Big Ten

The Bears' moment in time

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The Bears' moment in time

Remember that crossroads in the Bears season I wrote about three weeks ago? That fork in the road after two straight losses to the Texans and 49ers? Its turned into the fork thats hovering the Bears body of work for 2012.

The opportunity to deliver potential knockout punches to two teams trying to stay in the playoff picture started well enough at home against the Vikings. But the failure to lock down that home game with Seattle has given the Seahawks momentum (and now, the fifth seed in the NFC, ahead of the Bears), and carried over into the Minnesota rematch.

The trends certainly aren't encouraging. The Bears face an arch-rival Sunday they haven't been able to beat lately. Then there are the health issues that were compounded in that Seahawks game, which leads me into one particular moment we'll have to keep an eye on as a potential defining moment of the year.

Chicago led Seattle 14-10 with just over a minute remaining, and had them facing 4th and 3 at the Bears' 48. They needed to top Russell Wilson and company, then take over, run the clock out and improve to 9-3. But Wilson completed a seven-yard pass to Zach Miller, and two plays later, they went ahead 17-14.

Fortunately (or was it, since they wound up losing anyway?), Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall worked their magic to set up the overtime-forcing field goal. Then came overtime.

Less than 2-12 minutes in, Tim Jennings suffered his shoulder injury, knocking him out of last week's game and probably this week's, too. Pro Bowl cornerback, gone.

Then, as Seattle's game-winning march continued, Brian Urlacher goes down for likely the rest of the regular season with his hamstring injury. That doesn't happen if he's not on the field for overtime - much less 10:36 of the final eleven minutes of the game.

So without Jennings and Urlacher, and with a ninth win turned into a fourth loss, the Bears go up to Minnesota, and lose again. Would the momentum - and the presence of Jennings and Urlacher for the Minnesota game - have made a difference in that outcome last Sunday?

Even if they'd still lost, they'd be 9-4 and still have a shot at the division title with a win this weekend. Winning both of those games - with those two players still in the lineup - instead of a split the last two weeks provides an entirely different outlook.

There's no telling where fate and the health Gods would've taken the Bears if they'd closed the deal and stopped the Seahawks with just 1:11 remaining two Sundays ago. I've also been around long enough to know sometimes strange things happen to certain teams despite cruel twists of fate, when there's so much on the line.

At this very moment, the Bears are still a playoff team despite everything that's happened leading up to that Wilson-to-Miller connection. They can still wind up in the playoffs even if they lose again Sunday. But those three hours this weekend could well determine whether the Bears can overcome some of the odds now stacked against them, and get back on track from a single moment that may factor into multiple off-season decisions.

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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USA TODAY

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Bulls' Bobby Portis publicly apologizes to Nikola Mirotic: 'I'm wrong for what I did'

Bulls' Bobby Portis publicly apologizes to Nikola Mirotic: 'I'm wrong for what I did'

Bobby Portis publicly issued an apology to Nikola Mirotic for the punch that broke two bones in Mirotic’s face and caused a concussion earlier this week.

Portis was suspended eight games by the NBA while Mirotic will be out 4-6 weeks after he goes through concussion protocol, following an incident in Tuesday’s practice where the tensions boiled over between the two power forwards.

“I'm wrong for what I did. I want to publicly apologize to Niko,” said Portis outside the Bulls locker room at the United Center, hours before the home opener against the San Antonio Spurs. “I feel like I let my fans, the Bulls organization, and most importantly my teammates down. This is not who Bobby Portis is.”

Sticking to clear talking points, repeatedly saying “we were competing” as a way to describe the incident, it was a more toned down version of Portis. Portis is usually colorful and engaging when talking to the media.

Saturday, he was muted, almost robotic in a sense. And he didn’t want to go into the incident in detail, one that many sources have said was instigated by Mirotic as the two were going back and forth physically during several possessions.

The play before, things intensified, causing assistant coach Randy Brown to step in and break things up. The next time downcourt, Mirotic apparently charged at Portis and Portis responded with one punch that sent Mirotic to the floor.

Gently choosing his words, Portis said, “We were competing and kinda went back and forth and things happened.”

When asked if he was shoved, Portis reiterated the two were competing although numerous accounts say Mirotic did push him leading up to the direct incident.

“Yes I was surprised by my own action,” Portis said. “That's not who I was, as I first stated. I'm a competitor at the end of the day but I never meant to hurt my teammate.”

Portis and Mirotic have not yet spoken, although Portis said he’s called and texted Mirotic with no response. It hasn’t been determined whether Mirotic will take legal action on Portis.

“Not concerned with that at this point,” Portis said. “At this point I’m just trying to publicly apologize to Niko and my teammates, and that I’m real sincere about the situation.”

Portis will be allowed to practice during his suspension, having returned Friday and Portis believes things can be mended with he and his teammate.

“Going forward I want to make sure that me and Niko are cool and we can be teammates again,” Portis said. “I'm pretty sure we can. We just have to repair this relationship.”

Justin Holiday said the issue will have to be addressed head on as opposed to being swept under the rug or letting the element of time naturally heal things. Whether that conversation is initiated by teammates or the coaching staff or front office, as long as both are wearing a Bulls uniform, it will be necessary.

“It hasn’t been arranged, but I’m pretty sure we’ll have to talk it out,” Portis said. “And I’m pretty sure it will be a gentle conversation. I’m pretty sure we can get past this.”