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For Bears, Trubisky Time starts against banged-up Vikings
 10.05.17
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Griffen

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The Chicago Bears are set to unveil their prized rookie quarterback. The Minnesota Vikings are staggering from yet another big hit.

No. 2 overall draft pick Mitchell Trubisky hopes to spark a stagnant offense and help set the Bears on a winning course when they meet the injury-riddled Vikings on Monday night.

“I feel like I’m ready,” Trubisky said.

From almost the moment the Bears traded up a spot with San Francisco on draft night to take him with the second pick, they said this would be sort of a redshirt season. But Mike Glennon’s poor play forced Chicago’s hand. He’s being benched after committing eight turnovers through the first four games.

The Bears (1-3) got blown out at Green Bay on Thursday. Coach John Fox informed Trubisky on Sunday they were going with him, and the announcement was made the following day.

“Will he make mistakes?” Fox said. “I’m sure. But I think he’s ready for it and we’ll see how he responds. I think he’ll respond well.”

Trubisky brings a strong arm and a mobility Glennon lacked. But he comes with limited experience, even in college. He made just 13 starts for the Tar Heels, all in a breakout junior season last year.

Trubisky set North Carolina’s single-season record for yards passing (3,748), touchdowns (30) and total offense (4,056) in 2016. He also ranked fifth in the country with a 68.0 completion percentage.

The Vikings (2-2) continue to lose key players on offense.

Dynamic rookie running back Dalvin Cook became the latest when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in last week’s 14-7 loss to Detroit. It adds to a chain of injuries for a team that hasn’t been the same since quarterback Teddy Bridgewater dislocated his left knee last year. He remains sidelined, and QB Sam Bradford has missed three straight games because of a sore left knee.

Just don’t ask defensive end Everson Griffen if the Vikings are snake-bitten.

“Naw, man,” he said. “The train’s going to keep on going, baby. We’ve got guys who are going to step up in that role. I don’t like that at all. We don’t like that negative energy.”

Some things to know about this prime-time matchup:

GROUNDED: With Cook out, Latavius Murray takes over as Minnesota’s primary ball carrier. He said he’s still not quite 100 percent after having offseason ankle surgery, though he is well enough to play. Murray is in his first season with the Vikings after spending his first three with Oakland, where he ran for a combined 1,854 yards the past two years.

DOWN LINEBACKERS: Bears inside linebacker Danny Trevathan will serve his suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Packers receiver Davante Adams, after having his punishment cut from two games to one by the NFL.

His absence leaves Chicago even more vulnerable in the middle. The Bears were already missing inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and his replacement Nick Kwiatkoski due to pectoral injuries.

That could bode well for Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who set career highs with 11 receptions for 117 yards in a season-ending win over the Bears last year.

WINDY WOES: Chicago hasn’t been a fun place for the Vikings.

The Bears have won 14 of their past 16 home games against Minnesota, including one in Champaign, Illinois. And one of Chicago’s three victories last year was over the Vikings at Soldier Field.

Jay Cutler threw for 252 yards and a touchdown, and Jordan Howard ran for a career-high 153 yards and a score in that one. It was the Vikings’ second straight loss after a 5-0 start, and they wound up losing four in a row.

CATCHING ON: Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs leads the NFL in receiving with 391 yards, while WR Adam Thielen is third with 358.

The last time a team had two of the league’s top three in yards receiving after Week 4? That was in 2010, when Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie were first and third.

The Vikings could also be adding a playmaking receiver with Michael Floyd eligible to return from a four-game suspension. His punishment stemmed from a drunken driving arrest while with the Arizona Cardinals.

ON THE RUN: Though Minnesota ranks third against the run, the Vikings could be tested this week. Howard ran for 288 yards against them as a rookie last year — 135 in the finale to go with that career performance at Soldier Field. Two of his three biggest performances have come against Minnesota.

Tarik Cohen ranks fourth among rookies with 331 yards from scrimmage and leads NFL running backs with 24 receptions.


Altuve hit 3 homers, Astros beat Red Sox 8-2 in ALDS opener
 10.05.17

HOUSTON — Jose Altuve hit three home runs in an unprecedented show of power for the diminutive major league batting champion as the Houston Astros roughed up Chris Sale and the Boston Red Sox 8-2 Thursday in Game 1 of the AL Division Series.

Buoyed by chants of “MVP” in each trip to the plate, the 5-foot-6 Altuve hit solo homers in the first and fifth innings off Sale. He connected again in the seventh off reliever Austin Maddox to give Houston a quick boost in the best-of-five series.

It was just the 10th time a player hit three homers in a postseason game, and first since Pablo Sandoval for the Giants in the 2012 World Series opener against Detroit. Babe Ruth did it twice.

After Altuve rounded the bases on his third solo homer, which landed on the train tracks atop left field, George Springer grabbed the All-Star second baseman’s right biceps and examined it as if searching for an explanation for his out of the ordinary pop.

Altuve’s teammates then goaded him into exiting the dugout for a curtain call. And as he tipped his hat to the crowd one fan near the dugout held a sign that proclaimed in blue block letters: “That Kid Can Hit.”

“As soon as I cross the white line, I feel the same size as everyone else,” Altuve said after the win.

Justin Verlander pitched six effective innings and improved to 6-0 since Houston got him in late trade with Detroit. Sale, the major league strikeout leader, was tagged for seven runs in five-plus innings of his postseason debut.

Game 2 is today, with Dallas Keuchel starting for the Astros against Drew Pomeranz.

Among the shortest players in the majors, Altuve couldn’t be a bigger leader for the Astros. He’s one of the few players remaining who languished through a rebuilding process that led to three straight 100-loss seasons from 2011-13, and is perhaps the biggest reason this team ran away with the AL West title this year.

Alex Bregman and Altuve hit back-to-back homers in the first inning, making Sale look a bit rattled. The Red Sox tied it up by scoring a run each in the second and fourth innings.

before Marwin Gonzalez lined a two-run double in the fourth for a 4-2 lead.

There were two outs in the fifth inning when Altuve connected again to push the lead to 5-2 and make him the third player in franchise history with a multihomer game in the postseason, joining Carlos Correa and Carlos Beltran.

Sale never got into a rhythm and was chased after walking Josh Reddick with no outs in the sixth. The left-hander was tagged for nine hits and matched a season high for most runs allowed.

After fanning 308 in the regular season, he struck out six. But he allowed three homers and three doubles, marking just the second time in his career that he’s given up six extra-base hits.

Verlander, a playoff veteran who was starting his 17th postseason game, yielded six hits, struck out three and walked two to help the Astros take the early lead in the series.

Sandy Leon had two hits and drove in a run and Rafael Devers added an RBI for the AL East champs.


BIG TEN SPOTLIGHT: Dominant 'D,' a conference characteristic
 10.05.17

Twenty-five years ago, Pat Fitzgerald was a two-way player for Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill., in the southwest part of the suburban crescent around Chicago.

He soon blossomed into a star linebacker for Northwestern, leading the once-woebegone Wildcats to consecutive Big Ten championships. He won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the national defensive player of the year twice in a row. He even bounced back from a badly broken leg to reach the second round of accolades.

Fitzgerald was not drafted, though, and never made it in the NFL. He found his calling in coaching, of course, with this being his 12th season running the program he used to play for. Back then, the capability of the defenses around the conference couldn’t match the compilation of talent on that side of the ball in the Big Ten these days.

“First of all, we all wore neck rolls back then, and we didn’t really play too far outside of the tackle box,” Fitzgerald said, laughing at the reflection. “So the game has changed a ton.”

With the Wildcats preparing this week to face Penn State star Saquon Barkley on Saturday, Fitzgerald described a conversation with recruiting assistant Bryan Payton during which he compared Barkley’s style to mid-1990s Michigan running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka.

“Only guys in the neck roll generation know who that cat is, but Bryan knew who he was so we were having a great chuckle,” Fitzgerald said, before offering his assessment of 2017: “Defensively, I think these young men are incredible athletes. The speed of the game, the size, the strength, it’s not even close. It’s a much more athletic game than it was 25 years ago. We had some good athletes, but nothing like now.”

The best high school players are still usually the quarterbacks, but the best prep athletes are more often limited to one side of the ball. That has allowed many of the defensive ends, linebackers and safeties to develop faster at their respective positions in college. The overall physical condition of players is simply more advanced, too, providing an upgrade at any position from a quarter-century ago.

Pass-happy, high-octane offenses are also potentially harder to maintain in this part of the country than in the south or the west given the unpredictable weather over the last half of the regular season, making the creation of a solid if not dominant defense a must for any Big Ten team with aspirations beyond a mid-tier bowl game.

“I don’t know if you can have great football teams without great defenses. They sort of go hand in hand. You’ve got to be able to play defense, tackle well, apply pressure and all these different things that go along with it,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who’s trying to restore the Spartans defense among the national elite after a few years of uncharacteristic vulnerability.

“We’re still in that phase of seeing who we are right now, so I’m not counting us into that category yet. I think there’s still some things that we need to prove, but we’re playing hard and we’re playing with confidence.”

Whatever the reasons, Big Ten teams are as serious about and successful on defense as any conference, if not the industry leader.

The conference has five of the top 15 of the 130 FBS teams in yards allowed per game: Michigan (No. 1), Wisconsin (No. 4), Michigan State (No. 5), Minnesota (No. 12) and Penn State (No. 13).

The league also accounts for six of the top 25 in points allowed per game: Penn State (No. 3), Michigan and Wisconsin (tied for No. 8), Minnesota (No. 11), Ohio State (No. 16) and Michigan State (No. 21).

There are individual standouts, too, undoubtedly bound for the NFL draft that Fitzgerald never experienced. Though an imperfect, shallow measure, there were two Big Ten defensive players taken in the first round when Fitzgerald was eligible in 1997. This year, there were six.

Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell could be next, thanks to exceptional vision on the field and a relentless inner drive.

“You can’t measure at the combine those types of things, but there is something there,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s probably why we almost blew it in recruiting on him. We weren’t seeing it. But when you get on the field with the guys ... he’s going a little quicker than maybe he should be.”