Chicago Cubs

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.

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”