Blackhawks

Despite lower numbers, Eifert wins Mackey Award

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Despite lower numbers, Eifert wins Mackey Award

Tyler Eifert led all FBS tight ends with 63 receptions for 803 yards in 2011, his junior season. He was a finalist for the Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end, but didn't win it.

It turns out the second time was the charm for Eifert, despite 19 fewer receptions and 179 fewer yards heading into his final collegiate game. The Notre Dame captain won the 2012 Mackey Award, adding to the laundry list of honors Irish players and coaches have garnered following their 12-0 season and bid to the BCS Championship.

Most coaches and scouts have seen Eifert develop into a complete tight end this season, improving his draft stock while his quantifiable production dipped. Coach Brian Kelly threw the phrase "complete tight end" around a lot this year, and as the season progressed it became clear Eifert's coach wasn't just pumping his own player.

"This isn't about numbers this year," Kelly said in November. "This is about a guy that's developing himself as a complete tight end."

Eifert and Tommy Rees developed an outstanding connection in 2011, one which often carried over to Rees' spurts in relief of Everett Golson in 2012. But it took Eifert and Golson about two months to develop a chemistry, which finally showed in November. Of Eifert's 43 catches, 22 came in November.

"We're growing, he's a young quarterback, and he's getting better every day along with the rest of the guys," Eifert said earlier. "More time together has definitely helped."

Eifert technically has one year of eligibility left, but would be a longshot to return for a fifth year given his first-round draft stock.

"If you asked the guys at the next level about Tyler Eifert, they really don't care about how many balls he caught because they know he can catch the football," Kelly explained. "They're looking at other things that he's developed. He's going to find himself in a pretty good position in April."

Kelly nets coaching honor

Brian Kelly was named the 2012 Home Depot Coach of the Year, as selected by ESPN and ABC analysts. He's the first two-time winner of the award -- Kelly won it in 2009, his final season with Cincinnati -- and is the second Notre Dame coach to win the honor, joining Ty Willingham in 2002.

Kelly is also up for the Eddie Robinson Award, another top coaching honor voted on by the Football Writers Association of America. That honor will be announced Dec. 13.

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but players understand juggling act

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USA TODAY

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but players understand juggling act

For Jordan Oesterle, the wait really wasn’t a terrible thing.

Sure, he was used to playing more consistently in the past. But he knew with the Blackhawks carrying eight defensemen that several players, including him, would need to practice patience and understanding.

“It hasn’t been too long. It’s only been a week and a half so it’s not terrible,” said Oesterle on Thursday morning, a few hours before he made his Blackhawks debut against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

For the second consecutive season the Blackhawks are going with eight defensemen to start the season. In one way, it’s good: if anything goes awry, be it someone’s game or someone’s health, the depth is readily there.

But so are the challenges. It’s a juggling act, a delicate balance between making the right decisions and making sure a player understands that a scratch may be more about the rotation and not his individual game.

Communication, above all, is key.

“It’s not easy being the guys who are in or out, right on that bubble situation where you come in not knowing if you’re going to play. But as a staff we want to keep everyone involved,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know the depth of your defense is going to get challenged at some point during the year. We feel the eight guys who are here can play but that’s how we’ve always done it: We’ve always let guys know whether you’re in or out. Sometimes you have to be more patient than you’d like but handling it the right way, whether you’re a good pro or teammate, that can be healthy around the environment of your team.”

Based on all outward appearances, everyone has handled it well. Connor Murphy has been a healthy scratch twice – “I mean I just want to see the team win really...if we're winning and guys are playing well that's all that matter,” Murphy said after his first scratch.

Oesterle was a healthy scratch the first seven games. Michal Kempny, who Oesterle replaced, has been scratched the last two games. Cody Franson has also sat seven games. Franson, whose patience has been in place while awaiting contracts in his career, is practicing it again. But he’s appreciated the Blackhawks’ communication on it.

“This situation gets tough when they don’t say anything to you; you don’t know if it’s because of the way you’re playing, you don’t know if it’s something you did or what the situation is. The coaching staff has done a great job of being in our ear, letting us leave our work at the rink and not take it home with us,” Franson said. “That goes a long way in being able to stay positive and in the right mindset through it.”

After starting with eight defensemen last season the Blackhawks eventually went back to seven. Will they do that again this season? Maybe, but whoever gets sent down would most likely have to go through waivers. The Blackhawks reassigned Gustav Forsling last season to get back to seven defensemen and get Forsling more playing time. But this season Forsling and Jan Rutta have been dependable and have pretty much become the Blackhawks’ second pairing.

So for now, eight defensemen it shall be. Being part of the rotation isn’t always easy but so far players seem to get that it’s for the greater good.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve got eight quality guys. I think no matter who’s sitting on any given night, it might not necessary be due to how they’re playing or how they’re doing individually,” Franson said. “I think Q’s done a great job of managing that situation. That’s one of those things where it’s a great problem to have but it’s not an easy one to handle. So we’re all aware of what’s taking place right now and you just try to be as professional about it as you can.”

Return of the Monsters of the Midway: Bears defense has huge day in win over Panthers

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Return of the Monsters of the Midway: Bears defense has huge day in win over Panthers

Are the Monsters of the Midway back?

You wouldn’t be wrong for feeling that way after watching yet another strong performance from the Bears’ defense in Sunday’s 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field.

Highlighted by Eddie Jackson’s pair of 75-yard turnover-return touchdowns, the Bears’ defense had a second straight highlight-reel display on Sunday. In addition to Jackson’s takeaways, the defense also added a fourth-quarter interception for a third takeaway, sacked Cam Newton five times and kept the Panthers completely out of the end zone.

For those keeping score at home: That’s two full games without allowing an offensive touchdown.

And they did it all while constantly being on the field. Thanks to Jackson’s touchdowns, the Bears’ offense got to stay on the sideline more than usual, the Bears’ offense possessing the ball for fewer than 7 minutes in the first half and only 21 minutes and 25 seconds on the game overall. And when the offense did take the field, the results were poor, meaning a quick turnaround for the defense.

The overworked defense didn’t always keep the Panthers from marching down the field, but the Panthers never found the end zone, Newton’s inaccuracies assisting the terrific play of the Bears’ defense, which technically forced four turnovers, if you count a third-quarter turnover on downs.

And that’s all before mentioning that the defense supplied almost the entirety of the Bears’ scoring output for the day on Jackson’s first-quarter fumble-return touchdown and his second-quarter interception-return touchdown. Both went 75 yards as Jackson, playing a year to the day from the end of his collegiate career with a broken leg at Alabama, became the first defensive player ever to have two 75-yard-plus return touchdowns in an NFL game.

If you’re having flashbacks to the last decade, when Lovie Smith’s defenses had a habit of being bigger scoring threats than the offense, you’re not alone. Twitter lit up with Mike Brown comparisons for Jackson.

Great day for the rookie, great day for the defense.

No offense to be found

Meanwhile, the Bears’ offense did next to nothing on a day when the defense was excellent.

Mitch Trubisky was mostly silent in his third career game, the obvious exception being his 70-yard heave to Tarik Cohen. Trubisky’s deep ball landed in his fellow rookie’s hands, and Cohen did the rest scampering all the way down to the 5-yard line.

Of course, the Bears’ offense failed there, unable to cover five yards in three plays for a touchdown. Trubisky attempted to rush in on third down, racing to the pylon and diving for the score. It was initially ruled a touchdown, but a replay review determined he was down short of the goal line. The Bears settled for a field goal on that drive, and it was the only scoring drive the offense engineered all day.

In the end, the numbers were disgusting. The Bears accumulated just 153 yards, picked up just five first downs, went 2-for-11 on third downs and scored just three points. Trubisky barely even threw the ball, completing just four of his seven passes for 107 yards.

Good thing the defense was so good — and scored 14 points — because the offense was practically non-existent.