Mark's big day puts Wildcats back in win column

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Mark's big day puts Wildcats back in win column

MINNEAPOLIS -- Venric Mark rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns to carry Northwestern to a 21-13 victory over Minnesota on Saturday.

Mark wasn't touched on scoring runs of 26 and 48 yards and the Wildcats (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) overcame 11 penalties to become bowl eligible and spoil Minnesota's homecoming celebration.

MarQueis Gray rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown after missing the previous two games with knee and ankle injuries. But he also threw an interception and was injured again late in the third quarter for the Golden Gophers (4-2, 0-2).

The Gophers had a chance for a tying touchdown late, but Northwestern's defense stiffened at the 6-yard line to keep them out of the end zone. Cornerback Nick VanHoose made the key play on the stand, batting a pass away from A.J. Barker in the end zone to save a touchdown.

Less than 10 seconds into the game, Northwestern was already up 7-0. Gophers linebacker Lamonte Edwards, a converted running back, botched the opening kickoff and C.J. Bryant pounced on it to give the Wildcats the ball at Minnesota's 26-yard line.

Mark took the handoff, burst through the line and saw nothing but daylight, racing 26 yards untouched for the score.

That would be a common theme throughout the first half. Mark added a 48-yard scoring run in the second quarter, a burst through the middle where nary a finger was laid on him. He also had runs of 47 and 25 yards in the first half to help the Wildcats take a 21-10 lead.

Mark's big day on the ground eliminated any need for Northwestern's passing game, and that was a good thing for the Wildcats. Kain Colter was 10 for 10, but for just 63 yards. And Trevor Siemian, the passing specialist in the Wildcats' two-quarterback system, was 1 for 7 for 4 yards.

Mark's big 48-yard TD helped neutralize a brief bit of momentum for the Gophers.

When Max Shortell went out with an injured left hand late in the first quarter, Gray ripped off a 25-yard touchdown run at the start of the second to pull Minnesota to 14-10.

But David Nwabuisi made an acrobatic, one-handed interception off of a pass tipped by Quentin Williams to stall the Gophers. Mark was off to the races two plays later, and the Wildcats were on their way to a rebound victory after losing at Penn State last week.

It was another disappointing effort for the Gophers, who were starting to create some optimism on campus with a 4-0 start to the season. But a 31-13 thumping at Iowa two weeks ago brought them back down to earth, and they followed that up with a sloppy, mistake-prone performance coming out of their bye.

They fumbled the ball seven times, losing two, and committed nine penalties.

The turnovers were compounded by three bad snaps from center Zac Epping and some curious play-calling that stunted several drives. After calling time out and pulling their offense off the field on fourth-and-11 from Northwestern's 36, they ran kicker Jordan Wettstein out for a 53-yard field-goal try. The Wildcats weren't buying it from the start, and a fake run was thwarted easily to turn the ball over.

On third-and-13 from the Northwestern 46, they called a draw to Donnell Kirkwood that gained just 5 yards. And with no timeouts and the ball at their own 49 with just over a minute to play in the first half, the Gophers called a draw to Gray that went nowhere and took any chance of a late score out of the equation.

Box score Comlete recap

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Fire trade for midfielder Dax McCarty

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USA TODAY

Fire trade for midfielder Dax McCarty

Midfield has been an area of focus this offseason for Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez and another new addition to that group was added on Monday.

The Fire have traded $400,000 in general allocation money in return for midfielder Dax McCarty from the New York Red Bulls. Paul Tenorio of Four Four Two first reported the trade.

McCarty was an All-Star in 2015 and part of the league's Best XI that season when he had eight assists to go with a goal. Last season he made 26 starts for the Red Bulls and totaled three goals and had five assists.

"Since the middle of 2016, we made acquiring Dax our No. 1 priority," Rodríguez said in the club's press release. "We believe adding his character and leadership in the locker room, as well as his exceptional soccer abilities on the field, dramatically improves our team."

The last time McCarty played at Toyota Park was a 2-2 draw on July 31 when a Khaly Thiam tackle caused a fractured tibia, which forced McCarty to sit out a month.

McCarty got married on Saturday, which delayed his arrival to the current U.S. national team camp. McCarty's participation in national team camp means he will join the Fire's preseason already in progress. The final match of the camp is on Feb. 3 while the Fire are set to start preseason on January 23.

McCarty, 29, has spent the past five and a half seasons with the Red Bulls. He began his career by playing five seasons for FC Dallas and was with D.C. United for part of the 2011 campaign before being traded to the Red Bulls. As an 11-year league veteran and the Red Bulls' captain, McCarty adds leadership and experience which Rodriguez has prioritized this offseason.

The Fire already added a former MLS All-Star in midfield this offseason in Juninho. The pair could line up next to each other in the preferred 4-2-3-1 coach Veljko Paunovic used for most of last season. This also could potentially put Matt Polster's role with the team in question. As the roster stands now, the third-year midfielder would be competing for two veteran All-Star caliber midfielders who were brought in at a high price.

Not to suggest a position move is in the works for Polster, but he did split time between midfield and right back with the Fire in 2015 under coach Frank Yallop and played there for the U-23 national team in Olympic qualifying. Right back remains a position of need by Rodriguez's own admission.

The trade also adds further context to the Fire trading the No. 3 pick in the draft on Friday. The Fire swapped the pick for $250,000 in general allocation money from New York City FC and Tenorio is reporting the Fire will send $400,000 to the Red Bulls for McCarty. To add those two moves together, the Fire dealt the No. 3 overall pick and $150,000 of allocation money for McCarty.

Does Cubs president Theo Epstein have a future in politics?

Does Cubs president Theo Epstein have a future in politics?

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has a job for Theo Epstein whenever the Cubs executive gets bored or starts to feel restless and wants to think about life beyond baseball.  

After building up the Boston Red Sox and turning around the Cubs, how about Epstein using his leadership skills, analytical personality, sense of conviction and Ivy League education to save the Democratic Party?    

"His job is to quench droughts – 86 years in Boston, 108 in Chicago," Obama said during Monday's White House ceremony honoring the World Series champs. "He takes the reins of an organization that's wandering in the wilderness and delivers them to the promised land. I talked to him about being DNC chair."

Epstein stood behind the president doing a cut-it gesture and that became one of many laugh lines during an entertaining Obama speech that lasted more than 20 minutes and took place against the backdrop of Donald Trump's looming administration. Epstein – who headlined a Lincoln Park fundraiser during the 2012 reelection campaign and attended the president's farewell address last week at McCormick Place – doesn't see his future in politics.

At least "not as a candidate or an elected official," Epstein said during a media scrum afterward. "But I think there are a lot of ways that we can all impact our communities without necessarily running for office."

Epstein – a private person who would never want to subject his young family to that kind of scrutiny – looked like official Washington in a navy blue suit and a striped silver-and-blue tie. He delivered his own speech in the East Room, beginning it by saying "what a tough act to follow."

"We know you may have certain allegiances to another team on the other side of town," Epstein said to the world's most famous White Sox fan. "But we know you're a very proud Chicagoan. And we know your better, wiser half – the first lady – has been a lifelong and very loyal Cub fan, which we appreciate very much.

"Of course, we have great faith in your intelligence, your common sense, your pragmatism, your ability to recognize a good thing when you see one.

"So Mr. President, with only a few days remaining in your tremendous presidency, we have taken the liberty here today of offering you a midnight pardon.

"And so we welcome you with open arms."

This formal ceremony sounded personal for Epstein, who led the presentation giving Obama white and gray No. 44 jerseys, a 44 Wrigley Field scoreboard panel, a lifetime pass to the iconic stadium and an autographed W flag to someday fly at his presidential library on the South Side.  

"Everyone – no matter where you fall politically – can appreciate the dignity with which he served the country," Epstein said. "He did an unbelievable job handling the office and raising his family while here. I think, across the board, folks would agree that he's very dignified and brought a lot of integrity to the office. It was our pleasure to thank him for that today."

[RELATED: 'Among Sox fans, I'm the Cubs' No. 1 fan']

The DNC – or whatever Epstein does for his next act – will have to wait. Before that epic playoff run began, the Cubs locked up Epstein with a five-year deal believed to be worth in the neighborhood of $50 million, putting the future Hall of Fame executive in position to make another trip to the White House with a championship team.          

"Good thing I signed a contract with (chairman) Tom Ricketts," Epstein said. "He was kicking me, saying I can’t leave. It was a kind offer, though."