep him out of Saturday's contest. If he doesn't play, redshirt freshman Max Wittek -- who's thrown a total of nine passes at the collegiate level -- will get the start.

But regardless of who's under center for USC, Notre Dame's gameplan won't change.

"(Marqise) Lee and (Robert) Woods and the running back situation, they've got two great backs," Kelly said, referring to Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. "We're going to have to defend all of those players, not just one. Certainly if Barkley is playing, which we'll prepare for him like he is playing, the offense is still going to be about getting the ball to their play makers. So it really won't change much in terms of what we do."

While Woods' production has dropped off in recent weeks, he still has 66 catches for 721 yards with 10 touchdowns on the season. It's been Lee, though, who's emerged as USC's top wideout, with the sophomore racking up 107 receptions for 1,605 yards and 14 touchdowns. Barkley or not, defending that pair of receivers is a tall order for Notre Dame's secondary.

"Tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle and tackle," Kelly said of the key for Notre Dame's defense.
"They're incredibly skilled with the ball in their hand, and if they have a lot of space, they're going to make you pay. You know, we felt that we had to against Oklahoma limit some of the catches and the extended runs. We'll have to do a great job tackling, and that will be paramount to our success against USC."

Over the last month, Kelly has noted plenty of times that his team can't get ahead of itself, that it can't afford to overlook an opponent. Notre Dame did just that against Pittsburgh, and it nearly cost the team its shot at championship. The way Kelly has seen things early in the week, perhaps that experience will pay off.

"They understand the importance of the USC game," Kelly said. "I was happy to see that they had that kind of maturity to know that it's all about how we play against USC."

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Here are some of Monday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Preview: Cubs look to bounce back vs. Giants tonight on CSN

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen

Should Blackhawks' next assistant coach be Joel Quenneville's choice?

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

Luis Robert the latest high-end acquisition for White Sox

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Carlos Rodon 'getting closer' but still without time frame for return

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”