Chicago Colleges: Big Ten
Paul (Washington, DC): Who will have a better year next year? Michigan or Michigan State?
Austin Ward: I haven't seen any developments since the end of the season that would convince me Michigan is going to be better off than Michigan State next year. The Wolverines signed a better recruiting class based on the rankings, but that roster was in much more need of an upgrade than the one that just helped the Spartans win the league and the Rose Bowl. Certainly there's a lot of defensive talent to replace, but the cupboards aren't bare and that is one of the most well-coached units in the entire country in my opinion. I'm not sold on Michigan's hire at OC, either.
Pete (Eau Claire): In Brian's last chat, he stated he felt that Wisconsin playing LSU in the season opener makes it more likely that Stave would start since Coach Anderson would not want an inexperienced QB to face that opponent. I think he's 100% wrong because LSU as the opponent makes it is more likely Stave is on the bench. Stave has shown repeatedly he is incapable of beating a quality opponent. To do that, Wisconsin needs a QB who can make big plays and extend plays with his legs. If Wisconsin trots out Stave against LSU, UW will lose another close game. If Stave is on the bench, UW will have a shot. LSU knows what Stave does and can plan accordingly. With Stave on the bench, LSU won't know what to expect and UW will have the element of surprise. Better to go with the unknown that gives you a shot at victory than repeat the same close losses with Stave.
Austin Ward: I'm with Brian on this one, Pete -- at least for the moment. There's a lot of time between now and that game, and perhaps the Badgers will see something that changes their mind during spring practice or fall camp. But throwing an inexperienced quarterback out against a tenacious defense like LSU's for his first start is not a recipe for success, regardless of the element of surprise. The Tigers aren't likely to be caught off guard by anybody Wisconsin trots on the field under center, and a new starter is almost certain to be overwhelmed by the speed of that defense, the game and the early stakes.
Keith (Ohio): One thing I've always wondered is why the 2-3 star recruit (on as scale of 1-5) chooses attending schools like Ohio State and sit the bench for 4 years when they could play for a MAC team and maybe be a star? Ever here any discussions of that?
Austin Ward: That depends entirely on the individual, Keith, because there are definitely a number of kids who make that choice to drop down a level and get more playing time. For others, the chance to get an education at a school like Ohio State or Michigan while trying to get on the field in the Big Ten means more than getting the chance to shine elsewhere. It all comes down to personal preference.
GBK (Lincoln Park): Mark it down: Chicago will never get the Big 10 title game as long it continues to have the worst field in all of NCAA/NFL football.
Austin Ward: That is a factor that would have to be considered, GBK, but it could be outweighed by everything else Chi-town could offer the league in terms of exposure, dollars, ease of travel, hotels, etc. Personally, I think ensuring the best possible experience for fans has to be balanced with giving the players both safety and the chance to play their best game, which is why I'm not opposed to a city like Detroit being in the mix thanks to its dome. But, again, I think the game could stay in Indy forever and there wouldn't be any reason to complain.
Concerned Brutus (Woody Hayes Atheltic Center): Austin, straightforward question here: Now that signing day is over and given all the new recruits, which overall position group needs to develop faster for the upcoming season - Offensive Line or Secondary/Linebackers?
Austin Ward: Brutus, there is absolutely no question that the linebackers at Ohio State have to come along the quickest if the program is going to compete for a national title again next season. The loss of Ryan Shazier is obviously significant, and replacing him is no small task to be sure. I am curious to how exactly the Buckeyes are planning to fill that void, because the two most touted guys they've signed over the last two years, Mike Mitchell and Raekwon McMillan, both project as inside linebackers. Curtis Grant is already in the middle, though it wouldn't be a stretch to think he could be passed on the depth chart by one of them depending on how the spring shakes out. The secondary, even without [Bradley] Roby, [C.J.] Barnett and [Christian] Bryant, has plenty of talent. And I think the offensive line is in pretty decent shape, even if it will be largely inexperienced.
It was last Thursday or Friday, with several of his position coaches on the road to recruit as Nebraska progressed through a bye week. Pelini, the head coach of six years and a former defensive coordinator, met with his linebackers and defensive backs to review practice from the previous day.
They talked long and hard about the mistakes, much of it the same stuff that has plagued the Huskers through four games to the tune of 25 first downs allowed per outing, 463 yards and a field goal short of 30 points.
“The exact same things we talked about,” Pelini said. “It came back to eye discipline. It came back to reading your keys. It came back to your focus. It’s why you have to keep putting them through it.
“That’s why every single day and every single rep are important.”
His point? There’s no replacement for experience.
The Nebraska defenders don’t have much of it. Their opponent on Saturday is led by a quarterback with a career full of experience -- good, bad and downright miserable.
Senior Nathan Scheelhaase, the fourth-year Fighting Illini starter, owns an edge in the Big Ten opener for both teams over the Nebraska defense in a category that remains out of the Huskers’ control.
Only time can close the experience gap for Pelini’s youthful defenders. And time, it seems, is running thin for the Blackshirts, with three October games to grow up before a difficult November stretch arrives.
For now, it’s about surviving Scheelhaase, the one-time Husker recruiting prospect out of Kansas City, Mo., who has enjoyed a rebirth this season in operating the Illinois offense.
Scheelhaase versus the Nebraska defense: the matchup appears one-sided in favor Illinois. How it unfolds on Saturday will loom large in the Illini’s upset bid against a Nebraska team that looks vulnerable, in large part, because of its leaky pass defense.
The Huskers have surrendered 284.3 yards per game through the air to rank 105th nationally out of 123 FBS teams. Nebraska ranks 85th in allowing opponents to complete 63 percent of their throws, and Husker foes Wyoming, Southern Miss, UCLA and South Dakota State have averaged 8.42 yards per pass attempt to rank 106th.
“I’m a realist,” Pelini said, “and I knew what we were going to be facing and what we were going to continue to face as the season goes on. I expect us to get better.”
Meanwhile, Scheelhaase averages 9.52 yards per pass attempt to rank 13th nationally. He leads the Big Ten in completions and passing yardage, and his 12 touchdown passes rank second in the league to Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton.
It represents a significant reversal for Scheelhaase, who threw just four touchdown passes, with eight interceptions, a year ago in 10 games as Illinois lost its final eight games under first-year coach Tim Beckman.
New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has helped the QB raise his completion percentage to a career-best 67.2.
In addition to the struggles of 2012, Scheelhaase endured the Illini collapse in 2011, when it started 6-0 but lost six straight to end the regular season, costing coach Ron Zook his job.
Predictably, all of it helped shape the Scheelhaase of today.
“I’ve grown a lot from the good times and the tough times,” he said. “I’ve learned to seize the moment when it’s there. And when you’re playing with a bunch of guys who’ve been through the experience of ups and downs, it really pulls you close together.”
His words offer promise for the Nebraska defense, though not necessarily in the short term.
This is still the group that was gouged for 465 yards, including 227 on the ground, last time out on Sept. 21 by FCS-level SDSU in a 59-20 Husker victory.
Defensive end Randy Gregory, a bright spot amid the lows for the Nebraska defense, said he expects to see a different unit on the field against Illinois than the group that couldn’t stop South Dakota State in the first quarter two weeks ago.
“I hope it’s changed a lot,” Gregory said. “There’s a lot of things we need to focus on and fix. I expect that we’ll have done that.”
For Scheelhaase, moving past Illinois’ offensive failures involved a clean wipe of the slate. The Illini scored more than 20 points just once in Big Ten play last year -- and that came in a 30-point loss to Ohio State.
“Everybody’s put the past in the past,” he said. “It’s behind us. The vibe this year is that we can do a lot more than what people expected us to do. We don’t have to worry about what’s happening on the outside, what people are thinking about us.
“We just have to worry about having great days at practice and playing with confidence on Saturday.”
To avoid a 15th consecutive Big Ten loss, Illinois must beat a team that Scheelhaase has long admired. He was initially offered a scholarship by former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan in 2007. Scheelhaase visited Memorial Stadium for the USC game that year and again for Pelini’s first spring game seven months later.
“It was an honor to get a chance to be recruited by them,” Scheelhaase said.
He said he’s looked forward to Saturday since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011.
“I knew what an exciting experience this would be, not only for me but for my teammates,” he said. “I’ve been telling the guys all week to take in the moment -- take in what’s it all about that.”
Spoken like a man of experience.
His squad had just been routed on its home floor, losing 77-57 to the Maryland Terrapins in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday. The query was whether Northwestern’s loss was anything more significant than an early-season defeat, considering the Terps were the first major-conference opponent the Wildcats had faced after starting the season 6-0.
Maryland, its first major-conference opponent.
“No, it wasn’t,” Sobolewski said. “It was a November game against an ACC team. It’s not the end of the season. We got a lot of work to do for sure, but we’re not going to stop working. If anything, this will make us hungrier to improve in practice. So it was nothing more than a loss in November.”
Some would debate that.
Whether the Wildcats like it, the question that will be associated with them from November until March is whether they are an NCAA tournament-caliber team. They’ve never been to the tournament ... and that, more than ever, is the measuring stick for the program after four consecutive NIT appearances. The question won’t disappear until the goal of an NCAA tourney berth is realized.
From that standpoint, Northwestern didn’t look much like a tournament team on Tuesday. The Wildcats were outscored 49-31 in the second half and outrebounded 47-19, shot 6 of 25 from the 3-point range and allowed 44 points in the paint. And their bench was outscored 23-7.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody understood how one-sided the second half was and got that the Wildcats have to compete with teams like Maryland. But he also remained optimistic they’ll get there.
“We have to be able to play with these guys, especially at home, so I think we’re all disappointed. And we’ll come back out and work hard and get this thing turned around,” Carmody said.
ESPN college basketball analyst Stephen Bardo, who called the game, was more critical of the Wildcats.
“There really wasn’t one thing they did well,” Bardo said. “I think this was a game where anything could go wrong went wrong. It wasn’t necessarily that Maryland is a dominant defensive team; Northwestern just couldn’t get into anything.”
What Northwestern does have in its favor are upcoming games with the Baylor Bears (Dec. 4 in Waco, Texas) and home against the Butler Bulldogs (Dec. 8). The Wildcats’ Big Ten schedule will decide their postseason fate, but both these nonconference games could play a big part, as well.
Baylor has had some early bumps, but it is still a respected program. The Bears will face the Kentucky Wildcats just prior to playing Northwestern. Butler had a strong showing at the Maui Invitational, with wins over the Marquette Golden Eagles and North Carolina Tar Heels.
Bardo thought it was a necessity for Northwestern to defeat Butler and at least compete with Baylor. Last season, the Wildcats lost to Baylor by 28 points in Evanston.
“They’re going to have to do some things if they want to improve their national view,” Bardo said.
While all is certainly not lost with one game in November, the Wildcats now face more of an uphill battle if they’re to reach their ultimate goal.
It’s easy to blame this year’s Illinois team for the state of the program. The current players are the ones wearing the uniforms and representing the school each time they step foot onto the floor.
But all of the frustration with Illinois coach Bruce Weber and the program shouldn’t rest on this group. That’s not fair.
What this squad has or hasn’t accomplished shouldn’t be surprising. The question marks surrounding this team exceeded the answers leading up to the season.
A whole lot had to go right for this team to succeed. Some of it did; some of it didn’t. When you add it all up, this team certainly hasn’t surpassed expectations, but it also hasn’t failed to meet them.
What Illinois is -- a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team and a bubble NCAA tournament team – probably is what it should be.
Here’s a look at expectations leading up to the season and how they’ve actually panned out:
• The expectations placed on Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco were unrealistic. He was expected to arrive to Illinois and become its starting point guard and senior team leader. It was a lot to ask of someone coming off two ankle surgeries in two years, was moving up a level basketball from the Missouri Valley and didn’t have a prior bond with his new teammates. Despite all that, Maniscalco looked as if he might be up for the challenge early in the season while keying a couple wins. But as the season has gone on, Maniscalco’s ankle hasn’t held up, which has led to decreased minutes, less leadership and most recently a lack of confidence.
• Meyers Leonard was expected to go from averaging 2.1 points as a freshman to becoming a superstar as a sophomore. His shoulders are broad, but those expectations were even too much for him carry early in his career. There’s no doubt Leonard has progressed. In spurts, he’s been one of the most dominating big men in the Big Ten. He’s learned to finish around the rim, assert himself in the paint and be a difference-maker on defense. Yet, Leonard remains inconsistent. His effort varies depending on his frustration level and still gets often into foul trouble.
• Hype surrounded Illinois’ incoming freshman class. The six-player class was ranked No. 11 in the country by ESPN. Weber hoped he could turn to a handful of them and be able to go 4-5 players deep into his bench. But while there were four top-100 players arriving, none of them were higher than No. 70. These were players who could be stars down the line, but not the type who could be instant ones. The class has been up and down as one would expect. Tracy Abrams has been the one consistent bright spot. Since Maniscalco’s injury, Abrams took over the starting point guard role and has gradually improved his play. As of late, he’s even become the team’s most vocal player, which may not be great news right now, but should be down the line.
• Weber hoped to get more out of sophomore Joseph Bertrand and junior Tyler Griffey this season. Bertrand answered the call probably more than anyone could have hoped. He showed flashes while in Italy this past summer and was the team’s most consistent player at times this season. Griffey was needed for his shooting because the Illini are not a team of great marksmen. Griffey never found his groove throughout the season and only last week broke out and scored a career-high 18 points on Michigan.
• Expectations for Brandon Paul were to take the next step. And although his shot selection and turnovers can still be frustrating, Paul has developed into one of the Big Ten’s elite players. He’s averaged 19.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks during the Big Ten season. He hasn’t been the reason for Illinois losing.
• D.J. Richardson was expected to be steady, and he’s been that for the most part. His scoring numbers have been down a bit during the Big Ten, but he’s been pretty consistent throughout his career. He’s going to knock down a few 3-pointers, score near double digits and play tough defense for you.
Illinois has seemingly done just enough to get into the NCAA tournament as of today.
The question going forward now that the Big Ten season is nearly halfway through is whether just enough will be just enough for Illinois coach Bruce Weber to retain his job.
Reaching the tournament has traditionally given coaches job security. Going dancing from one of the big six conferences typically requires winning 20-plus games, defeating a few ranked opponents and finishing in the top half of the conference. With those results, a team is typically among the top 30-45 teams in the country.
Weber has accomplished that throughout most of his nine seasons at Illinois. He’s on pace this year to win 20-plus games and finish in the top half of the Big Ten for the eighth time and reach his seventh NCAA tournament.
At most schools, that would be plenty.
At Illinois, the feeling is, it’s not.
The standards for success aren’t the same at Illinois as they are for even most of the Big Ten. The NCAA tournament is currently a benchmark for Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State. If Weber had accomplished what he has at Illinois at any of those schools, he’d be praised.
Those same accomplishments have people calling for his job at Illinois.
Winning is considered the bare minimum in Champaign; Illinois fans are accustomed to it.
Since 1980, Illinois has been one of the most consistent programs in the country.
Lou Henson set the bar by getting the Illini to compete regularly for the Big Ten title and at least get through a few rounds of the NCAA tournament. Eight times Henson’s teams finished in the top 3 of the Big Ten, reached the Sweet 16 four times and made one Final Four appearance. Even in Henson’s last five subpar seasons, Illinois went to three NCAA tournaments.
Lon Kruger followed Henson and reached the NCAA tournament’s second round in three of his four years with the Illini.
Bill Self came next. His tenure showcased the programs true potential. He won two Big Ten championships, finished second once, won six NCAA tournament games and reached the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in three years in Champaign.
Comparably, Weber began his career looking like he was going to carry Self’s torch. The Illini went 26-7 overall, 13-3 in the Big Ten, won the Big Ten and reached the Sweet 16 in Weber’s first year. In his second season, Illinois was 37-2, won the conference and lost in the national championship game to North Carolina.
Since then, Weber and the program have dropped off. In the last seven seasons, Illinois has gone 59-52 in conference, failed to reach the NCAA tournament twice and hasn’t advanced past the second round.
Illinois’ last four coaches have proven the Illini can be among the top 10 programs in the country. What is expected now is for it to be consistently there. By all accounts, Illinois should be in the same sentence with the likes of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio State and Syracuse.
Part of that equation is recruiting. Illinois is as packed any state with high school talent. If you can win Illinois in recruiting, you can compete for a national championship. Kansas won a title with Sherron Collins. Duke won a title with Jon Scheyer. Memphis finished second with Derrick Rose. Kentucky is likely to be near there with Anthony Davis this season. Upcoming recruits Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor could have the same effect.
Which brings us back to the opening question. While Weber has won consistently, won big early in his tenure, but not lately, could his job still be in jeopardy even if Illinois reaches the NCAA tournaments and bows out quickly?
There isn’t much precedent of coaches getting dismissed in tournament seasons. Most coaches who are fired after reaching the NCAA tournament come as a result of a NCAA violation or an off-the-court incident. Bruce Pearl, Bobby Knight, Jim Harrick, Todd Bozeman and Dana Kirk fall into that category.
Former Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio is a rare case. He was fired for not winning enough in the postseason. He reached the NCAA tournament in 2009 and 2010 and won just once.
Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman said then, “This was not a decision based upon a one-year performance. We can put up with a disappointment. We have disappointments all the time. But there is a pattern here that needed to be addressed, a three-year pattern that needed to be addressed.”
Illinois first-year athletic director Mike Thomas has made his expectations clear since he was hired last year. He first said he aiming for conference and national championships and then showed that when he fired Ron Zook because Thomas didn’t feel the football program was headed in that direction.
“I believe we need new leadership to take the program to the level to compete for championships on a consistent basis,” Thomas said then. “This is an extremely competitive conference, and we are determined to go head-to-head with the very best.”
One can only imagine the basketball program will be evaluated in a similar fashion after the season.
All is it not lost, however. Weber still has time to prove himself. Illinois stands 15-5 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten, which puts the Illini in fifth place with 11 conference games and the conference tournament remaining.
If Weber can win big the rest of the way, there’s nothing to worry about. If he doesn’t and exits the NCAA tournament early again, he’ll have to wonder, “Did I do enough?”
Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard was named the Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday.
Leonard averaged 16.5 points, 14.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 blocks and 1.0 steals in Illinois’ 64-60 win over Cornell and 78-74 loss to Missouri last week. He had a career-high 16 rebounds against Cornell.
It was Leonard’s second Big Ten Player of the Week honor. He also received it on Dec. 5.
2) The rush defense is for real: Notre Dame had another dominating performance up front Saturday, limiting the Big Ten's second-ranked rushing offense to 84 yards on 27 carries. This came two weeks after the Irish allowed just 29 rushing yards against Michigan State and one week after holding Pitt's Ray Graham to 89 yards, something that looks like more of accomplishment after Graham exploded for 226 yards Thursday against South Florida.
3) Special teams need to improve. Still: Brian Kelly said Saturday that he didn't want to sound like sour milk when listing what his team could have done better, but the Irish did leave points on the board. David Ruffer, a 2010 Lou Groza Award finalist, missed two field goals. And the punt return experiment once again looked like just that -- an experiment. John Goodman netted -3 yards on two returns and, in a real head-scratcher, watched one ball sail over his head and roll for a 61-yard punt in the first quarter.
4) Penalties still need clearing up: This one gets overshadowed because the Irish didn't turn the ball over, won by 28 points and saw their opponent commit an astounding 13 penalties for 118 yards. But Notre Dame itself committed eight penalties for 85 yards, including an ugly one when long snapper Jordan Cowart got tangled up with several Purdue players on a second-quarter punt. Mental lapses such as these are forgivable against the Boilermakers, not so much against USC or Stanford.
"We won't do anything different," he said in the aftermath of Saturday's win. "We'll keep coaching our guys, we'll demand attention to detail. We do not accept penalties as being part of the game. We demand our guys to pay attention to those things. We'll go back and reiterate the same things over and over again and hope that it turns out better next time."
The mistake-plagued effort was not out of the ordinary for Notre Dame this season, which has had at least eight penalties in three of its four games so far this season. With an average of 7.75 penalties per game, the Fighting Irish are tied for 13th-worst in the nation.
The Irish have been penalized 31 times. Only 10 teams have accumulated more penalty yardage than the 286 Notre Dame has been responsible for, though the Big Ten later acknowledged that T.J. Jones' 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for putting his gloves together after a touchdown in Week 3 should not have been called.
"You have to be confident in yourself," left tackle Zack Martin said. "If you get a penalty here, you can't dwell on it. Just like if your guy makes a tackle or you give up a sack -- the next play you can't sit and think about, 'Oh, I should've done this the last play,' because it's moved on. So that's the biggest thing in the mental game, and I think as you get older and more confident you kind of get past that and can be able to move forward."
Martin, who has three penalties on the season, committed a 15-yard personal-foul penalty late in the third quarter Saturday. The offensive line as a whole committed four of the Irish's eight penalties at Pitt and has 11 on the season.
Playing to the right of Martin, Chris Watt has been flagged just once in his first year as a starter, a false start in Week 2 at Michigan.
The left guard, whom Kelly said has been too aggressive at times, acknowledged the difficulty in maintaining his tenacity while trying to curtail mental mistakes.
"Last week we had a little bit of a problem on penalties on the O-line," Watt said. "So trying to get rid of those and keep those under, hopefully zero this week, would be good. But I haven't had too bad of a penalty yet. I think I had a false start in the Michigan game, so I guess I wouldn't really know how it would affect me yet."
Watt said avoiding getting lazy in practice, such as not holding a defender who gets by him, is a key to eliminating bad habits.
Kelly reiterated his stance earlier this week on maintaining consistency in his message, so long as it yields results.
The head coach's last two teams, Notre Dame in 2010 and Cincinnati in 2009, were the seventh- and 12th-least penalized teams in the nation, respectively.
His five teams before then, however, ranked 68th or lower in penalties, with four of them ranking 94th or lower.
"Well, I think if the message has been, you know, one that has brought success for me within our system and program, that's a message that we'll continue to talk about," Kelly said. "I'm not averse to changing the message if I think it's gonna help our football team. As it relates to penalties, we're simply not gonna allow our kids to feel like they can have a penalty and it's not impactful for what we're doing. We've gotta clean those things up and that's just a matter of discipline, and we'll continue on that road of discipline and attention to detail.
"So my response was pretty much, 'When it comes to penalties, are you an undisciplined team? Are you an undisciplined player?' And I won't tolerate either one of those."
The Fighting Irish walked away from Saturday with win No. 1, 2012 commit No. 15 and 2013 verbal No. 1.
Chris Brown, a three-star receiver out of Hanahan (S.C.) High School, became the Irish's third receiver to join the Class of 2012. The 6-foot-2, 170-pounder is ranked as the 58th best wideout in his class and runs a 4.44 40. He committed Sunday.
Steve Elmer, meanwhile, will add some meat to Notre Dame's offensive line two years from now. He became the Irish's first commit for the Class of 2013 before their 31-13 win against Michigan State on Saturday. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound tackle from Midland (Mich.) High School is one of the top prospects from Michigan in his class. According to our guy Jared Shanker, it would take a major meltdown in South Bend over the next two seasons for the big fella to change his mind.
The only thing missing from this past weekend might have been a commitment from William Mahone, but good things might be on the horizon. Shanker said Mahone, a four-star running back out of Austintown-Fitch (Ohio) High School, loved his visit to Notre Dame so much Saturday that he will pay his way back for the Irish's Oct. 22 primetime showdown against USC.
That weekend will be a huge one for Notre Dame on the recruiting front, especially since it has only one more home game, Oct. 8 against Air Force, before then. Don't be surprised if things are a little quiet for the next month. The week leading up to the Irish's game against the Trojans, however, should be a busy one.
This past Saturday, he saw seven different first-year players take the field at times for Notre Dame, and what they did reminded him how college football has changed in just a short period of time.
"I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshman that we're playing, but times are changing," Kelly said. "College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football."
Freshman George Atkinson III stood out by returning a first-quarter kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. That came one Michigan State possession after rookie Aaron Lynch forced a fumble by sacking Kirk Cousins.
Lynch finished the game with six quarterback hurries, one week after not even seeing the field against Denard Robinson and Michigan.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Lynch acknowledged how much different it was going against Big Ten offensive linemen Saturday, especially since his high school opponents were at times 100 pounds lighter.
Not being able to simply bull rush someone at this level was a rude awakening.
"He gets better with playing more with his technique and then building confidence," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "Buying into what we're coaching hasn't been easy because it hasn't worked for him in practice, because he's not doing it right. So he's back and forth on using the proper technique and not using it. And then in a game he used it and it worked out well and he built confidence on it."
The give and take was fairly simple.
"They told me I wasn't gonna play if I didn't do it right," Lynch said.
As one of five Fighting Irish freshmen who enrolled in the spring, Lynch had a longer time to earn the trust of his coaches.
Kelly credited the strength and conditioning director, Paul Longo, for getting the freshmen physically ready to shorten the learning curve.
"You're looking at Aaron Lynch going against four- and five-year players, and you worry about their physical ability to get in there and mix it up," Kelly said. "But the last four or five years, these guys are weight training all year, nutrition is important to 'em, they're taking care of their bodies, and they're coming in. And Coach Longo said this -- I didn't -- he said this was physically the most impressive group relative to their conditioning level when they came here.
"Usually they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here. They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away."
Even then, however, there is an adjustment period.
Lynch could only go roughly six plays at a time on Saturday, something he acknowledged was difficult, but a feat that also showed how far he had come with one offseason.
"I know before the season started I wouldn't have been able to go six straight plays," he said. "It's kind of hard to do six straight plays now, just going into my first game and actually having to put that pressure on my back. But I feel like just work hard during practice and go to the ball every time you see it, you'll be straight. You won't be really tired, because you got the energy going and adrenaline rushing and stuff like that, so you'll be straight."
Sophomore noseguard Louis Nix, who didn't play last season, had to drop more than 40 pounds before he could take the field for the first time this season.
This past spring, Kelly told him to expect 12-15 snaps per game, and Nix said that wouldn't be good enough. With fellow noseguard Sean Cwynar dealing with a broken right hand, Nix has lived up to his word, playing 30-40 snaps per game and starting twice so far, surprising even himself with his stamina.
"Last year or the year before, I probably could have did two snaps," the now-326-pounder said with a laugh.
Such contrast between the early development of Lynch and Nix helps explain why defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has a blanket philosophy on playing freshmen.
"I don't think at this point in time that there's any timetable," Diaco said. "Just, when you're ready, we're ready. When you're ready, we're ready. That's it. And when you're ready to do the jobs, whatever they are, you don't have to do be able to do all the jobs, if you can do some of the jobs. You're ready, we're ready.
"When you're ready to go in and you're better than everybody else at that spot, when you're ready to go in and whip your individual matchup, when you're ready, we're ready."
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi believes so, at least for now. Lunardi snuck the Wildcats into his latest tournament projections, placing them as a No. 11 seed in Wednesday’s bracketology.
"None of this would even be on the table if not for the return of John Shurna,” Lunardi said. “Along with Luka Mirkovic and Drew Crawford, Northwestern can now compete up front with any Big Ten team not named Ohio State. If the point guard position can be managed through some combination of Alex Marcotullio and the freshman Tre Demps, there will be enough flexibility in the middle of the Big Ten for Northwestern to sneak into the conversation.
“Not sure I would bet on a tournament bid, but the possibility cannot be discounted.”
Northwestern will return four starters and six of its top seven scorers. The Wildcats went 20-14 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten last season. They reached the NIT quarterfinals for the first time in team history.
Illinois was among Lunardi’s last four teams in and was placed as a No. 12 seed. The Illini graduate four starters and lost freshman Jereme Richmond to the NBA draft. They’ll welcome seven new players to their team next season.
Seven Big Ten teams were included in the bracket, along with 10 from the Big East, including Notre Dame.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.