Chicago Cubs

Irish not changing gameplan with confident USC QB Wittek starting

946117.png

Irish not changing gameplan with confident USC QB Wittek starting

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Max Wittek has only thrown nine passes in his college career, but that lack of experience didn't stop the redshirt freshman from telling an ESPN Radio affiliate in Los Angeles "we're going to win this ballgame."

That's probably nothing to get worked up about, seeing as it's just a player expressing confidence in his team to beat its next opponent, which happens to be No. 1 Notre Dame. Wittek didn't say the politically correct thing, instead sharing a common belief: Our team is going to beat your team, and we're confident in that.

Maybe Notre Dame will use that comment as bulletin board material, maybe not. For a defense that's allowing the fewest points per game this season and has only allowed nine touchdowns in 11 games, perhaps the added motivation won't be necessary.

Even without Matt Barkley quarterbacking USC, Notre Dame knows what they're up against. USC's offense is loaded with blue-chip playmakers, headlined by sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee and his 107 receptions, 1605 yards and 14 touchdowns. Fellow wide receiver Robert Woods has 66 catches for 721 yards and 10 touchdowns, while running backs Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal -- who rushed for 118 yards against Notre Dame in 2011 -- form a solid 1-2 punch in the Trojan backfield.

"We're going to do what we do," coach Brian Kelly said. "At this point, for us to go into one game and say, all right, we're going to do different things to confuse Max, that's really crazy. This guy has watched football all year. He's going to be watching film. He knows our defense. So we're going to do what we do, because that's gotten us to this point."

USC has scored 28 or more points in nine of its 11 games, although turnovers have been an issue. Barkley made the largest contribution to those woes, throwing 15 interceptions to go along with 14 team fumbles, giving USC's offense the fifth-most turnovers among FBS schools.

Woods' production has fallen off in recent weeks, with Barkley choosing to target Lee more. That's not necessarily a knock on Barkley -- although perhaps it has something to do with his high interception total -- but maybe Wittek will distribute the ball a little more.

"There's only one football, so it just seems like he's gotten more of the catches, whether by design or not," Kelly said of Lee. "Either one those guys can beat you by themselves. The numbers just have gone his way this year. But you're talking about two of the best in the country. I don't know that you can really choose. They're both terrific players."

Wittek is a relative unknown, a quarterback without much collegiate film for a defense to work with. Kelly has some experience with him -- Notre Dame recruited him out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., -- but offered an axiom to explain why the Irish won't take USC's offense lightly without Barkley.

"He's on scholarship at USC," Kelly said. "When you get a scholarship to USC, you're one the best quarterbacks in the country."

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

MILWAUKEE – Javier Baez broke the code of silence when he mentioned to reporters the latest thing for a Cubs team that designed a Party Room for their state-of-the-art clubhouse at Wrigley Field, turned Jason Heyward’s Rain Delay Speech into World Series mythology and interviews each other in the dugout for pretend TV segments after hitting home runs.

“He doesn’t know how the Italian way works,” Anthony Rizzo said. “There are supposed to be team things that stay with the team.”

Baez let it slip before Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, replaying the dramatic 10-inning comeback victory from the night before at Miller Park. If you see the Cubs instantly disappear from the dugout, or a TV camera shows a shot of an empty dugout…    

“We got this new thing,” Baez said. “I don’t want to be the one saying it. I’ll just let him say it. But it’s really fun. When somebody’s mad, everybody walks in and we do some fun things that get us hyper. You guys ask Rizzo.”

The Godfather gave a cryptic response. Omerta is expected to be part of The Cubs Way.

“It’s a team retreat,” Rizzo said. “It’s not just me. It’s anyone who needs to let out some steam this late in the season. It’s a team thing. It’s a long season and you go through ups and downs. And there’s times where you get to that boiling point where you just want to kill anything in your way.”

Rizzo needed to vent and called his teammates into the visiting clubhouse on Thursday night after striking out with two runners on in the eighth inning of a tie game that could swing the National League Central race.

“Throughout the year, you go back in the tunnel probably 25 times,” Rizzo said. “You got to take it out somewhere. You can only stay sane so long. It’s September. It’s a team (thing) now.

“It’s worked. We’re 3-for-3 on it. But it’s not me gathering. It’s just whoever feels like it’s time – you’ll see the team rushing off the bench and going for a nice little retreat.”

In many ways, Rizzo sets the clubhouse tone with his laid-back vibe off the field and intense competitive streak on the field. Tom Verducci’s book, “The Cubs Way,” detailed a scene before last year’s World Series Game 7 where Rizzo got naked, played “Rocky” music, quoted movie lines and shadowboxed until reliever Hector Rondon joined “in on the hijinks, picked up an aerosol can of shoe cleaner and sprayed it in the direction of Rizzo’s groin.”

“This is strictly in-game,” Rizzo said. “You can’t do it, though, and be selfish and go on a nice little retreat when we’re winning. It’s got to be the right timing. It helps, too, because it’s been fun the last couple weeks since we started doing it.”

One obvious benefit: There are no annoying TV cameras. Like in late July when frustrated pitcher John Lackey bumped into Rizzo in the Wrigley Field dugout and exchanged words with the face-of-the-franchise first baseman.

“We’ve come together now,” Rizzo said. “It’s not about anyone. It’s about us. When things go wrong for a certain individual, we rally around him. And that’s what we got to keep doing from here on out.”

Javier Baez stars for Cubs while his mind drifts to Hurricane Maria and family in Puerto Rico

Javier Baez stars for Cubs while his mind drifts to Hurricane Maria and family in Puerto Rico

MILWAUKEE – Javier Baez tries to use baseball as an escape, but his thoughts inevitably drift toward Puerto Rico and the damage and destruction Hurricane Maria has inflicted on his beloved island.  

“I’ve been doing my best to stay in the game,” Baez said. “But, really, my mind has been over there, trying to find out about family, how they’re doing.”

Baez could compartmentalize enough in the ninth inning to deliver the two-out, two-strike, game-tying RBI single on Thursday night at Miller Park, setting the stage for a dramatic 5-3 comeback victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that created a huge shift in momentum for the Cubs in the National League Central race.  

But several Cubs have been distracted during this nightmare hurricane season, seeing the haunting images on TV and thinking about more than magic numbers. Baez finally made contact with his brother, Gadiel, before Friday’s game in Milwaukee.

“He finally found a spot that has service. Everybody’s disconnected,” Baez said. “It’s been really, really crazy over there. They say there’s no trees in Puerto Rico right now.

“It’s really bad. (But) there are still people smiling and trying to get through it. We got no (other) option. Our whole family is over there. I think if we work together, the process is going to be faster and the help is going to be (stronger). Hopefully, everybody stays together and just tries to help.”

Baez has been using his social-media platforms, asking for prayers and helping raise funds through the GoFundMe page started by catcher Rene Rivera’s family and supported by teammate Victor Caratini.

Known for his flash and highlight-reel moments, Baez is actually more of a low-key personality off the field, close to his family and developing into one of the most important and dependable players for the defending World Series champs.       

“Sometimes, when you are going through difficult moments,” manager Joe Maddon said, “getting out there kind of is that little island that you need just to park your brain for a couple hours.

“You keep reading about it. You’re talking four-to-six months without power. When you read those lines, you know it’s devastating. But live it.

“Again, as an athlete, when you’re going through difficulties outside of your occupation, sometimes it’s the best place to be for those couple hours. And then you go back to reality afterwards.

“Javy has been on the stage. He’s had the bright lights shining on him for a long period of time for a young guy. He’s learned how to handle this pretty well.”

Baez starred for the team that made it to the World Baseball Classic championship game in March. He could feel the pride and energy and what that meant to Puerto Rico during an economic crisis.

“Our whole island, they were there for us,” Baez said. “If we really work together, we can get through it faster, and everything’s going to be OK over there.”