Bears

Notre Dame expecting Pittsburgh's best

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Notre Dame expecting Pittsburgh's best

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Pittsburgh opened its season with a 31-17 loss to FCS-level Youngstown State, a meddling Missouri Valley Conference program that doesn't have much business winning at Heinz Field against an FBS team.

It's safe to say Paul Chryst's tenure at Pitt didn't start off too well. The Panthers then lost by 24 to Cincinnati, but pulled what looked like a major upset in Week 3, defeating then No- 13 Virginia Tech 35-17. That's the same Virginia Tech, though, that's 4-5 after a loss to Miami and is likely staring down a 6-6 season.

Heading into Saturday, Pitt is 4-4, centered in the glut of mediocrity (and that may be too kind) that is the Big East. Take this as an example -- Louisville is 8-0 and ranked No. 10 in the BCS. They don't play a ranked team all year and by Football Outsiders' F rankings, the Cardinals are the 58th-best FBS team in the nation.

Pittsburgh lost on the road to Louisville 45-35 on Oct. 13, with Tino Sunseri completing 28 of 37 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. The Panthers' ageless wonder (he's 23, and is almost certainly one of the last collegiate players to be born in 1988) hasn't thrown an interception in a month and a half and only has two on the season while throwing for 13 touchdowns.

"He has really matured as a quarterback, really impressed with his play this year," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "He's not turning the football over. Last year, he was similar to what we were going through with some untimely turnovers. He takes great care of the football. He's a veteran, you can see that. And the offense fits him very well and he can make plays.

"He's a guy that I think is playing the best football that he's played his entire career at Pittsburgh."

But Sunseri hasn't faced a defense as good as Notre Dame's this year, and that's by a pretty wide margin. Regardless of the matchup differences, though, Notre Dame players saying that they'll take Pitt lightly.

"We know we're going to get their best shot, not only because we're 8-0 but because it's Notre Dame, and no one like Notre Dame," center Braxston Cave said. "Everyone's going to get up and play their best game when they come to Notre Dame Stadium."

Pitt didn't suspend any of the three players -- RB Ray Graham, WR Devin Street and CB Lafayette Pitts -- who were charged with assault and conspiracy on Friday stemming from an incident last month. Graham and Street are both starters, with Graham rushing for 622 yards on 134 carries and Street leading the team with 50 catches for 695 yards.

With their status no longer in question, the biggest takeaway for this weekend's game is that Street was pointed out by the victim because the two were in a class about vampires at Pittsburgh, according to the Associated Press.

For Notre Dame -- which doesn't teach a class about vampires -- the key is to avoid a letdown following last week's win against Oklahoma. The Irish already avoided falling in a classic "trap" game against BYU -- albeit by a narrow margin -- so if they learned from that, Saturday shouldn't be a problem.

The mantra of preparing for Pittsburgh and taking the Panthers seriously began moments after Notre Dame victoriously walked off the field in Norman. Most Notre Dame players brought up Pittsburgh when talking after the game, and Kelly's message was designed to keep Notre Dame's focus on this week, and this week alone -- as has been the case all year.

"If we start listening to national championship and the BCS, we'll lose a football game," Kelly said in Oklahoma. "And they're a pretty smart group, and they know if they stick with what we've done and stick with the process of just preparing for Pittsburgh, they'll be fine. But if they start thinking about all those other things and listening, we'll lose."

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard, being the fifth leading rusher in the league, probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. 

“It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing. 

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

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USA TODAY

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

The goals came in bunches for the Blackhawks in their Oct. 5 season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the Blackhawks, it was a nice memory, albeit one that seems far away given they went from scoring at will through their first two games to not being able to buy a goal for a sizeable stretch.

As for the Penguins, well, you figure their memoires of that game means they’ll be more than a little ticked off when the Blackhawks arrive on Saturday night.

“We’ve been on the wrong side of a few losses like that,” Patrick Sharp said. “You certainly remember them more than other losses.”

This is kind of/sort of about the Penguins, who in the first meeting were clearly tired not only from two Stanley Cup runs but also from their season opener/banner raising the prior night. But it’s more about the Blackhawks who, after a lengthy scoring drought, are starting to get their offense going again (15 goals in their last three games).

And while they’d like to shore up their defense – they blew a 4-1 lead vs. New Jersey and just about did it again vs. the New York Rangers – overall they’re trending in the right direction. And just as they face the team against whom they played their best game of the season.

“I’m sure [the Penguins] will be excited about playing us and making things better. They’re playing well, winning some games. For [us], we’re looking for more consistency in our game with the puck and we’re generating some offense,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I still think it has some ways to improve. That was one night, whether it was the quality of the plays we made or [what], we seemed like we had the puck a lot and did some good things with it. We haven’t seen much of that lately so I think that maybe we can recapture a little bit of that with the puck as well.”

In the past three games the Blackhawks haven’t just reignited their offense, they’ve regained their confidence. Their lines are finding some chemistry. As frustrating as their scoring drought was, they’re hoping it’s behind them.

“At some point in the season I feel like every team goes through it, either in the beginning, the middle or toward the end. You just don’t want to have it right at the end of the season,” Ryan Hartman said. “You can look at it in in a positive way. Hopefully we got that part over with and now we’re just coming in confident and hopefully we put the puck in the net.”

The Blackhawks got off to a hot goal-scoring start against the Penguins by doing the right things: shooting, pouncing on rebounds, getting traffic in front of the net and capitalizing. As they head into their 20th game of the season, the Blackhawks are finally getting back to what worked so well in Game 1.

“Things dried up for a bit but I think we have a good rotation going here with the lines; the chemistry’s starting to fill in a little bit. Some guys are stepping up. [Artem] Anisimov had a big night and Brinsky’s [Alex DeBrincat] playing great. It’s good to see those guys step up. It makes you want to be that next guy who’s called up to step up in the next game,” Patrick Kane said. “It’s good to see some goals go into the net. More important, it’s good to see some wins. But we’re playing the right way and hopefully this will trend in the right direction for us.”