One final objective for Northwestern seniors: a bowl victory

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One final objective for Northwestern seniors: a bowl victory

The most accomplished senior class in Northwestern football history has one last objective.

The group of 16 fourth and fifth-year players are determined to close as the Wildcats first bowl winner since 1949 when they battle Mississippi State on Jan. 1.

It would be great to end the season with an exclamation point, said senior defensive lineman Quentin Williams. Thats all were really focused on right now ... its been a good ride so far, but youve got to finish it off.

The Wildcats (9-3) meet the Bulldogs (8-4) for the first time when they clash at 11 a.m. Central in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

Northwestern has 39 victories in the last five years, three more than last years seniors -- the next closest comparable class. More importantly, this group has qualified for five straight bowl games in that span, unprecedented in school history.

The foundation of success that theyve created is unmatched and unparalleled in our program, said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, also part of a school first as a member of NUs 1996 Rose Bowl team. To see what theyve done on and off the field is incredibly motivating for the rest and underclassmen.

Still, bowl victories have been elusive since Northwestern began reaching post-season play with some regularity starting in 1996. The Wildcats have lost nine straight since a 20-14 triumph over Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.

So a victory in Jacksonville 11 days from now would obviously be a huge exclamation point for their careers, Fitzgerald said.

But the benefits would also extend to the schools reputation and help in recruiting as Northwestern continues to build a consistent winning program.

The nine wins in 2012 is Northwesterns most since 2008 and includes victories over teams from four different BCS conferences. A 10th win Jan. 1 would make this Wildcat edition the winningest since 1995s Big Ten champs.

I think weve raised the levels of expectations for Northwestern football to the point where we are expecting to go to a bowl game each year, expecting to go to a New Years Day bowl each year, said offensive lineman Pat Ward.

Ward, a Providence Catholic alum, wrapped up an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering this month. He spent two years at right tackle, then moved to left tackle in 2012 and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors from coaches and the media.

Hes also a first-team Capital One Academic All-American for the second straight year.

Were moving the program toward elite status, Ward said. Thats where we believe we can be, we should be and we will be. I think were real close. We could have been there this year and with the guys that we bring back next year we could be there real soon.

Williams, meanwhile, is a redshirt senior and four-time selection to Northwesterns 10-player leadership council.

Northwesterns football culture and academics were the attractions for the Pittsburgh native, whose older brother, Nate, played linebacker at Northwestern from 2007-10.

Its been great experience and be withe a program thats on the upswing, but weve got to keep pushing, Williams said. I love that I came here, I have no regrets. I could have gone to Pitt, or a number of schools. I went to high school basically on the Duquesne campus. It was nice to get away and experience something new.

Williams played in all 12 games to date this season and had 23 solo tackles among his 35, eighth best on the Wildcats. He also had 3.5 sacks.

Fitzgerald and the Cats wrapped up the Evanston phase of training with more game plan focus on Thursday before breaking for the Christmas holiday. Theyll return to campus last next Tuesday and depart for Jacksonsville, Fla. early the next day.

(Thursday) was finishing up the game plan, going over a few things we wanted to make sure we exposed the guys to before we went away for break, Fitzgerald said. Weve tweaked some things as we went along. Well go through our typical game week when we get down there (to Jacksonville).

Along with game preparation, recent days spent training at home should also produce benefits for up the road for younger and redshirt players who got in significant time.

We got a lot of work done, a lot of reps, Fitzgerald said. All those guys (got) 300 plus reps of good work.

A bowl victory would give Fitzgerald his 50th win, making him the winningest in Northwestern history. The seventh-year Cats coach is currently tied with Lynn Walfords 49 wins from 1936-45.

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

WASHINGTON – Cubs president Theo Epstein watched the Washington Nationals run wild on his iPad on Tuesday while visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate. As Epstein did some work in his hotel room later that night, he got a text message from general manager Jed Hoyer alerting him to Miguel Montero’s explosive comments.  

Epstein’s management style is to not overreact or worry about the next day’s headlines. He generally believes in second chances, tries to keep an open mind and looks at the problem from every angle, occasionally to the point of paralysis by analysis.

But Epstein said it took “probably 10 seconds” before he realized the Cubs needed to designate Montero for assignment after the veteran catcher pointed the finger at Jake Arrieta – a Cy Young Award-winning, All-Star pitcher – for Washington’s seven stolen bases.    

“It screamed out as something that we should do,” Epstein said.     

As Montero’s rant caught fire on Twitter, Epstein called Hoyer and spoke to Montero on the phone, but he wanted to sleep on it and consult with some players before making Wednesday’s final decision, which could cost approximately $7 million. Epstein could not envision this as a team-building moment after Montero’s mea culpa and clearing the air with Arrieta.

“That was not my read on it, knowing the dynamics, present and past,” Epstein said. “This was not something that we would benefit from – trying to pursue a path of putting it all back together again.”

The Cubs pursued Aroldis Chapman after the New York Yankees closer began last season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy. The Cubs cautiously didn’t judge or unconditionally support Addison Russell after a third-party abuse accusation on social media triggered an MLB investigation this month. The Cubs tolerated Tommy La Stella’s refusal to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer, allowing him to chill out at home in New Jersey.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

But Montero doesn’t have a 100-mph fastball. Montero isn’t an All-Star shortstop. Montero isn’t being preserved for one hypothetical pinch-hit at-bat in the playoffs. The Cubs are hovering around .500 now – no longer the World Series favorite – and all those variables become part of the calculus.   

“I just came to the conclusion that now more than ever we really need to be a team,” Epstein said. “This was an example of someone being a bad teammate publicly, and that we’d be better off moving on and not standing for it, because we do hold our players to a higher standard than that.

“In our role as the front office, we can’t always be in the clubhouse and push the right buttons to help everyone come together as a team. But we certainly are in a position – when we see something that could fracture the group – to try to fix the situation and remove that issue.

“Miggy’s not to blame at all for the issues that we have as a team right now. He should not be a scapegoat for what’s going on. This was just an example of someone publicly not being a good teammate and making comments that weren’t accountable and weren’t supportive and weren’t in furtherance of the team concept. And we felt we had to act on it.”

There is a chicken-or-the-egg mystery to clubhouse cohesion. But Montero probably would have had a longer fuse – and the bosses would have had a longer leash – if the Cubs were 24 games above .500 the way they were at this time last year. Montero could also get away with a lot more when he was a two-time All-Star for the Arizona Diamondbacks and playing in a sleepy market. 

“Had we been in a spot where this group had already formed its identity and was clicking on all cylinders,” Epstein said, “and had already overcome adversity together and come together completely as a team and we’re rolling in those respects, maybe it could have been handled differently by the group without sort of action from above.

“But I think you have to factor in where the team is and what the team needs and how close we are to reaching our ideal and how close we are to living up to all the values that we have as an organization.”

The Cubs Way isn’t exactly making it up as they go along. But there are always double standards and rationalizations in a bottom-line business. It sounds like Epstein did his due diligence without giving it a second thought: Montero wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. 

“There aren’t that many opportunities for people out of uniform to positively impact the group or nudge it in the right direction,” Epstein said, “or underscore the importance of team or emphasize the values that we try to embody as a group.

“This was one that made sense, given the history, the group dynamics, all the factors involved.”

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

The Bears believe Leonard Floyd will make the leap from being a promising rookie to a breakout second-year player, the kind who can be a centerpiece of a defense as soon as this fall.  

The Bears in 2016 totaled 37 sacks —12th in the NFL — despite dealing with a rash of injuries and not having a standout player in terms of getting to the quarterback. Willie Young led the team with 7 1/2 sacks, which tied him for 31st in the league last year, while Floyd and Akiem Hicks each had seven. 

Sixteen players recorded double-digit sacks last year. That’s not the end-all benchmark for Floyd in 2017, but for a former top-10 pick with elite skills and, as his coaches and teammate said, the right mentality, it’s not out of the question. 

“With most players, you go from your freshman year to sophomore or rookie to second year, … it slows down, they understand it, they're not thinking, they're reacting,” coach John Fox said. “And so I'd expect that and I've seen that already even in the off-season.”

Floyd, earlier this month, talked about how much more comfortable he feels after a full year of practicing and playing at the NFL level. 

“Everything was just fast when I got here last year,” Floyd said. “This year’s it’s way slower and I feel like I’m doing pretty good this year.”

There are two issues with Floyd that won’t go away until he proves they’re not problems in the regular season, though: His weight and his concussions. 

The weight issue is one Floyd has heard for a while, joking with reporters during veteran minicamp that he was surprised it wasn’t the first thing he was asked during his session with the media. He said he “definitely gained some weight” without revealing how much he’s put on, only saying he feels like he’s in much better shape now than he was as a rookie.

“It’s like night and day compared to last year,” Floyd said. 

The concessions are a far more serious — and scary — issue given it took Floyd two months to fully recover from the second concussion he suffered in 2016. 

The Bears believe Floyd’s concussion issues are correctable, though, given they were the product of poor tackling form made worse by collisions with Hicks. The crown of Floyd’s helmet was too low, so he and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio worked with tackling dummies and sled machines in an effort to fix that issue. 

The hope is that Floyd can stay healthy and marry his skills with a better knowledge of the game to put together a breakout year in 2017. His teammates sounded confident during the offseason program that everything was falling into place for the former ninth overall pick. 

“He’s a great competitor,” Hicks said. “Great energy, fast, athletic, he’s everything you want in an outside linebacker, right? Nonstop motor — I can give you all the cliche terms, but I just feel like as far as the defensive line or an outside linebacker, another year under his belt is only going to make him better.”

Added linebacker Jerrell Freeman: “That guy is going to be good for a while.”