Chicago Colleges: Jared Afalava

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
11:00
AM CT
The Bro Code has been around for centuries. Nay, whatever's more than centuries.
Five lessons learned from a full week of conference play on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesCarlos Hyde carried 26 times for 168 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns Saturday.
1. Ohio State can handle adversity; will it be enough? Ohio State hadn't trailed all season before finding itself in a dogfight at Northwestern in which it had to come from behind in the fourth quarter on the road. In the end, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line proved too much for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes are now 6-0, halfway to another undefeated regular season heading into a bye week and riding an 18-game winning streak under Urban Meyer. Yet Ohio State has shown some weaknesses, particularly with a pass defense that Northwestern exploited for 343 yards the week after safety Christian Bryant was lost for the season. A win is a win, and 18-0 is 18-0, but Meyer's team hasn't produced a lot of style points that would distinguish it in what looks like -- for now, anyway -- a very crowded BCS title chase. The good news is that the Buckeyes have cleared two of their biggest hurdles of the season with back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and the Wildcats, and they might not be challenged again until the season finale at Michigan, if even then. We wouldn't mind seeing a Northwestern-Ohio State rematch in Indianapolis, as Pat Fitzgerald's team looks like the best in a muddled Legends Division scrum, but the remaining schedule is tough. Someone from the Big Ten is probably going to have to play a near-perfect game to beat the Buckeyes; it remains to be seen whether perfection will be enough for Ohio State to get into the national title game.

2. Nebraska's defense and Michigan State's offense provide hope: The Huskers' defensive struggles and the Spartans' offensive woes were the top storylines for each team through the first month of the season. Nebraska entered the open week needing to repair a defense that hadn't stopped anyone consistently, from nationally ranked UCLA to FCS foe South Dakota State. But the Blackshirts responded against an Illinois offense that had made a bunch of big plays through the first four games. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Randy Gregory and Michael Rose all had big games, as did veteran nickelback Ciante Evans, as Nebraska held Illinois out of the end zone for two and a half quarters. Nebraska's offense did its thing behind running back Ameer Abdullah, but the defense's progress is encouraging for the future. Michigan State also saw an encouraging performance from its offense, as quarterback Connor Cook bounced back from his struggles at Notre Dame and got some help from not one, but two receivers in Macgarrett Kings Jr. (five catches, 94 yards, TD) and Bennie Fowler (nine catches, 92 yards, TD). Michigan State dominated possession time (37 minutes, 13 seconds) and scored the game's final 16 points. Nebraska will continue to lean on its offense, while Michigan State will rely on the Spartan Dawg D, but both teams looked more balanced Saturday, which is a great sign for their chances in the wide-open Legends division.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a week off, Devin Gardner accounted for 252 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers.
3. Bye weeks can be helpful: Data doesn't support the notion that bye weeks are beneficial to a team's win-loss record. But when a team is struggling in a certain area and has a week to work on it, that can be very helpful. As mentioned above, Michigan State and Nebraska both showed much improvement on their underwhelming sides of the ball after being idle in Week 5. Michigan worked in two new starters on the offensive line and came out determined to run the ball versus Minnesota. While the yards per carry average (3.2) still wasn't great, the push was better and the Wolverines ran for four touchdowns. More importantly, quarterback Devin Gardner finally played a turnover-free game. Indiana, meanwhile, simplified things for its young defense, as coach Kevin Wilson said there "was less on their plate" against Penn State. That worked, as the Hoosiers were able to attack and play loose in a 44-24 win over the Nittany Lions, coming up with several key stops. Northwestern obviously used its bye to get Venric Mark healthy and to work on more plays with Kain Colter at receiver, both of which proved helpful, indeed. The only team that didn't show some improvement after a Week 5 holiday was Penn State, although that might be due because of depth and injury issues than anything else.

4. Pump the brakes on Iowa and Illinois: The Hawkeyes and Illini had been undoubtedly the league's two big surprises through September and had chances to keep the good vibes going on Saturday. But Iowa took a step back against Michigan State, unable to run the ball or prevent a typically pedestrian Spartans passing attack from stretching the field. Iowa didn't look like a Legends Division contender and paid a price on the injury front. Things don't get any easier after an open week, as Iowa visits Ohio State (Oct. 19). Illinois needed its high-powered offense to strike against a seemingly vulnerable Nebraska defense, but it never happened, as Nathan Scheelhaase struggled with his accuracy. The Illini defense had all sorts of trouble against Nebraska's backup quarterback and running back Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has another week off before home tests against Wisconsin (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Oct. 26). Both Iowa and Illinois could make bowls, but neither looks like a serious division contender.

5. Magic might be gone for Penn State: There were few better stories in the Big Ten last year than the way Penn State played under the cloud of NCAA sanctions, especially as the Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. But Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill aren't walking through that door. Not only does Penn State lack the incredible senior leadership of last year's group -- which is less a knock on the current players than a tip of the cap to last year's veterans -- but it is struggling to find speed and playmakers on a defense that looks like one of the weakest in years in State College. The only two decent passing attacks on the Lions' schedule -- UCF and Indiana -- shredded Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler's crew. Meanwhile, the offense is becoming too reliant on the individual greatness of receiver Allen Robinson and failed to dominate an Indiana rush defense that has been the Big Ten's worst for multiple years in a row. A 20-point loss to the Hoosiers, in a game in which his team trailed 42-17, is easily the worst defeat of the Bill O'Brien era. The team is down to 61 scholarship players, and not all of them are healthy. "I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination that this is a normal Penn State team," O'Brien said. Unfortunately, this might be the new normal for Penn State as the sanctions take their toll, and another 8-4 season might well require some magic at this point.

Legends Division spring notebook

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
4:54
PM CT
Every Legends Division head coach, along with a player from each of the six teams, participated in a Big Ten spring teleconference with the media on Wednesday.

Here are some notes and updates from those teams:

IOWA
  • After six practices, the Hawkeyes' three-man quarterback race between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard is "about where we expected," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. All three are receiving equal reps, and all are working with the first-, second- and third-team offenses. "At this point, it's a jump ball for all three guys," Ferentz said.
  • Accountability is a big theme this spring at Iowa after the team endured its worst season (4-8) in more than a decade. Ferentz said he can't bury his head in the sand after a season like last year's. "We have to do a better job in all areas and that starts with me," he said. Linebacker James Morris was candid about the legacy he'd like to leave at Iowa. "The mark we've left so far, if we're being completely honest, isn't a particularly good one," Morris said. "I'm not happy about it, but I'm excited we have one more opportunity to change things."
  • Ferentz said Sunday's open practice in West Des Moines gives Iowa a chance to say thanks to its fans in the central and western parts of the state. Hawkeyes players enjoy the chance to perform in front of their fans. "It's something to break the monotony of spring ball," Morris said. "This will be something different."
  • Morris wants to see Iowa's defense translate its red-zone effectiveness -- the Hawkeyes allowed only 15 touchdowns on 48 red-zone chances in 2012 and held opponents scoreless 10 times -- to the rest of the field. Better communication also is a focal point for the defense this spring.
MICHIGAN
  • Head coach Brady Hoke said the team will explore the possibility of adding a junior-college quarterback or a graduate transfer from an FBS program to address the position. Russell Bellomy, the projected backup, is scheduled for ACL surgery May 1 and could miss the entire season. Walk-on Brian Cleary is working as the No. 2 quarterback this spring behind Devin Gardner, and heralded recruit Shane Morris arrives in the summer. Asked generally about redshirting players, Hoke didn't sound as if he'd hesitate to use a player like Morris. "No matter if they're fifth-year seniors or true freshmen, the best players have to play," he said. "If you don't do your justice on playing the best players, you're going to cheat the kids on this team."
  • Both Hoke and left tackle Taylor Lewan praised the young players competing for the three vacant starting spots on the interior offensive line. Hoke has seen "a lot of progress" with players like Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis, Chris Bryant, Blake Bars and Joey Burzynski. Lewan sees more "maulers" along Michigan's line as the unit aims to be more physically dominant this season in a pro-set scheme.
  • Lewan said the experience of playing for Michigan and the opportunity to win a Big Ten championship led him to decide to return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft, where he likely would have been a first-round pick. He said his decision was his own, and that those who haven't played for Michigan can't truly understand the lure of remaining there. "There's no better decision I could have made than coming back to the University of Michigan," he said.
  • Lewan said defensive end Frank Clark could be on the All-Big Ten radar by the end of the season, while Hoke singled out Chris Wormley for having a strong spring with the D-line. Hoke said running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is progressing well as he recovers from leg surgery.
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Replacing Le'Veon Bell at running back remains a work in progress. While Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford and Nick Tompkins are working there this spring, head coach Mark Dantonio said players from other positions will "slide in and out" at running back to see how they handle the role. The Spartans are also bringing in three tailbacks this summer. "That's obviously a position of concern for us," Dantonio said. "We've got to find a guy you can give the ball to 250 times. I don't know if we have that yet. But that's part of who we are, and we're going to find him."
  • Dantonio said placekicker Kevin Cronin has had an excellent spring and is the No. 1 on the depth chart now. But recruit Michael Geiger will come in this summer and push Cronin for the right to succeed the departed Dan Conroy.
  • Spartans fans always seem to be curious about wideout and former Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett. Here's what Dantonio had to say about him today: "He's a guy who runs great routes but needs to catch ball a little more consistently and be more physical at the point of attack. ... He's a guy who I think will play next year and will add to our offense once he starts moving in a more consistent basis. But I think he's taken big steps this spring, and you can see that coming."
  • Linebacker Max Bullough said going 7-6 last year after two 11-win seasons "put things in perspective for us. We hadn't lost many games the previous two years. Now we have that knowledge and experience that it could happen to us. ... We use that as motivation to move forward."
MINNESOTA
  • Head coach Jerry Kill said injured offensive tackle Ed Olson (ankle) and defensive lineman Roland Johnson (knee) are both progressing well, and he expects both to be ready to go for fall camp.
  • Kill had high praise for safety Brock Vereen, saying he could follow his brother, Shane, into the NFL. "He's gotten better and better since we've been here, and he's turned into a great football player in our minds. We look for him to have a very productive year."
  • Vereen said the team is practicing with a new sense of confidence. "We're finally comfortable with coach Kill's system. We know what they expect from us. And that just makes it a lot easier to show up every day and do what we need to do."
  • Vereen on how far away the Gophers are from contending in the Legends Division: "We are closer than a lot of people think. If you look back to last season, a lot of those games we lost were in the fourth quarter. A loss is a loss, but at the same time, we were in a lot of those games. It's about pushing through, which is something we learned the hard way, but we still learned. ... I think we're going to shock some people this year."
NEBRASKA

  • Linebacker David Santos (arm) will miss a portion of summer workouts but will be back before the Huskers open preseason camp, head coach Bo Pelini said. Defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen, who missed Saturday's spring game, aren't seriously injured and will be fine for workouts and camp.
  • Although Nebraska's defense had its ups and downs this spring, redshirt freshman linebacker Jared Afalava stood out. Pelini expects a lot of production this fall from Afalava, who is "probably further ahead of where I thought he'd be." Pelini also praised senior defensive end Jason Ankrah, saying the coaches gave him more freedom to move around this spring. "Hopefully, his best year is yet to come," Pelini said.
  • Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez expects Nebraska to throw the ball "a lot more" this season, mainly because of the team's strength at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and others. Martinez said expectations are extremely high for the offense, and that coordinator Tim Beck is more comfortable calling plays. "I'd rather throw the ball 30 times a game … get the football to those guys and let them do their thing," Martinez said. Pelini has no argument, saying "the best is yet to come" with Martinez at quarterback.
  • Martinez said the Memorial Stadium crowd was about as loud as he's ever heard it when 7-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman ran for a 69-yard touchdown in Saturday's spring game.

NORTHWESTERN
  • The Wildcats won't hold a traditional spring game this year but just a normal practice session. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said 13 players had surgeries after the season, and the team was limited to eight healthy offensive linemen this spring. "We've had to tweak things, so that's why we've kept the same routine throughout all 15 of our practices," he said.
  • Some of the lesser-known Northwestern players who have had good springs, Fitzgerald said, included backup quarterback Zack Oliver, receiver Mike Jensen, superbacks Mark Szott and Jack Schwaba and defensive lineman C.J. Robbins. Fitzgerald said he's been "very, very impressed" by Robbins, who has been injured the past two years.
  • A question on offering prospects early prompted this response from Fitzgerald: "I have just a fundamental issue with offering a kid a scholarship that doesn't have a driver's license. Just barely shaving. And because he looks good in shorts doesn't mean he's going to be a great Big Ten football player. The glorification of these kids at a young age is unfair to them. It's putting unfair and unrealistic expectations on them."
  • Defensive end Tyler Scott, who Fitzgerald said is "poised to take the next step," said he's worked hard on becoming a more vocal leader this year and on his pass-rushing techniques. "I'm trying to bring more tools to that aspect of the defense," he said.

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