- Created on 02 January 2013
(AP) — The Northwestern Wildcats spent so much time celebrating on the field that coach Pat Fitzgerald finally had to order them into the locker room.
He had something special waiting for them — a stuffed monkey.
It was the same one that went with them to the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season and had become a symbol of the program's decades-long, bowl losing streak.
Fitzgerald turned his players loose on the plush toy and they destroyed it.
It was their reward for beating Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl and snapping college football's longest postseason drought. The 21st-ranked Wildcats (10-3) hadn't won a bowl game since 1949, a nine-game skid that was tied with Notre Dame for the longest in NCAA history.
It's history now.
"We've never been here before, but now we're here and here to stay with a new streak you can talk about in a positive fashion," Fitzgerald said.
Quentin Williams returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the game and Nick VanHoose set up another touchdown with a 39-yard interception return in the fourth. Those plays were the difference in a back-and-forth game that featured more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six).
In between, Northwestern's two-quarterback system kept the Bulldogs (8-5) off balance most of the day.
Starter Kain Colter ran for 71 yards, making up for his two interceptions. Backup Trevor Siemian threw for 120 yards and an interception, and also ran for a score.
Even with the turnovers, they were more efficient than Mississippi State's Tyler Russell.
Russell completed 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards, with two touchdowns and a career-high four interceptions. He had only thrown six picks in the first 11 games this season.
He threw interceptions on Mississippi State's first two possessions and tossed another one early in the second quarter. After falling behind 13-0, Russell settled down and got the Bulldogs back in the game.
"I talked to him going into the locker room after the third pick, said 'Go into the locker room, splash some water on your face, readjust your pads and forget that you came out to start the game,'" said coach Dan Mullen, whose team lost five of its final six games. "'Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.'"
It worked as Mississippi State tied the game at 13 in the third quarter.
On the other sideline, there had to be some sense of panic. After all, the Wildcats had blown three double-digit leads in the second half of all three of their losses this season. They surrendered big leads against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. So that 'here-we-go-again' feeling easily could have taken over when Mississippi State seized momentum.
But the Wildcats didn't flinch. They responded with Siemian directing a 76-yard drive that put NU up for good. Tyris Jones bowled in from 3 yards out.
Siemian added a 4-yard TD run — set up by Colter's 31-yard scamper — that made it 27-13 with 26 seconds remaining in the third. That came after Russell's fourth pick, the one VanHoose grabbed near midfield.
"I feel like a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders," Colter said.
The Wildcats spent the final 1:42 celebrating the program's first postseason victory since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
They doused Fitzgerald with a water bucket, and when the game ended, they danced at midfield and then ran toward the stands to recognize friends, family and fans. Fitzgerald playfully directed the band as it belted out the alma mater.
"This one goes to all the Wildcats that have been here before us," Fitzgerald said. "They've paved the way for us. ... The sky is the limit for where our program can go. ... We might not be putting the Big Ten championship trophy in our case, but we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today."
The Wildcats donned Gator Bowl championship hats and posed for pictures long after the final seconds ticked off the clock.
"It's just a great feeling," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "It's unreal. It's like we keep saying, we haven't been here before. I'm kind of sad there is no confetti afterwards, but I'll deal with it. It was just good to be out there on the field as long as we wanted to."
A few minutes later, they got to rip the monkey to pieces.
"Every time I think about this, I start to tear up a little bit," said Williams, who also tipped another pass that was intercepted. "This is just a fantastic happening for our school. We've worked so hard to get to this point and it paid off. I've been here for five years and to finally get a win is just amazing."
- Created on 31 December 2012
(AP) — Jay Cutler led the Chicago Bears to victory, then uttered three words that must have felt awkward coming out of his mouth.
"Go Pack Go," he said.
It was no use.
Chicago kept its playoff hopes alive — but only momentarily. The Bears beat the Detroit Lions 26-24 on Sunday, then were eliminated from postseason contention when Minnesota edged Green Bay 37-34 to earn the final NFC wild card.
The Bears (10-6) needed a Minnesota loss to reach the playoffs. Instead, they became only the second club since the postseason expanded to 12 teams to miss out after a 7-1 start, according to STATS. The other was Washington in 1996.
The Lions (4-12) lost their last eight games and turned the ball over four times in the finale. Calvin Johnson fell short in his attempt to become the first player with 2,000 yards receiving in a season.
Minnesota played Green Bay as part of the later session of Sunday afternoon games. As players watched on TV, there were some quiet groans in the Chicago locker room after the Vikings scored an early touchdown.
"It's just aggravating to have to wait and see what has to go down," running back Matt Forte said. "We took care of our part, so that's all we can bank on right now."
The game ended up going down to the wire, and the Bears didn't get the help they needed from the rival Packers. That kept Chicago out of the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
"Of course, I think we're moving in the right direction," coach Lovie Smith said in an interview with Chicago's WFLD-TV after the Bears were eliminated. "A lot of times you talk about the five out of six. To me, you count all of the years, all nine of the years. You talk about the last three or so. The last three — disappointing last year, disappointing this year. But a 10-6 season normally gets you in and we just didn't do enough."
Chicago was almost knocked out of the playoff picture by the Lions. Detroit trailed 20-3 late in the first half but pulled within two in the fourth quarter and had the ball at its own 9-yard line before a three-and-out forced a punt.
The Bears ran out the last 3:40, with Cutler's 19-yard run on third down keeping the drive going. The Chicago quarterback threw for 257 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson, who broke Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 yards receiving the previous weekend, finished at 1,964 after catching five passes for 72 yards.
"It's hard to shut down Calvin Johnson, but we just put as many guys as we possibly could on him," Smith said. "We doubled him a lot, and we were always rolling extra guys at him. We didn't want to get anything deep; we wanted him to earn everything he got underneath."
Detroit's Matthew Stafford went 24 of 42 for 272 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He finished the season with an NFL-record 727 pass attempts, surpassing Drew Bledsoe's mark of 691 from 1994.
Stafford fell short of a second consecutive 5,000-yard season, finishing at 4,967 through the air.
It was a surprising fall for the Lions, who made the playoffs last season for the first time in a dozen years. Coach Jim Schwartz wouldn't address speculation about his job status.
"The thing I'm most concerned with is getting this team back to where we all want it to be," he said. "I'm not proud at all of our record."
The Lions scored two straight touchdowns to make it 20-17 in the third quarter, but Chicago, which came into the game with a league-high 40 takeaways, forced another key turnover.
Stafford's fumble gave the Bears the ball at the Detroit 13. It was the fourth time the Bears started a drive inside the Detroit 25, and they ended up kicking a field goal.
Olindo Mare added another field goal, a 20-yarder with 10:47 left in the fourth, to make it 26-17. Stafford's 9-yard touchdown pass to Brian Robiskie pulled Detroit closer, but it wasn't enough.
Cutler threw a 55-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery to the Detroit 27 on Chicago's first play from scrimmage, delighting the many Chicago fans in attendance at Ford Field. But that drive stalled, and the Bears actually had to punt after Cutler fumbled on third down and the ball was recovered back at midfield.
After the Lions kicked a field goal, Chicago struck back when Cutler swung a pass out to Earl Bennett, who made the catch behind the line of scrimmage, got a block and outran the defense for a surprisingly easy 60-yard touchdown.
Joique Bell fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, and the Bears kicked a field goal. In the second quarter, Stafford fumbled deep in his own territory. Julius Peppers recovered for Chicago, and his short return gave the Bears the ball at the 10.
Forte scored on a 1-yard run to make it 17-3.
The Lions weren't done giving the ball away. Tim Jennings picked off Stafford's overthrown pass, and his 31-yard return to the Detroit 23 set up another field goal.
Stafford's 25-yard scoring pass to Kris Durham with 12 seconds left in the half made it 20-10, and he threw a 10-yarder in the third to Will Heller.
- Created on 26 December 2012
(AP) — Omer Asik enjoyed his trip back to Chicago. And he got help from James Harden and Jeremy Lin.
Asik returned to the United Center and had a double-double with 20 points and 18 rebounds to lead the Houston Rockets to a 120-97 win over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night.
It was his first trip to Chicago since signing with the Rockets in the offseason.
"Omer is a big-time player in the middle," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "Tonight he was blocking shots, getting rebounds, and outletting the ball for us. He's got a big body and sets wide picks for us. This was a very good game for him."
Harden scored 26 points and Lin added 20 points and 11 assists for Houston, which had all five starters score in double figures.
Chandler Parsons scored 23 points and Marcus Morris had 10.
Houston has won six of seven.
The Rockets had been just 3-7 on the road entering Tuesday, but a strong second quarter turned the holiday matchup into a blowout. The Rockets outscored the Bulls 31-19 in the period to break the game open.
Lin capped a 14-2 run midway through the quarter with a drive and a layup to make it 55-34. He scored 12 in the second quarter and Harden had 13.
Houston led 58-41 at halftime.
"We are a very young team, but are continuing to learn and believe in our system," McHale said.
Nate Robinson led the Bulls with 27 points, and Marco Belinelli scored 15.
Houston entered the game tops in the league in scoring at 105.4 points per game, while Chicago allowed the third-fewest in the league at 91.
Houston, though, was not slowed at all.
The Rockets pushed the pace and shot well against Chicago's defense. The Rockets outscored the Bulls 66-32 in the paint and 31-8 in transition. Their largest lead was 35 points.
The 120 points allowed and 23-point loss were season-worsts for the Bulls.
The Turkish-born Asik spent his first two years in the NBA with Chicago. He signed a three-year, $25 million offer sheet with the Rockets this summer that the Bulls did not match.
He entered the game averaging 10.6 points and 11.4 rebounds, and put together perhaps his best game of the season.
Asik received a round of applause when he was introduced at the beginning of the game, but the hospitality didn't last. He quickly heard jeers when he stepped to the free throw line early in the first quarter.
"I'm just happy we won the game," Asik said.
He added he did not think much about his return to Chicago.
"He was great just rolling to the basket," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "They played four out and one in and he was able to get a lot of easy things around the rim."
Harden, fourth in the league in scoring, followed up two strong performances — 37 points against Detroit and 45 against Atlanta — with another strong game. He was 7 for 13 from the field and 11 for 13 from the free throw line.
Houston improved to 11-2 against the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls had won nine of 13 to climb into first place in the Eastern Conference's Central Division, but were flat for the second consecutive game. Chicago lost 92-75 Saturday in Atlanta.
Boos came down from the United Center crowd when Asik scored to make it 82-51 in the third quarter.
"If you are not right and don't have an edge, you are not going to win without the right amount of intensity," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "They completely outplayed us from the start."
Chicago cut the Houston lead to 100-85 with just under eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, but a 6-0 Rockets' run ended the rally.
- Created on 28 December 2012
(AP) — Bears linebacker Lance Briggs insisted all he's thinking about is Chicago beating the Detroit Lions and reaching the playoffs.
The idea that this could be the last go-around with his coaches and some teammates?
The seven-time Pro Bowler said he's not thinking about what might happen if the Bears (9-6) lose Sunday at Detroit. They're in danger of missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, and even if they beat the Lions, they would need help from rival Green Bay.
If they don't reach the postseason, there is speculation that coach Lovie Smith could be gone. Brian Urlacher has an expiring contract and might be on his way out, too, but Briggs wasn't thinking about those possibilities.
"My job right now is to focus on beating the Detroit Lions," he said Thursday. "I think that's what all of our jobs are right now. That's what we need to focus on — trying to get ourselves into the postseason."
These are awkward times for the Bears. They're in a situation they never would have envisioned after a 7-1 start, trying to slip into the playoffs and in need of a big assist even if they do their part against the Lions. They would also need Green Bay to beat or tie Minnesota. Chicago could also get in with a tie if the Packers beat the Vikings, but if they don't make it, there's a feeling that an era could be ending.
If management is ready to pull the plug on Smith, special teams coordinator Dave Toub urged them to reconsider.
"Lovie's a great coach," he said. "He needs to stay here."
If the speculation is bothering Smith, Toub doesn't see it.
"He's been steady," Toub said. "We've been very lucky — the Chicago Bears are very lucky — to have Lovie Smith. You better realize that. Everybody better realize that."
It's not just Smith's job possibly on the line. The rest of the staff could be gone, too, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said he's not worrying about that. He sees a game coming up that the Bears can't afford to lose. He sees a once-promising season coming down to this — one final chance — and sees no time to worry about the what-ifs.
"To me, it's not difficult at all," he said. "You've got a job at hand, do your job. Do what men are supposed to do."
But what about human nature?
"You take human nature, I take a man's responsibility," Marinelli said.
Offensive coordinator Mike Tice seems to be taking more of a Zen-like approach. If he's feeling more pressure, he's keeping it to himself.
"That would be bad because then the guys would think I'm uptight," he said. "So I don't want to be uptight. That's the worst thing that I can be is uptight."
He paused, smiled and added: "I have to come up with some new material."
Briggs put in a plug for Smith and said the players want to win this one for him. More than that, though, he doesn't want to see the wrecking ball hit the Bears.
"More than just Lovie," he said. "You want to win it for us. Win it for us. If you've enjoyed your time here in Chicago and the way that Lovie has treated you and us together and this camaraderie that we have then win for that. If Lovie is not here, that goes — that goes with him. I've enjoyed every moment of being here, here in Chicago. And I don't intend on that changing. So it's time to go out and beat Detroit, and then we'll pull for the Packers."
- Created on 24 December 2012
(AP) — Of course the defense made the plays that mattered most for Chicago. These are, after all, the Bears.
Charles Tillman returned an interception 10 yards for a score and Zack Bowman returned a fumble 1 yard for another TD in the Bears' 28-13 victory over the punchless Cardinals on Sunday to keep Chicago's playoff hopes alive.
It was the third pick Tillman has brought back for a touchdown this season and the eighth overall by Chicago, one shy of the NFL record. Julius Peppers had three of the Bears' four sacks.
"Defensively we asked them to take over and play the way they have been capable of doing," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. "Of course, how we played early, taking the ball away specifically, is what I am talking about. It was an added bonus getting a couple of scores."
Brandon Marshall caught six passes for 68 yards and a TD, breaking the Bears' franchise record for yards receiving in a season in the process.
Chicago (9-6) snapped a three-game losing streak and won for just the second time in seven tries. The Cardinals (5-10) lost for the 10th time in 11 games.
To make the postseason as a wild card, the Bears must win at Detroit in their regular-season finale next Sunday, then have Minnesota lose to Green Bay.
"I can't even state how big this is. It is either win or you are done," Peppers said. "We can't control what happens next week with other teams, but if we don't win today, we don't have a shot."
Matt Forte gained 88 yards in 12 carries, including a 4-yard TD run for Chicago before aggravating a right ankle injury and leaving early in the second half.
Jay Cutler completed just one of his first 11 passes, then went 5 of 5 on a touchdown drive in the final minutes of the first half. He finished 12 of 26 for 146 yards and a touchdown.
The Cardinals, with the NFL's worst offense, continued to search for someone to move the ball.
After he threw the interception to Tillman that put Chicago up 28-6 on Arizona's first offensive series after halftime, rookie Ryan Lindley was benched in favor of Brian Hoyer, claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh 13 days earlier.
"It's obviously not ideal, but football is football,'" said Hoyer, who spent three seasons as a backup in New England. "You just want to go out and play the best you can and definitely improve off of this and just try to make the most of the opportunity."
Hoyer completed 11 of 19 passes for 105 yards and one interception. Kelvin Hayden picked off his pass late in the game and returned it 39 yards to the Arizona 10.
But Adrian Wilson, the 12-year NFL veteran who might have been playing his last home game for the Cardinals, blocked Olindo Mare's 20-yard field goal try and Justin Bethel returned it 82 yards with 1:46 to play for the Cardinals' lone TD.
Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald caught eight passes for 111 yards, just his second 100-yard receiving game of the season. The first was in Week 3 against Philadelphia when the Cardinals were headed to a 4-0 start.
"It's been a long season, man," Fitzgerald said. "Whenever I can make a play and make an impact, I try to do it. Today some things opened up. We were able to make some plays. But it didn't equate to a win, so it's all for nothing."
Marshall made a diving grab of Cutler's long pass at the Arizona 14 early in the game, but Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose own job status is uncertain, threw the challenge flag. After the video review, the pass was ruled incomplete.
No matter, the Bears scored a moment later anyway.
Chicago pinned the Cardinals deep and, on second-and-11 from the 3, Beanie Wells' right knee gave way and he dropped the ball as he went backside first to the ground. Bowman grabbed it and skidded over the goal line for the first touchdown for the Bears' defense since Nov. 4.
Jay Feely's 49-yard field goal cut it to 7-3.
But Forte rambled 36 yards on the final play of the first quarter and Cutler threw 30 yards to Marshall to the Arizona 4 — the quarterback's first completion of the game in seven throws. Forte carried it in from there and Chicago led 14-3.
Chicago gave Arizona another chance when Dave Zastudil's punt careened off the Bears' D.J. Moore. The Cardinals recovered at the 36, leading to Feely's 35-yard field goal that cut the lead to 14-6.
With no timeouts and after completing just one of his first 11 passes, Cutler went 5-for-5, capped by an 11-yarder to a wide-open Marshall with 19 seconds left in the half.
"We were really struggling and got into a two-minute situation and guys were still working to get open," Cutler said. "They made some great catches for me. It wasn't the best game. It wasn't the prettiest game, but we got done what we needed to get done."