Monday, October 31, 2011

Penn State Pulls out a Close One, Courtesy of Ron Zook

Well, it happened again - the Illini were Zooked. Illinois marched into a completely winnable game against an overrated Penn State team and completely dropped a win that could have gotten the season on track. Instead, the Illini fall to 6-3, continuing the spiral back towards mediocrity after a sterling 6-0 start to the season. Nationally speaking, 6-3 is still a good record for a team that could presumably finish 9-3 and make it to a major bowl. But on the smaller scale within Illini nation, everyone who has followed this team for the last 7 years knows how this one is going to end. Quite simply, this has trademark Ron Zook written all over it, and Illinois enters a bye week with little hope on the horizon.

Go back to the game for a minute, and look at how the Illinois possessions break down:
  • First Quarter:
    • Punt (3 and Out)
    • Punt (3 and Out, with a nice false start penalty thrown in there just for fun)
    • Punt (3 and Out, failing to seize momentum after a PSU missed FG)
    • Punt (3 and Out, failing to seize momentum after a PSU fumble on their own 37 yard line)
  • Second Quarter:
    • Punt (3 and Out, somehow failing to convert 3rd and 27)
    • Punt (3 and Out)
    • Fumble (FINALLY THEIR FIRST FIRST DOWN, only to be followed by a holding call and subsequent fumble by Nate Scheelhaase)
    • Punt (Hmmm, you mean Reilly O'Toole couldn't do it either??)
    • Interception (this was the missed FG play, where the holder threw the interception. Of course he did.)
  • Third Quarter:
    • Punt (another inept drive with no chemistry due to the QB substitutions)
    • Interception (wait - Reilly O'Toole threw an interception??? After Illinois intercepted PSU? SHOCKED.)
    • Touchdown (the only points the Illini would score. A cohesive, well-called drive that featured only Scheelhaase, and only one attempted pass on the entire drive. I'm sure Ron Zook was in the bathroom or asleep during this drive)
    • Fumble (Ron Zook must be back, for it was run up the middle, stop. Run up the middle, stop, fumble. Please tell me that isn't Paul Petrino's playcalling. Don't tell me we're paying him an insane amount of money to screw up something that the Zooker can do himself.)
  • Fourth Quarter:
    • Punt Blocked (maybe Punter Justin Duvernois was tired from punting the entire game, or maybe we should just remember that this was a Ron Zook team, sadly nod our heads, and move on. PSU kicks a FG from this to make it 7-3)
    • Punt (the most excruciating possession in the entire game, as hard as that is to believe. Take 4 minutes to go 30 yards, and then punt? Of course, Zook's discipline rubbed off again, as a holding call killed the drive and dug the Illini into a 2nd and 20 hole. Couldn't you just tell what was coming at this point? PSU drives the ball down the field and scores, making it 10-7 with a minute left. Thank god we didn't adjust to PSU's best receiver having single coverage that whole drive. Wouldn't want to do that at all, right?)
    • Missed FG (Derek Dimke misses a 42 yarder off the right upright to lose the game as time expires. Once we got down the field to make the kick, I'm willing to bet that a healthy majority of Illini fans knew the kick wasn't going in. Come on - this is a Ron Zook team!)

A Look Illini Nation Knows All Too Well
That could possibly be one of the worst executed or game-planned Illinois games I've ever seen. Wait, I take that back - it's only the worst this season. And that is saying something coming off of the Purdue embarrassment. Yet, Ron Zook has had games like this in his entire tenure. For as long as we've seen him at the helm, there have been maddening games that make you wonder how he both got the job in the first place, and how he held onto it this long. It's embarrassing a football program and a university in front of the entire Big Ten and all of college football. The worst part of it all is that even at 6-0, when the Illini were finally ranked and getting good national exposure, anyone who knows this team, this coach, knew what was going to happen. The meat of the schedule would hit, and all the talent that Ron Zook recruits so well will look listless, undisciplined, and lost on gameday. The lack of gameplanning is appalling.

Add this one to the list of games that should have been won, and there's a game like that in Zook's tenure for each Big Ten team out there and then some. The talent on Illinois' offense should have neutralized the strong Penn State defense, and the total futility of the Penn State offense should have been a field day for the Illinois defense. Yet somehow the Illinois offense stalled for the entire game. The Zooker's decisionmaking has reached an all time low, from the Reilly O'Toole experiment (which should never have happened in the first place because it burned the future QB of the program's redshirt while the Scheelhaase still has two years of eligibility after this year) to not having his players amped to play in one of the more difficult stadiums to play in throughout the country. As a Big Ten team, if you can't get your players pumped to go to Penn State and try to win a game, you don't belong as a coach in this conference.

How does this happen time and time again? Every team and program have off nights, but this wasn't an off night - it was par for the course. What else do you expect from the guy? Hiring talented coordinators hasn't worked, and I would guess it in large part deals with the fact that the coordinators' boss - Zook - probably still does a a great deal of the game planning and preparation, regardless of the ability that each coordinator has to do his job. And because at this point the only thing that Ron Zook does well - recruit - is on such a horrible downturn, there is simply no reason to keep him around. The negatives of keeping him around as a semi-figure head versus the positives of his recruiting just don't weigh in the right direction anymore.

Mike Thomas, Come on Down.
With a schedule remaining of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (who just beat Iowa), the Illini could conceivably lose out. Trust me - it's not out of the question considering Ron Zook's ability to lose to vastly inferior teams. This is where Mike Thomas, the new athletic director for Illinois, comes in. Thomas is obviously going to evaluate both men's basketball and football, the two money making sports, to make sure that each program is headed in a direction it should. Once he does that, I certainly hope that the first stamp he makes on the program is to fire the Zooker and bring in a eager head coach to get the job done. Or, for that matter, promote Petrino if he sees fit.

What's the drawback? I recognize what a legitimately nice guy Zook is, and how he is a good face for the program. But is that enough for him to keep up this job performance? College football is a tough game and it's ultimately hard to feel bad for someone who has made well over a million dollars a year to produce these kind of results. Perhaps the Zooker is better off elsewhere, and maybe not in a head coaching role (NFL?). Besides, recruiting sucks right now, and with Zook at the helm the Illini are destined for consistent losing seasons interspersed with the occasional 7-5 or 8-4 season. For me, that is unacceptable. Sure, much can be made about how Illinois is not a traditionally successful football program in the modern era, and that's entirely true. But Illinois is the flagship school of a state that produces dozens of Division I (screw the FBS/FCS lingo nonsense) players every year. With the resources of such a large university, a huge alumni/booster network, a large fanbase, one of the largest cities in the US decently close to campus, and such a large pool of high school athletes to recruit from, there is just no excuse why Illinois cannot be competitive in football every year.

This is where Mike Thomas can put his stamp on the team. As Cincinnati's AD, he turned a nondescript football program into an undefeated BCS team with the hiring of Brian Kelly. Kelly came from Central Michigan and was hardly considered a coaching prodigy when he was hired at Cincinnati. But Thomas had an eye for his ability, and Kelly as a result turned Cincinnati into a relevant football team on a yearly basis. And that is all that Illinois fans ask for - consistency. Illinois needs their Kirk Ferentz - a coach who can turn Illinois into an Iowa-type Big Ten program, that competes every year and every now and then puts up a 10-2/11-1 type season. That is how successful college football programs are run. This isn't asking for the moon; Illini nation realizes that in football we aren't ever going to be Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, etc. We just want to see our team go into hostile environments like those at Penn State and pull out victories that should be theirs, or squash a crappy Purdue team like they should have last week. And after what is quickly turning into a trademark Ron Zook season, Mike Thomas just might have the chance to make that happen.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Blackhawks Review: Shades of 09-10?

Everyone remembers the Cup Year, and the pure giddy joy it brought us starved-for-success Hawks fans. And then everyone remembers last year, a year marked by frustration, anger, and sadness. That's why this year was so important - it was a chance for the young talent in Chicago to prove that the Cup Year was no flash in the pan. And from what we can see thus far this season, the Hawks have a chance to repeat their Cup Year success.

Jonathan Toews Leads a Potentially Dominant Team
I've long hated the Detroit Red Wings. But in a way, I deeply respect one thing about them, and it is their consistent success. The Red Wings have made it their team philosophy to draft great young talent as a core, keep it around, and then add players to that core each year to make it a contender. And it works.

When Stan Bowman took over for Dale Tallon as Blackhawks GM, he was left in a position to retool the Hawks for a new generation of winning. He had Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane already on the roster, along with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Patrick Sharp. Bowman, through his father, Scotty, knew how the Red Wings operation worked and started to eumlate it here. Only now, in 2011-2012, are the results starting to come to fruition (the Cup Year was special, not a result of this model). The Hawks have an outstanding young core led by Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook, Sharp, Dave Bolland, and others. With other pieces in place, like Andrew Burnette, Marian Hossa, and others, the Hawks have finally got the perfect combination that just so happened to come into play in the Cup Year.

It all starts at the top. The top line of Toews, Sharp, and Burnette is outstanding. Thus far Burnette has been a veteran goal scoring revelation, playing well on the powerplay and accentuating the skills of Sharp and Toews perfectly. Combine that with the always excellent play of Sharp and Toews and the first line has no issues. After that, no one knew much of what to expect this season from the rest of the Hawks lineup. Well one thing is for sure - those fears have been answered and then some.

The second line experiment of Kane centering Hossa and Daniel Carcillo has been my favorite. Kane, another crucial part of the young core, is able to showcase his full playmaking skill set on a nightly basis, particularly with this play:

Kane's playmaking is also rubbing off on Marian Hossa, who is experiencing some kind of rejuvenation this season that is what everyone expected of him when he signed his massive contract with the Hawks in 2009. He looks like the Marian Hossa of old, who rattled off goals like it was (and is) his job. The only issue I have here is with Carcillo. I like the player, he's a pest who gets under the skin and agitates the opposing team. He's something that we've needed since the Cup Year, and adds a degree of toughness that was missing last year. Having said that, I don't think his right place is on this line. He belongs on a lower more physical, checking line. I actually think this will happen once Viktor Stalberg returns full time from injury, and Stalberg will move into Carcillo' spot on the second line while Carcillo slips down to the fourth line (more on that in a minute). If they add another playmaker to that line, watch out.

Dave Bolland, an underrated difference maker
I also love the third line, centered by Dave Bolland with Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik out on the wings. Frolik has had several occasions this year to exhibit the athleticism and speed that made him a first round pick in 2006. I think his better play this year has had loads to do with why the Hawks look and feel like they have so much more depth this year, even though they have many of the same players. Bickell brings a good amount of toughness and defensive presence to the ice, and has an underrated offensive game. But my personal favorite is Davey Bolland. He is the spark plug that ignites the second half of the Hawks lineup and brings defensive presence that makes a true difference. Really, he's a player that just needs to be watched to understand the impact he makes. The guy is simply a damn good hockey player.

The fourth line represents the exact component that was missing from the Hawks last year. Centered by Marcus Kruger, this line features Rostislav Olesz and Jamal Mayers on the wings. I love Mayers, and this clip says it all:

With Olesz soon to be on his way to Rockford or a consistent place on the scratch list, I could see Carcillo moving to this line and making it what it should be - a physically dominating checking line. Kruger is already showing what a solid defensive young center he can be, and when you add the agitation that Mayers and Carcillo cause other teams, their value to the team cannot be understated. If they Hawks need to make a physical statement on the forecheck, teach someone on the other team's offense a lesson, or simply alter the momentum of a game, they can call on this potential line. I love it, and it's something that was sorely lacking last year.

Nick Leddy has really stood out
I like the defensive pairings thus far, with Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy playing together, in addition to Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjarmalsson. I miss the days of Keith and Seabrook playing together, however, and based upon the excellent play thus far of Nick Leddy, think that Joel Quenville could move Seabrook back to his original pairing with Keith. But hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it right? More on Leddy - he's only 20 years old and showing just what kind of elite blue liner he could be in his career. His play has kept the Hawks defense playing near the top of the NHL. The only issue I have with this area is the third pairing, of Steve Montador/John Scott and Sean O'Donnell. None of these guys inspires much in the way of confidence, and all seem to be slow moving old guys. I understand the need to have a veteran physical presence, but I don't know if its entirely necessary in this area. Seabrook and Keith alone are already veterans. I could definitely see this being an area that gets addressed by Bowman around the trade deadline.

I love the goaltending, for the most part. Corey Crawford is the real deal, and could be the type that mans the pipes for the Hawks for a long time. The issue I have, however, is with the backup slot. Ray Emery is not the answer. Granted, I think the fact that we can mince words over the quality of a backup goaltender exhibits just how good the Hawks are this year. Regardless, it's something they might want to address at some point.

Once the Hawks get going, the amount of talent they have can lead to ridiculous results. The "Detroit" model is being followed here in successful fashion. With young guys like Toews, Kane, Bolland, and Sharp, the pieces to the Stanley Cup puzzle are here to stay for years to come. Adding crucial pieces, like Andrew Burnette, Jamal Mayers, and Daniel Carcillo, are the perfect example of what happens when you surround a young core with perfect veteran complementary pieces. I for one, am beyond excited for what this year can bring. With the veteran coaching of Joel Quenneville, the motivated and sharp front office, and great complimentary team, the cast of characters looks to be set for another movie-like season for the Hawks. Can't wait to see how it plays out.

Brian Kelly Class Warfare?

It's been a troubling past 7 days in South Bend. First came the humiliating loss to USC on Saturday night. Then came the worries that top commit Tee Shepard might decommit (bringing with him his cousin Deontay Greenberry) following confusion on whether he would be able to enroll early - worries that have since been assuaged. More importantly, however, is the division in the Notre Dame football team as a result of Brian Kelly's comments in a press conference yesterday. The video is included below, and click this for another copy:

What Brian Kelly said at the end:
"You can see the players that I have recruited, you know who they are. We’ve had one class of kids that we’ve recruited that I’ve had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along. It’s a process. It can’t happen overnight. They’re getting it. They’re making good progress. We are 4-3 and could very easily be a lot better than that. If we take care of the ball when it is 17-10 on the one-yard line, who knows what would have happened. So, I don’t want to paint a picture that we are so far away that we can’t get to them, but it is a process. We are banging it every day. It’s the old cliché, you keep hitting the sledge hammer against the wall and you don’t see the cracks and then one day, it cracks down. We’re still banging at it.”
The players Kelly targeted, presumably the upper class of juniors and seniors, have responded on twitter. Manti Te'o, for one said:
Playin for my bros and that's it!!!!

Manti Te'o, supposed leader
So what are we left with? Clearly there is a split in the upper class of the football team. These are players brought in by Charlie Weis to play under his philosophy. There are several undercurrents here but I'll address two of them.

First, these players were recruited by Weis and his staff. One of the criticisms of Weis was that he failed to coach or bring out toughness in his football players, and it certainly showed in the field. For all his supposed decided schematic advantages and genuine recruiting skill, Weis never had the ability to take raw recruits and turn them into successful college football players. Sure, he had Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen tear apart records while they were there, but what bowl games did they win (besides the Aloha Bowl or whatever the hell its called Jimmy. That doesn't count.)? What have they done in the pros? Or what have any of his players done in the pros for that matter?

The simple fact is, the senior class had been coddled by Weis for the first year or two of their careers. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Brian Kelly has a way of coaching football, and trust me, it is NOT coddling. He expects his players to live up to the Notre Dame name, and bust their asses to win football games. This means that they work out hard, train hard, practice hard, eat the right food, lead their teammates, and most importantly, play hard.

This leads to the second angle - that Brian Kelly was absolutely, positively, and undeniably right. How could these players possibly be upset? I'm sick of the "oh no mommy, Coach said I'm not good" self-entitled attitude that was bred into these players in the Charlie Weis Lack-of-Accountability era. Get it together "leaders' - YOU JUST HAD YOUR TEETH PUNCHED IN ON NATIONAL TELEVISION IN THE BIGGEST GAME OF YOUR CAREERS, AT HOME! This kind of attitude is exactly why a Notre Dame team that should quite possibly be 7-0 is 4-3.

Manti - the truth hurts sometimes pal. You and the rest of the upper class "leaders" need to get over it. Listen to your coach, who is a proven winner, and get out there and play tough football. I remember complaining after the USC game that the players looked like they weren't trying, or lacked intensity, whatever. Well, it's true. All those USC players calling out the ND players for "quitting?" Yeah, that's true too.

In Kelly We Trust
Kelly is doing the exact right thing at the right time. He needs to light a fire under the asses of the players who are supposed to lead this team. If you're earning a full scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, starting/playing on one of the most traditional and prestigious football programs in the country, and playing some of the most elite and storied programs in the country on a weekly basis, and you can't get up, play hard, and act like a leader, you deserve to be called out.

Kelly is making clear that the Charlie Weis Era of Good Feelings is over. No more showing up to press conferences in a stretch hummer limo, and no more weak efforts on and off the field. Kelly is making clear right now that if you want to play for Notre Dame, you're going to take it seriously, like it should be. Don't like it? Go ahead and find a school that wants to accept an upper class transfer of a player who doesn't work hard. Good luck.

Kelly isn't the only one saying anything. Former Irish Captain Aaron Taylor recently called out the senior leadership on the team as well:

I love what Kelly is doing. He is exactly the type of coach that we need. Kelly isn't here to be your best friend, or hang out or joke around with the players. He's here to win damn football games, something that hasn't been done around Notre Dame for awhile. With success comes happiness, and Kelly knows that there is a time for joking around with the players - it's after winning.

There is a division to be expected anytime a coach takes over for a new program, but after the recovery at the end of the season by the Irish last year, I thought that each player had bought into the system. That's why I was so excited for this season. But after things have turned sour on the Irish, and while it's not all on the upper classmen (it's also due in no small part to Tommy Rees' inability to see that he has a receiver open on nearly 95% of all his plays), the upper class leaders look like they've given up.

So I guess that is what will make this weekend against Navy so interesting to watch. Will the seniors respond to their coach like true players and men, or will they wilt under the pressure like so often happened under Charlie Weis? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure - this is a defining moment in Brian Kelly's tenure, hopefully one that leads in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The "Cubs Way"

Outside the Press Conference
I haven't caught Theo Epstein's introductory press conference yet, but from what I've read, he said everything that I have been asking for and then some. But the main focus, and what the focus of all Cubs fans should be on, is his implementation of the "Cubs Way" (yes, I'm aware of how hokey it sounds) to change the culture of the organization.

I've written in this blog ad nauseum already about how important it is for an entire organization, not just the coaches, or veteran players, or owner, etc., to completely dedicate everything they do towards that particular team winning a championship. It's the reason that successful teams in every sport are usually perennial contenders. The result on the field and the persona of those teams also endures them to their fan bases, which as a result rabidly support them.

But all of these advantages and positives come under great difficulty. In the modern era, it is difficult for all of these things to come together at the same time and over a consistent basis. Whether it be the acquisition of tumultuous players, the apathetic attitude of a manager, a lack of cash from ownership to make it happen, disinterested fans as a result - whatever - the fact remains that consistent success under a personality of winning is the most difficult thing to achieve in sports. Only a few teams in each sport can say they have it. And to achieve it, the organization must have a plan to initiate and maintain that mentality from the top to the bottom.

This mentality has largely evaded the Cubs. In reality, it has never existed here. The Cubs haven't had sustained success in any relevant time period (and no, I'm not counting a period of dominance in a dusty era that belongs in a Ken Burns film as a relevant time period). In fact, the Cubs didn't taste the postseason from their most recent World Series appearance in 1945 until another huge, embarrassing failure in the 1984 Playoffs. The largest string of success in modern Cubs history occurred, coincidentally, under former GM Jim Hendry, who led the Cubs to the playoffs in 2003 (NLCS Loss), 2007 (Sweep), and 2008 (a 97 win season that ultimately, ended in a sweep. Of course). But there isn't anyone who can argue that the most successful period in Cubs history (believe it or not, we just witnessed it) coincided with a Cubs organization that had a culture of winning.

So when Epstein talks about "tradition" and the "Cubs Way," they are hugely important terms for different reasons. He can't possibly be talking about Cubs tradition from the past, which we've already determined doesn't exist (except for maybe Wrigley Field). No, tradition simply refers to what is created when he implements the "Cubs Way." See, Epstein has a plan that he labels the "Cubs Way" that involves instituting a culture change from the top of the organization to the towel boy in rookie ball. It's a plan he's instituted before to great success, and one that represents why certain teams are just always good.

His plan starts with the front office and making sure that all the people working there have the same mentality that everything they do in their job is to make the Cubs a better franchise and better team. Epstein doesn't have to worry about ownership, for Tom Ricketts has demonstrated with the hiring of Epstein that he is fully committed to making the "Cubs Way" more than just pipe dream fodder to fill the increasingly empty Wrigley Field seats. From there, he needs to hire a manager who thinks the same way, and in my opinion this needs to be a younger guy with energy and much to prove. Just watch Ron Washington, the manager for the Texas Rangers, and his mannerisms and energy in the dugout. Who wouldn't want to play for that guy? And to have the "Cubs Way" permeate through the entire organization, he needs to hire coaches at all levels who feel the same way.

On the player side of things, Epstein cannot say that he is changing the culture of the Cubs if he doesn't get rid of overpaid and lazy veterans like Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. Nor can he say that he is changing the culture if he keeps a player like Carlos Zambrano, who in my mind is a certified psychopath, in the clubhouse. To allow these clubhouse cancers, who have already started to negatively affect the development of younger players such as star-in-the-making Starlin Castro, to stay around undermines anything he is trying to do. Get Ricketts to pay a chunk of money to Soriano and Zambrano and ship them out of town, and just let Ramirez walk. It's that simple.

In addition to actual players, he needs to get a scouting department together that finds players who fit this mentality and do what it takes to sign them. He's already well on his way to making this happen with him supposedly bringing in Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, both of whom can make sure that the "Cubs Way" actually happens. I'd like to see Epstein keep current head of scouting Tim Wilken on board to work with Jason McLeod as a way of blending old school and new school scouting. The only thing is, in this area of his plan, we're going to need to wait a couple years to see any fruits from the tree.

Obviously, this is hard enough for anyone to achieve with any team, not to mention the horrible Cubs team that Epstein inherits. But it is possible, and he's done it before. And at this point, everything he is saying has to be music to the ears of Cubs fans who instinctively think that something will go wrong. At the very least, it's a refreshing change to a stagnant and musty organization.

On a final note, I was lucky enough to run into Epstein this afternoon on my way to the Addison Red Line stop (I'll include some pictures after the post). There were a couple Cubs fans outside as it was right after his press conference, and he walked out of Wrigley to take some pictures for the media under the Wrigley marquee. Even though he was surrounded by a horde of media, national and local, he took the time to shake the hand of all 5-10 Cubs fans (including myself) that were waiting outside to take pictures. He told the group of us that he can't wait to get started and that Cubs fans deserve a winner. There was something so refreshingly honest and earnest about what he said and how he said it, and it hit close to home. Yes, we do deserve a winner Theo. And I think you're the one to do it.

Theo swarmed by the media 
Giving the ever-annoying Ronnie Woo-Woo his welcome
Signing a few autographs
Theo and his wife, Marie
Posing for the media under the marquee after meeting some fans

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bears Escape Jolly Old England With a Win

What a strange Bears team this is. The Bears looked great in the first half, moving the ball and playing outstanding defense. But in the second half, questionable play calling, the return of the terrible offensive line, and some bad defensive plays made the Bears sneaking out of London with a win more nerve racking than it should have been.

Forte Was Dominant, As Usual
The real story of the game was again Matt Forte. He tore the Bucs apart, including a ridiculous 32 yard touchdown run. He carried the Bears offense again, especially on a day with a few Jay Cutler turnovers, so the question again becomes why Jerry Angelo will not pay the man. The longer the Bears wait, the more money they will have to pay him, thus increasing the chances he walks. It's disgusting to even think about, but given the ineptitude of the Bears front office, anything can happen. I can't think of a player in the NFL who carries his offense quite like Forte; he represents close to 50% of the team's total offense. That is absolutely invaluable. Angelo - PAY THE MAN.

Besides Forte, the only glimmer of productivity on offense, besides a very average/mediocre day from Jay Cutler, were the Cowboys rejects, Roy "Cupcake" Williams and Marion Barber. An initial drop from Williams, and his subsequent "I don't give a shit" smile, drew the ire of Bears fans as usual, but he made up for it with some catches and a key touchdown. Same goes for Barber, who had his best game as a Bear with a touchdown and big run into space. Both of these guys were brought in to play pretty big roles, so to see this today was encouraging.

The offensive line had a big first half, opening holes for Forte the whole time, but regressed to their normal craptastic level in the second half. J'Marcus Webb continues to disappoint; it is entirely shocking that he continues to play the most important position on the offensive line while performing as badly as he does. Still, he's probably better than whatever we have on the bench, including Frank "Oh My God I Crapped My Pants" Omiyale.

The defense played great for most of the game, especially Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. These guys were all over the field, with interceptions for both of them. They showed the true leadership that both possess, and the entire defense played fired up as a result. There are still major concerns in the secondary, besides Charles Tillman who is excellent and severely underrated. The concerns start with Chris Harris, who was handed his job back only to get blown up on a touchdown pass late in the second half to make the game 21-18. No wonder he got benched in the first place. A second concern is with the pass rush. Only Julius Peppers gets consistently to the passer. The defensive line made some good plays, but against a good team will need to show they can get to the passer more frequently to allow the Cover 2 type of defense we often play to flourish.

Whatever the result, the Bears played like they have all year. Shone at times and played terrible at others. Besides the Atlanta game, we've yet to see a consistent effort. Until that happens, I think that Bears fans should continue to expect the same we've been seeing all year. And with a division that is top heavy with the Packers and Lions, what we've been seeing isn't good enough for the playoffs this year. Time to turn it around, Bears.

Turnovers Haunt the Irish... AGAIN.

First home night game in 21 years. Major rivalry game. Must-win game. Biggest recruiting weekend in years. So how did Brian Kelly and the Irish come out so disinterested, flat, and lacking discipline?? Last night's loss was ugly. Beyond ugly. Both the coaches and players should be embarrassed.

Pretty Much Sums it Up From Last Night
Let's start with the defense. Matt Barkley guided the Trojans up and down the field at will, with the supposedly stout Irish defense getting gouged through the air, which was somewhat expected, and on the ground, which was definitely not expected. I've grown used to the crappy defense under the Charlie Weis era, but Brian Kelly has built a tough run defense that got embarrassed last night. Did they not prepare enough? And what about the players on defense? They lacked intensity for nearly the entire game, until maybe USC got into the red zone. So many missed assignments, missed tackles, bad discipline, and bad angles taken. And that includes you, Manti T'eo; not only did you play terrible, but you're supposed to be a leader. Can't have the entire defense as sluggish as they were last night.

Not that the offense was much better. For the first few series the Irish couldn't get anything going, but when they did in the first half, something would happen, like a penalty, to do them in. Where was Michael Floyd?? Somehow, they kept the game at 17-10 at the end of the first half, but when Tommy Rees got hurt in the first half, Dayne Crist came in and reminded us all why he doesn't start anymore, with an unreal fumble at the 1 yard line that was eventually returned 80 yards from a touchdown. Talk about a momentum killer.

Even worse, while Tommy was hurt on the sidelines, he was sneakily replaced by the old Turnover Tommy we've grown to know so well this season. First came the inexcusable turnover on the pass to the flat to Cierre Wood (which is on Cierre... seriously, what a ridiculous bonehead play. Have fun on the bench buddy), and then the ultimate game killer with a stupid interception forcing the ball into double coverage instead of checking down to Jonas Gray in the 4th Quarter.

This game exposed Notre Dame's weaknesses at the worst time. They should have beat USC. The coaches had two weeks to prepare the Irish for a game with huge implications, and they looked bad. The fact that USC and Lane Kiffin have the ability to be such douchebags, only underscores the importance of winning this rivalry game. But, more importantly, were the amount of recruits at the game.

With such a huge recruiting weekend, the last thing the Irish wanted was a result like this. Granted, the atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium was nuts, and the recruits certainly saw opportunities for playing time. But you have to wonder what kind of impact this game will have on the recruits otherwise. For defensive recruits, wouldn't they notice the lack of intensity or discipline and wonder if that was on the players they seek to replace, or simply a result of bad coaching? When they later take official visits to see a defense like LSU or Alabama, what reason would they have to come back to ND?

Keith Marshall (white)
But for offense, regardless of all the other recruits that were there, the most important was Keith Marshall, one of the top running backs in the class that fills a definite position of need. With the limited action that Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray saw last night (besides Gray's 25 yard touchdown run), what does Marshall think? If ND is down then he won't be a factor? This guy is a MUST GET, and with offers from close-to-home SEC schools like Georgia and Florida, the chances could be slim after a game like that for ND to pluck him out of the south. It will take some serious spin and recovery work by the Notre Dame coaching staff (and recruiting extraordinaire Bob Diaco) to hopefully gain some ground here.

Finally, where does this leave us? With such huge momentum riding on a 4 game winning streak coming into the game, the season has been completely twisted by the loss. The Irish have games left at home against Navy, at Wake Forest, a home game (granted, its in Maryland at FedEx Field) against Maryland, at home against Boston College, and the last game of the season at Stanford. I don't feel that any of those games are easy, as much as Lane Kiffin might disagree (and don't you get to play Minnesota, Cal, Colorado, and UCLA this year Lane?). Navy has given Notre Dame problems for the past few years and their option attack is an awful rebound game to have after this loss. Wake Forest has played much better this year, as has Maryland, and Boston College always play the Irish tough. And Stanford, who just moved up to number 3 in the BCS rankings, could absolutely destroy Notre Dame. Andrew Luck is simply a machine. Regardless of how they finish, whether it's 8-4 (best case) or worse, no doubt that Brian Kelly and the Irish have to already be disappointed about how the season has gone, and there's still 5 games left.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Illinois Season has Officially Been Zooked

Calling Mike Thomas. Anywhere, anywhere?? I think we all saw what is hopefully the beginning of the end of the Ron Zook tenure today at Purdue. What should have been a huge bounceback stomping of a terrible Purdue team turned into another trademark Ron Zook loss. For a season that started so strongly, it's a clear wakeup call to all those who follow Illinois sports of the reality and extent of Ron Zook's tenure.

Ron Zook with his trademark look.
We've seen this kind of loss before. How does this happen? What does this team actually do all week? Do they practice? For a team with this kind of talent and expectations, this is unacceptable.

The defense was simply awful the entire game. They let a Purdue offense that was 94th in passing and 24th in rushing march all over our supposedly stout defense the entire first half. In the second half, the real Purdue team came out to play, but Illinois still looked lost and didn't put points up on the board until it was too late.

For me, though, the focus of the game shouldn't be the terrible on field performance of the overrated defense, or the one-dimensional offense that gets shut down the second A.J. Jenkins is double covered. No, the focus should be on Ron Zook, and solely Ron Zook.

At no other program in the country would such ineptitude by a head coach continue to be tolerated. He can't handle something as simple as timeouts and time management, something that any 10 year old who plays Madden knows how to do easily. I mean seriously, there's not one person in the program who can help out ol' Ron with this? And did they gameplan all week at all? I've heard so much about Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, and what they bring to the program, but they can only do so much when their boss is incompetent. So what is there to do?

Look, I realize that Ron is a good guy and does a great job with recruiting and being the face of the program. All of those things are extremely valuable to a college football program. But you know what is more valuable? WINS!!! No recruit cares about how well Zook can recruit (and seriously, he can sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves). But what value does that really bring if he doesn't win? I think we've finally (or maybe a few years ago) reached a point where the value of his stupid, inane, and utterly ridiculous losses is outweighing his recruiting and face of the program value. Mike Thomas, it's time to make a stamp on the program, like you did when you hired Brian Kelly at Cincinnati. I don't think my heart can take anymore of these losses.

Welcome to Chicago, Theo.

Well, it's finally official. After a ridiculous amount of back and forth negotiations between the Red Sox and Cubs that truly showed what a douchebag Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino is, the teams announced that Theo has resigned from the Sox to officially join the Cubs. He joins the Cubs as the newly created President of Baseball Operations, a title that was created just for him. This means he can bring in his own staff, starting with current San Diego Padres GM Jed Hoyer, who was with Theo in Boston when they won the two World Series titles and will be the new General Manager here. And, just as importantly, Theo having Jed Hoyer bring Jason McLeod, his top scout in San Diego, with him to be Assistant General Manager. All of these are huge moves, and the expectations are already starting to ramp up.

I've talked about the pedigree that Epstein brings. The guy simply knows how to win. He constructed two championship ball clubs in Boston, but more importantly, changed a baseball culture that, just like the Cubs, consistently fell flat on its face. I'm more than optimistic and excited about this hiring. I've heard many times from many people that this won't change anything in Chicago; implying that the Cubs are cursed and are destined to lose. That argument is pure garbage. There is no curse. Let's say it again so it can't sink in, just like it worked with Will Hunting. Theo and the rest of the Cubs organization, new and old, need to keep a mentality that this is a new regime, with a new owner, new front office, new manager (hopefully) and new players (PLEASE).

So what do Hoyer - who brings a great pedigree himself, similar to Esptein - and Epstein do? It'll be interesting first to see how they interact. What responsibilities will Epstein have as President of Baseball Operations, and how will that be different from Hoyer's responsibilities as General Manager? It's an interesting dynamic, but one I think will work brilliantly for a couple reasons. First, the two worked together for a few years of tremendous success, and the way Theo runs his team is exactly that, as a team. So in my opinion, I could totally see the Hoyer-Epstein relationship working well, with their titles kind of being mere formalities, except Esptein having final say of course.

As far as their initial moves, I expect the new team to immediately begin a search for a manager, with no news on the search until after the World Series. I believe that if they don't find their exact kind of manager, they'll bring back Mike Quade for another year. For me personally, we should try to grab Ryne Sandberg like I wanted to last year. But at this point, I trust Epstein and Co. If you don't find your kind of manager, just wait. Us Cubs fans aren't expecting to win in 2012 anyways. Another move I would hope for them to make is to send some kind of assistant to the Dominican Republic in a long hard search for Alfonso Soriano's real birth certificate. Granted, there have been no indications that his certificate is forged, but for someone to fall off so badly has to be attributed to him lying about his age or him getting off the roids. Either way, Epstein - find some AL team to take him at DH and eat some of the contract. Remember, this is about changing the culture here, and Soriano is the epitome of lazy, one dimensional unaccountability that has defined the Cubs for years. Same goes for Carlos Zambrano. I don't care if he's healthy and has all the tools that scouts drool over - the guy is a complete psychopath and I'm sick of his temper tantrums up and down the mound. Get him out of here. As for Aramis Ramirez, let him go. The market is weak for 3B right now, so he will command a huge contract. Let some other team deal with his lackadaisical attitude both at 3B and running the bases. Always keep in mind, Theo, that we are changing the culture here - no more lazy, bloated players/contracts who don't care. Your 2004 and 2007 Red Sox teams were defined by gritty players who surrounded the stars. We need that here.

The hidden gem of this hiring is Jason McLeod. He's highly renowned in the scouting community, and brings an amazing track record with him to Chicago. Let's look at some of the drafting work he did in Boston:
  • 2003:  David Murphy (starts with Texas); Jonathan Papelbon (fourth round)
  • 2004:  Dustin Pedroia (second round, 2008 AL MVP)
  • 2005:  Jacoby Ellsbury (first round); Clay Buchholz (first round); Jed Lowrie (first round)
  • 2006:  Daniel Bard (first round); Justin Masterson (traded to Cleveland); Ryan Kalish (ninth round); Josh Reddick (seventeenth round);
  • 2007:  Nick Hagadone (first round; included in trade to Cleveland with Justin Masterson for Victor Martinez); Anthony Rizzo (sixth round)
  • 2008:  Casey Kelly (first round); Ryan Westmoreland (fifth round); Ryan Lavarnway (sixth round)
Thus, clearly, McLeod knows what he's doing. Much of those players there are better than nearly any prospect the Cubs drafted in that time:
  • 2003:   Jake Fox (second round, no longer with team); Sean Marshall (sixth round); Casey McGehee (starts for MIL)
  • 2004:  Sam Fuld (tenth round, included in trade to TB for Matt Garza)
  • 2005:  No one of note. Seriously, a completely wasted draft. How does that happen??
  • 2006Tyler Colvin (first round, jury's still out); Jeff Samardzija (fifth round, jury's still out)
  • 2007:  Josh Vitters (first round, third overall, and still toiling in the minors. Can he play??); Josh Donaldson (first round, included in trade for Rich Harden); Darwin Barney (fourth round)
  • 2008Andrew Cashner (first round); Ryan Flaherty (first round); Chris Carpenter (third round)
  • 2009:  Brett Jackson (first round); D.J. LeMahieu (second round); Trey McNutt (thirty-second round)
  • 2010:  Hayden Simpson (first round); Matt Szczur (fifth round)
Clearly, the cupboard is pretty bare, compared to other teams. Other than Carpenter and Jackson, nothing in the minor leagues sparks much confidence. Tim Wilken, the Cubs' current scouting director, took over in December 2005 and the Cubs have had marked improvement in drafting since then, but only an improvement from the complete garbage that was there before. Establishing and maintaining a good farm system is key, so McLeod has his work cut out for him. More interestingly will be how he works with Wilken. Is this a permanent working relationship or will Epstein wait a year to see how they work and go from there? I think that it would be a great partnership, as Wilken represents a sort of unorthodox old school approach to scouting, while McLeod subscribes to a sabermetric theory of scouting. Having both viewpoints would make for great overall scouting.

Finally, I can't forget to mention Tom Ricketts. I was skeptical of Ricketts when he bought the team and took every opportunity to rip him apart. But now I understand his methods and appreciate them. He realized when he bought the team that there was no opportunity for a quick fix. He knew that he would bide his time until he could bring in a team that could do the job right. Ricketts has a model of how he wants to set up the Cubs to win now and in the future, and he couldn't have done a better job than with these hirings. The next step is translating the great front office hires to the clubhouse and the field. One thing is for sure, though, Tom: keep making moves like this and the Cubs will turn it around before you know it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NHL to NBA: "Thanks!"

Bill Simmons has a great point in that the NHL is going to end up reaping the rewards of the NBA Lockout:

Bill Simmons: Behind the Pipes

This is a really interesting thought. The NHL is certainly going to steal fans away from the NBA during their lockout, and for various reasons. One, the NHL had their own season cancelled in 2004-2005. Although that lockout did great to reshape the NHL game for the future, it also alienated fans and hurt the NHL's image, something they undoubtedly still remember sufficient enough to be on the other side of things during the NBA's lockout. Second, as Simmons mentioned, hockey is simply awesome. Anyone who watches it in person (it's fun as hell to go to Hawks games, for instance), watches it on TV (for my money, it's the best sport to watch in HD), plays it casually (doesn't everyone know friends that still play in adult leagues?), has watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs (hands down the best playoffs in sports), or even plays NHL 12 on Playstation (easily the best sports game out there. EASILY.) knows that hockey is underrated by the general sports-following population (unless, of course, you're from Canada).

While it is almost a given that people will turn to the NHL as the NBA Lockout continues to flounder, think of how this is going to hurt small market NBA teams. Think of teams like the Sacramento Kings (near the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks), Minnesota Timberwolves (near the Minnesota Wild and the newly relocated Winnipeg Jets), and Indiana Pacers (near the Hawks and Nashville Predators) who could potentially lose fans. We're not talking about the die hard fans; those people will always follow their respective NBA teams. We're talking about the swing fans, those who constitute a huge chunk of the NBA's revenue but only care when their team is relevant or haven't been alienated by a stupid lockout. Big market teams like the Bulls will never have issues; this city is so full of sports fanatics that the Hawks and Bulls will always be enormously successful.

For everyone, however, let's hope that David Stern and Billy Hunter are paying attention. The sports world wants both the NBA to come back and the NHL to become much more successful. There's more than enough room in sports for both.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rating the NBA?

ESPN lived up to their title as King Resident Douchebag Network today with their rankings on the best players in the NBA. They listed a top 5 of LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Dirk Nowitski. Combined titles in that group:  2.  Coming in at Number 8 was Derrick Rose. I think we all realize how ridiculous that is.

Look, I realize the NBA is in the midst of a lockout and ESPN needs to give its (horrible) analysts something to do. But did we not learn anything from the 2011 NBA Finals? LeBron is terrible in the clutch (unlike someone else we know). Someone who put up 17 PPG, 7 APG, and 7 RPG (well below his average) and generally looked disinterested should not be considered the best player in the NBA. Everyone loves watching him jump out of the gym in a random December game against someone like Charlotte, but in June when it counts he disappears. Not to mention the guy can be pompous and ridiculously cocky.

It's really sad that Derrick Rose can win the MVP and almost single-handedly take his team to the most wins in the Eastern Conference and to the Conference Finals, and yet still not be recognized as one of the best in the game. Sure, being the 8th best player in any sport would be an amazing achievement, but Derrick Rose was recognized as the Most Valuable Player in the entire league last year. Without a doubt, he is one of the Top 5 players in basketball.

Moreover, I think Wade and James are amazing players, but if you have two of the top 5 players in basketball, how do you not win the title?? It's still amazing to think that they didn't win the title with their version of Two and Half Men. I even think that they both belong in the Top 5. But I would even put Wade in front of James, for it was Wade who carried the Heat in the finals to even make it competitive, while James was surely worrying about his next endorsement deal or trying to remember the words to Rick Ross' latest.

The real Top 5 should include the following players, in some kind of order:  Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Dirk Nowitski. Yes, I left out Dwight Howard, who is just a modern version (albeit much more athletically gifted, if that's even possible) of David Robinson. Howard doesn't have the toughness nor attitude (like Shaquille O'Neal in his prime) to succeed when it counts. That doesn't mean that he doesn't dominate in the regular season (which he definitely does at times), but the playoffs are the only thing that matters. At least, that's what Michael Jordan taught me. It shocked me to begin with that Durant was left out, much like D Rose. Those 5 I just listed are the best players in the league, but ESPN tends to glorify athletes who make a lot of noise or sell a lot of tickets. And to that I say, whatever - all you do is give someone like Derrick Rose, who doesn't need it and is confident in his own ridiculous skills, more motivation than ever to dominate. Now all we need is our season back!

End of Martz in Sight?

Although the offense clicked and looked great in the Bears win over the Vikings Sunday night, apparently the Jay Cutler-Mike Martz relationship has soured. For Jay to be yelling at Martz on a nationally televised game indicates that Martz may have lost one of his stronger allies, seemingly sealing his fate of not being asked back after the season.

This is obviously the right move. The Bears offense worked so well Sunday only after weeks of complaining by nearly everyone in Chicago forced Martz to FINALLY adjust his game planning. Martz is known around the league for his acerbic, if not downright cool, personality and demeanor - perhaps the reason why he has bounced around so frequently.

But really, Bears fans wouldn't care about his personality if he had brought his so-called "Greatest Show on Turf" with him to Chicago. But in reality, both the personality and the offense were never a match for Chicago, and the Bears should have simply looked elsewhere for an offensive coordinator in the first place. His play calling this year was atrocious, and he never seemed to grasp the reality that this Bears team was not the 1999 St. Louis Rams, which featured Kurt Warner, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Marshall Faulk, along with Orlando Pace anchoring the offensive line. Not quite the same package with Cutler, Johnny Knox, Roy Williams, Matt Forte, and J'Marcus Webb.

Either way, his unreal ability to NOT adjust to anything that a defense threw at him has finally rubbed too many people the wrong way. There is almost no question that he won't be back next year, and the Bears should keep that in mind for the rest of this season (which is still salvageable) and make sure they maintain the same kind of playcalling that they did in the Vikings game. Even Cutler mentioned how simple it is to run shorter routes (the receivers couldn't master the longer timing routes anyways) and take shorter drop backs in order to save Cutler's life. Not to mention that Cutler should be allowed to adjust plays at the line of scrimmage. He's a NFL QB for crying out loud. But hey, what do I know, the Bears could probably do that same kind of offense (which shouldn't be credited entirely to Martz) and be successful, and Jerry Angelo will give Martz a contract extension. Good god I hope not.

Martz belongs with a team with a good offensive line and with players geared for an explosive offense. Teams that immediately jump out are Green Bay and New Orleans. The problem is, much as the trend is these days in the NFL, both of those teams' offense is run by their head coaches, Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton. Given the fact that NFL teams are becoming more comfortable with quarterbacks coming from spread offenses in college because they are used to making quick decisions and throwing the ball all over the field, it will be tough for Martz to find his niche in a league that is quickly moving in the other direction. One thing is for sure, however - his niche shouldn't be in Chicago and the Bears should start looking for someone to replace him who values protection and utilizing Matt Forte, among other things. I'm not suggesting a full return to a "managing the football" offense, but a comfortable medium between that and the (Not) Greatest Show on Turf we have right now. Regardless, all of this comes as welcome developments as the Bears try to salvage their season.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Redemption at Soldier Field

After that awful loss last Monday night against the Lions, the Bears took a step toward redeeming themselves tonight with their pasting of the Minnesota Vikings. The coaching matchup, between former Bear Leslie Frazier and Bears coach Lovie Smith, was perhaps the bizzaro world matchup of the Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh matchup earlier, considering the two are pretty much emotionless. The Bears played a nearly mistake free game though; probably a combination of the Vikings' ineptitude and playing the way the Bears should have been all season. But a win is a win nonetheless, and it marks a huge win for the Bears heading into next week's game in London against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

First, the offensive line. They played brilliantly tonight, no doubt having something to do with Frank "Oh My God I Crapped My Pants" Omiyale not playing. Lance Louis played a great right tackle, but the highlight has to be embattled former first round pick Chris Williams. Williams was drafted to be the cornerstone left tackle for the Bears, yet turned out to be a complete bust at the position, prompting his move to left guard. But tonight he played great, and along with the rest of the offensive line and the protection adjustments made by Mike Martz, had the Bears offense rolling. Just look at what happened when Cutler had protection to throw - the offense had time to work and the defense had to compensate, thus opening lanes for Matt Forte as well. Either way, if the offensive line could protect like that all the time, the Bears could try to climb back into this thing.

Second, Matt Forte is a complete stud and it is beyond ridiculous that Jerry Angelo and the Bears play hardball with him. A quick google search reveals widespread support amongst players and almost everyone else to get a deal done for him. He is such an integral part of this offense; he simply does everything. The fact that the Bears haven't gotten a deal done for him yet simply illustrates how stupidly and cheap the Bears run their organization. The better he plays this season, and he is quite possibly playing better than any running back in the NFL right now, the more the Bears are going to end up having to pay him. Knowing Angelo he'll low ball Forte and Forte will walk right out of town. That better not happen.

Third, the defense woke up. It is difficult to find a more devastating and freakish defensive end in the entire NFL than right here with Julius Peppers. He wasn't even close to 100% tonight with a sprained knee, and he had a couple sacks, including a ridiculous chase down of Donovan McNabb where Peppers simply pushed McNabb to the ground. Simply an insane play. The secondary was again a concern, especially in the safeties, but  Stephen Paea FINALLY got into a game and made a tremendous impact, especially with an early safety. I was pumped about the Bears picking him in the second round of the NFL Draft this year, but how does he only make his debut tonight, in Week 6? I mean come on, the guy set the NFL Combine bench press record this year! Get him some PT!

Finally, I wanted to dedicate an entire section to Devin Hester. There just aren't enough superlatives to describe him. He was a complete game changer tonight. He returned another ridiculous kick for a touchdown, caught another long TD, and ignited the spark for the entire Bears offense. A look back at his previous returns illustrates just how dynamic an athlete he is. His vision, including his ability to simply squeeze through a huge pack of players, is unparallelled. His quickness and straightline speed are simply unreal. And he backs it up with pure swag and confidence, something every dominant punt/kick returner needs. Da Hess is, simply put, one of the rare 10-20 players in the NFL who can single-handedly change a game. With him and Forte, the Bears have two such game changers. I hope the Bears keep Hester around for as long as possible; I can't remember a more fun player to watch in a long time.

In the end, even though the win was over the putrid Minnesota Vikings (and subsequently sparked the Christian Ponder era), it's encouraging. I'm excited to see what the Bears make out of this; it's clear that the Lions game sparked a huge change in the Bears this past week. Let's hope a trip to Jolly Old gets the Bears pumped and jump starts the rest of the season.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Lesson for the Bears

David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune recently highlighted the horribleness that is Jerry Angelo, much like I did recently, in a recent article:

Chicago Bears Should Find their own Epstein

It's refreshing to see someone in the national/local media say what most fans have been saying for a long time - that the entire leadership group at Halas Hall needs to be fired. George McCaskey, who only this year took over as Bears chairman, needs to quickly make his own mark, much like Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough did for the Hawks when Bill Wirtz died. On the eve of another nationally televised game for the Bears tonight, Bears fans are expecting the worst. Again. This is what the Jerry Angelo and Ted Phillips era has become - a shock if the Bears do well, but usually just an expectation of misery. Let's hope that George McCaskey tries to put his own stamp on the Bears, which can only be done by completely cleaning house. Yet, time will tell if George falls into the same trap that his brother Michael and his father Ed fell into - the penny pinching and apathetic attitude that eventually permeates through the entire Bears organization. This one is on you, George. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Trademark Illinois (Read: Zook) Loss

I'll admit that I was both worried and confident heading into today's matchup with Ohio State. Ohio State is much more talented than their 3-3 record coming in indicated, and they had stud OL Mike Adams back, along with stud RB Daniel "Boom" Herron. Moreover, this was a type of traditional Big Ten offense and defense that Illinois had not faced the entire season thus far. However, I was confident that Ohio State would still be reeling from the Nebraska loss and the scandal that had plagued the program. Also, I expected Illinois to come out and gain some credibility by winning on a national stage. But one thing is for sure - I didn't expect a humiliating 17-7 loss that exposed all the problems that have encompassed the Ron Zook tenure.

I'll try to start with the positives from the game in the interests of cooling off my own anger. First, Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan, and Jonathan Brown are absolute studs. These guys pressured Braxton Miller the entire game, and had some huge sacks. Another positive is Troy Pollard - he runs hard and fast, and remains the hidden gem of the Illinois running game. He absolutely, without question, needs more carries. He should even continue to get looks in the kick return game. For the most part, Nate Scheelhaase is the real deal - he's a leader, can make ridiculous plays with his feet, and gives a chance to win every game. I also loved to see touted freshman Jon Davis get some playing time and make something with it. The last positive I could think of is the ridiculous plays that A.J. Jenkins puts up every game. He even did this in the face of Ohio State CB Bradley Roby's ridiculous remarks that Jenkins was nothing special. Anyone who actually watches the game knows he is much more than just an average receiver.

Now, the negatives. If we have time. First, the running game for Illinois is completely stagnant. Jason Ford looked decent before going out with injury, but he still took runs outside and fumbled the ball (albeit recovering). Zook's blind loyalty to Ford is mystifying, and there is absolutely no reason to run someone out there who is too big and slow to run outside, refuses to consistently run inside, and fumbles. When you have capable backups like Pollard and Donovonn Young, why bother? Second, the defense simply was not prepared to handle a more traditional Big Ten style of running by Dan Herron and Jordan Hall. While they limited the OSU passing game on the defensive line, the OSU OL produced gaping holes for the running game for the entire game. It was pathetic. Third, the Illinois passing game took a hit because the defense could focus on Jenkins, not worry about the run, and as Scheelhaase proved with two interceptions, rely on Nate to underthrow balls. Fourth, besides Jenkins, the rest of the Wide Receivers have huge problems catching balls. I guess that makes the difference between 3 and 4 star receivers - THE ACTUAL ABILITY TO CATCH THE BALL!! So many dropped balls, costing so much field position and actual points at times. Final note on player negatives - the fumbles and interceptions are horrible and costly. Good luck proving your point as an elite program doing that.

The final negative is solely on the coaching staff and Ron Zook. Zook is supposedly the special teams coordinator, but as a graphic on the telecast showed, the special teams, outside of kicker Derek Dimke, are plain awful. The problem doesn't get addressed, and we get no field position on kick or punt returns. Simply awful. Not to mention the decision to punt in the second half instead of go for it. Granted, it gave us great field position that particular time, but more often than not that will blow up in your face in a complete embarrassment. Zook's time management is so bad, it makes it seem like he doesn't know what the time actually is. This wouldn't be the first time he looked absolutely clueless in a game. He screwed up the simple ability to call timeouts at the right time IN BOTH HALVES!!!! His decision in the first half cost Illinois the chance to get in Field Goal range. In the second half, Zook also refused to go for a field goal near the end to make the score 17-10, instead going for it on 4th and 2 when he had a minute and two timeouts to try and get the ball back. Maybe Zook should give the job to Paul Petrino and go do what he does best. Or do the right thing and let someone else on the team handle that responsibility. I've mentioned before that I like  Zook for his particular set of skills, but not for things like clock management, timeout responsibility, calling an offense, calling a defense, or running special teams. So basically the responsibilities for a football coach.

All of this ruins a great showing by the Illini fans, with them drowning noise on Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense at one point in the first half, and the yelling of the "asshole, asshole" chant at Bradley Roby in the second half. I only wish we could have this kind of atmosphere all the time, which makes college football so special. But where do we go from here? Illinois needs to go out next week and lay an ass whupping down on Purdue and salvage some dignity. They do that, they're 7-1. But after that, the schedule gets tough, with games at Penn State and at home against Michigan and Wisconsin. The season ends with a clunker against Minnesota at home. My prediction? Beat Penn State, lose to Michigan and Wisconsin, and beat Minnesota. That leaves us at 9-3, and bound for a decent bowl. While that sounds great to a team that hasn't seen consistent success, it hurts this particular Illini fan on a day where they should have owned a team that only completed ONE DAMN PASS the entire game. Let's hope that this loss doesn't saturate through and ruin a very good Illini season. It all starts next Saturday against Purdue.