Notre Dame moves one win away from shot at title

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Notre Dame moves one win away from shot at title

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There was no letdown, no signs of a trap, no heart-pounding finish, as there were in Waco and Eugene. Notre Dame's 38-0 win over Wake Forest was the first blowout the Irish built in South Bend, and it teed up next week's crucial matchup against USC in Los Angeles with an berth in the BCS Championship on the line.

With Kansas State's 52-24 loss to Baylor and Oregon's 17-14 loss to Stanford, it'll be with a BCS Championship berth on the line for the Irish, which will sit at No. 1 when the BCS standings are released Sunday. After Notre Dame's 38-0 win over Wake Forest, most players said they'd either have a passing interest or no interest at all in what Kansas State and Oregon were to do Saturday night.

"I'm not going to worry about it," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "I could literally just go eat, go to sleep, and wake up tomorrow and figure out what happened. I'm not too concerned."

Bet that stance has changed. Saturday was the first time since 2007 both Nos. 1 and 2 in the BCS have lost on the same weekend.

When Notre Dame sits at No. 1 in the poll Sunday, it'll be the first time the Irish have occupied the top spot in the AP poll since 1993. Notre Dame has never been No. 1 in a BCS poll.

That No. 1 ranking means all the Irish will have to do to reach the BCS Championship is beat USC, which lost 38-28 to crosstown rival UCLA Saturday. Adding misery to an already-disappointing season in Los Angeles was an injury to quarterback Matt Barkley, who reportedly suffered a separated shoulder against UCLA.

It was Notre Dame that was supposed to have the disappointing season, the one that put its coach on the hot seat. Not USC. But the script has played out with the roles reversed, with plenty calling for Kiffin's head in California while others effusively praising Kelly in Indiana. Notre Dame-USC will have championship implications, but not for the team most would've expected in August.

Despite an 11-0 record, Notre Dame has sat on the outside looking in of the BCS Championship picture for the entire season. First and foremost, Notre Dame needed to win out, but just as crucial to the team's title hopes was for the teams ahead of them to lose.

Texas A&M took care of half that equation last weekend, beating then-No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. On Saturday, it was Baylor downing K-State in Waco and Stanford winning in overtime on the road against Oregon.

"Coach has been telling us it's all going to work itself out, we just need to take care of what we can take care of," Notre Dame wide receiver John Goodman said. "That's what we did tonight, last week and the weeks before. So we're 11-0, that's all that really matters right now, we're going to go into USC 11-0 and hopefully leave 12-0."

A lack of style points -- or, more accurately, a few nail-biting home wins against lesser competition -- has been part of the reason why Notre Dame hasn't been among the top two teams in the BCS standings this year. At 11-0, though, Notre Dame players were far more concerned with their unblemished record than margin of victory.

"Where the hell did style points come from?" defensive tackle Louis Nix asked rhetorically. "I hate that. I don't believe in style points. I believe in winning, and that's what you do playing football. You don't need to do style points."

Notre Dame put up style points Saturday, with Everett Golson leading the way. The redshirt freshman completed 20 of 30 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns in his best collegiate game, and Cierre Wood added 150 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

Still, Irish wide receiver T.J. Jones -- who caught six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown -- insisted "style points, to me, are irrelevant."

With K-State and Oregon's losses, those style points became exactly what Jones said they are -- irrelevant.

As Notre Dame climbed the BCS standings, coach Brian Kelly preached taking things one game at a time and not looking ahead to a larger goal. That cliche took on real meaning after Notre Dame nearly lost to Pittsburgh a week after beating Oklahoma by 17 in Norman, and it's one that'll persist among Irish coaches and players heading into Los Angeles.

"Our guys know what's at stake now," Kelly said after Notre Dame's win and before the two monumental losses ahead of them Saturday night. "This is about an undefeated season. They cannot do anything else but beat USC. The rest is up to other people to decide."

But Notre Dame has only beaten USC once in the last decade. Despite all the trials and tribulations at USC this year, they remain a talented team, one that certainly could spoil Notre Dame's title hopes on Nov. 24.

"We've got to take care of USC before we can be talking about what to do," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "We've got one more game to go. If we don't beat USC, there is no need to say whether you deserve it or not. You have to beat USC first."

By the bye: Blackhawks keep rolling following break

By the bye: Blackhawks keep rolling following break

When you're on a roll, you hate disrupting it for anything.

The Blackhawks probably felt that in some respect heading into the new NHL-mandated bye week on Feb. 12, but the need for rest usurped any worry on that front. Still, when the Blackhawks reconvened last Friday, the question remained if they could pick up where they left off on that pre-bye, five-game winning streak.

As coach Joel Quenneville said of the unusual break, "we talked about it going into it: you don't know how you're going to come out of it."

Apparently it hasn't been a problem.

The Blackhawks have won two of their first three out of the bye, including their 5-3 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night.

Coming out of this break hasn't been easy for a lot of teams. The Blackhawks, like 11 other teams up to this point, lost their first game out of it. But in that loss to Edmonton, the Blackhawks played well. That continued on Sunday in Buffalo and on Tuesday in Minnesota. Now back in a rhythm schedule-wise, the Blackhawks are hitting their stride performance-wise.

"I thought we played a good game against Edmonton but we still felt there'd be some good will down the road. I thought we continued on with these next two on the road, probably played the same way going into it. So it's been a good stretch for us, and much better than we were at the beginning of the year," Quenneville said. "I like the improvement in our game."

A big part of the Blackhawks' success is finding their four-line rotation.

Jonathan Toews was joined by Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik early in the Ice Show trip, the three were given time to mesh and it's paying productive dividends. The second line is always a threat. Their third and fourth lines are a great combination of defense, skill and youth.

As the lines have started rolling, so have the Blackhawks. Each line had someone score against Buffalo. The top line thrived vs. the Wild. 

"I think all year we kind of expected the offense, coming from Arty's [Artem Anisimov's] line and maybe my line, but what's making us a really good team is our third and fourth line going out there and just battling every shift, just working, giving other teams no time, no chance to make plays with the puck," Toews said. "I think when you can rotate four lines like that, everyone starts to pick up their pace and their speed and then you just rotate in and it doesn't matter who scores on a given night. We're getting contributions from all over the place and it makes you a dangerous team and a tough team to beat."

Instead of taking steam out of the Blackhawks' sails, the bye appears to have re-energized them.

"Yeah it was good for our team," Ryan Hartman said. "We had a few guys who didn't get [rest during] the all-star break. They were still playing, and it was nice for those guys to get away from the rink and kind of get in the sun and take your mind of hockey for a bit, refresh the brain and body. I think we all needed those couple days of rest. As it's looked the last couple of games we've looked fresh and we've been bringing it almost a full 60. I wouldn't say we're quite playing a full 60 but we're really close and that was crucial for us."

Playing a full 60 was one of the Blackhawks' biggest problems earlier this season. Much like the four-line rotation, it's showing up at the right time. The Blackhawks have a great opportunity this week to get closer to the Wild, who started their break on Wednesday.

The issues that plagued the Blackhawks earlier this season are starting to dissipate. They weren't sure how they were going to come out of this break. So far, they've followed rest and relaxation with a rejuvenated game. 

"We're just rolling four lines now. Every line can score and every line's playing the best hockey," Panik said. "That's helped us."

Bears add another assistant coach to John Fox's staff

Bears add another assistant coach to John Fox's staff

John Fox and the Bears have added another assistant coach.

Zack Azzanni is leaving the University of Tennessee to become the Bears' new receivers coach.

Azzanni has been with Tennessee since 2013 as a receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Prior to that, he spent time at Wisconsin, Western Kentucky, Florida, Central Michigan and six seasons at Bowling Green.

Azzanni was on Urban Meyer's coaching staff at Bowling Green in 2001-02 and also coached Pittsburgh Steelers superstar receiver Antonio Brown at Central Michigan. Under Azzanni's tutelage at CMU from 2007-09, Brown totaled 305 receptions for 3,199 yards and 22 TDs, earning a sixth-round draft selection in 2010.

Curtis Johnson spent 2016 as his first season in the role of Bears' wide receivers coach, but announced he was leaving after the Senior Bowl to take a job with the New Orleans Saints.

It's unknown if Azzanni will get a chance to coach Alshon Jeffery (who is currently a free agent) but the incoming coach will have an important job in molding young receivers like Kevin White and Cameron Meredith.