Penalties, turnovers hurt Illini against Penn State

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Penalties, turnovers hurt Illini against Penn State

CHAMPAIGN Illinois asked fans to stripe the stadium for Saturdays game against Penn State. The visual effect in Memorial Stadium was wiped out by the fourth quarter, as the sight of empty seats overtook any resemblance of striping.

It is hard to blame Illinois fans for heading to the exit after the Illinis dispiriting loss to the Nittany Lions, 35-7, however.

After the game the Illini had no excuses for their poor play, which included two turnovers and 69 yards of penalties.

That we are disappointed is the least you could say about this game, Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. Its to step up, to see what this football team is all about and move forward. Weve got to.

Illinois debuted a new look on Saturday, showing off the teams matte blue helmet, which was not supposed to be worn until 2013. If moving up the helmets debut was an attempt to change the look of the team, though, the Illinois defense did not get the memo.

Things looked good for the defense early after a quick three-and-out, but a muffed punt gave Penn State the ball back deep in Illini territory. Another good stop was canceled by a running into the kicker penalty.

With a second chance at the endzone, Zack Zwinak made Illinois pay, scoring on a one-yard run at 10:41 in the first quarter, putting PSU up 7-0 early on.

The Illinois defense continued to struggle on PSUs second drive. Another mental error on the first play of the drive, a targeting the head penalty, moved the Nittany Lions into Illinois territory. From there quarterback Matt McGloin exploited holes in the Illinois secondary with ease.

He moved his team down to first and goal from the one-yard line and, two plays later, punched it in himself. With the PAT, Penn State went in front 14-0 with less than six minutes elapsed in the game.

The Illinois offense finally found its legs on the third drive of the game. Donovonn Young found space around the left on first down and marched 52 yards downfield, setting the Illini up at the Penn State 11 yard line. Illinois tried to keep the momentum going, but found no space to run and were forced to go for a field goal.

Taylor Zalewski had been nearly automatic since replacing Nick Immekus, but he was left holding his head in his hands as his 26-yard field goal went wide of the mark late in the first quarter.

Despite the missed field goal, the Illinois offense continued to improve in the second quarter. On their first drive of the period, Scheelhaase stepped up and completed to passes for first downs and then ran the ball for the first time in the game, picking up seven yards. The drive would be stamped out, however, when Penn State came up with a stop on fourth down at their own 28.

Four times on Saturday Illinois went inside the PSU 30-yard line and failed to convert. The problem was troubling for Beckman.

Penn State did a great job of coming here and playing physical football, but when you get the ball inside the 30, in the redzone, thats the key to the game. We have to come up with points, with touchdowns, he said.

Penn State capitalized on Illinois failure to convert well, and three minutes after taking possession, McGloin found Matt Lehman over the middle for a 21-yard touchdown reception.

Scheelhaase led his team down to the four-yard line of PSU on the next drive, but once again could not finish the drive.

On fourth and goal he threw the ball directly into PSU linebacker Michael Mautis hands on the goalline. The big man hustled 99 yards before being brought down by Miles Osei with one second remaining in the first half. Penn State lined up for a field goal, but had it blocked by VAngelo Bentley, bringing the first half to a wild end, the Nittany Lions leading the hosts 21-0.

On the first drive of the second half Scheelhaase took a hard hit, high and low, and limped off the field. He would return after one play but would not have a first down in him.

The punt by Justin DuVernois was a beauty, trapping PSU at their own one. From there the Illinois defense showed a flash of its 2011 greatness, allowing just two yards of offense for the Nittany Lions and forcing a punt.

With starting position in the PSU half, Scheelhaase shrugged off any questions about his ankle and quickly got Illinois on the scoreboard.

On second down he found Josh Ferguson over the middle for a 22-yard reception. Then he passed to Ferguson in the backfield on first down and the running back picked out a wide-open Spencer Harris for a 22-yard touchdown over the right side.

With the touchdown, Illinois cut their deficit to just two touchdowns, 21-7 with 10:22 to go in the third quarter.

The Illinois defense came up with another big stop on the ensuing Penn State drive, this time forcing a turnover on downs by sacking McGloin on fourth and five from the Illinois 16. Their hard work went for naught, though, as the Illinois offense went three-and-out on the ensuing possession.

McGloin would not be stopped as easily on the next Penn State drive. He went 3 for 3 on the drive and finished with another one-yard touchdown run, putting PSU ahead 28-7 with three minutes left in the third quarter.

A second pick of Scheelhaase by Mauti late in the third quarter sealed the fate of the Illini. On the PSU drive, Zwinak scored his second touchdown of the game from a yard out, bringing the score to its final 35-7 tally.

After the game, Beckman was more introspective about his team. He acknowledged that having a number of players injured certainly hurt, but he cast blame for the loss on himself and vowed to work to get the team better.

We cant turn the football over, weve got to move the football better, and weve got to tackle and do the things we feel are necessary for us to be successful, he said. Were just not getting those done the last two weeks.

Ahead of the Illinis trip to Wisconsin next Saturday, Beckman targeted physicality as an area that needed immediate improvement.

We know were going to be playing some physical football teams here coming up, and weve just got to become a more physical football team and do what we need to do, he said.

Injuries have played a big part in his teams lack of imposing physical stature, however, and he acknowledged that fact as well. Thats kind of a double-edged sword right now getting more physical and staying healthy, but thats one of the things were going to have to address.

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

It might be figuratively held together with chicken wire and duct tape at this point, and it hasn’t been entirely effective recently. But the White Sox bullpen can’t be criticized for a lack of effort. 

Over the last four days, White Sox relievers have had to throw 19 1/3 innings. To recap: Starter Jacob Turner only lasted 3 1/3 innings Friday against the Detroit Tigers, then Chris Sale was scratched from his start Saturday after blowing up over the team’s uniforms and earning a five-game suspension. The White Sox bullpen shouldered Johnny Wholestaff duties and threw eight innings on Saturday — right-hander Matt Albers started and pitched two of those innings despite throwing an inning in the team’s last two games — in lieu of the team’s All-Star ace. 

David Robertson, who pitched a third of an inning in relief Saturday, pitched twice on Sunday (he allowed three solo home runs to the Tigers to blow the save in his second game). Nate Jones appeared in the first three games of the Tigers series, too, totaling 2 1/3 innings. 

On Monday, both Jones and Robertson were given a much-needed rest day. So Zach Duke, Albers and Dan Jennings were called upon by manager Robin Ventura to cover seven outs against the powerful Cubs lineup. Albers blew the save, but Jennings’ strikeout of Jason Heyward with the go-ahead run on second set up Tyler Saladino’s walk-off single to net the White Sox a 5-4 win. 

“We’ve picked up a lot of innings lately,” Robertson said. “Everybody’s just giving it everything they got right now. It’s obviously, we would’ve loved to have nothing but zeros go up, but that’s not the way baseball works. We’re facing a lot of good lineups. And we’ve just hung tough and tried to at least give us a chance to win. Thankfully, we’ve been very fortunate to walk off these last three games.” 

It’s not just the volume of innings that’s taxing the bullpen, though. With three consecutive walk-off wins — the first time the White Sox have done that since Aug. 4-6, 1962 — have come plenty of high-stress pitches. Over the last week, the White Sox bullpen has the highest average leverage index in baseball, and that’s with this group shouldering the generally low-leverage early innings of Saturday’s game in place of Sale. 

“The more we work, the more proud we are of what we do,” Jennings said. 

Still, this group could probably use a breather. Without an off day until Aug. 1, though, the only way to get one is to be ruled out for a game, as Robertson and Jones were on Monday. 

“Hopefully we can rotate, I know there’s some other guys that I know might need a day so maybe hopefully Nate and Robertson are really fresh tomorrow and we can build off that,” Jennings said. “(Or) maybe we can get that eight, nine, 10-run win where we can kind of sit back and relax a little bit, hopefully.”

Manager Robin Ventura said he went with seniority in choosing who to cover Jones and Robertson’s innings Monday, which helps explain why he didn’t use 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer against the Cubs. Fulmer’s recent control issues — he only threw 12 of 30 pitches for strikes in blowing a lead against the Tigers on Friday — could’ve played a factor, too. 

“You’re trusting the guys who have been here,” Ventura said. “You’ve got some new faces that are out there, it would’ve been asking a lot to bring them in and put them in that.”

White Sox relievers have squandered leads in each of the team’s last four games, though: Fulmer on Friday, Jones on Saturday, Robertson on Sunday and Albers/Jennings on Monday. In addition to a short outing from Turner and no outing from Sale, the White Sox are missing right-handers Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam from a group that looked to be fairly deep earlier in the season. 

The White Sox relief corps could certainly use a day off or at the least, as Jennings said, a blowout win where some of those young arms — Fulmer, Michael Ynoa and Tommy Kahnle — could polish off some low-pressure innings. But those easy wins have been few and far between this season: The White Sox only have three wins by more than three runs since May 14. 

So if that trend continues, this group is going to have to continue to cover plenty of high-stress innings without a break, at least for the next week. 

“Obviously the bullpen the last few days had to pick up the team, and we take pride in that,” Albers said. “Especially Nate and D-Rob were down today, shoot, they’ve been pitching every day too. Everybody else started to try to pick them up. That’s what we’re here for.” 

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

Michigan tight end Jake Butt hit the nail right on the head when asked about his head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

“He’s one of a kind.”

Yes, Harbaugh is certainly unlike any other football coach. He spent the offseason firing off Twitter attacks at opposing head coaches, posting pictures taken with celebrities and starring in a rap video, shouting from behind the wheel of a bright yellow convertible parked on the 50-yard line at the Big House.

He’s demanded all the attention in the college football world since he took the job at his alma mater, and Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days was no different. It was the Jim Harbaugh Show, complete with the star wearing a block-M baseball cap to complement his suit and a sea of reporters engulfing him at a designated podium.

But with all the attention that comes from the off-the-field antics, Harbaugh has worked stunning magic in Ann Arbor. He’s been the program’s head man for a year and a half, already taking the Wolverines from a five-win group that missed out on a bowl game to a 10-win squad that was a win away from playing for a conference title.

“It’s definitely a culture shift, you can feel it through coach Harbaugh,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “You feel what he’s bringing to the program. If you want to say that’s swagger, then yeah, that’s what he’s bringing back.”

And for Harbaugh’s next trick? He’s made Michigan one of the favorites to win this year’s conference championship and a team with legitimate national championship aspirations.

“We have big hopes. We've got big dreams. We've got lofty goals. And all those are achievable. And they have to be worked for,” Harbaugh said Monday. “You can accomplish anything if the work is realized. And those things have to be earned. So we are in the position right now to work to get the things we want. That's the fact. That's the mentality. That's the attitude.”

Harbaugh does plenty of stuff off the field that separates him from the run-of-the-mill college football coach — who else has a picture with Kenny G? — but it’s his uniqueness on the field that had players buying into what he was trying to accomplish.

Harbaugh, the man with “enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” runs four-hour practices. No joke. And they sound horrible.

“Being out there for four hours? That’s like a ‘Titanic’ movie, man, being out there for four hours,” Lewis said.

But the players saw what four-hour practices led to, and it had them coming back for more. Both Lewis and Butt could’ve turned pro this offseason. But they’re back. Why?

“To win,” Lewis said. “Those four-hour practices, I know he wasn’t doing it for no reason. I knew there was a method to his madness. I saw those 10 wins. We knew that we could be something special, and once we knew that, we bought in. These four-hour practices aren’t so bad when you tally up wins. Trying to be something special, and that’s what he’s bringing back. He’s bringing something magical to Ann Arbor.”

“He doesn’t take any days off,” Butt said. “He doesn’t ask any of us to do anything he’s not willing to do himself. He kind of just forces us to be tough. When you’re out there practicing for four hours, smashing into each other, you don’t really have a choice but to be tough.”

Laugh away at Harbaugh’s zaniness and his over-the-top actions: climbing trees, recruiting at sleepovers and donning a different NFL or NBA jersey at every stop on his cross-country satellite-camp tour. But know that it’s working. Aside from the winning and the impressive turnaround he pulled in just one year at the helm, his recruiting successes have been spectacular. This season, he signed the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class — including No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary — and he currently has the fifth-ranked class for 2017.

Stuff like “Signing of the Stars” and “Who’s Got It Better Than Us?” They’re extra efforts to make the program one percent better every day.

“I think a lot of that’s big on recruiting,” Butt said. “He thinks outside of the box, and I think that’s big. A lot of us probably don’t understand the reason behind a lot of the things that he does, but I can assure you there’s a reason behind everything he does. He has a plan for everything, but he’s doing most of those things for the betterment of our team and our program.”

Off the field, Harbaugh creates one social-media-friendly headline after another. On it he’s rapidly moved Michigan from cringe-worthy underachiever to conference-title favorite.

The man with the block-M sweatshirt and the khaki pants has the Wolverines heading in a direction that could end with a shower of confetti.

Then, truly nobody will have it better than Michigan.

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

The human GIF made quite an impact on the White Sox on Monday night.

A staple of The Melky Cabrera experience the past year and a half has been the outfielder’s personal celebrations that come with every big play. Monday night’s edition included three rounds of festivities critical to the White Sox pulling out a 5-4 victory over the Cubs at U.S. Cellular Field.

Cabrera got the party started almost instantly, robbing Kris Bryant of a first-inning solo home run before he patted himself on the back in only the way he does.

“I think every celebration is a motivation to try to give us a boost to our confidence and for the fans, too,” Cabrera said through an interpreter. “Every time you can make a good play, it’s good for your team and for your fans to try to invigorate the confidence.”

Cabrera not only leads the team with a .303 batting average -- he’s the biggest self-congratulator of the bunch. It’s as if the GIF function was created for the sole purpose of recording Cabrera’s awkward claps or fist pumps after every big play.

On Monday, he opted to clap for himself after he robbed Bryant of what would have been his 26th homer. Cabrera said he watched the ball the entire way off Bryant’s bat and drifted back to the warning track before leaping and snagging the ball just above the yellow line on the left-field fence.

[MORE: White Sox win in walk-off fashion over Cubs]

On his way down, Cabrera landed hard on the warning track before righting himself against the wall, where he sat with each appendage sprawled in a different direction. At that point, Cabrera held up the ball to show the world he had it in his possession before he stood up and clapped for himself with both hands over his head.

“I thought after that play, things were going to be pretty good today,” said pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, the recipient of the play.

It was only the beginning.

Cabrera’s relay throw home in the third inning led to a rundown that netted an out at the plate when Javy Baez made an ill-advised decision to go home. Then in the ninth, Cabrera recorded the first out, which slowed a game-tying rally, when he fired a perfect strike to second base to throw out Bryant stretching a single into a double.

Each time, Cabrera cheered for himself without shame.

“He’s probably his own best (cheering section), but we try to keep up with him,” said reliever Zach Duke, who often views Cabrera’s celebrations from the bullpen. “It’s great. His celebrations, they’re just truly heartfelt, truly spontaneous and he has such a good time playing the game we can’t help but join in and enjoy the moment.”