Sports NewsMayfield's Mutterings: Fall frenzy

Fall frenzy

By Jeff Mayfield

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[September 13, 2008]  This time of year truly is a frenzy, but it will always be one of my favorite times of the year nonetheless. The start of football, baseball pennant races heating up, and with basketball waiting in the wings on deck, what's not to like? In a word ... plenty. I really wanted to see our Railers get off to a good start this season. Hopefully there's still time to get something done out on the gridiron.

InsuranceThen there was the Illini loss to Ol' Mizzou. As an eyewitness, I thought Missouri looked like a top-five team in the country and Illinois came up a little short. I'm sure our local Tiger fans are enjoying their braggin' rights. However, there were a lot of hopeful signs, as the Illini's furious second-half comeback attempt pointed toward, but the defense will have to get a lot better for this team to take a big step forward.

Also on the football front was Chicago's shocking victory over the Colts. I gotta tell you... I didn't see that one coming. I'm still not sure what happened.

And of course, there are the baseball pennant races. I told our own Greg Taylor not to worry when his beloved Cubs went into a late-season funk. That's why I have always said that you need to build a cushion because anything can happen. They've got enough of a buffer to hold off the Brewers, but what about those stinkin', surging Astros? Hopefully, the White Sox will be able to hang on, but they're making me very nervous!

All this and more in this edition of the... Mutterings...


Illini analysis

I didn't see last week's win over EIU, but I did witness the Missouri game at the ED. Probably the most troubling development to this reporter was the overall poor execution and play of the Illini defense. There were several breakdowns. There didn't seem to be great outside containment. Guys were not flying to the ball. Mizzou converted first downs at will and seemed to have no trouble mounting a drive whenever they wanted to. The hardest thing to watch was our inability to tackle. Arm tackles, matador moves, lack of marking receivers are just a few of the things I noticed, and I'm nowhere near an expert on the defensive side of the ball. I do know that when you give up big plays and lots of them, it makes it harder to win football games.

I think the effort was there, but I can't put my finger on what all the problems were. Coach Zook sure was mad and disappointed after the game. He said these problems can be fixed... I sure hope he is right. A lot of work needs to be done.

By saying all this, I realize that some will think that I'm not giving the Tigers their due. Au contrair, mademoiselle. Chase Daniel is one of the best college QBs in the country and you'll see him in New York as one of the Heisman Trophy finalists. But that doesn't mean you run away from him ... and it doesn't mean that you fail to pick up receivers just because they have five of them running patterns all over the field! Somebody stopped them. They weren't undefeated last season, were they?

That was the thing that discouraged me. We had the whole offseason to come up with a strategy to stop them ... or to at least contain them. Surely we looked at film on what Oklahoma did to them? If you don't remember, I do. The Sooners dropped them 41-31 halfway through last season and then tamed them again 38-17 in the Big 12 championship game. If we would've held them to either of those point totals ... well, you know. It just didn't look like we had a solid plan. And I know they're good and they're multifaceted, but I was just looking for a few guys to make some plays. I expected so much more!

To the Illini's credit, they did play a little better in the second half. That gives me some hope for the future. But if we're gonna beat the top teams in the Big Ten, we'll have to play lots better than we did in St. Louie.


On the offensive side of the ball, there were some things to like. I really like the way Juice Williams has improved. His passing was as good as I've seen it. He could still adjust his touch from time to time and maybe stay focused on deep, open receivers a smidgen longer, but I'm working hard here to be picky. You couple his improved passing ability with his lights-out ability to break down defenses when he's running the ball, and the Illini may have something.

I still think that our running backs will have to come up big to free up Juice to the ultimate. And then, of course, our special teams will literally have to be special all year for Illinois to approximate the overall success they enjoyed last season.

I'm probably a lot more worried than Illinois players are ... but, our road schedule looks like it was put together by our friends in Indiana or Iowa. Why does it always seem like we get the harder schedules than our Big Ten brethren? Greg says that we improved a lot from Week 1 to Week 2, so I'm gonna take his word for it. Let's hope for continued progress in the weeks ahead.

Bears' big-time effort

I thought the Bears beat the Colts in every phase of the game (save Devin Hester's little hiccup out of the end zone) ... and, as I said earlier, I didn't see it coming. Nothing I saw, read or heard in the preseason led me to believe that the Bears had in effort in them like that. Nothing I saw last season led me to believe that the Bears could even play at that level.

I thought Matt Forte was huge! Even bigger than the media made him out to be. He was solid, he was sure, and he was a threat. That enabled Kyle Orton to "manage the game" better. And if someone ever utters that phrase to me verbally, I might instinctively punch him in the mouth. I hate that philosophy ... I was never taught it, and when I've seen it played out in the past, it has always repulsed me. I grew up on Sid Gilman, Tom Flores and John Madden throwing caution to the wind and attacking teams for 60 minutes a game. Veteran QB or rookie, they came at you from all angles trying to keep you on your defensive heels the entire contest. I believe that's the way the game must be played. You can't yell at Bear QBs the past several seasons when the very philosophy that is being preached is the one that leads players to be tentative, unsure and ultimately does not give them a fair chance to live up to their potential. There, I said it... I'm probably wrong, since no NFL team is contacting me to be their QB coach or offensive coordinator, but I just despise that "manage the game" approach. If you play my team, we're coming after you the whole time!


I thought the Bears did that better than they have since 1985! Where was that effort last year? Where was it the year before or even in the Super Bowl? That kind of effort can win you some football games, and Bears fans everywhere have to be downright giddy about that performance!

The big question I have for you Bear fans is this: Did the Bears just man-up because they were embarrassed last year and in their Super game with the Colts? Or, are they capable of this kind of inspired play on a regular basis? I guess time will tell...

Cubs, Brewers still in the driver's seat

Though both teams have been in a little funk of late, I believe that they will both make the playoffs. This is why I said this summer that the Cards would have to keep it close to have a chance in the end... They didn't and they probably don't. I still tip my cap to Don Tony for an amazingly entertaining run in a throwaway season, but I think Cardinal fans deserve more than that. Why management didn't go out and get Tony some help when they made an amazing summer surge, I'll never know.

Since we talked about philosophies earlier, we might interject one here as well. I'm not the sharpest sports commentator in the country. But I am smart enough to know this: When you have a chance to win and get into the postseason, you better grab it with both hands. I've lived long enough to hear lots of plans of how teams were gonna build a program or a franchise to win over the long term and cashed in a chance to win in the present ... only, never to return to the cusp of the playoffs again. So, while I know the Cards took an improbable 2006 world championship out of thin air, can't we go for more? Thank you, sir. May I have another ... "works real well for me"? Once I truly discovered the business of baseball, and the business of sports for that matter, a big part of me died inside! Oh, well. It's just a game, right?

I am still hoping that the White Sox can somehow hold on, but can you believe those pesky Twins? How do they do it? I'm really happy to see local area product Jim Thome having a fantastic second half for the Pale Hose! If he isn't a Hall of Famer, they oughta close the place down!

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Late season funks

It must be a lot harder to seal the deal than one might think. Just think of the teams that went through late-season funks over just the last few seasons. The White Sox went through one on their way to the 2005 title. The Cardinals went through a horrible two-week stretch during the last part of September on their way to the 2006 crown! And I could go on and on. That's why I told Mr. Taylor not to worry. It's what you do in October that matters most ... if you get there!

This and that

Baseball needs to go back to having divisional teams playing each other a lot in September. You can't gain nearly as much ground when you stop playing each other in midsummer. Not the smartest development I've ever seen.

This is the 10th anniversary of Mark McGwire's shattering of Roger Maris' home run record. I know I'm a tired vinyl record on this subject, but McGwire deserves the accolades. During the summer of 1998, baseball was in a death spiral. It can be argued that he and Sammy Sosa (I don't understand all the hate toward him either) literally and figuratively saved the game. Baseball is as healthy now as ever, and a lot of that can be traced right back to Sosa and McGwire.

However, baseball media, especially sports writers, are judge and jury, keeping McGwire out of Cooperstown mostly because they can. They keep pointing to the character and integrity parts of the HOF admission clause. That's funny because I remember McGwire admitting to the use of andro, and if memory serves, it wasn't an illegal substance in MLB at the time. But in some ways that's beside the point. Have you looked at the names of the people enshrined in the Hall? I've been to Cooperstown so, yes, I have. I've read their bios. Many of the players who have been selected surely had lots of help meeting the character and integrity clauses. Many Hall of Famers are not choirboys, my friends. I'm quite sure that McGwire can hold his own -- tit for tat, as it were -- with the majority of the enshrinees.

Another point to consider is that, unlike the vast majority of the players suspected of juicing and then watching their stat numbers improve, McGwire was belting prodigious homers SINCE his rookie season (49, I think, to be exact) ... and long before all the hate came down. So, if you don't like him, just be honest and say so; don't penalize him for it.

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They say he just should've come clean in the now famous or infamous congressional hearing. What? Have you ever been interrogated? How does one succeed when they've been publicly accused? I'm not sure I've ever seen a case where total success has been achieved in that regard. Not in the sports world, or any court for that matter. In light of Roger Clemons' recent escapades and the fates of several other athletes worldwide, I think McGwire might be looking smarter all the time. And do you really think he came up with that plan by himself? He's a decent and intelligent guy, but you have to believe that a lawyer or team of lawyers briefed him on how to handle that inquisition from the word go.

They say you can tell a lot about a man by his friends or what his friends say about him. Uniformly around baseball, all you hear are players talking about what a great man McGwire is. If he's such a rat, would players go to him for help or even associate with him? I think not. I'm not a member of his legal team (though I'd love to play one if they ever make a made-for-TV movie of his life), and I have no association with him whatsoever. BUT, if it was in my power, I would mount the hugest Hall of Fame campaign ever for this man.

I went to many of the games in 1998 (and the years before and after). He was great with the kids. His batting practice shows were the best ever (in the modern era at least). Today's players owe a huge debt to McGwire. And today's baseball writers owe a huge debt to him as well! If not for him, they might not even have their jobs today! Is Mark McGwire perfect? I hardly think so. But, is he Hall of Fame worthy? ... Without a doubt! If they ever give us true sports writers a chance, he'll get my vote ... not just because of his awesome power numbers, but because he helped save the game I love!


Wie goes back to school

Michelle Wie will no longer receive sponsor exemptions, so she will be going to the LPGA qualifying school. Here's hoping that she does well. I know that some golfers, some media members and some fans don't like her because she has gotten kind of a free pass into these events. They also don't like her entering men's tournaments, and they certainly don't like the fact that brings home a cool $5 million a year in endorsement deals. But what's not to like? She does have some meddling parents, but so do a lot of people. She certainly has the talent, and I think she has the moxie to really help that tour be a better draw. I salute her and wish her well... Wonder if she needs an agent?

Officiating question

I love watching nonconference games between colleges from different conferences, especially power conferences. When teams play each other every year, they rotate officials from their respective conferences. Sounds like a good idea on the surface maybe... but, is it really? I don't think so!

Since I have no allegiances to the ACC and the SEC, let's use them for an example. Say a team from each leagues plays each other every year. Say the two teams are Duke and Georgia. My question is this: Why would you put refs from either league in a situation like this? If the SEC officiating crew calls too many penalties on Duke, people (other than Georgia fans) are upset because they think the SEC refs are homers. But on the other hand, if they call more penalties on Georgia or just ref the game in such a way that they even seem a little harsher with Georgia than they are with Duke, then the Bulldog fans are upset. When I say harsher, I mean ... when Georgia has the ball, they speed up play, start the play clock immediately; when Duke has the ball, they take their time putting the ball back in play so that no one can say that they're favoring Georgia.

I've watched this scenario for years, and I have a suggestion. Couldn't a Big East or Big Ten crew be more neutral in a situation like this? I know this suggestion just makes too much sense, but c'mon... They're always saying they want to do things for the good of the game... Well, here's one thing they could do.

One more tiny little suggestion ... and if they already do this, I apologize for my lack of knowledge (this isn't the only area that I have a lack of knowledge in). I would like to see football officials from across the nation have at least one mandatory meeting a year where they all get together. I'd like for them to show highlights of good calls and horrible calls. I'd like them to also stage many hypothetical calls. They could do the same thing with replay calls. I think it would really help the game.


And of course, you can only dream that they would implement this same idea for basketball officiating.

Tiger withdrawal

I don't like watching PGA events without Tiger ... but I would like to see the U.S. team surprise in the Ryder Cup... I think that will be a tall order.

Serena and Roger

Serena Williams and Roger Federer are your U.S. Open tennis champions. Not much seems to be changing in the tennis world.

Finally, the conclusion...

There's a lot more stuff happening, but I'm worn out. We'll talk some area hoops next time and handicap the MLB playoff contenders. Until then, have a great month, everybody!


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