Quick learning curves help freshmen Vitale, Lowry

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Quick learning curves help freshmen Vitale, Lowry

The learning curves were conquered quickly by Northwestern freshmen Dan Vitale and Dean Lowry.
Just six months after their respective high school graduations, the first-year players already have made increasingly impressive marks with the Gator Bowl-bound Wildcats.
Some major college programs make freshman wait their turn to work their way up a depth chart. Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald said he has no problem calling on first-year players, especially if they are ready and able.
Danny is very gifted athletically, a very bright young man who I thought made a lot of big plays as the season went along. Fitzgerald said. Dean is physically very gifted, hes got great size and had a great quarter academically. As the year went along he was more comfortable in his role and really started to play well.
Vitale and Lowry are among four freshman to crack the lineup and both are expected to play when Northwestern (9-3) meets Mississippi State (8-4) in the Jan. 1 Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Wildcats are scheduled to leave Evanston for Jacksonville early Wednesday and open several days of training Thursday at Jacksonville University.
A 6-foot-2 tight end from Wheaton, Vitale topped the depth chart at "super back" -- a combination tight end and fullback -- coming out of training camp.
Through 12 games -- including 10 starts -- he was fifth among Northwestern receivers with 21 catches for 206 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Vitale broke out against Michigan State with nine receptions for 110 yards and earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors.
But in August, he had no great expectations entering preseason Camp Kenosha.
I just went into camp thinking I was going to do everything I could just to get on the field, said Vitale, who won a 2010 state championship as a Tiger running backwide receiver. Its been a very good growing experience, especially starting off with little reps and progressively getting more time and getting the ball thrown to me, and Ive learned a lot.
The intense preseason training helped Vitale prepare, although he admitted there were some major adjustments to make.
The speed of the game (is different), he said. And I never had to block as much. Thats been one of the key aspects of the game this year.
Lowry, a 6-foot-6 reserve defensive lineman from Rockford, appeared in all 12 games. Hes had eight solo tackles and five assists plus a fumble recovery against Vanderbilt and a quarterback sack at Michigan State.
Its been crazy -- a lot of good times but a lot of stressful times trying to balance school and football, Lowry, an all-stater who played on back-to-back unbeaten Rockford Boylan championship teams, said. But now Im feeling real confident going to a bowl game. I have the technique and the coaching has definitely helped me get there. I feel really good.
Last summer, Lowry also didnt figure hed be in line for the role he eventually earned.
Probably not, he said. I took one day at a time as the coaches told me. But I really didnt think Id be at this point yet.
And Lowry said he continues to learn.
Everyones bigger, stronger and faster, he said. A lot of physical teams we played against they kind of pushed me around a little bit, but I learned from that.
A year ago Vitale was on a holiday break from Wheaton Warrenville South and wrapping up Christmas shopping. He already knew he was bound for Northwestern after committing the previous June.
There was nothing to worry about, nothing to focus on except getting ready to come here, Vitale said. Actually I think I was little worried about finals. I think I had them after break.
Lowry, meanwhile, was preparing for a holiday basketball tournament with his Boylan Catholic team.
We had just finished winning a state football championship, Lowry said. It was basketball season and I was sweating a lot, losing a lot of weight.
Fast forward 12 months and both were among three Northwestern players named to the all-Big Ten freshman team. Redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose also landed on the squad.
Some of his teammates have experienced as many as four bowl games.
Lowry cant wait for his first.
Im just going to embrace it and see how it goes, he said.

Buckeyes going back to College Football Playoff, will face Clemson in Fiesta Bowl

Buckeyes going back to College Football Playoff, will face Clemson in Fiesta Bowl

The College Football Playoff field is set, and for the second time in three years, the Ohio State Buckeyes will compete for a national championship.

The selection committee revealed the four-team field for this season's Playoff, with Ohio State coming at No. 3. The Buckeyes will battle No. 2 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. The other Playoff semifinal pits No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl.

While Ohio State has been considered one of the best teams in the country throughout the season, the Buckeyes' inclusion in the Playoff field is not without controversy, as they are the first team to play in the Playoff without winning their conference championship. But Ohio State had a sterling resume with three wins over top-10 teams: Michigan, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. The Buckeyes' lone loss came against a top-10 Penn State team.

The 2014 national champion, Ohio State returns to the Playoff after missing out last season. Big Ten champion Michigan State represented the conference last year, getting crushed by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Two years ago, the Buckeyes beat the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl and then beat the Oregon Ducks in the national championship game.

Big Ten champion Penn State, which won the conference title game Saturday night with an instant-classic comeback victory over Wisconsin, ended up fifth and was left off the bracket. So too was sixth-ranked Michigan, which didn't compete for a conference championship but was ranked fifth in the final set of rankings prior to Sunday's bracket reveal. The Nittany Lions and Wolverines combined for five wins over top-10 teams this season.

There was plenty of conversation that red-hot Penn State could surge into the Playoff, just like Ohio State did two years ago. The Lions are riding a nine-game winning streak, defeated Ohio State earlier in the season and claimed the championship in what has been the hands-down best conference in college football this season. And boy did they impress Saturday night in their most recent showing, erasing a three-touchdown deficit to come back and beat Wisconsin.

Michigan, too, had a mighty compelling case to make. The Wolverines, owners of one of the best defenses in the country all season long, beat three top-10 teams during the regular season and took the No. 2 team in the country to double overtime just last weekend.

But in the end, we did not get the first Playoff field to feature two teams from the same conference. Penn State and Michigan will learn their bowl fates — likely going to New Year's Six bowl games — later Sunday.

Big Ten poll update: Penn State jumps Michigan in last pre-Playoff AP poll

Big Ten poll update: Penn State jumps Michigan in last pre-Playoff AP poll

The College Football Playoff selection committee will reveal the four-team Playoff field shortly, but in the AP poll, Big Ten champion Penn State did vault ahead of Michigan.

The Nittany Lions, fresh off their instant-classic comeback win in Saturday night's Big Ten title game, jumped up three spots, from No. 8 to No. 5, passing the Wolverines, who dropped from No. 5 to No. 6 with no game to play this weekend.

Who knows if that will be the thinking of the committee or if Penn State's performance Saturday was impressive enough to get it above Washington or Clemson and into the final four.

In the AP poll Sunday, Ohio State checked in at No. 2 behind No. 1 Alabama. The Buckeyes didn't play Saturday either, but those top two spots figure to be how the top two spots of the Playoff field will look. Clemson and Washington stayed the Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the poll, which seems to be a likely possibility in the Playoff, as well.

Wisconsin, defeated by Penn State on Saturday night, dropped just two spots from No. 6 to No. 8, jumped by Penn State and Oklahoma, which was victorious in its regular-season finale against Oklahoma State, claiming the Big 12 championship in the process.

Iowa moved up one spot from No. 22 to No. 21, while Nebraska dropped a spot from No. 23 to No. 24. Neither team played this weekend.