Bulls

Irish not changing gameplan with confident USC QB Wittek starting

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Irish not changing gameplan with confident USC QB Wittek starting

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Max Wittek has only thrown nine passes in his college career, but that lack of experience didn't stop the redshirt freshman from telling an ESPN Radio affiliate in Los Angeles "we're going to win this ballgame."

That's probably nothing to get worked up about, seeing as it's just a player expressing confidence in his team to beat its next opponent, which happens to be No. 1 Notre Dame. Wittek didn't say the politically correct thing, instead sharing a common belief: Our team is going to beat your team, and we're confident in that.

Maybe Notre Dame will use that comment as bulletin board material, maybe not. For a defense that's allowing the fewest points per game this season and has only allowed nine touchdowns in 11 games, perhaps the added motivation won't be necessary.

Even without Matt Barkley quarterbacking USC, Notre Dame knows what they're up against. USC's offense is loaded with blue-chip playmakers, headlined by sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee and his 107 receptions, 1605 yards and 14 touchdowns. Fellow wide receiver Robert Woods has 66 catches for 721 yards and 10 touchdowns, while running backs Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal -- who rushed for 118 yards against Notre Dame in 2011 -- form a solid 1-2 punch in the Trojan backfield.

"We're going to do what we do," coach Brian Kelly said. "At this point, for us to go into one game and say, all right, we're going to do different things to confuse Max, that's really crazy. This guy has watched football all year. He's going to be watching film. He knows our defense. So we're going to do what we do, because that's gotten us to this point."

USC has scored 28 or more points in nine of its 11 games, although turnovers have been an issue. Barkley made the largest contribution to those woes, throwing 15 interceptions to go along with 14 team fumbles, giving USC's offense the fifth-most turnovers among FBS schools.

Woods' production has fallen off in recent weeks, with Barkley choosing to target Lee more. That's not necessarily a knock on Barkley -- although perhaps it has something to do with his high interception total -- but maybe Wittek will distribute the ball a little more.

"There's only one football, so it just seems like he's gotten more of the catches, whether by design or not," Kelly said of Lee. "Either one those guys can beat you by themselves. The numbers just have gone his way this year. But you're talking about two of the best in the country. I don't know that you can really choose. They're both terrific players."

Wittek is a relative unknown, a quarterback without much collegiate film for a defense to work with. Kelly has some experience with him -- Notre Dame recruited him out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., -- but offered an axiom to explain why the Irish won't take USC's offense lightly without Barkley.

"He's on scholarship at USC," Kelly said. "When you get a scholarship to USC, you're one the best quarterbacks in the country."

Lauri Markkanen celebrates 21st birthday with a spot on the NBA's All-Rookie First Team

Lauri Markkanen celebrates 21st birthday with a spot on the NBA's All-Rookie First Team

Lauri Markkanen’s celebration for his 21st birthday coincided with another major honor, being selected to the All-Rookie First team.

Markkanen received 76 of 100 possible first-team votes to join Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma on the first team. Mitchell and Simmons were unanimous selections and Tatum was one vote short of joining Mitchell and Simmons.

Markkanen, acquired on draft night in the package of players for Jimmy Butler, showed he was far more advanced than many expected. His 15.2 points per game ranked third among rookies and his 7.5 rebounds were first.

Markkanen was a constant in a topsy-turvy season for the Bulls, scoring 30-plus twice and hitting the 25-point plateau another three times. As a perfect fit in Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system, Markkanen had eight games where he hit four triples or more, including a game in New York where he drilled eight 3-pointers against the Knicks.

Only 15 rookies have hit more than 140 triples in NBA history, with Markkanen accomplishing the feat in 68 games—he was joined by Mitchell and Kuzma from this year’s star-studded class.

As the season progressed and Markkanen took hold of the power forward position, the Bulls began maneuvering personnel around him, trading disgruntled forward Nikola Mirotic and making a concerted effort to put Bobby Portis at center to pair Portis with Markkanen as a spread-shooting duo.

As the most impressive rookie the Bulls have employed since Derrick Rose, he’s also the first rookie since Taj Gibson in 2010 to make All-Rookie First Team.

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

The Chicago Bears have a really good problem in their backfield. Both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will demand touches in 2018 and are each starting-quality running backs. Howard is the more traditional first and second-down back while Cohen offers top-tier playmaking ability.

The duo is so talented that they were recently ranked the fourth-best backfield in the NFL.

The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

The Bears' backfield was behind only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs.

Howard set Chicago's rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and became the first Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He should be the Bears' primary back, but coach Matt Nagy expressed genuine excitement over Cohen's skill set which suggests he plans on getting him the ball quite a bit this season.

Regardless of how the touches play out, the Bears will present opposing defenses with one of the most challenging ground games in the NFL.