Notre Dame secondary goes from shaky to solid

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Notre Dame secondary goes from shaky to solid

In August, few outside Notre Dame's locker room expected the Irish to play for a National Championship. Part of that pessimism revolved around the Irish starting an inexperienced quarterback, but another -- and probably larger -- reason involved the team's secondary.

Lo Wood's ruptured Achilles' tendon, suffered late in fall camp, thrust KeiVarae Russell into a starting role. Wood was expected to be a top contributor to a shaky group, but instead, a true freshman who never even played cornerback until August was thrust opposite of Bennett Jackson on the team's depth chart.

While Wood's injury looked to be a critical blow to Notre Dame's pass defense, those who had seen Russell in preseason practice had far more confidence.

"He was very athletic and he had a really quick first step, really quick first movements," Jackson said of his first impressions of Russell. "I thought he was someone who once he got tuned in a little bit would be a great benefit to the defense."

Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks saw the same thing.

"Some guys are just natural with feet and flipping their hips, and (have) gifted athletic ability," Cooks explained. "So he was one of those guys that I identified from day one, just having the ability to play corner and be able to do the jobs, to move lateral, to cover one-on-ones. You knew that once you saw him running around, that if he was willing to, he could be special."

By all accounts, Russell has put in the time and effort necessary for a greenhorn at his position. Cooks said Russell will incessantly ask him for feedback, as well as getting tips from Jackson and the rest of Notre Dame's cornerbacks.

"You got a kid like that's whos willing and open to expose himself to criticism and coaching, what more could you ask for?" Cooks said.

There's still plenty of room for Russell to improve, which can be said about the rest of the Irish secondary. But Notre Dame will enter the BCS Championship with the nation's No. 21 pass defense, allowing 194.4 yards per game and only seven touchdowns -- the same number of passing scores allowed by Alabama, and only bested by Boise State, Vanderbilt and Florida.

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As improbable of an achievement as that would've seemed before the season, after safety Jamoris Slaughter tore his Achilles' tendon against Michigan State, that kind of success seemed even less likely.

Slaughter's injury thrust Matthias Farley -- who redshirted as a wide receiver in 2011 -- into Notre Dame's starting lineup. While Farley played a little safety in high school, he admitted that experience didn't exactly carry over to college, especially when he trained as a receiver for his first year on campus.

He flipped to safety in time for spring practice in 2012, but had a ways to go before he could be considered as a viable backup.

"I thought hed probably help us on special teams and would be a guy that would learn through the year," safeties coach Bob Elliot said. "I thought he probably would need this year to figure out how to play defense."

Farley's high football I.Q. and dedication between spring and fall camp transformed him from an afterthought into a legitimate option. He's leaned heavily on Elliot, referring to the seasoned coach as being "monumental" to his growth. Having Motta -- the lone veteran among Notre Dame's secondary -- in his corner has been an asset, too.

"Just to see the way hes evolved, his reads and his understanding of the game has been pretty impressive," Motta said.

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Notre Dame's pass defense success isn't just the product of quality play from its four starters. Danny Spond has carved out success as Notre Dame's "dog" linebacker in its 3-4 formation, and Manti Te'o nearly leads the nation with seven interceptions.

Some will point to the ability of Notre Dame's front seven to put pressure on a quarterback as another reason for the success of the team's secondary, too. That's a fair assessment, although it's one Jackson bristled at earlier in the year. This is a prideful group, one that has used its doubters as motivation.

For this unit, a lack of experience hasn't mattered. Learning on the job has been par for the course, and so far, it hasn't come back to burn Notre Dame.

"They just took those baby steps, and finally youre starting to see them piece it all together," Cooks said. "And its been fun to watch that group go from zero to 10 by the end of the season. And now, their confidence is high, as well as it should be."

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Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Bruins tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Bruins tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Boston Bruins tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 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. Scott Darling gets the nod.

Joel Quenneville is giving a struggling Corey Crawford a breather tonight, electing to go with Darling in the final game of the father's road trip. Darling is 11-4-2 with a 2.34 goals against average, .924 save percentage and one shutout in 20 games this season. His numbers aren't as great on the road, where he is 4-2-1 with a 2.83 GAA and .901 save percentage compared to a 7-2-1 record with a 1.98 GAA and .928 save percentage at home, but he fared well against Boston last season. The Lemont native stopped 42 of 46 shots, good for a .913 save percentage, in a 6-4 win at the United Center last April.

2. The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line.

The Blackhawks' trio of Artem Anisimov, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin had a rare zero points in Tuesday's 6-4 win over Colorado, but don't expect to see that again. In fact, it could be the opposite. In their last meeting against the Bruins, a 6-4 win on April 3 during the 2015-16 season, they combined for 11 points (five goals, six assists), highlighted by a Kane hat trick that put him at 100 points on the season for the first time in his career. 

3. How the rookies build off a monsterous game.

In arguably the most well-rounded victory of the season Tuesday in Colorado, the Blackhawks had three rookies that had multi-point efforts. Vinnie Hinostroza had two goals, including the game winner. Tanner Kero had two goals and one assist, while Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. It was the top-six that was doing the heavy lifting earlier in the season, now the bottom-six is slowly starting to contribute on a consistent basis. The Blackhawks will be in great shape if they can confidently roll four lines that have the potential to find the back of the net on any given shift.

4. Patrice Bergeron vs. Jonathan Toews.

Two of the best two-way centers in the league will go head-to-head, and it's always a fun matchup to watch. Bergeron leads the league with 597 faceoff wins, and is ranked fifth with a 58.4 percentage at the dot while Toews ranks eighth in wins with 473 — despite missing nine games with a back injury — and sits at sixth with a 57.5 percentage. Both of the perennial Selke Trophy candidates have struggled offensively this season, with Bergeron recording only 21 points in 45 games and Toews with 22 points in 38 contests. Bergeron has been heating up as of late, though, scoring three goals and six assists in his last eight games. Bergeron also leads the league in possession numbers, with the Bruins controlling 61.9 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when he's on the ice.

5. Brad Marchand.

In September, Marchand inked an eight-year, $49 million deal and it's already paying dividends for the Bruins. He has 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in his last eight games, and 45 points total, which is by far the most on his team and tied for sixth in the NHL. He's 16 points away from tying his career high of 61 set last season, with a little less than half the year to go. He's also had great success against the Blackhawks. In his last six games against Chicago, dating back to the 2013-14 campaign, he has registered at least a point in all of them, scoring four goals and adding five assists. To make life more difficult, he's a player that enjoys getting under people's skin, so expect him to be a big factor tonight.

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