Illini focused on closing out games

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Illini focused on closing out games

CHAMPAIGN "Finishing" was the word on everyones tongue on Monday. After allowing Wisconsin a big fourth quarter during the 31-14 loss on Saturday, the only thing Illinois coaches and players could think of was finishing.

It was a four-quarter football game and I think we played three, Illinois coach Tim Beckman said at his Monday press conference. I was proud of the way we played those three quarters, but in the game of football, you have to finish.

You have to be able to respondin a positive manner, rather than letting them knock us down.

Before their game at Wisconsin, the Illini players took it upon themselves to address issues from past weeks. The players met for an extended period of time without the coaches after their regular team meeting at their hotel in Madison. The meeting was led mostly by the seniors, and allowed everyone to voice their issues and regain some of the fire the team felt before losing big to Louisiana Tech and Penn State.

Defensive end Michael Buchanan said the meeting was beneficial for everyone and it showed in the first three quarters against Wisconsin.

We made some big strides last week, playing with intensity and coming out fired up. "We just have to do a better job finishing, he said. Definitely were more confident, we have a lot of things to build on from that game. We played a great three quarters of football.

Hanging with the Badgers on the road for three quarters was encouraging, but the team realizes it must continue to improve in order to still be a factor in the Big Ten this season.

Safety Steve Hull, who had an interception against Wisconsin, described the Illini as a hungry team. He said the meeting helped the team become more player-driven which is a trait he believes championship teams possess.

We talked on Friday about where we are this year and how weve fallen from last year, Hull said. Defensively, for three quarters, we were very sound. We did everything correctly. We just have to build on those three quarters.

Offensively, Beckman said he wants to see his quarterback have more time with the ball. Against Wisconsin, Nathan Scheelhaase had one of his best games of the season, but had to scramble to buy time and create plays, both through the air and on the ground.

Getting Scheelhaase more time comes down to the Illinois offensive line. Beckman specifically addressed blocking as something his team can do better in order to control the outcome of the game. Offensive lineman Graham Pocic said consistency with blocking was his units goal.

Sometimes theres one guy who breaks down and it just happens that guy has a single blockyou have to be able to handle the one-on-one blocks. We have the talent to do it, he said. Michigan will have strong inside guys, strong outside guys, speed on the edge. They move their D-line a lot and use a bunch of different fronts.

The biggest challenge when Illinois travels to the Big House this Saturday, however, will be slowing down Michigan's Denard Robinson. The Wolverines quarterback has already set a Big Ten record for career rushing yards by a quarterback and is fourth in the NCAA in the same category, but running is only one aspect of Robinsons game that worries Illinois.

Robinson is averaging 188.4 yards passing so far this year, helping Michigan to a 3-2 record and a spot at No. 25 in the latest Associated Press poll.

To stop the Wolverines from racking up 44 points, as they did against Purdue last week, the Illini must watch Robinson like a hawk.

We better know where he is at all times, Beckman said with a laugh.

You have to contain him. Its going to be really big to keep our eyes in the right place, Buchanan added. From a pass rushing standpoint, we cant give up the field. We have to close our rushing lanes and keep our eye on him. This is a big challenge but were up for it.

There is no simulating the talent of a player like Robinson, but Beckman mentioned the team could throw freshman wide receiver Justin Hardee or another young player behind center to give the defense a taste of what its like to go against a multi-faceted player like Robinson.

Of course, just practicing against Scheelhaase, who possesses above average speed and throwing ability, is always a benefit during the week. On top of that, Beckman will continue to run NFL-style drills at his team to get them ready for their game in Ann Arbor.

Kick-off for Illinois and Michigan is scheduled for 2:35 on Saturday, October 13. The game will be televised nationally on ABC.

Illinois Notebook

-- Terry Hawthorne was able to fly home with the team after being taken from the field by ambulance in Madison. The initial results of scans were negative, but Beckman says the senior will undergo further tests in Champaign to determine whether or not he sustained a concussion in Saturdays game. His status for the Michigan game is uncertain, but Beckman said that if Illinois had practiced on Monday, Hawthorne would not have been a participant.

-- Despite Illinois 2-4 record, Beckman is certain Michigan will not overlook this weeks game. When asked if Brady Hoke might be looking ahead on the schedule, Beckman said, I know him, and I know he wont look past us.

-- After the loss at Wisconsin, running back Donovonn Young complained about the lack of touches for him and fellow running back Josh Ferguson. Beckman played down any notion of discontent, citing passion for the game leading to rash statements from the sophomore. Donovonn knows he can make playsthe ultimate thing is how do we make the Illini better, Beckman said.

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Here are some of Monday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Preview: Cubs look to bounce back vs. Giants tonight on CSN

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen

Should Blackhawks' next assistant coach be Joel Quenneville's choice?

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

Luis Robert the latest high-end acquisition for White Sox

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Carlos Rodon 'getting closer' but still without time frame for return

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”