Illini offense goes missing against Minnesota

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Illini offense goes missing against Minnesota

CHAMPAIGN It has been 398 days since Illinois last won a Big Ten game. It will be at least seven more before the Illini have another chance to end that streak.

Lack of offense and costly penalties led to a 17-3 defeat in a very winnable game against Minnesota. The loss was the seventh straight for the Illini (2-8, 0-6) and head coach Tim Beckman did not try to couch his disappoint after the game.

Early in the game we had a couple opportunities to take big strikes, to take big hits, and we overthrew wide open receiversso we dont get points out of that. Things like that you have to make if youre going to be successful and our players arent making those plays right now, he said. We were on offense very, very inconsistent, and to be honest, the worst Ive been around.

The Illinois offense came out with a roar. On the first play from scrimmage running back Donovonn Young broke off a 16-yard run. On the ensuing play Young took the hand-off from Nathan Scheelhaase and flicked it back to him, allowing the quarterback to find Spencer Harris streaking over the middle for a 49-yard reception.

Illinois continued moving the ball, but got held up at the one-yard line and had to settle for a 20-yard field goal from Nick Immekus.

Going down the field to stalemate at the one is tough, I dont know what it is I cant point fingers, Young, a sophomore, said.

Weve got to get off the football, bloody some mouths, and get us a yard when we need a yard, Beckman said, venting frustration about settling for a field goal. We cant put the ball on the one-yard line for three downs and not get the ball in the end zone. This is college football.

Stalling out at the one would be a turning point, and the Illini would not crack the red zone again in the game. A couple of holding penalties at inopportune moments later in the half killed drives before they could gain momentum.

On defense, Illinois held firm whenever Minnesota got across midfield. The Illini limited the visitors to just 18 passing yards in the first half and held them scoreless until late in the second quarter.

Without many passing options, the Gophers looked to the run. Midway through the second quarter Minnesota got the ball at their own 32 and Donnell Kirkwood wasted no time getting his team into Illinois' territory with a 38-yard run.

The Illinois defense held up once again, this time holding off the Minnesota offense on the three-yard line, forcing a 20-yard field goal from Jordan Wettstein with 3:30 left in the half. The teams would go to the locker room at halftime tied 3-3.

After a quiet start to the second half, Minnesota marched into Illinois territory late in the third with their first completion since the opening quarter. After a few good plays from the Illini defense, the Gophers looked stymied. A hands to the face penalty on Akeem Spence gave Minnesota a fresh start, setting the visitors up with a first down from the Illinois five yard line.

Two plays after the penalty Kirkwood hit pay dirt as he rumbled into the endzone for the games first touchdown. His three-yard run gave Minnesota a 10-3 lead with 2:30 left in the third quarter.

Illinois tried to mount a response, but could not get much going with the ball in hand. The Illini had a total of just five yards of net offense in the third quarter and would not cross over midfield in the half until there was seven minutes left in the game.

Its frustrating, said offensive coordinator Chris Beatty after the game. I have to do a better job to help them, thats the bottom line.

The defense gave Illinois a couple of chances late in the game, coming up with a couple stops in their own territory to hold off the Gophers. The Illini offense, however, could not create any points.

On the first chance, starting at 7:53 in the fourth, Scheelhaase moved Illinois down to the Gophers 35 yard line with 28 yards rushing by himself. After Minnesotas defense forced a fourth down, his pass sailed through Darius Millines hands.

After the second defensive stop Illinois took over with 2:31 left on the clock. The team quickly got to third-and-one on their own 29-yard line, but Scheelhaase dangled the ball on the quarterback keeper and the Gophers punched it loose. Derrick Wells recovered the fumble for Minnesota and took the ball down to the Illinois 19.

The fumble led to a 12-yard rushing touchdown by Kirkwood just 47 seconds later. The touchdown was the nail in the coffin, putting the game out of reach for Illinois.

Beckman was left grasping for answers after the loss.

Scoring three points is not going to cut it in any league, he said. I havent been around this losing. Its been tough, but weve got to find ways to motivate them.

The players also struggled with the errors of the game and the struggles of this season as a whole.

Its tough expecting so much and gaining so little from this season, Young said.

The focus going forward, according to senior defensive back Michael Buchanan, is to make the young players like true freshman Mason Monheim, who led all players with 15 tackles get better.

I only have two games left in my career, but Im always going to be an Illini at heart, so we want to set a path for the younger guys, Buchanan said. I do feel like were playing better as a team the last couple weeks as a teamwe just want to set the path for next year so the younger guys dont have to go through this.

Wade Davis' impact on Cubs goes far beyond his eye-popping numbers

Wade Davis' impact on Cubs goes far beyond his eye-popping numbers

Wade Davis may not light up the radar gun like Aroldis Chapman, but the veteran closer has still had a similar impact shortening games for the Cubs.

Davis is 10-for-10 in save opportunities in his first year in Chicago, providing Joe Maddon and the Cubs with peace of mind as an anchor in a bullpen that has thrown the eighth-most innings in baseball (and ranks No. 8 in ERA with a 3.45 mark).

Davis just surrendered his first runs of the season Wednesday night on a Mac Williamson homer that snuck into the right-field basket.

Yet Davis still wound up preserving the victory by buckling down and turning away the Giants in the ninth. It was the first homer he's allowed since Sept. 24, 2015 and only the fourth longball he's given up since the start of the 2014 campaign, a span of 201 innings.

Even with Wednesday's outing, Davis boasts a microscopic 0.98 ERA and has allowed just 14 baserunners in 18.1 innings.

With 24 whiffs on the season, Davis is striking out 34.8 percent of the batters he's faced in a Cubs uniform, which would be the second-highest mark of his career (he struck out 39.1 percent of batters in 2014 as the Kansas City Royals setup man).

The 31-year-old nine-year MLB veteran is showing no ill effects from the forearm issue that limited him to only 43.1 innings last season.

[RELATED: How Wade Davis transformed into an elite pitcher by simply not caring]

But his impact isn't restricted to just on-the-field dominance. In spring training, Justin Grimm said he spent as much time as he could around Davis in an attempt to soak up all the knowledge he could.

"It's the stuff that you see — obviously he's really good," Maddon said. "He knows how to pitch, he's a very good closer, he's very successful. But he's a really good mentor to the other guys.

"Oftentimes, I'll walk through the video room and he'll be sitting there with a young relief pitcher or a catcher. There's a lot of respect. A lot of guys come to me and say, 'Listen, Wade's really great to be around.'"

Maddon was the manager with the Tampa Bay Rays when Davis first made his big-league debut in 2009 and the now-Cubs skipper credits the Rays organization with teaching Davis the right habits.

Davis also began his career as a starter before moving to the bullpen full-time in 2014 and reinventing himself as one of the best pitchers on the planet.

"He's grown into this," Maddon said. "He was raised properly. He comes from the organization with the Rays — really good pitching, really good pitching health regarding coaching. And then some of the veteran players that were around him to begin with.

"He's passing it along. The obvious is that he's got a great cutter, slider, fastball, curveball, whatever. He's very good with everybody else around him."

Davis needed 34 pitches to work around a couple jams and get the save Wednesday night. That's his highest pitch count in an outing since June 2, 2015.

Wednesday was also Davis' first time working in a week as the Cubs have not had a save situation in that span.

Maddon said he sees no link between the week off and Davis' struggles in Wednesday's outing and the Cubs manager also has no hesitance going to his closer for more than three outs.

However, Maddon doesn't see a need to extend Davis at this point in the season and would prefer to keep the Cubs' best reliever fresh for the stretch run and what the organization hopes is another shot at a World Series title.

Bears' makeover continues with salsa dancing ex-Giants WR Victor Cruz

Bears' makeover continues with salsa dancing ex-Giants WR Victor Cruz

The 2017 veteran makeover of the Bears’ wide-receiver position group continued on Thursday with the signing of former New York Giants wideout Victor Cruz to a one-year deal, a fourth move this offseason fitting an intriguing pattern in Bears roster construction.

Cruz “announced” the move on his Instagram account, declaring, “The Giants will forever be family,” Cruz wrote. “But for now, Bear down!!!” He becomes the fourth free-agent wide receiver signed by Bears and coming in with no fewer than four seasons of NFL experience.

The Bears have been about the business of shoring up their receiver group virtually since the 2016 season ended, adding depth in addition to filling in the vacancies created by Alshon Jeffery leaving for the Philadelphia Eagles via free agency, and the subsequent release of veteran Eddie Royal.

In their places, the Bears have added Cruz, Rueben Randle (Jan. 10), Markus Wheaton (Mar. 10) and Kendall Wright (Mar. 11), in addition to having Joshua Bellamy, Daniel Braverman, Cameron Meredith, Deonte Thompson and Kevin White in place.

Cruz, whose trademark Salsa dance to celebrate touchdowns has been an NFL staple over his six seasons with the Giants, for whom he started 53 of 70 career games after signing with the Giants as an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts in 2010. Cruz has caught 303 career passes for 4,549 yards and 25 touchdowns, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Giants and earning selection to the 2012 Pro Bowl.

Cruz has not played a full 16-game season since 2012, when he caught a career-best 86 passes for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns. He missed all of 2015 after rehabbing from a torn patellar tendon in the 2014 season and then suffering a calf injury that eventually required surgery. The Giants released Cruz in early February this year.