Bulldogs pose 'fun challenge' for Wildcats

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Bulldogs pose 'fun challenge' for Wildcats

Defensive back Johnthan Banks is considered one of the schools all-time greats at Mississippi State.The Bulldogs All-American is just one of several challenges Northwestern must ponder as it prepares for their Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.They have enough wrinkles to make you turn grey, and they've got great SEC speed, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Were going to have our best couple of weeks of preparation to be ready. But our guys are hungry for it.Last week Banks captured the Jim Thorpe Award, awarded to the nations top defensive back. Hes the fourth straight Southeastern Conference player to win the award, and the first from Mississippi State.Banks is tied for sixth nationally with six career interceptions returned for touchdowns and is No. 1 in all-time career interception yards (320). The Walter Camp All-American also collected 59 tackles this season.Mississippi State also presents an imposing defensive line, a particular concern for Wildcat running back Venric Mark.They have guys on the inside who are 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, 340 pounds and realistically, (if) we run option sideline-to-sideline theyre going to get tired, Mark said. When you play a team like that, with that type of caliber of players, its all about scheme...You have to know what your strengths and your weaknesses are.Theres a lot for Fitzgerald to consider as he locks down a game plan for the Wildcats fifth bowl game in five seasons.(Bulldog coach) Dan (Mullen) does a terrific job schematically, Fitzgerald said. Theyve got great balance. When you look at them offensively, theres not a lot of things that are going to tip what theyre doing and how theyre doing it.(Assistant coach) Chris Wilson does a great job with their defense, theyre big up front -- on both sides of the ball. Theyre very athletic and theyve got the Thorpe Award winner, the best DB in the country in the secondary.Northwestern has already seen some of the what Mississippi State may offer.Theyve got a lot of similarities to Iowa and Michigan State from the standpoint of the downhill run and play-action pass, Fitzgerald said. Theyre very physical and very well- coached and play with terrific effort.Its going to be a fun challenge.Banks was the Bulldogs only first team all-SEC player, but freshman linebacker Benardrick McKinney also snared league honors as an all-SEC freshman. He played in all 12 games and finished 7th in the SEC with 97 tackles.Northwestern had three representatives on ESPN.coms Big Ten All-Freshman Team, including cornerback Nick VanHoose and defensive end Dean Lowry. True freshman Dan Vitale landed on the offensive team.Last week, the College Sports Information Directors of America awarded Capital One Academic All-American honors to Wildcat offensive lineman Patrick Ward (first team) and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt (second team). Northwestern now has 34 Academic All-Americans in program history.But with two exceptions, top conference football awards eluded the Wildcats.Fitzgerald said he considered running back Venric Mark, who rushed for 1,315 yards and 11 touchdowns, the Big Tens best. But Mark could only garner second team conference recognition.I did miss a game -- Michigan State -- which is probably the best defense in the Big Ten, Mark said. I was a little bit down, a little upset, but at the end of the day (if Fitzgerald) thinks Im the best runner thats all that really matters to me.The only other Wildcat honoree was kicker Jeff Budzein, who shared first-team selection with Nebraskas Brett Maher.
Northwestern will pick up the practice pace later this week. The month of preparation is invaluable, not only to get veterans back up to speed but also allowing younger players additional practice time.The rich get richer, Fitzgerald said. Its one of those situations where youve got a huge opportunity to get those guys a lot of work, (teach) fundamental technique on what you do and how you do it and then figure out what theyve got to do better in the winter.Missing from bowl preparations this year is the stuffed monkey that accompanied the Wildcats to the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston.Northwestern lost to Texas A&M, 33-22, and that symbol of getting a long bowl losing streak off their backs probably wont make the Gator Bowl trip.Besides, the Wildcats dont need any outside influences.I think a year ago that was fun, Fitzgerald said. At the end of the day, were a totally different team ... Our seniors are highly motivated and they want to find a way to win a (bowl) game.Thats a sentiment wholeheartedly embraced by quarterback Kain Colter.Guys are fueled to make some new goals that we havent achieved here at Northwestern, he said. We want to be the team thats remembered as getting that first bowl win in a long time.

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

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USA TODAY

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.

That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.

This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?

Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.

Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.

The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.

Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.

The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.

The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.