Kelly hoping to deploy Atkinson more out of crowded backfield


Kelly hoping to deploy Atkinson more out of crowded backfield

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- George Atkinson III isn't getting challenged to many races anymore.

Everett Golson -- who thinks he's the fastest player on the team, according to running back Cierre Wood -- didn't finish a footrace with Atkinson. And Wood, who has as much bravado as anyone, admitted Atkinson would burn him after about 20 yards.

"After the Miami game they figured that I have the crown," Atkinson laughed.

Speed has always been Atkinson's strong suit. He runs indoor and outdoor track for Notre Dame, and his 100-meter time of 10.36 seconds was the second-fastest every by an Irish track runner. The only guy ahead of him: Rocket Ismail.

Atkinson has racked up 290 yards on 32 carries, good for an average of 9.1 yards per attempt -- the fifth-highest rate among FBS rushers.

But Atkinson's working to be more than just a speed guy. He's focused on improving into a complete back, one who can be counted on to hang on to the football and be a reliable passing target. It was Atkinson's shortcomings in both those areas that led to coach Brian Kelly lumping him in with Everett Golson as "heart attack" guys during spring ball.

"He was not fun to watch in preseason camp when you threw the ball to him," Kelly recalled.

"I realize that I want to expand my role," Atkinson said. "I just dont want to be carrying the ball, I want to be out there running routes and stuff. Yesterday, I wanted to go one-on-ones, so I got a couple routes in. So I just want to be more dimensional, less one-dimensional and have more dimensions about my game."

But with a crowded backfield featuring upperclassmen in Wood and Theo Riddick, Atkinson has often been the odd man out. That, however, may begin to change.

"We still have to continue to get more touches for George Atkinson," Kelly said Tuesday. "It's less about Cierre and Theo, because they know their role, they have accepted their role. George has, as well. We just think that from a coaching standpoint, if there is anything amongst the three backs, we have to get George some more touches."

More plays for Atkinson likely means fewer for Riddick and Wood. While Wood has begun to accept his diminished role compared to last year, he's still someone who maintains he's at his best when he's carrying the ball three, four, five times in a row.

"I dont have the luxury of going in there for a long series or a long drive," Wood said. "So I gotta make do with what I have and make it the best that I can make it.

Wood, who was suspended for the first two games of the season, has rushed 47 times for 279 yards, an average of 5.9 yards per carry. Compare that to Riddick, who's only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and the difference is stark. While Riddick said stats aren't his thing and Kelly downplayed the importance of YPC, the same isn't necessarily true for Wood.

"I believe there isnt nobody out there that can tackle me, there isnt nobody out there that I havent faced that Im not better than," Wood said. "So with that being said, I go into every run that I get or every play, period, thinking that Im the baddest. And it shows as far as yards per carry goes."

Juggling a crowded backfield may seem like a headache, but taking a step back, it may be more of a good problem to have than anything else.

"Its hard for any defense because they dont know what theyre going to get, we all run in different styles and whatnot," Wood said. "George is just pure speed, Theo, hes really, really elusive and is hard to tackle and stuff like that, and me, a combination of all two, really. Its just really hard for a defense to key one thing."

Week 9 Big Ten previews: Huskers-Badgers battle could determine Big Ten West


Week 9 Big Ten previews: Huskers-Badgers battle could determine Big Ten West

There's still more than a month of regular-season football left, but the Big Ten West Division championship could be decided this weekend in Madison.

Nebraska and Wisconsin get together as two teams ranked in the top 11 of the AP poll, and though the standings are a little funky out West, these two are the best teams in the division.

If the Huskers win, they're likely heading to Indy, as they'll still be unbeaten and the Badgers will have a third in-conference loss. But if Paul Chryst's team wins, then it's on. Mike Riley will still be a game up in the loss column, but Wisconsin would need just one more Nebraska loss to own the tiebreaker — and Nebraska still has to play Ohio State.

The West is always wild — so too is college football in November — but there's an awful lot on the line in this game.

Here's a preview of the big Nebraska-Wisconsin clash and all the other games on the Week 9 Big Ten slate. All games played on Saturday, Oct. 29, and all times are Central.

Minnesota at Illinois, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

It’s Homecoming for the Illini, and the Gophers have been a welcome opponent in the recent past. Just two seasons ago, Tim Beckman won his first Big Ten game with a thrilling Homecoming win over Minnesota. Lovie Smith already has a Big Ten win under his belt — thanks to Rutgers, of course — but can that Homecoming-vs.-Minnesota magic happen again? Illinois is coming off an expected trouncing at the hands of Michigan, but the situation is totally different now out of Ann Arbor. The recipe will need to be running the ball, what with the potential that Jeff George Jr. is once more starting under center. Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin and Ke’Shawn Vaughn combined for only 19 carries at Michigan. That number will need to be much higher this week.

Of course, the formula is the same for the Gophers, who succeed when their two-headed running back monster of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks is getting fed. Minnesota has the fourth-best rushing offense in the Big Ten, and only one back in the league (Northwestern’s Justin Jackson) has more yards than Smith, who is actually the conference’s leader in all-purpose yardage after his monster kick-return touchdown last weekend against Rutgers. Getting Mitch Leidner back from a concussion also helps the Gopher rushing attack. Illinois ranks 10th in the Big Ten in rushing defense, so Minnesota needs to pound the rock.

No. 2 Michigan at Michigan State, 11 a.m., ESPN

This one is certainly less exciting than it was shaping up to be at season’s start. Michigan State’s season has driven off a cliff since a promising Week 3 win at Notre Dame, and now the Spartans might struggle to reach a bowl game, an unthinkable scenario in the preseason, when Mark Dantonio’s team was revving up for another run at a conference title and berth in the College Football Playoff. Instead of postseason glory, though, Michigan State is heading toward its worst season under Dantonio, currently on a five-game losing streak and ranking third to last in the Big Ten in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Injuries have played a role on defense, but the offense has been completely inept, with a revolving door now at quarterback and a run game that can’t do a thing.

That’s all mighty bad news for the Spartans as it is, but it becomes much worse this weekend considering the Wolverines are arguably the best team in college football. With the exception of a 14-7 clash with the elite defense of Wisconsin, Michigan has blown out every one of its opponents this season, winning by an average of nearly 40 points (it goes all the way to 44 when you take out the Wisconsin game). Just two teams in the country are scoring more than the Wolverines (48.7 points a game), and no one is allowing fewer points than the Wolverines (10 points a game). This was supposed to be a titanic showdown with division-, conference- and national-championship implications on the line. But it looks like it’ll be just another blowout win for Michigan.

No. 24 Penn State at Purdue, 11 a.m., ABC/ESPN 2

Few teams in America are feeling better about themselves than the Nittany Lions, who pulled off a stunning upset win last weekend to topple unbeaten Ohio State and give James Franklin a signature win, his first over a ranked team since arriving at Penn State. The follow-up act should be equally as enjoyable, as Purdue has provided little resistance to opposing teams, particularly on defense. The Lions needed special teams wonders to beat the Buckeyes, but against the Boilermakers, Saquon Barkley should run wild and Trace McSorley should have a big day, as well. Somewhat unbelievably, Penn State is in second place in the Big Ten East Division standings, and while Michigan proved in a 39-point win that its the better of the two teams, a slip up or two by the Wolverines, and the Lions could be thinking about a trip to Indy.

Meanwhile, Purdue is playing for what exactly these days? The basement-dwelling Boilermakers have an interim coach after the firing of Darrell Hazell and can’t seem to stop anyone. The silver lining is perhaps quarterback David Blough, who despite consistent turnovers has been mighty productive, the leading passer in the Big Ten with 295 yards a game. He, along with Indiana’s Richard Lagow, is also the conference leader with 11 interceptions, but it looks like he’ll be the first Purdue opening-week quarterback since Hazell’s tenure started to survive October with his starting job. Hey, it’s something.

Maryland at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., ESPN U

These two teams have been knocked down a peg or two since promising starts. Indiana was 3-1 after an awesome overtime win against Michigan State but has lost its three games since to Ohio State, Nebraska and Northwestern. Maryland was 4-0 with one of the best rushing attacks in the country but has dropped back-to-back games to Penn State and Minnesota — and not looking good in either — before pulling off a double-digit win over reeling Michigan State last weekend.

The Terps still have one of the better rushing attacks in the Big Ten, statistically, with only Ohio State and Michigan averaging more than their 249.6 yards a game. They got back on track against the Spartans with 247 rush yards last week. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, looked all-around awful in a road loss at Northwestern, shooting themselves in the foot more times than can be remembered. The Indiana defense has been much, much improved this season and could very well give Maryland fits, but Northwestern put up 408 total yards last weekend and that’s not a good sign.

Northwestern at No. 6 Ohio State, 2:30 p.m., ESPN

The Wildcats are on some kind of hot streak with three straight wins in which the offense has looked absolutely terrific. Things were a bit tricky in the second half last weekend against Indiana, as Northwestern rode a 24-point first half to a 24-14 win. But that should take nothing away from the fact that the Cats have the Big Ten’s leading rusher in Justin Jackson (113 yards a game) and the Big Ten’s leading receiver in Austin Carr (102.9 yards a game). Plus, Clayton Thorson no longer looks like a freshman at quarterback. This is a potent attack all of a sudden, and going on the road won’t intimidate Pat Fitzgerald’s team, which strung together wins at Iowa and at Michigan State before beating Indiana last weekend in Evanston.

But, and this is a big but, Ohio State has one of the best defenses in the country. Even in last weekend’s upset loss at Penn State, when J.T. Barrett was under siege and sacked six times and the special teams fell on their face, the Buckeyes’ defense played very well, limiting the Lions to 276 total yards. Ohio State still ranks in the top five in scoring defense (14.4 points a game) and total defense (279.7 yards a game) and has 11 interceptions, a nation’s best four of which have been returned for touchdowns. Barrett, Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel still have the Big Ten’s No. 1 rushing attack (eighth nationally). So while Northwestern rolls into this one on a three-game win streak, Ohio State is still one of the best teams in America. And now the Buckeyes’ margin for error is zero if they want to get back to the College Football Playoff.

No. 7 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin, 6 p.m., ESPN

The Big Ten West Division title might be on the line Saturday night in Madison. These two meet as highly ranked teams with the division’s future in the balance. The West is actually still quite wild, if you look at the standings. Undefeated Nebraska sits at the top, but it’s Northwestern with just one conference loss in the second spot despite its three losses overall. Wisconsin, despite its No. 11 ranking, is tied in the loss column with Iowa and Minnesota because of two in-conference losses to two of the best teams in college football, Michigan and Ohio State. So it might be safe to say that if Nebraska comes away with a win Saturday night, Wisconsin won’t be going to Indy. Even if the Badgers win, the Huskers will have to lose another game just to force a first-place tie — and what if Northwestern keeps winning?

When it comes to this matchup, the Badgers seem to have the edge, not just because they’re playing at home but because this defense has been and remains out-of-this-world good. Wisconsin ranks fourth in the country in scoring defense (14.3 points a game) and ninth in the country in total defense (300.6 yards per game). Nebraska has some big-time playmakers on offense, but Wisconsin’s defense is so good — you might remember it held Michigan (No. 3 in American in scoring) to just 14 points — it just might not matter.

If the Huskers are going to win, it would certainly take an all-around effort, with Tommy Armstrong needing to play mistake-free football against a defense this stout. That being said, though, Nebraska has a defense, too, a good one with a strong secondary that could cause some real problems for Alex Hornibrook and the Badgers. Wisconsin’s offense looked great against a great defense in the first half against Ohio State, but when the clampdown came, the Badgers couldn’t budge, doing minimal second-half damage. And last weekend, Wisconsin mustered only 17 points against an Iowa team that’s been carved up numerous times, though Badger mistakes — missed kicks and fumbles — had more to do with that.

As in any big game with title implications, the team that takes care of the football will likely prevail.

John Fox: 'No truth' to reports he’s done with Jay Cutler

John Fox: 'No truth' to reports he’s done with Jay Cutler

Jay Cutler isn’t expected to the Bears starting quarterback in 2017, whether for reasons financial ($16 million), results (seven Bears Bears seasons, one postseason, two winning years) or performance (76.2 passer rating through his two games, one TD, two INTs). And given the chance this week to express either confidence in or desire to remain in Chicago, Cutler didn’t, only that the future is what it will be.

But if coach John Fox expects Cutler to be done after this abbreviated season for the quarterback, as some reports have suggested, Fox flatly said on Thursday that those reports are wrong.

“There is absolutely no truth to that,” Fox said. “People can say whatever they want. That’s the unfortunate part of this profession. But absolutely not true.”

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Cutler said, perhaps ironically, perhaps bluntly, that Fox had “no choice” but to be supportive of him now that Brian Hoyer is done for the year with a broken arm.

But Fox has been generally complimentary of Cutler going back as far as the NFL owners meetings last spring. Fox was supportive of Hoyer, holding out a chance to hold onto the starting job, when the Hoyer stepped in after Cutler’s thumb injury in week two, and Fox was supportive of Cutler as Cutler returned from the down time.

“I think Jay kinda knew all along what our plan was and that’s the important thing,” Fox said. “He was really supportive of Brian as far as the game plan, on game day, during the games. As far as on the sideline, making adjustments and different things that Brian was familiar with, I thought he was very helpful.”