Cubs

Penn State ends season in disappointment

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Penn State ends season in disappointment

DALLAS (AP) -- Pacing the Penn State sideline just the way his dad did for 46 seasons, Jay Paterno couldn't help but wonder what JoePa might be doing back home in Happy Valley. A 30-14 loss to Houston at the TicketCity Bowl on Monday ended a tumultuous season for a program shrouded with uncertainty following the firing of a Hall of Fame coach in the aftermath of a child sex-abuse scandal that shook college sports. "It wasn't easy ... It wasn't easy on game day without him because you think about him," said Jay Paterno, Penn State's quarterbacks coach. "I always came to work knowing we had an ace up our sleeve in Joe because of all of his experience, so yeah it was tough." For the players, too. "We've been to hell and back in a lot of ways, more so for our kids," Paterno said. "They did nothing." The 24th-ranked Nittany Lions were picked apart by Case Keenum and the 20th-ranked Cougars. He threw for 532 yards and three touchdowns, a dispiriting finish for a defense that was allowing 162 yards passing per game. Keenum threw for more than double that by halftime. Now, Houston (13-1) gets to relish in the satisfaction of extending its school record for victories in a season. Penn State must push forward still without a permanent head coach. Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was appointed the interim coach after Paterno's dismissal, is a candidate in a search that overshadowed the game itself. "I thought the guys came out and they played hard. It's been a difficult year for them," Bradley said. "It just didn't go our way." Keenum burned the Nittany Lions' veteran secondary with touchdown passes of 40 and 75 yards to build a 24-7 lead by halftime. It was the school's first bowl game without Paterno as head coach since the 1962 Gator Bowl, a 17-7 loss to Florida. Paterno was fired Nov. 9 by school trustees amid mounting criticism that school leaders should have done more to prevent the shocking abuse allegations against retired assistant Jerry Sandusky. He is awaiting trial after pleading not guilty last month. Bradley's enormous task: guide players besieged by the resulting media scrutiny. Bypassed by more prominent bowls, some Nittany Lions (9-4) debated whether to travel to Dallas at all, then vowed they were over getting jilted and focused on stopping Houston. Turned out Linbacker U. got trampled over by Keenum and Houston's high-octane offense. "When you have a lot of fast guys, it makes my job a lot easier," Keenum said. Start with receiver Patrick Edwards, who burned safety Macolm Willis for a 40-yard touchdown pass from Keenum down the left sideline for a 7-0 lead just 1:52 into the game that often resembled a one-sided track meet. Keenum hit Justin Johnson for an 8-yard TD pass with 2:35 left for a 17-0 lead. Houston coach Tony Levine, leading the Cougars for the first time since replacing Kevin Sumlin, was pretty impressed. "I'm biased, obviously. I'd put him right at the top," Levine said of Keenum. "You don't win 12 games by accident and I don't think you don't break the records he broke by accident, either." Already the NCAA career leader coming into the game for passing yardage and touchdown passes, Keenum added another record to his impressive resume. His 227 first-quarter passing yards set the record for most passing yards in one quarter in any bowl game, breaking the mark previously held by Louisville's Browning Nagle (223 yards) against Alabama in the first quarter of the 1991 Fiesta Bowl, according to TicketCity Bowl officials. Penn State All-American defensive tackle Devon Still, already slowed by turf toe, couldn't keep up with Keenum's quick release and Houston's no-huddle attack. The Cougars exploited Penn State's bend-but-don't -break defense across the middle, including Edwards 75-yard touchdown reception up the seam from a scrambling Keenum for a 24-7 lead by halftime. Keenum finished 45 of 69 passing -- two fewer attempts than the number of offensive plays Penn State ran all afternoon. Down by 20 midway through the third quarter, cornerback Stephon Morris tried to keep his fellow defenders motivated on the bench with high-fives. The struggling offense without injured starting quarterback Matt McGloin provided a glimmer of hope after Rob Bolden connected with Justin Brown for a pretty 69-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 27-14 at 2:38 of the third quarter. Penn State's defense adjusted to hold the Cougars to just two field goals in the second half, but the early deficit proved too much to overcome and Bolden threw three second-half interceptions -- two by safety Nick Saenz. "We knew they were going to be tough, we watched a lot of film on them," left tackle Quinn Barham said about Houston's defense. "We knew -- and they brought it to us." With 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Penn State had already given up 552 yards of total offense to Houston, the most allowed by the Nittany Lions all season. This wasn't the lasting impression Bradley wanted to leave on the Penn State committee searching for Paterno's replacement. The outgoing Bradley, who is popular with players, is among the candidates who have been interviewed. Acting athletic director David Joyner has said he hopes to have a new coach in place to give him a few weeks to recruit before Feb. 1, when high school seniors can announce their college choices. Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill said he wasn't relieved a difficult season was over. "I'm glad that we're going to get to move on, but it's hard letting go of this team because we're so close," he said. Bolden finished 7 of 26 passing for 137 yards, while Stephfon Green ran for 63 yards on 15 carries including a 6-yard scoring run on a direct snap in the second quarter. It was one of the few times the Cougars' D got tricked. After getting upset 49-28 by Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA title game to lose a chance to play in the BCS, Houston ended the season with an impressive win over a power conference team. Edwards finished with 10 catches and 228 yards for two touchdowns, while Johnson had 12 catches for 148 yards at the 92,000-seat Cotton Bowl. The stands were about a half-full on a sunny afternoon that ended with Houston's red-clad fans celebrating and chanting "Houston." Back in State College, the 85-year-old Paterno planned to watch from home, Jay Paterno said. He may not have been happy by what he saw -- though he was still rooting for his players. "One thing he said, Yeah, I'm going to watch because I care so much about these kids,'" Jay said. "He cares about those kids."

"He belongs here": What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

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USA Today

"He belongs here": What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

A big part of the Cubs’ MO during the Epstein Era has been the team’s reliance on veteran pitchers. Whether it’s Jon Lester’s cutter, Cole Hamels’ changeup, or Jose Quintana’s sinker, it’s been a while since other teams have had to step into the box against a Cubs starter without much of a scouting report. On the surface, uncertainty from a starting pitcher may sound like a bad thing, but it’s that same apprehension that makes Cubs’ prospect Adbert Alzolay’s first major league start so exciting. 

“There’s energy when you know the guy’s good,” Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “There’s absolutely energy to be derived. But there’s also curiosity. Let’s see if this is real or not. I think he answered that call.” 

The good news for Alzolay and the Cubs is that much of the usual baggage that comes with one’s first major league start is already out of the way. All of the milestones that can get into a young pitchers head -- first strikeout, first hit, first home run allowed, etc -- took place during Alzolay’s four-inning relief appearance back against the Mets on June 20th. 

“I want to believe that that would help,” Maddon added. “It was probably one of the best ways you could break in someone like that. We had just the ability to do it because of the way our pitching was set up, and I think going into tonight’s game, there’s less unknown for him.”

It also helps that Alzolay will have fellow Venezuelan countryman Willson Contreras behind the plate calling his first game. There’s even a sense of novelty from Contreras’ end too. 

“[Catching someone’s debut] is really fun for me,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a big challenge for me today. I’m looking forward to it. I’m really proud of Alzolay, and I know where he comes from - I know him from Venezuela. It’s going to be fun.”

Tuesday's plan for Alzolay doesn’t involve a specific innings limit. Maddon plans to let the rookie go as long as he can before he “gets extended, or comes out of his delivery,” as the manager put it. On the mound, he’s a flyball pitcher with good control that works quickly. Expect to see a healthy dosage of 4-seamers that sit in the mid-90’s alongside a curveball and changeup that have both seen improvements this year. 

Against the Mets, it was his changeup was the most effective strikeout pitch he had going, with three of his five K’s coming that way. It’s typically not considered his best offspeed offering, but as Theo Epstein put it on Monday afternoon, “[Alzolay] was probably too amped and throwing right through the break,” of his curveball that day.  

It’s obviously good news for the Cubs if he continues to flash three plus pitches, long the barometer of a major league starter versus a bullpen guy. Even if he doesn’t quite have the feel for all three yet, it’s his beyond-the-years demeanor that has those within the organization raving. 

“The confidence he showed during his first time on the mound, as a young pitcher, that’s a lot,” Contreras said. “That’s who he can be, and the command that he has of his pitches is good, especially when he’s able to go to his third pitch.” 

Akiem Hicks reveals what makes him so good against the run

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USA TODAY

Akiem Hicks reveals what makes him so good against the run

Akiem Hicks finally earned the recognition he deserved in 2018 with his first trip to the Pro Bowl, and playing on the NFL’s No. 1 defense provided the national attention he should have received in his first two years with the Bears.

He’s a solid interior pass rusher, but where he dominates is in run defense, leading the NFL in run stops last season according to Pro Football Focus.

When Hicks beats an offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage to make a big tackle in the backfield, it’s a work of art, and he revealed the secret to those flashy plays on NFL Game Pass.

He broke down the film of a play against the Green Bay Packers where he beats center Corey Linsley because he knew right guard Jordan McCray was going to pull to the left.

“I read it before the snap happens. I know that McCray is going to pull just based off his stance,” Hicks said. “I know his stance for every play that he’s going to do. I’m going to be at least 75 percent right.”

Hicks looks at how much weight an offensive lineman is putting on his hand, how far apart his legs are and how much bend is in his hips.

“If you do your due-diligence as a defensive lineman and prepare like a professional during the week, you’re going to know,” Hicks said.

Any little deviation from a normal stance is an indicator to Hicks of what the play is going to be, and that pre-snap knowledge keeps him a step ahead of the blocker in front of him.

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