ND and the SEC: Conference's dominance doesn't intimidate Irish

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ND and the SEC: Conference's dominance doesn't intimidate Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame features big, physical players in the trenches, a dynamic defense and an offense built around a stable of athletic running backs. That combination has led plenty to draw the conclusion Notre Dame is built like a menacing SEC team -- just like the one they'll face in the BCS Championship.

Apt or not, it's a conclusion at which defensive end Stephon Tuitt bristled.

"I wouldnt say were kind of like an SEC team. Were ourselves," Tuitt said Friday. "We go to work every day like everybody else. We showed it in the production, and we proved that."

Tuitt knows all about the SEC, hailing from Monroe, Ga, which is about a half-hour drive from the University of Georgia. Rated by Rivals.com as a five-star defensive end out of high school, Tuitt fielded offers from seven SEC schools including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and LSU.

"Its tough, physical players," Tuitt said. "But at the same time, we have a tough, physical line as well, and our defense is tough and physical too."

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Notre Dame players recognize the challenges Alabama presents, but think they match up well against the Tide. Judging by the games early spread, though, few outside of Notre Dame nation agree with that premise. Alabama is favored by about 10 points by most Vegas outlets, and plenty of prognosticators don't give the Irish a chance on Jan. 7.

That's not necessarily a shot against Notre Dame, although some Irish players will use it to add fuel to the nobody-believes-in-us fire that's burned all year. To some extent, what those lines are the product of is the SEC winning six consecutive titles.

So has the SEC earned the right to be favored in every championship until the conference is dethroned?

"I dont think so, man," safety Zeke Motta said. "Football is football. It can go either way anytime."

If that doesnt sound like a ringing endorsement, Louis Nix offered up a different angle.

"The SEC didnt win it, the certain teams in the game won it. I dont care about the conference thing," the affable defensive tackle said. "The teams that won it the last six years so happened to be in the SEC. Those guys earned the title. I'm happy I'm facing one of those teams that won it twice already. I can't wait to play them, and cant wait for January 7."

LSU and Auburn have won single titles, while Alabama and Florida have garnered two championships over the last six years. The conference has tremendous recruiting pull, and the region produces loads of talent at the prep level every year. And look no further than Bret Bielema leaving a top-four job in the Big Ten for a top-seven (at best) gig at Arkansas last week as evidence of the conference's pull.

To be the best, you have to beat the SEC.

"They have dominated, they are the preeminent conference, they've proven it on the field," coach Brian Kelly said. "Alabama has been the benchmark for college football, in three out of the last four National Championship games. Were aware of the challenge in front of us. We welcome it. It's one that were putting ourselves in a position to go find out where we need to go from here."

Related: Practice not just about BCS Championship for Notre Dame

For all of the SEC's chest-beating, Alabama was in the same boat as Notre Dame a month ago. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tide needed two teams to lose to reach the BCS Championship, no matter how hard some tried to convince themselves a one-loss Alabama team would be ranked over an undefeated Notre Dame or Kansas State squad.

For Notre Dame, going undefeated meant they met the minimum requirement for BCS Championship consideration -- of course, they could've done more to strengthen their case earlier in the season with some style points, no matter how badly the team wanted to shun that notion. Despite the strength of the conference, a loss is a loss, and the prospect of not having an SEC team in the BCS Championship led to plenty of hand-wringing.

It really doesnt make any difference how many game-winning shots you made in the past, the only one you gotta focus on is the one you gotta shoot right now, Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

The stars aligned for Alabama when both K-State and Oregon lost on the same Saturday, and when Georgia botched a last-minute drive two weeks later. The defending champions actually get to defend their title, and could make it seven in a row from the nations best conference.

For Notre Dame, they get the opportunity to win the program's first title since 1988. But on a larger scale -- one the team probably doesn't care much about, but one that most everyone else around the sport does -- the Irish can stonewall the SEC's recent dominance atop college football, at least for one year.

Were very ecstatic about this challenge, running back Theo Riddick said. What else can I say, you want to beat the best. So we have that chance.

Bears No. 1 offense moving in wrong direction after three preseason games

Bears No. 1 offense moving in wrong direction after three preseason games

If there are solutions lurking in the rubble that has been the Chicago Bears 2016 offense, they are staying hidden. And the problems have to be more than just the loss of coordinator Adam Gase and stalwarts Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte and Matt Slauson.

But in the longest stretch of playing time yet this preseason, a 23-7 loss Saturday to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bears repeatedly dropped passes, ran wrong routes, failed to execute blocks and generally looked like an offense that has taken significant steps backward since last season.

“We’ve still got some time,” said quarterback Jay Cutler. “We’ve still got some time to get better. We’re still missing some guys and we’re going to have an influx of guys coming into the lineup that’ve been missing the past couple of weeks, which is going to help us, make us a little more dynamic out there.

“We’ve just got to keep working.”

The No. 1 offense ran 18 first-half plays and netted 20 yards – five fewer than the team gave the Chiefs in penalties. And matters got worse. The Bears ran 11 plays in the second quarter for a net minus-11 yards.

The Bears went to the line of scrimmage three times in the final 6 seconds of the first half. Those trips produced a false start by Alshon Jeffery (which pushed the Bears back across midfield and out of what would have been their only play in the Kansas City end of the field through 30 minutes); a bounced pass from Cutler in the direction of Marc Mariani when no Chief was within 20 yards of the Bears wide receiver; and a sack by 346-pound nose tackle Dontari Poe, who had one sack in 15 games last season.

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The Bears had practiced those situations as recently as this week, though “we need to prepare more, obviously,” Cutler said, smiling.

Franchise-tagged Jeffery did not limit his issues to the pre-snap penalty. He caught none of the three passes targeted for him in the first half and let one go off his hands with Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters on the ground, a victim of the loose Soldier Field sod.

“I was just trying to catch it and take off,” Jeffery said. “But you still got to catch it.”

When the offense finally managed to cross midfield, on its first possession of the third quarter, the drive included a bad drop of a bubble screen to wide receiver Kevin White, a badly run route by White near the end zone, and finally a missed field goal by Robbie Gould from 48 yards.

“It’s just growing pains,” Cutler said. “It’s just kind of how it is, his ‘rookie’ year, not really playing a lot of college football… . We’re working with him and he’s doing everything he possibly can to work through it and be where it’s supposed to be.

“And he understood it. I talked to him on the sideline and just told him this is going to happen. And now he knows and it just can’t happen again. We just can’t have repeat mistakes. He’s a good kid and he’s going to do well.”

The rest of the offense? Since most of the starters will play little if at all next Thursday at Cleveland, the improvement is going to have to come from within, from practice. It didn’t happen in games, where it is generally supposed to.

Bears quarterback Connor Shaw reportedly suffers broken leg in preseason loss

Bears quarterback Connor Shaw reportedly suffers broken leg in preseason loss

A little over a year ago Connor Shaw suffered a season-ending injury during a preseason game with the Cleveland Browns.

Unfortunately, history has likely repeated itself.

According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Shaw endured a broken leg right above his left ankle in the Bears' 23-7 preseason loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday afternoon. After connecting with wide receiver Josh Bellamy for an 18-yard completion in the fourth quarter, the Bears quarterback had his left leg folded by Chiefs defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches. Shaw stayed on the grass for a few minutes, writhing in pain, before having his left leg put in an air cast and leaving Soldier Field on a cart. 

Following the game, Bears head coach John Fox said that Shaw's injury is "very serious" and that he was on his way to the hospital for further examination.

[MORE BEARS: Bears severly outplayed in another home preseason game]

The devastating injury comes at inopportune time for Shaw who has arguably been the best player in a Bears uniform this preseason.

Before leaving Saturday's game, Shaw was 5/6 for 68 yards with a QB rating of 153.5 including a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Cameron Meredith. Shaw also showed an ability to make things happen with his legs as he had two carries for 15 yards. It was the second consecutive eye-opening performance for Shaw. In last week's preseason loss to the New England Patriots, Shaw was for 4/6 with 42 yards and a touchdown pass.

Shaw had already surpassed David Fales as the Bears' third-string quarterback, and was starting to push Brian Hoyer — who coincidentally suffered an injury to his ribs against the Chiefs — for the backup job behind Jay Cutler. At worst, Shaw would have been a practice squad candidate.

"I've known him since his rookie year in Cleveland and he's really worked hard," Hoyer said. "He's done a good job and to see that, it's really heartbreaking obviously for him, and for a guy that's watched him develop and grow you just really feel for him.

"He's a tough and resilient kid. He's going to be back, but now it's going to be a dark time. That's just the way it is. That's part of football and unfortunately happened to a great kid."

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Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who played with Shaw at South Carolina, has no doubt Shaw's will bounce back from the injury.

“It’s a tough break,” Jeffery said. "He was having a hell of a camp. He was doing a hell of a job out there. You hate to see any teammate go down, but I know him personally being with him in college. He’s a fighter. He’s going to come back.”

Bears severly outplayed in another home preseason game

Bears severly outplayed in another home preseason game

It's easy to dismiss preseason games, but they can't be ignored when a team is severely outplayed in every sense of the word.

That was the case for the Bears on Saturday afternoon as they were dismantled by the Kansas City Chiefs, 23-7, in front of a crowd of 48, 377 at Soldier Field to remain winless on the preseason.

The Bears starting offense compiled a net of 65 yards as they couldn't find a rhythm against a Chiefs defense playing without Pro Bowlers' Justin Houston, Eric Berry and Tamba Hali.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was able to stay upright for most of the game as the starting offensive line allowed just two sacks, but Cutler was plagued by a few drops from his receivers and was off target for most of the afternoon, finishing 6/15 with 45 yards and a passer rating of 47.9. The Bears starting wide receiving tandem of Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White registered the same amount of drops (three) as they did receptions. The lone highlight from the starting offensive unit came from second-year running Jeremy Langford who twice turned broken plays into positive gains, showing a remarkable improvement in that facet from his rookie season.

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While the starting offensive unit will draw much-deserved criticism for their performance against the Chiefs, the defense didn't fare that much better.

The starting 11, playing without Pernell McPhee and Kyle Fuller, allowed 239 total yards in the first half. The starting unit also lost their only proven cornerback when eight-year veteran Tracy Porter entered the NFL's concussion protocol after taking a knee to the head by teammate Harold Jones-Quartey in the second quarter. 

Despite Saturday's mediocre play by the defense, there were some positives including the first NFL interception by Bears rookie cornerback Deiondre' Hall who looks to be squarely in the mix for a starting cornerback job with the abundance of injuries at the position. Rookie defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard also continued his strong preseason play with another sack. First-rounder Leonard Floyd suited up but didn't play due to a hamstring injury.

The Bears finally broke a near 55-minute scoring drought when third-string quarterback Connor Shaw connected with wide receiver Cameron Meredith for a 16-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Shaw suffered a left ankle injury on the next series and had to leave on a cart. He finished the game 5/6 for 65 yards and a touchdown, also adding 15 rushing yards on two carries.

In two preseason home games the Bears have been outscored 45-7. They were blanked by the Denver Broncos back in Week 1 on Aug. 15.

The Bears will look to avoid going winless for the first time in franchise history in preseason when they close out their exhibition slate against the Browns in Cleveland next Thursday.