Big Ten

Cubs break through the wall with Alfonso Soriano

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Cubs break through the wall with Alfonso Soriano

There is the perception of Alfonso Soriano as the entitled 136 million star, and the reality for those who are around him every day.

Soriano is a flawed player. He doesnt make it look easy. He is 36 years old and cant run the same way he used to. Left field really isnt his natural position.

But Soriano has never shown that he feels the weight of his contract. Always smiling and upbeat, he shrugs off the boos and stands at his locker to face the media. Even if thats not worth 54 million across the next three years, its also not insignificant.

Soriano cant change who he is. But he still wants to improve his defense. He robbed Carlos Gomez during Wednesdays 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field, charging in and leaning forward to squeeze the ball near the top of his glove as he fell to the ground.

The night before, Soriano made a running catch in left before bouncing off the bricks and ivy. The guy who once said he was almost afraid of the wall stole a hit away from Aramis Ramirez, and chased Gomez back to first base with a strong throw.

This is what new first-base coach Dave McKay has been preaching to Soriano since the start of spring training.

McKay has the credibility of someone who spent 26 seasons on Tony La Russas major-league coaching staff. McKay won rings with the Oakland As (1989) and St. Louis Cardinals (2006, 2011).

I hear the fans (have been) a little hard on (Soriano), McKay said. But a lot of that is the way he played his game in the outfield. (Its) not being aware of how you look sometimes and changing that.

Dont jog to a ball. Get to it and get it in real quick. Dont hold the ball. Theres a cutoff man out there your job is done. Get it to him as quick as you can.

Sorianos speed is gone after a series of injuries quad, calf, knee, hamstring diminished a 40-40 threat. He concentrated on his agility and endurance while training at the Cubs academy in the Dominican Republic during the offseason.

I feel good, Soriano said. My legs feel fresh. Thats the most important thing. I can run and not even think about it.

Heres another pleasant surprise for Cubs fans: Soriano approached McKay on Tuesday and asked to skip the grounders and balls off the fungo bat so that he could practice fielding the line drives hit over his head.

Yeah, from the other side, you dont see how hard he works and how much he cares, McKay said. What a great guy. Gosh, you want him to do well. You (think) if theres a way of helping him get better, it would be great to be able to be a part of that.

The balls in his court. Its all up to the player. You just cant tell him to be better. But I love the guy. (Hes) never backed off a minute working and has come to me about needing to work on (certain stuff).

As manager Dale Sveum might say, this isnt rocket science or reinventing the wheel. Its attention to detail. McKay broke down the video and saw that Soriano was catching the ball four or five different ways.

When McKay teaches the outfielders, he does it in a direct way that tries to simplify things. Its all about increasing your sense of awareness.

Look back every hitter maybe two or three times a hitter and see that warning track, know how large (it) is, McKay said. Dont just be standing out there in one spot and all of a sudden the balls hit and (youre not) sure where the wall is.

Same thing (with the sun). Look up, dont come in the dugout and say, Wow, the ball got right into the sun. Know where it is, look up and have a plan of escape. (When) a right-handed hitter hits a ball, it tails one way. (With) a left-handed hitter, it tails another way, so dont let it come into the sun. (Its) things like that.

Soriano has been open to all these ideas, and the Cubs think he can be a leader in a clubhouse that has seen a lot of turnover.

Sveum has also done a good job of managing expectations. The manager defused Sorianos posing at home plate by calling it a natural habit, and stressing that the streaky hitter will be a big part of this lineup.

Hes been working his butt off every single day, trying to get better, Sveum said. The legs arent going to allow him to do a lot of things (with) speed. But as long as he catches what hes supposed to and throws to the right bases thats all anybody can ask for.

Hes in there for his bat and Daves done a great job working with him and positioning him and making sure nothing gets over his head. Hes (playing) deeper. We keep slugging percentage down that way, to make teams get two and three hits instead of one.

Soriano is rich and famous beyond anyones wildest dreams, but thats not the only way to keep score. He got paid, but still wants to get better. Hell show up ready to work tomorrow.

Yeah, man, every day I put the uni on, its like a new experience for me. Its exciting, Soriano said. I dont feel like I have 12 years in the big leagues. I just feel like this is my first year. I got the same hunger.

See how they stack up: Week 8 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 8 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 8 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Alabama (8-0)

Of course the Tide continue to roll, this weekend rolling over an increasingly hapless Tennessee team to the tune of 45-7. No, the schedule doesn’t look any tougher than it did last week.

2. Penn State (7-0)

Hello, Penn State. We knew these Nittany Lions had an explosive offense, but the 42-13 beatdown they put on Michigan and its nation-best defense was incredible. Talk about revenge for last year.

3. TCU (7-0)

A 43-0 smackdown of Kansas? That’s to be expected. But the Frogs are still in the driver’s seat in the Big 12, with two road trips against top-25 teams — Iowa State and Oklahoma — coming in the next three games.

4. Georgia (7-0)

No game for the Dawgs this weekend, but how good is that win at Notre Dame looking now that the Irish are looking like one of the country’s top teams? That’ll get the Dawgs barking.

5. Wisconsin (7-0)

The Badgers had no trouble in their 25-point cruise-control win over Maryland. Poor Jonathan Taylor has to live in a world where Saquon Barkley exists, taking attention away from his fantastic freshman year.

6. Miami (6-0)

The Canes haven’t been making things look easy, but they’re still undefeated — and surprisingly the best team in a thought-to-be-loaded ACC — after sweating out giant-killing Syracuse.

7. Notre Dame (6-1)

The Irish are really, really good, you guys, as evidenced in their 49-14 throttling of USC on Saturday. Josh Adams carved up the Trojans for 191 yards and three touchdowns, another guy who unfortunately lives in the same world as Saquon Barkley.

8. Ohio State (6-1)

The Buckeyes sat back and watched as their game against Penn State this coming Saturday became a showdown of epic proportions. Quietly, no team is scoring more points than Ohio State and its 47.3 per-week average.

9. Clemson (6-1)

With a bye following that upset loss at Syracuse, here’s a rarity for you: Clemson will enter next weekend’s game without a win in three weeks!

10. Virginia Tech (6-1)

Playing North Carolina these days is like stamping the free space on a bingo card, but Virginia Tech will take the style points that came with a 59-7 crushing of a win.

11. Oklahoma (6-1)

The game of the week was the Sooners’ comeback win in the Little Apple, a classic Big 12 shootout against Kansas State. Baker Mayfield can still ball, and Oklahoma’s only a win over TCU away from being back atop the conference.

12. Michigan State (6-1)

It doesn’t seem that Michigan State is capable of winning any way but ugly, winning this weekend despite having just three points with six minutes left. But Sparty’s 6-1 with its only loss to a dominant Notre Dame team.

13. Oklahoma State (6-1)

Mason Rudolph and the Okie State offense lost their mojo this weekend in Austin but sweated out an entertaining-enough overtime win over Texas. The Cowboys need a statement win of some kind, and they’ll have an opportunity next weekend at West Virginia.

14. West Virginia (5-2)

Allowing 23 fourth-quarter points to Baylor is not a good thing to do. But West Virginia won behind Will Grier and David Sills. Sills has an insane 15 touchdown catches through seven games, eyeing the NCAA record.

15. Washington (6-1)

Who knows what the Pac-12 holds on any given Saturday. Washington didn’t play this weekend, and it’s nearly impossible to predict what it’ll do against any team left on its schedule. Pac-12 insanity ftw!

16. Washington State (7-1)

Wazzu showed up after that upset loss to Cal, blanking Colorado by a 28-0 score on The Palouse. Luke Falk has more touchdown throws than Pac-12 NFL Draft darlings Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen.

17. Stanford (5-2)

No game for the Cardinal after blasting Oregon the weekend prior. Expect another blasting next weekend against terrible Oregon State. Even with no game this week. Bryce Love is still the nation’s top rusher by more than 230 yards.

18. Auburn (6-2)

The Tigers can still run and ran all over Arkansas, with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson combining for 153 yards and four rushing touchdowns.

19. South Florida (7-0)

Another game, another 30-plus-point showing by the Bulls’ offense. USF racked up 378 rushing yards — 378! — against Tulane. The USF-UCF I-4 Lighting Bowl or whatever the heck they call it needs to happen yesterday.

20. Central Florida (6-0)

Speaking of UCF, an easy-enough 31-21 victory over a good Navy team showed its the Knights and the Bulls then everyone else in the Group of Five. Bring on the I-4 Lightning Bowl!

21. North Carolina State (6-1)

NC State is for real, nobody’s questioning that thanks to wins over Florida State and Louisville. But next weekend brings the test of all tests, a trip to Notre Dame Stadium against a red-hot Irish team.

22. LSU (6-2)

If only this LSU team could’ve been the one to show up against Mississippi State and Troy. Saturday brought a 40-24 beatdown of Ole Miss. The Bayou Bengals are playing real well right now, but this is a three-month season, guys.

23. Memphis (6-1)

Memphis knocked off another Group of Five big boy in Houston. Good for them. Sadly the Tigers aren’t as good as USF or UCF so … 

24. Iowa State (5-2)

For the second time in three weeks, Iowa State knocked off a good Big 12 team and now has the distinction of being a good Big 12 team itself. Clones haven’t been this big a deal since that sheep.

25. Louisville (5-3)

Thanks to James Blackman’s dumbfounding fumble, Louisville avoided a disastrous comeback loss to Florida State. Lamar Jackson is still really good, though, so you’d like to think the Cardinals are still a threat to beat anyone.

Others receiving votes:

Texas A&M (5-2)

For all the negative attention over that Week 1 blown game against UCLA — and the calls for Kevin Sumlin’s job that came with it — the only loss the Aggies have had since was to Alabama.

USC (6-2)

Getting trounced by Notre Dame proved what we already kinda knew: that USC ain’t the preseason national title contender it was cracked up to be. The Trojans’ loss also probably knocked the Pac-12 out of the Playoff. Oops.

Arizona (5-2)

Did you know that Arizona is secretly good? The Cats have five wins, in which they’ve averaged 52.4 points. That’s a lot of points!

Arizona State (4-3)

The Devils have had a penchant for beating teams they shouldn’t beat this season, and they did it again Saturday with a win over Utah. They’re 3-1 in their last four with wins over Oregon, Washington and Utah and the lone loss coming to Stanford.

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

QUARTERBACKS: D-

Mitchell Trubisky summed up his day with this line: “I thought I played really poor.” He thought he could’ve led Tarik Cohen better on that 70-yard completion — had he, in his mind, it could’ve been a touchdown. He took a sack for a loss of nine yards on third down in the first quarter that pushed the Bears back to the Carolina 34, leading to Connor Barth’s missed 52-yard field goal. Trubisky made a poor decision trying to fit a pass to Zach Miller into a window that wasn’t there to begin the third quarter. It was Trubisky’s first start without a turnover, though, which was more indicative of how little the Bears asked him to do. Eventually, the Bears are going to have to ask Trubisky to try to open things up assuming opposing defenses continue to find success loading the box to stop the run. But with an early 14-point lead, that wasn’t part of the gameplan for Trubisky on Sunday. 

RUNNING BACKS: C-

There wasn’t much there for Jordan Howard, who faced eight or more defenders in the box on 57 percent of his runs but averaged only 2.3 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, the lowest average among running backs in Week 7 so far. Howard wasn’t able to punch the ball into the end zone when the Bears got to the one-yard line in the second quarter, and Taquan Mizzell wasn’t able to get open in the end zone on third down, leading to Trubisky scrambling for the pylon and winding up just short. Tarik Cohen had a clear drop and bobbled a back-shoulder pass out of bounds (it looked like he might've turned too late, or the ball was there too early), but his 70-yard reception was the Bears’ most explosive pass play of the season. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: F

Tanner Gentry was the only receiver to be targeted on Sunday, catching that single pass for an eight-yard gain on third and long. The Bears weren’t going to force anything up by two touchdowns, but Gentry and Tre McBride struggled to get open and give the Bears at least an option of taking the lid off the passing game a little more. Kendall Wright only played eight snaps with the Bears lining up in plenty of two- and three-tight end formations. The deficiencies in this group are clear, and opposing defenses would be smart to do more of what Carolina did — make the receivers beat you — than dropping into coverage like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. 

TIGHT ENDS: D+

There were some highlights here, like Zach Miller’s 24-yard catch — and Adam Shaheen’s crushing downfield block on Jarius Byrd. Dion Sims leveled Panthers safety Mike Adams on Cohen’s 70-yard reception and had a few solid blocks in the run game. But when Carolina was stacking the box as much as they did, the Bears could’ve used more of a push from their tight ends, those (as you’ll see below) this was a difficult assignment.  

OFFENSIVE LINE: D+

Carolina stacked the box on more than half of Howard’s 21 runs, and the Bears struggled to maintain a push for their running game. But it’s worth noting that Carolina entered Sunday with the sixth-best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Even without star linebacker Luke Kuechly, this was a tough assignment. Trubisky being sacked four times doesn’t reflect well on the offensive line, even if he took some of those in lieu of forcing a semi-dangerous throw. On Trubisky’s deep ball to Cohen, though, the offensive line provided excellent protection. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: A

Akiem Hicks continued his dominant 2017 with five tackles, one sack, one hurry and two tackles for a loss as he bullied a banged-up Panthers offensive line. Eddie Goldman had another strong game, too, with six tackles, half a sack and a hurry — but his impact was felt more in the muted stat lines of Christian McCaffrey (seven carries, 10 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (14 carries, 48 yards). Jonathan Bullard and Mitch Unrein also contributed with Vic Fangio deploying a handful of fronts with four down linemen. 

LINEBACKERS: A

Danny Trevathan stuffed the box score with four tackles, one sack, two hurries, one tackle for a loss, two pass break-ups and an interception. Christian Jones led the Bears with 11 tackles and was rock-solid in run support. Leonard Floyd had a sack and two hurries, while Pernell McPhee was particularly disruptive late in the game, notching a sack and a hurry on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: A

Eddie Jackson’s two touchdowns stand out, with the rookie flashing his playmaking ability on 75- and 76-yard scores. Both Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller had solid games, with Amukamara’s breakup on a Kelvin Benjamin slant route leading to Jackson’s pick-six. Fuller locked down in coverage and was a sure tackler in the open field. When Fuller had to leave the game for a brief spell late in the second quarter, Amukamara and Marcus Cooper provided solid coverage on third-and-10 from the Bears’ 18, forcing an incomplete pass and a field goal that accounted for Carolina’s only points of the game. Adrian Amos had a fine break-up of a pass to tight end Ed Dickson in the fourth quarter, too. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Connor Barth missed 52-yard field goal in the second quarter, with his kick appearing to get tipped at the line of scrimmage. But other than that, this unit didn’t have the kind of calamitous mistakes that marred last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens — the team’s punt and kick coverage units both did well, and Carolina began eight of their 11 drives at or inside their own 25-yard line. Pat O’Donnell in particular punted well as the Bears’ offense stalled in the fourth quarter, including a 66-yarder from his own 10-yard line and a 35-yarder that pinned Carolina at its own 11. 

COACHING: B

Eventually, the Bears are going to have to lengthen the leash on Trubisky, but the John Fox and Dowell Loggains’ plan worked on Sunday in the form of a two-touchdown win. A thought here: The Bears perhaps would've opened things up on offense if Carolina had scored a touchdown, but weren't going to do that as long as the defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone. Fangio deserves a ton of credit for a gameplan that not only kept almost everything in front of the defense — Newton only had three completions that went 15 or more yards in the air — but also one that registered five sacks, two interceptions and two touchdowns. The coaching staff’s emphasis on cleaner play, too, paid off for the second straight week, with the Bears being penalized five times. It wasn’t completely clean, but it was much better than the flag-laden games of Weeks 2-5.