Cubs

Illini offense goes missing against Minnesota

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Illini offense goes missing against Minnesota

CHAMPAIGN It has been 398 days since Illinois last won a Big Ten game. It will be at least seven more before the Illini have another chance to end that streak.

Lack of offense and costly penalties led to a 17-3 defeat in a very winnable game against Minnesota. The loss was the seventh straight for the Illini (2-8, 0-6) and head coach Tim Beckman did not try to couch his disappoint after the game.

Early in the game we had a couple opportunities to take big strikes, to take big hits, and we overthrew wide open receiversso we dont get points out of that. Things like that you have to make if youre going to be successful and our players arent making those plays right now, he said. We were on offense very, very inconsistent, and to be honest, the worst Ive been around.

The Illinois offense came out with a roar. On the first play from scrimmage running back Donovonn Young broke off a 16-yard run. On the ensuing play Young took the hand-off from Nathan Scheelhaase and flicked it back to him, allowing the quarterback to find Spencer Harris streaking over the middle for a 49-yard reception.

Illinois continued moving the ball, but got held up at the one-yard line and had to settle for a 20-yard field goal from Nick Immekus.

Going down the field to stalemate at the one is tough, I dont know what it is I cant point fingers, Young, a sophomore, said.

Weve got to get off the football, bloody some mouths, and get us a yard when we need a yard, Beckman said, venting frustration about settling for a field goal. We cant put the ball on the one-yard line for three downs and not get the ball in the end zone. This is college football.

Stalling out at the one would be a turning point, and the Illini would not crack the red zone again in the game. A couple of holding penalties at inopportune moments later in the half killed drives before they could gain momentum.

On defense, Illinois held firm whenever Minnesota got across midfield. The Illini limited the visitors to just 18 passing yards in the first half and held them scoreless until late in the second quarter.

Without many passing options, the Gophers looked to the run. Midway through the second quarter Minnesota got the ball at their own 32 and Donnell Kirkwood wasted no time getting his team into Illinois' territory with a 38-yard run.

The Illinois defense held up once again, this time holding off the Minnesota offense on the three-yard line, forcing a 20-yard field goal from Jordan Wettstein with 3:30 left in the half. The teams would go to the locker room at halftime tied 3-3.

After a quiet start to the second half, Minnesota marched into Illinois territory late in the third with their first completion since the opening quarter. After a few good plays from the Illini defense, the Gophers looked stymied. A hands to the face penalty on Akeem Spence gave Minnesota a fresh start, setting the visitors up with a first down from the Illinois five yard line.

Two plays after the penalty Kirkwood hit pay dirt as he rumbled into the endzone for the games first touchdown. His three-yard run gave Minnesota a 10-3 lead with 2:30 left in the third quarter.

Illinois tried to mount a response, but could not get much going with the ball in hand. The Illini had a total of just five yards of net offense in the third quarter and would not cross over midfield in the half until there was seven minutes left in the game.

Its frustrating, said offensive coordinator Chris Beatty after the game. I have to do a better job to help them, thats the bottom line.

The defense gave Illinois a couple of chances late in the game, coming up with a couple stops in their own territory to hold off the Gophers. The Illini offense, however, could not create any points.

On the first chance, starting at 7:53 in the fourth, Scheelhaase moved Illinois down to the Gophers 35 yard line with 28 yards rushing by himself. After Minnesotas defense forced a fourth down, his pass sailed through Darius Millines hands.

After the second defensive stop Illinois took over with 2:31 left on the clock. The team quickly got to third-and-one on their own 29-yard line, but Scheelhaase dangled the ball on the quarterback keeper and the Gophers punched it loose. Derrick Wells recovered the fumble for Minnesota and took the ball down to the Illinois 19.

The fumble led to a 12-yard rushing touchdown by Kirkwood just 47 seconds later. The touchdown was the nail in the coffin, putting the game out of reach for Illinois.

Beckman was left grasping for answers after the loss.

Scoring three points is not going to cut it in any league, he said. I havent been around this losing. Its been tough, but weve got to find ways to motivate them.

The players also struggled with the errors of the game and the struggles of this season as a whole.

Its tough expecting so much and gaining so little from this season, Young said.

The focus going forward, according to senior defensive back Michael Buchanan, is to make the young players like true freshman Mason Monheim, who led all players with 15 tackles get better.

I only have two games left in my career, but Im always going to be an Illini at heart, so we want to set a path for the younger guys, Buchanan said. I do feel like were playing better as a team the last couple weeks as a teamwe just want to set the path for next year so the younger guys dont have to go through this.

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”