Key for Illinois: Contain Braxton Miller

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Key for Illinois: Contain Braxton Miller

CHAMPAIGN Setting foot on the turf at The Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio can be an awe-inspiring moment. Luckily for Illinois, first-year head coach Tim Beckmans had that moment before.

In his career Beckman, has been on both sidelines at Ohio Stadium, first as cornerbacks coach at Ohio State and later as head coach at Toledo. The environment, he said, is always fantastic, but it will not distract him from the challenge at hand.

Been there, done it, was Beckmans response to questions about competing in the famed stadium. The Illini coach had much more to say about competing against his friend, Urban Meyer.

The two coaches met through a mutual friend while in college and continued to stay close as graduate assistants. Beckman would eventually become defensive coordinator during Meyers first head coaching stint at Bowling Green.

Beckman described Meyer as one of his close friends, but said the two have not communicated much since both took over Big Ten football teams last summer. He expects hell talk to his friend some before Saturdays clash, but the conversation will be minimal.

Were very, very competitiveright before the game I might say a couple of words to him, but we wont talk before the game other than that, Beckman said.

Beckman and the Illini will instead keep their focus on surprising the undefeated Buckeyes in search of their first win since September 15.

The key to surprising OSU will be containing sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller has led the OSU team to nine consecutive wins and the No. 6 ranking in this weeks Associated Press poll. He has been a dual threat, rushing for 1,093 yards (the fourth best single season mark in Big Ten history with three games remaining in OSUs season) and 12 touchdowns, while passing for another 1,527 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Coming from Toledo, however, Beckman has had plenty of chances to see just how good a player Miller can be, and he knows what to do to have a chance against the Buckeyes. He pinpointed containment of the 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year as a key to being successful against OSU this week.

Braxton is a special player. He was fabulous at Wayne High School, Beckman said. Were going to need to know what hes doing at all times, hes very important to their offenseWere going to need to have awareness of where hes at and put pressure on him because he can beat you with his feet and his arm.

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said his opposing number was vastly improved from last year to this year, and he expects a tough match-up on Saturday.

Hes gotten way better throwing the ball, especially downfieldand, obviously, running the ball hes one of the most dangerous players in the country, Scheelhaase said.

Tackle Akeem Spence echoed Scheelhaase, calling Miller one of the best. The soft-spoken junior was not overly anxious about the match-up, however. He said his team just had to perform like theyre capable.

Guys who have contain and guys who are assigned to him will have to get their job done and get him on the ground, Spence said.

Compared to the man he replaced, Terrelle Pryor, Spence says Miller is clearly a more talented player.

Hes a lot better than Pryor. He gets in the open field and he makes guys miss and hes one of the best in the conference as a sophomore, he said. Braxtons gonna make you miss, hes going to run you over hes going to do it all.

Despite all the talk of Miller and his ability to dominate the game, the Illini on hand Monday were calm and collected. Beckman and his players seemed ready to put in a hard week of practice and see what they can do against the Buckeyes this weekend.

You come to the University of Illinois to play Ohio State or Michigan, to play those tough games. For sure, you wont always be favored in those games, but thats why they play the game, Scheelhaase said.

Illinois notebook

-The injury situation for Illinois has become much more manageable since the bye week. Scheelhaase was roughed up late in the game against Indiana, but Beckman was confident his quarterback would be under center at OSU. Defensive back Steve Hull (shoulder) and running back Josh Ferguson (hip pointer), however, were still questions marks at Mondays press conference. The Illinois coach said he would have to wait and see how the two responded in practice this week before making a decision about playing this week.

-Tommy Davis is out as punt returner for the Illini. After another fumbled punt and a questionable no catch decision against the Hoosiers, the senior was pulled in favor of Darius Millines. Millines and Terry Hawthorne will take over punt return duties this week, with specific personnel decided on a play-by-play basis.

-Illinois must win their next four games to be bowl eligible this season. When asked about that scenario, Scheelhaase shrugged off the pressure. In my mind I dont look at it as you have to win out to get to a bowl game, its more of how can I get as good as possible to be a better player today to benefit my team.

-The friend who introduced Tim Beckman and Urban Meyer? Browns linebackers coach Bill Davis.

Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’

Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Javier Baez plays the game on a higher plane and at such an instinctual level that he can point to the catcher and start celebrating before even catching the ball and dropping a no-look tag.

Baez believes it when he looks back on his World Baseball Classic experience and says: "We're not showing anybody up."

Because the adrenaline surged so quickly for Team Puerto Rico that Baez needed that play to go viral on Twitter to realize what actually happened. Even if elements of that style – and a preplanned win-or-lose parade through San Juan – may have bothered American players like Ian Kinsler and Adam Jones or anyone else with a hot take and a fun-police badge.   

"To be honest, I didn't know I did that until after the game," Baez said. "I got to my phone and I had so many messages and so many videos about it. I was like: 'Oh, whatever, I did it.'"

Baez skipped Thursday's parade after Team USA's 8-0 championship-game victory at Dodger Stadium, returning to Arizona and rejoining a Cubs team where he won't be an everyday player when everyone's healthy. Even after being a National League Championship Series co-MVP and the second baseman on the all-WBC team.

"I'm going to play a lot here," Baez said. "I'm just happy with that."

With a split squad in Las Vegas this weekend, Baez rolled into a quiet, mostly empty clubhouse on Saturday morning in Mesa and sat down in his chair to eat a McDonald's breakfast, a WBC equipment bag stashed in an extra locker. 

The Cubs made Baez their starting shortstop and cleanup hitter for that afternoon's Cactus League game against the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Baez spoke with reporters for almost 10 minutes, explaining what it meant to unleash his emotions and represent his island during an economic crisis.

"We do a great job playing and having fun out there," Baez said. "That's what it's all about. This is a game. It's not as serious as a lot of people take it. But, you know, everybody's got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.

"It's their choice to look at how we play, how excited we get. To us, it's really huge what we did, even though we didn't win. All of Puerto Rico got really together.

"We were going through a hard time over there and everything got fixed up for at least three weeks. Hopefully, they keep it like that."

Baez appreciated the opportunity to play with Yadier Molina, the Puerto Rican captain and invaluable St. Louis Cardinals catcher. Before facing the Dominican Republic – and All-Star Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez – Baez said Molina joked to teammates: "I can't tell you many details, because then Javy will tell the Cubs."

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Baez confirmed the stories that Puerto Rican fans got so swept up in the tournament that the island ran out of blond hair dye: "Yeah, they really did."

Baez also said that he's not going to keep this look: "No, I'm going to cut it soon. Or dye it back black."

What will this do for Baez beyond his Q rating? Eh, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has already seen the swim moves and freaky tags and trusted Baez enough to start all 17 playoff games at second base last year.

"I don't know that there's going to be any greater impact than the World Series had on him," Maddon said. "There's a strong nationalistic component to this year's WBC. That was great. I think it was fueled by a lot of world events right now. I'm curious to see what's going to happen four years from now, if there's the same kind of interest or passion employed in the games.

"Hopefully, that's true. But it was almost like the perfect storm for the tournament this time around with world politics, national politics and the way everybody reacted to everything right now. I mean, you can't pick up a Twitter account without reading something volatile.

"I'd much prefer being fueled by a World Series than a WBC that happens every fourth year."

Over the years, instructors throughout the minor leagues, including Manny Ramirez, have tried to harness all this raw talent and help Baez develop a routine, make adjustments and play under control. But Baez said the Cubs haven't directly asked him to tone down the "Javy Being Javy" act.

"No, not really," Baez said. "Joe came to me last year about doing the routine plays and not (only) the great plays. That's about it.

"But in the Baseball Classic, I think everything counts. You can do a bat flip. You can pimp whatever you want, because it's the Baseball Classic. You don't know how many times you're going to do that in life. 

"I was really happy to be in it – and really happy that we enjoyed it."

Marian Hossa named Blackhawks' nominee for 2017 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy

Marian Hossa named Blackhawks' nominee for 2017 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy

The Chicago chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association has selected Marian Hossa to be the Blackhawks' nominee for the 2017 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which recognizes perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

The 38-year-old winger has bounced back in a huge way following a 2015-16 campaign where he had only 13 goals and 20 assists in 64 games. 

Hossa is tied for second on the team with 24 goals and ranks sixth on the club with 42 points in 66 contests this season. He ranks fourth among active players with 1,131 points, and recently surpassed Pat Verbeek to move into 35th all-time in goals scored with 523.

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Three finalists from the 30 NHL teams will be named at the end of the regular season.

Pit Martin (1969-70) and Bryan Berard (2003-04) are the only two players in Blackhawks history to win the honor.