Illini hope bye week helps team say goodbye to the blues

921411.png

Illini hope bye week helps team say goodbye to the blues

CHAMPAIGN How do you put a calendar year without a Big Ten win out of your mind? According to Illinois head coach Tim Beckman you own the day.

At his press conference on Monday, Beckman said the emphasis for his team going forward was to play like champions each Saturday, regardless of the results from past Saturdays.

Those last games are done. We have five games in front of us, he said. Were taking it one day at a time. We talked about challenging this football team to own the day which means, basically, do everything to win that day.

Having a bye week last week, after losing 45-0 at Michigan on Oct. 13, was very beneficial to the team, Beckman said. Illinois (2-5, 0-3) got three extra practices in during their off week, giving the team extra time to work on areas where they have struggled in their last four games all losses.

The Illini did more than just run drills, however. One of the most important things the team did during its break, according to Beckman, was self-evaluate.

The bye week is not really a week off, its a chance to evaluate the things weve done, the Illinois coach said. Its an opportunity for our players to evaluate the way theyve played. Coaches to evaluate the way theyve coached.

This aspect of the bye week was very important to linebacker Jonathan Brown. He said the extra communication between the players and coaches was invaluable.

Losing at Arizona State in week two gave us a blow. I dont think we lost confidence but it was step back. Having the same problem week-in and week-out it compounded to where we finally were like, We gotta change something, Brown said. Everybody is on the same page this week. Coaches, players, training staff were moving forward. There was a lack of communication going on, but thats something we fixed and got better at.

The Illini also got better in a more literal sense during the bye week. A week with no competition gave the team the opportunity to get injured players back to full health or close to full health.

Senior defensive back Terry Hawthorne, who sat out the Michigan game, and junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was pulled from the Michigan game, are both back to full go status according to Beckman. The rest week gave the players a chance to relax, nurse their injuries and regain strength.

The bye week came at a good time to get guys healthy, Beckman said. For all these guys, including guys who havent played that much who might not have been startersits good we had the opportunity to get these guys healthy.

Some players, like Brown, have been playing through pain. Having the chance to get him closer to full health is something Beckman hopes will boost the defense when Illinois returns to the field. Brown feels certain he can give his best when Indiana comes to town on Saturday.

I was able to sit back and let my body recuperate a good week of relaxing. It was definitely a positive for us, he said.

Illinois will need a full complement of healthy players on Saturday because Indiana, despite being winless in the Big Ten, has shown the ability to battle with some of the conferences best teams. In three Big Ten games against Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State, the Hoosiers have scored at least 27 points and lost by an average of just over seven points.

Indiana has found success with a quick offense that allows opponents little time to make adjustments between plays. The Illinois players feel ready for the speedy Hoosiers, bolstered by a week off and earlier games against other fast-paced offenses like ASU and Louisiana Tech.

Practice this week has been extremely fast. Coach doesnt move the ball from one hash to the other and he has two different groups running to the ball, back-and-forth. We have to run and call the play at the same time were trying to get into our formations as we get on the field, defensive back Ashante Williams said.

That preparation for the speed of Indiana combined with the Homecoming tradition at Illinois has the players very fired up for Saturdays game and not looking past the Hoosiers. For the Illini, all that matters is owning the day.

Kickoff for Saturdays game is scheduled for noon at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

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.”