Northwestern ready to break losing streak at Gator Bowl

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Northwestern ready to break losing streak at Gator Bowl

As bowl games now come regularly for Northwestern, its wins that remain elusive.

But the Wildcats werent preoccupied with a nine-game bowl losing streak as they opened Gator Bowl preparations Saturday at their indoor practice facility.

Its a clean slate, insisted Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. And if you look back at our performances over the last four (seasons) we could have won all four games. We didnt and thats frustrating and motivating, but at the same time it has nothing to do with this team and where were at.

The No. 21-ranked Wildcats (9-3) play in a New Years Day bowl for the third time in four years, meeting unranked Mississippi State (8-4) in the 2013 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

The guys are hungry, Fitzgerald said. Its a big game for our seniors and a huge game for our program.

Nine regular season wins were the most since 2008 as the Cats beat opponents from four different Bowl Championship Series conferences (Big East, SEC, ACC and the Big Ten) in the same season.

But Northwestern, which topped Cal 20-14 in the 1949 Rose Bowl, also carries a burden of an unwanted streak thats a collegiate record. Its shared with Notre Dame, which had its own run of bowl futility between 1995 and 2007.

Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter said its time to end the 64-year drought.

This is the best team weve had since Ive been here, Colter said. Were a real close group and we really want to get it for the seniors. Theyve meant a lot for this group and we want to send them out on a high note. Were building a legacy now and this is how we add to it.

One of those seniors is lineman Bo Cisek, originally a walk-on from Niles-Notre Dame who earned a football scholarship and appeared in 11 games this season.

This is our fifth straight bowl game and we seniors have lost four in a row, Cisek said. Weve come together very well and its shown because this is absolutely the best team environment weve had.

After the 1949 Rose Bowl win, the Wildcats wandered in the Big Ten wilderness through most of the next 45 seasons and didnt make another bowl appearance until 1995 as Big Ten champs under Gary Barnett.

The current losing streak also kicked off that year -- a 41-32 Rose Bowl setback to USC. Barnett took the Wildcats to another bowl the next year. His successor, Randy Walker, had three bowl appearances between 1999 and his untimely death in 2006.

Under Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are 0-for-4 in the post-season since 2008, including a 33-22 loss to Texas A&M in last year's Meineke Car Care Bowl. But theyve also had an enviable 39-25 overall record in that span.

On Saturday, Fitzgerald guided the Wildcats through a 90-minute indoor workout that drew several dozen visitors, including potential recruits and high school coaches who lined the sides of the 60-yard artificial turf field.

After training, Fitzgerald said that even with a lengthy break now under way, he hopes the momentum of three wins in the Cats final four games continues to resonate.

Weve been pretty successful as the season has gone along this year, weve played better and better, he said. Hopefully well play our best game of the year on the 1st.

Fitzgerald said Jan. 1 date is ideal for both personnel and preparation. Northwestern training will be light next week for final exams for students while coaches concentrate on recruiting.

Well get a chance to get a lot of work in and then send them home on the night of (Dec.) 20th and then we dont have to reconvene until the 26th, he said. That gives us a great opportunity to prepare and a better opportunity to spend time with family.

While the Northwestern and Mississippi State programs meet for the first time, their respective coaches know each other pretty well.

Fitzgerald and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen first met while assistant coaches at Northwestern and Bowling Green, respectively. They often ran into each other while recruiting and still occasionally chat.

Dan Mullen and I are very good friends, weve known each other a long time, Fitzgerald said in a teleconference last week. He's one of the guys who's in my small circle of coaches who, if I've got a thought about doing this or that, I'll send Danny a text or give him a call and we've done that for a number of years.

89 Days to Kickoff: Vernon Hills

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89 Days to Kickoff: Vernon Hills

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Jul. 31, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 25.

School: Vernon Hills

Head coach: Bill Bellecomo

Assistant coaches: Corey Atwell, Greg Stilling, Tim Dydo, Jason Czarnecki, Avelino Cortez, Brian Palmer, Mike Larsen, Dave Schroetter

How they fared in 2016: 10-4 (3-2 Central Suburban North), lost to Peoria in the IHSA Class 5A state title game.

[MORE: 90 Days to Kickoff - Morris]

2017 regular season schedule:

Aug. 25 – Grayslake North

Sept. 1 – @ Zion-Benton

Sept. 8 – Rolling Meadows

Sept. 15 - @ Hoffman Estates

Sept. 22 - Highland Park

Sept. 28 – @ Deerfield

Oct. 6 - Maine West

Oct. 13 - @ Maine East

Oct. 20 - Glenbrook North

Biggest storyline: Can the Cougars make another deep run in Class 5A?

Names to watch this season: Senior WR/DB Max Lyle, senior OL/DL Danny Lester and senior LB Kyle Fasbinder

Biggest holes to fill: The Cougars will need to reload in particular on the offensive side of the football with just three starters back from a season ago.

EDGY's early take: The Cougars had a great run in 2016 and while several key starters have graduated, Vernon Hills still has some gas left in the tank. Getting off to a strong early start could be a big key in 2017 as the Cougars schedule is tough especially early on in 2017.

With Ben Zobrist sidelined by sore wrist, Cubs move Ian Happ to second base

With Ben Zobrist sidelined by sore wrist, Cubs move Ian Happ to second base

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs drafted and developed Ian Happ with the idea of turning him into a Ben Zobrist-type player who would move quickly through the farm system and surface as a versatile big-league contributor and/or legitimate trade chip.

With Zobrist sidelined because of a sore left wrist, the Cubs got their first look at Happ playing second base in The Show during Saturday’s 5-0 loss at Dodger Stadium. That kind of depth – plugging in a 2015 first-round pick while a World Series MVP rests – should ultimately propel the Cubs over the course of a 162-game season.

Even as the Cubs stutter-step through a 25-23 start, there are enough choices for the best defensive second baseman on the team and a National League Championship Series co-MVP (Javier Baez) to sit on the bench.

“We know that the talent’s there,” Zobrist said. “It’s not like having any one or two guys out of the lineup is a big drop-off for us because of the talent that’s there. And we know that just because we have a lot of young players doesn’t mean that they’re not extremely capable of doing the job as well.”

Zobrist – who’s reached base in 23 straight games and emerged as a new leadoff option with Kyle Schwarber struggling – felt something on an awkward swing in the first inning of Friday’s 4-0 loss to the Dodgers. Zobrist played through it that night and called it a “day-to-day thing” that didn’t require an MRI.

[MORE: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

Facing Clayton Kershaw on Sunday after back-to-back shutouts will be a game-time decision.

“It’s tough,” Zobrist said. “We just haven’t strung together enough quality at-bats to score runs the last two games. It’s not just because of us. They’ve pitched well. Their pitchers are pretty hot right now. They’ve spotted up. They’ve gotten early strikes where they needed to and then gone to work pretty well on us.

“The task doesn’t get any easier tomorrow with Kershaw. We just got to keep trying to chip away.”