Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Biggest surprises, disappointments so far in Big Ten


Kevin Brockway | CNHI Sports Indiana
September 28, 2021

Michigan State players celebrate following their overtime win against Nebraska on Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan.

Al Goldis | Associated Press


BLOOMINGTON – Through the first month of the season, Big Ten football has produced some head-scratching results.

The league doesn’t look as top-heavy as anticipated, with Ohio State falling at home to Oregon for its first regular season loss since falling to Purdue in 2018. Penn State has posted the conference’s best non-conference win to date, knocking off Auburn in a night affair in Happy Valley.

Nebraska is still Nebraska, struggling to find its way under fourth-year coach Scott Frost. Illinois is off to a 1-4 start under first-year coach Bret Bielema, unable to capitalize on the momentum from its season-opening win over Nebraska. Iowa is the early frontrunner in the Big Ten West, capitalizing on nine turnovers forced through its first four games to get off to a 4-0 start.

Here’s a look at the three biggest surprises through the first month of the season and three biggest disappointments:


1. Michigan State: The Spartans are off a 4-0 start when some preseason magazines predicted they could end up last in the Big Ten East. Kenneth Walker III has made an impact for MSU, leading the Big Ten in rushing at 138.5 yards per game.

Michigan State opened the season with an impressive win at Northwestern, then went down to Miami and pummeled the Hurricanes 38-17. Last Saturday, Michigan State found a way to beat Nebraska 23-20 in overtime despite being outgained 442-254, thanks to a fourth-quarter punt return by Jayden Reed to tie the game and a Matt Coghlin field goal to win it.

Mel Tucker is doing a nice job in the second year of the MSU rebuild and is the early frontrunner for Big Ten coach of the year

2. Maryland: Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is playing at a high level for the Terrapins, leading the Big Ten in passing at 335 yards per game. Maryland has posted wins over West Virginia and Illinois on its way to a 4-0 start, but a bigger test will come Friday hosting No. 5 Iowa.

3. Purdue: Off to a 3-1 start, the Boilermakers are winning games with defense, with the three-headed defensive coordinator duties of Brad Lambert, Ron English and Mark Hagen working effectively.

Purdue ranks fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (14.3 points per game) and fifth in total defense (298.5 yards allowed).

Standout defensive end George Karlaftis is healthy and has posted two sacks through Purdue’s first four games.

Getting wide receiver David Bell back from a brutal concussion sustained in Purdue’s lone loss at Notre Dame will be critical to the offense for the second half of the season.


1. Wisconsin: The two losses for the Badgers have come at home against Penn State and in Chicago against Notre Dame. In both games, quarterback Graham Mertz struggled, posting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1-6.

Wisconsin also has been just so-so establishing the run, averaging 203.3 yards rushing with five rushing TDs.

Mertz will need to raise his level of play with No. 14 Michigan coming to town Saturday.

2. Indiana: The Hoosiers entered the 2021 season with a preseason No. 17 ranking, but that quickly went by the wayside following a 34-6 loss at Iowa.

IU also self-destructed with four turnovers in a 38-24 home loss to Cincinnati, blowing an early 14-point lead.

IU quarterback Michael Penix Jr., coming off his second torn ACL rehab in three years, looked back to his old self with 373 passing yards at Western Kentucky. But Penix will face a more ferocious pass rush Saturday at No. 4 Penn State and needs to prove he can make better decisions with bodies coming at him.

3. Ohio State: The home loss to Oregon may not look as bad if the Ducks win the Pac-12 and emerge as a College Football Playoff team. But something is amiss in Columbus.

Quarterback C.J. Stroud was held out of Ohio State’s 59-7 win over Akron, perhaps due to injury or perhaps for head coach Ryan Day to evaluate the other quarterbacks on the roster.

Also, OSU linebacker K’Vaughn Pope quit in the middle of the Akron game, upset about playing time after being subbed out. Pope threw his gloves into the stands before leaving the field.

Stroud is expected to return for OSU’s next game at Rutgers on Saturday, but a porous defense must show signs of progress before an Oct. 30 showdown against No. 4 Penn State.


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Vrabel's Ability to Last, Win Uncommon Among Franchise's Head Coaches


Sunday's victory at Seattle was his 50th game in the regular season and his 30th win, both notable numbers among those who have led the Oilers/Titans.



September 20, 2021


NASHVILLE – Mike Vrabel has shown the sort of staying power his immediate predecessors did not.

Sunday’s 33-30 overtime victory at Seattle was Vrabel’s 50th regular season game with the Tennessee Titans, which makes him the franchise’s first head coach since Jeff Fisher to stick around that long.

Not only has he brought stability, he has brought success. With the come-from-behind triumph over the Seahawks, Vrabel improved to 30-20 in his current role and became the second-fastest coach in franchise history to win 30 games. The only one to win 30 games faster was Jack Pardee, who did it in his first 48 contests.

“I try to focus on improving and getting better and how I lead this football team and how we get ready and prepare, the product we put on the field, making sure the operation is clean and the players know what to do,” Vrabel said recently. “… When (the players) go out there, we have to have confidence in them that they know their job and they are going to go out there and execute. At that point in time, it is the 11 players on the field.

“As far as my reflection, I just have to make sure that we continue to not do things that get us beat and emphasize the things that we believe are important.”

Overall, Vrabel is the 19th different coach in franchise history and the fifth of the Titans era (1999-present).

Fisher is the Titans/Oilers all-time leader in wins with 147, but it took him 64 games to get his 30th. His last season was 2010, and what followed was a rapidly changing line of successors from Mike Munchak (48 games) to Ken Whisenhunt (23 games) to Mike Mularkey (41 games). Of those last three, Mularkey was the only one whose tenure included playoff games, but even his two from 2017 got him to 43 games overall.

In addition to Fisher and Pardee, only Bum Phillips, Jerry Glanville and Wally Lemm coached for 50 games or more. Among those six, Vrabel’s .600 winning percentage in the regular season is second only to Bum Phillips (.611). Yet it took Phillips 53 games to get to 30 victories.

“He’s done a great job,” Jim Mora Jr., a former NFL head coach for two franchises, said of Vrabel. “He’s very consistent. I think he’s very direct with his team, his players. They know exactly what they’re going to get. I think they have trust in him.

“… I like watching (the Titans) play. I like watching him coach. I like his style on the sidelines. He displays professionalism. I think he displays toughness. I think he displays a belief in his team and his players, and those things are all so critical. … He’s their leader. They look at him. There’s a sense of confidence, a sense of resolve. And I think it’s really important to that organization.”

Sunday was the eighth time under Vrabel the Titans won when they trailed after three quarters, which accounts for 26.7 percent of his total victories. In this case, they were behind by eight with 15 minutes to play but the deficit grew to 14 fewer than two minutes later.

With their latest rally, which included Derrick Henry’s game-tying touchdown in the final minute of regulations, the Titans improved to 4-0 in overtime with Vrabel in charge.

Only two of the franchise’s first 18 coaches managed postseason victories than the two Vrabel notched during the 2019 season.

“He played the game at the highest level, at a championship level for championship team – he has rings to prove it – so he walks in with credibility every single day,” Mora said. And he’s garnered (the players’) trust, their respect.

“This is his team. You see his imprints all over the team in the way they play – the discipline, the toughness, the attention to detail, the fight that they show, the grit that they show.”

All indications are that he will have plenty more opportunities to show it.

Friday, September 17, 2021

AFC North Whiparound, Week 2: Opener overreactions and surprises, biggest statement win and predictions


By Jeff Zrebiec and Jay Morrison Sep 17, 2021


Each week during the season, and at other points from February to August, our AFC North beat writers discuss their teams and provide a look at some of the key storylines making an impact on the division.

Week 1 always spurs the biggest overreactions. What was the biggest one concerning the team you cover — either positive or negative — that came out of the opener?

Jay Morrison (Bengals): I almost forgot what the view looks like from up here. Anyway, the biggest overreaction in Cincinnati is that the offensive line is going to send Joe Burrow to the hospital again. Yes, the Bengals gave up five sacks and another two quarterback hits, one of which was right under Burrow’s chin, but head coach Zac Taylor pinned only two of the five on the line, citing poor eyes and missed assignments from the backs and tight ends as the cause of the others. Center Trey Hopkins had his toughest day as a pro, but he suffered a torn ACL in the season finale last season and was on a load management plan all of camp. The rust is off, and he should look more like himself each week. It’s also worth noting that tackles Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff didn’t give up a single pressure on 31 dropbacks Sunday, and Reiff finished with a pass rush win rate of 100 percent.


(Top photo of Chase Claypool: Mark Konezny / USA Today)

Alfonza “Pep” Hamilton Is The NFL’s Coveted QB Guru | He Proved It Again On Sunday


By J.R. Gamble

L.A. Chargers second-year quarterback Justin Herbert put on a clinic in a big road win against the highly touted defense of the Washington Football Team on Sunday. 

As observers watch Herbert continue to elevate as a young quarterback, those in the know can’t help but say, “That’s the work of one Alfonza ‘Pep’ Hamilton, quarterback guru.”

Now, don’t get it wrong. Herbert has all the tools, standing 6 feet 6 and 240 pounds with a rocket for an arm and outstanding feet. He was a high draft pick (No. 6 overall in 2020) but scouts and analysts had reservations about his mechanics and how long it would take him to be able to compete at the pro level. He was called a “project.”

Boy, Were They Wrong

One year of learning and tutelage under Pep Hamilton changed that. Hamilton’s résumé stretches far and wide and speaks for itself. He’s served as an offensive coordinator for the Colts, working with 2012 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck.

Pep’s also been the assistant head coach for the Cleveland Browns and Michigan Wolverines, where he developed quarterbacks and directed the passing games. 

As the GM and head coach of the XFL’s D.C. Defenders for one season, Pep made NFL bust Cardale Jones look like the star quarterback the Buffalo Bills envisioned when they picked him in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft fresh off a national championship. 

Hamilton has worked with quarterbacks as a position coach or coordinator on the pro or college level for 21 out of his 25 years in football. 

He hasn’t been able to secure a head coaching job yet, but when a team has a young quarterback that needs developing or a veteran that needs mental reshaping, Pep’s services are in high demand

Prepare The Future 

The Chargers brought Pep in during a tough 2020 COVID season. 

Herbert, who was drafted with the expectation that he would replace the departed future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers, wasn’t able to attend any training camps with the Chargers staff. The best he and Hamilton could do was converse via text and video and during the virtual mini-camps.  

When asked about his strategy with the young player, Hamilton said, “We’re preparing Justin to be ready to come in and compete from Day One.” 

Whatever Pep did during those virtual sessions worked because Herbert shattered almost every NFL rookie passing record in existence: most passing touchdowns (31) and most completions (396).

The QB Whisperer: Deshaun Watson Who?

It wasn’t by accident and it wasn’t surprising. Hamilton is a genius when it comes to developing quarterbacks, having coached up a list of starters prior to making Herbert’s NFL transition as smooth as a Michael Jackson moonwalk. 

Quarterbacks like Luck and Alex Smith, Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton and Chad Pennington have all had success on the NFL level and attribute much of their rapid advancement to Hamilton, who is now the passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Houston Texans.

Fans all wondered why the only people who weren’t panicking about DeShaun Watson missing games due to an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations were the Texans. That’s because this season they added Hamilton to the staff and brought in a veteran quarterback who had already been touched by Pep’s wisdom and guidance in the past.   

Journeyman Tyrod Taylor was supposed to be the starter in L.A. before a punctured lung sidelined him and Herbert swooped in and stole the job. Hamilton spent significant time with Taylor as well in 2020. The 11-year veteran, who didn’t become a starter until 2015, took Pep’s jewels, went to the Texans, and looked like a poor man’s Deshaun Watson on Sunday.  

Known as a game manager whose greatest asset is his ability to protect the ball, Taylor became a playmaker, throwing for 291 yards and two touchdowns to lead a season-opening win over the Jaguars. 

What’s In Pep’s Kool-Aid? 

Texans backup quarterback David Mills says Hamilton is constantly coaching up his quarterbacks even during the game. 

“A big thing we have worked on is just staying loaded at all times in the pocket, so whenever something pops, we are able to get the ball out in a split second,” said Mills during the preseason.

“And then, a lot of the stuff (Pep) does on game days is just making sure we are prepared for everything the defense is showing us.”

So much for all of the people who said the Texans weren’t going to win a game this season. Those doubters underestimated the heavily influential hand of Pep Hamilton, the NFL’s quarterback whisperer.   

The master of special teams, Darrin Simmons


The good, the bad and the ugly in Bengals’ overtime Week 1 win vs Vikings

Even though the game was tight, there was a lot to smile about this week, if you are a Bengals fan.

The Good

The master of special teams, Darrin Simmons:

His kicker nailed two big kicks, the receiver he likely pounded the table for at final cuts—Stanley Morgan—had a nice downed punt late in the game and his new punt returner had 10.6 yards per his five runbacks. The coach just knows how to put things together within his unit.


Thursday, September 16, 2021



By Ralph Morrow

September 14, 2021

It was quite an accomplishment when Key West grad Mekhi Sargent made the 53-man Tennessee Titans cutdown squad on Aug. 31. He was to start the season Sunday, Sept. 12, as the Titans’ No. 3 running back against the Arizona Cardinals with Derrick Henry getting most of the carries. 

The NFL Network’s Good Morning Football crew also chose Sargent as one of three running backs — and the only non-drafted player — to make their “Rookie Risers” list. The other two were Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris and New England’s Rhamondre Stevenson. 

The Titans’ network page said Sargent was “easily the team’s best back during the exhibition slate.” 

The University of Iowa product got plenty of opportunity to show what he could do in the preseason and made good, gaining 51 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the final game against the Chicago Bears. In two previous games, against Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the Conch gained 78 and 58 yards, respectively, both times on 16 carries. He caught a pass in each game. 

In the Bears game, CBS analyst Charles Jones “raved” about him, according to Alex Seats of 247Sports. 

In Sargent’s senior year at Key West High School, he rushed for 2,094 yards and 27 touchdowns, wrote Marc Morehouse for the Iowa Gazette in 2019

“This was a bit of a quest for (Key West football coach) John Hughes,” Morehouse wrote. “He pointed the way to Iowa Western. The Iowa Western coaches saw Sargent at a University of Florida football camp.”

“’My coach at Key West basically led my tour to go to juco,’ Sargent said in 2019. “I didn’t know anything about junior college. He said, ‘That’s an opportunity for you. I think you can go to juco and make the most of it and move forward.’ I took that route and I’m thankful.”

Sargent ended up redshirting his first season at Iowa Western. He didn’t even know you could do that at a junior college.

“My mom, Yolanda Gardner, kept me mentally stable,’ Sargent told Morehouse in 2019 in Iowa. “I just kept working hard, on the scout team and in the weight room. I’d just pay attention to the older guys and do the right things and my time came.”

“‘He put up 1,000 yards as a sophomore and just kept going from there,’ Hughes said. ‘He became kind of a household name throughout South Florida. There were coaches and teams that were just tired of playing him because he was such a physical force. He ran so hard. He was one of those heavy contact guys. You felt it when he hit you.’”

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Iowa in the NFL: Highlights from week one


BySEAN BOCK 10 hours ago (September 14, 2021)


Week one of the NFL season concluded on Monday night. 

There were a handful of former Hawkeyes in action throughout the weekend and a good amount of them put together strong performances. 

Here were some of the highlights of week one. 

TJ Hockenson is poised for a breakout year after strong week one 

Detroit dropped a tough loss to San Franciso, but Hockenson at the tight end position was a big bright spot for the Lions. 

Hockenson finished the game with eight receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown. Detroit's wide receivers are not as strong this year, so the Lions could rely on Hockenson a lot in the passing game. 


Fellow former Iowa tight end George Kittle's team might've won the game, but Hockenson had the better stat line in the game. 

“There’s plenty of meat still on the bone,” Detroit tight ends coach Ben Johnson said previously of Hockenson. “We’re looking forward to getting even more from him. The sky’s the limit for this kid. I really look forward to seeing him take that next step.”


Former Iowa linebackers making plays


Kansas City should be one of the best teams in the NFL this year and likely the Super Bowl favorite. 

Niemann and Hitchens have played key roles for the Chiefs at the linebacker spot the past few years and teamed up on Sunday against. Hitchens forced a Cleveland Broncos' fumble in the third quarter and Niemann recovered it. The Chiefs ended up winning the contest, 33-29.  

In other former Iowa linebacker news, Josey Jewell also forced a fumble in the Denver Broncos' 27-13 win over the New York Giants. 

James Daniels holds his own against one of the league's best 


There wasn't a lot going for the Chicago Bears on Sunday night in the 34-14 loss to Los Angeles Rams, but former Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels did a good job of taming arguably the NFL's most dominant player in Rams' defensive tackle Aaron Donald. 


“I’m stronger,” Daniels said previously. “I feel like my technique is better and so I feel like right now, I’m a way better player than I am when I got hurt last year.”


Riley Reiff plays well in Cincinnati debut 


The story of Cincinnati's Sunday afternoon win against the Minnesota Vikings was the return of quarterback Joe Burrow. The Bengals' run game was also effective, and a big reason for that was the play of former Iowa offensive lineman Riley Reiff. 

However, the biggest impact he had was in the passing game. 

Per Pro Football Focus, Reiff had a pass-blocking grade of 78.8 with no pressures allowed. 


Monday, September 13, 2021

Detroit Lions' Jamaal Williams, T.J. Hockenson two of few bright spots in loss


Dave Birkett

Detroit Free Press

Published 6:00 a.m. ET Sept. 13, 2021

Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett breaks down the Detroit Lions' 41-33 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, and looks at players who helped and hurt their stock Sunday at Ford Field:

Three up

RB Jamaal Williams: Williams made the most of what was a mildly surprising start Sunday, rushing for 54 yards and a touchdown on nine carries and catching eight passes for another 56 yards. Williams was the Lions’ tone-setter on offense, and along with D’Andre Swift, gave a glimmer of hope that the Lions will finally be able to run the football.

OLB Trey Flowers: Flowers has been the consummate team player since he came to Detroit, and his play Sunday embodied that. He finished with a modest four tackles and no sacks, but had the Lions’ key defensive play, coming from the far side of the field to knock loose a Deebo Samuel fumble late in the fourth quarter on what almost was a third-and-13 conversion that would have iced the game. The Lions need more pass rush out of Flowers and their entire defensive front, but his forced fumble was the hustle play of the game.

 T.J. Hockenson:  Hockenson is going to have a big year — make that a huge year — if he stays healthy. Hockenson was the Lions’ only downfield receiving threat Sunday. He finished with eight catches for 97 yards and scored the Lions’ first touchdown on a 6-yard pass from Jared Goff, when he ran a beautiful route in the red zone. At this rate, and given how little the Lions have at receiver, Hockenson seems like a fair bet to be the team’s first 100-catch receiver since Calvin Johnson in 2012.

Three down

CB Jeff Okudah: We don’t know how serious Okudah’s lower-leg injury is yet, but, while this may sound dramatic, the reality is a worst-case scenario Achilles injury could doom his career. Apart from the injury, Okudah had another rough showing on the field Sunday. He got beat for a long touchdown when he couldn’t locate the ball, and he gave up a key third-down conversion on the 49ers’ first touchdown drive. After a promising training camp, Okudah looked too much like the same player he was a rookie.

S Will Harris: It wasn’t just Okudah who struggled in the secondary. Harris and cornerback Amani Oruwariye, both of whom drew mention from general manager Brad Holmes for their strong preseasons, also had rough days. Oruwariye gave up the 49ers’ first touchdown to Trent Sherfield, and Harris had a facemask penalty and a handful of missed tackles, including one on Elijah Mitchell’s long touchdown run.

 OT Matt Nelson: The Lions shuffled their offensive line after Taylor Decker suffered a finger injury in the middle week, moving right tackle Penei Sewell to left tackle and inserting Nelson in Sewell’s place. Sewell had a couple slip-ups but fared mostly well in his NFL debut. Nelson had a bit of a rougher day, allowing a sack to Dee Ford, multiple other pressures and drawing a holding penalty that was declined. In his defense, the converted defensive tackle was asked to pass block an unsustainable 57 times.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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