Bears

Siemian, Wildcats open home slate in style

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Siemian, Wildcats open home slate in style

EVANSTON -- It was a little bit of deja vu for coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats in the home opener Saturday.

A week after Trevor Siemian led a late drive to sneak out of Syracuse with a one-point win, the sophomore quarterback was back at it against Vanderbilt in a 23-13 win over the Commodores at Ryan Field.

The Wildcats' offense had sputtered all game until Siemian made his second appearance in the contest with his team down 10-6 in the third quarter. He completed 5-of-6 passes and engineered an 86-yard drive, ending in Venric Mark's seven-yard touchdown scamper.

The Commodores (0-2) promptly marched down the field on the next drive, but the Northwestern (2-0) defense held up in the red zone and forced a field goal.

Rain started to trickle down as Siemian took the ball on the Wildcats' next drive, which seemed to be fizzling out as the clock ticked down under four minutes. But on a third-and-15, the 6-foot-3 Florida native fired a pass toward wide receiver Rashad Lawrence on the sideline, who appeared to come down with the catch before losing control of the ball and fumbling out of bounds.

The referees reviewed the play and after a few tense moments, confirmed the call on the field that it was, indeed, a 34-yard reception and -- more importantly -- a first down.

"I didn't think he held on to it, to be honest with you," Siemian said. "And then it took a while and I thought maybe they're gonna swing it our way. Credit to Rashad. He made a heck of a catch. For him to be able to stick that one was huge for us."

Siemian finished the march down field and Jeff Budzien kicked an 18-yard field goal, his third of the day.

On the ensuing possession, Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott forced a fumble from Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers -- the younger brother of Packers superstar Aaron Rodgers -- and the Wildcats recovered, all but ending the game.

"As a defense, we said we weren't done," Scott said. "We wanted to go out there and get some pressure on Jordan and cause him to throw the ball away or do something. It turned out even better."

Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter put the final stamp on the victory with a 29-yard dash to the endzone after he appeared to be trapped on another third-and-15. Colter finished with 66 yards on the ground and 42 through the air.

"Great to get a win. Very appreciative of our students. The crowd tonight was great," Fitzgerald said of the 31,644 fans in attendance, many of whom stuck around despite the fourth-quarter rain.

"It was the largest crowd we've had for a non-conference opener in a long time. To see the amount of students today with us not being in class yet was something special. You play for that, hopefully represent them the right way and I was just very appreciative of them coming out."

The fans didn't have much to cheer about in the first half, as the Wildcats put up just 85 yards of offense, only 10 of which came through the air. Colter and Siemian combined for an ugly 3-for-10 completion rate.

"Offensively, we fought ourselves today for a while," Fitzgerald said. "I'm not trying to discredit Vanderbilt. They played well and they had a great plan. But we have to throw the ball better, we have to catch the ball better and we've gotta execute better if we're gonna win moving forward.

"That was probably my biggest disappointment going into half, was the plays we left out there...I think we can be better than that. I really do. That's what we talked about at halftime."

Whatever Fitzgerald said apparently worked, as Northwestern outscored the Commodores 20-3 in the second half, including 17 fourth-quarter points. Siemian finished 10-of-16 for 91 yards while Mark racked up 158 all-purpose yards, including 123 rushing.

Rodgers finished with 217 yards, but only 86 came in the second half and 55 of those came on one big play during Vanderbilt's lone scoring drive after halftime.

The Wildcats held the Commodores to just three yards per carry on the night and forced the only two turnovers of the game.

"The defense played outstanding," Mark said. "They kept getting stops and the offense struggled, but once again, the defense stopped them. We finally got it clicking on all cylinders."

Fitzgerald agreed.

"I thought our defense gave us a chance to stay in the ballgame," Fitzgerald said. "I thought we played very well, very sound...We got good pressure on the quarterback and we affected him. There's no question about that."

The Wildcats will be home for the rest of September and head into next week's matchup with Boston College undefeated, no matter how close -- or flawed -- the victories were.

"The Wildcat Way is the way we play," Mark said. "Coach always harps on playing with passion and because we represent the Big Ten, we don't take any opponent lightly. We're going to come every week ready to play the game."

Bears notes: Unlikely contributors Bilal Nichols, Sherrick McManis come through in the clutch

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USA Today Sports Images

Bears notes: Unlikely contributors Bilal Nichols, Sherrick McManis come through in the clutch

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Bears got massive contributions on defense from the guys you’d expect, like Khalil Mack (two sacks, one forced fumble), Akiem Hicks (one sack, one forced fumble) and Eddie Jackson (one interception). But the collective effort put forth by this defense was exceedingly apparent in the final two drives of Sunday’s 16-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Facing a third-and-two at their own 42-yard line just after the two-minute warning, rookie defensive lineman Bilal Nichols blew up a Chase Edmonds run for a loss of three. On the next play, Bryce Callahan — who’s had a fantastic start to 2018 — picked off Josh Rosen, making sure the Cardinals didn’t get into range for what could’ve been a game-winning field goal. 

“It was a great call by coach Vic (Fangio),” Nichols said. “My teammates did a real good job of executing everything and then I kind of relied on my training and just read my keys and tried to make a play. 

“… I knew it was third and one and I knew it probably was going to be a run play, so I just tried to be as disruptive as possible.”

The Cardinals got the ball back and got near midfield with five seconds left — in range, at least, for Rosen to fire a Hail Mary toward the end zone. But instead of dropping eight or nine into coverage, Fangio sent a blitz, and Sherrick McManis — the ace special teamer who also picked off his first pass in eight years on Sunday — hit home for a game-ending sack. 

“I love it,” McManis said. “It was a great call. Coaches did an awesome job putting us in the right places and we did a good job of executing.”

The Bears' defense isn't having the success it is just because of Mack, or some of the top-end players on it. The across-the-board contributions it's getting from every corner of the depth chart is key in that dominance, too. 

Quiet, Please

The Cardinals aren’t the first Phoenix-area sports team to feel like they don’t have much of a home field/court/rink advantage when a squad from Chicago comes to town, that’s for sure. But Bears fans travelled so well to Glendale on Sunday that the Cardinals almost had to do something that’s usually reserved for road games. 

“It’s tough. There were a few times that we thought we were going to have to go silent cadence but if you’re not winning, the fans aren’t going to come out,” Cardinals offensive lineman Justin Pugh said. “If we go out and put a better product on the field, fans will come out and watch us and support us.”

No matter how expected it may be, it was still a striking sight to see Bears players — like Mack and Jackson — raise their arms in the air to encourage a crowd to make more noise at a road game. 

Mack Attack

Mack had an interesting description of his forced fumble, which came when Bradford tried to scramble into the Bears’ red zone early in the fourth quarter. It was a pivotal play in the game, and led to an offensive drive that ended with Cody Parkey’s game-winning field goal. 

But in light of the NFL’s raging, self-inflicted controversy about its roughing the passer rule, how Mack explained making that play stands out.

“I knew he was going to have the ball in his right hand, got my head out of the way because that’s a big part of the rules nowadays, and tried to make a play,” Mack said. “It was what we worked on all week, punching the ball out. That’s what coaches were preaching all week.”

So on a Sunday on which Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews was again flagged for roughing the passer after landing on a quarterback, and in a climate where lowering the head constitutes a penalty, Mack pulled off a game-changing play without doing anything the NFL rulebook considers illegal. The Bears have not been flagged for roughing the passer this year, and instead have had multiple strip-sacks in each of their first three games. 

Under Center Podcast: Bears in first place after ugly win

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: Bears in first place after ugly win

It wasn’t pretty, but the Bears are in 1st place in the NFC North after a 16-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Matt Forte, Lance Briggs, Alex Brown and Laurence Holmes discuss the good side of things as Khalil Mack and the Bears defense get it done once again – and the bad, as Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears offense continue to sputter.

Plus, will the Bears see Famous Jameis or Fitz-Magic next week against the Buccaneers? Forte provides some inside info on his former teammate, Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: