Kyle Long was a full participant in back-to-back practices Thursday and Friday, and wasn't listed on the team's injury report Friday, clearing the path for the three-time Pro Bowler to make his 2017 debut Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s been a lengthy, grueling process for Long to get to this point, with significant muscle atrophy in his ankle and a setback during training camp further delaying his return to the field.
Where Long plays in his 2017 debut will be interesting to watch. The Bears have planned on moving him from right guard to left guard, though with Josh Sitton doubtful with a rib injury, Long — who didn’t get many full-team reps at left guard during training camp anyway — could start on the right side Sunday.
Part of the equation, too, is that Cody Whitehair has more experience with the Bears at left guard, where he played until Sitton was signed before the beginning of the 2016 season. If Tom Compton (hip, questionable?) can’t play on Sunday, Whitehair presumably will move to guard while Hroniss Grasu will start at center. Whitehair did play both left and right guard in Week 2 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers due to the injuries to Sitton and Compton.
No matter where Long starts, though, his return will provide a boost to an offensive line that’s been flooded with extra defenders against the run so far this year. The Steelers would be smart to take the same stack-the-box approach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did, which led to Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen being limited to 20 yards on 16 carries.
Fox said Long won't be on a concrete snap count, but the Bears will evaluate him throughout the game. But even if Long isn’t 100 percent, or doesn’t play 100 percent of the snaps, he can be a difference-maker for an offense that’s needed difference-makers in 2017.
“I mean, the expectations are where they left off when I left. I always have high expectations,” Long said. “If you play the game you change the game. If you’re out there doing anything other than that then you’re just witnessing it, you’re watching. It’s not a spectator sport.”
Big Ten play is starting with an unexpected bang.
Yeah, Ohio State and Indiana tussled at the end of August, but now we’re really getting into conference play and who thought we’d be so excited about Michigan-Purdue and Penn State-Iowa?
Give plenty of credit where credit is due, to Jeff Brohm and Kirk Ferentz for getting some surprising results out of their teams early on this season. The Boilers have arguably been the biggest story of the Big Ten through three weeks, capping an intriguing non-conference slate with a 35-3 pounding of Mizzou last weekend, suddenly setting up an upset possibility for big, bad Michigan. Meanwhile, Iowa has looked as good with new quarterback Nathan Stanley as it did with C.J. Beathard, even if the competition hasn’t been world-beaters. Now a matchup with a top-five Penn State team is being talked about as a potential shootout.
I say bring it on! It could be a real fun weekend in the Big Ten, and you can get previews and picks for every game below.
All games played on Saturday, Sept. 23.
UNLV at No. 10 Ohio State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Another good opportunity for the Buckeyes to keep the good feelings going after last week’s course-correcting win over Army. J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins and all of the initialed and non-initialed Ohio State players should have ample opportunity to score points against a UNLV team that allowed 43 in a loss to Howard earlier this month.
The pick: Ohio State
UCF at Maryland, 2 p.m., FS1
Last week felt a little empty without the high-octane Terps on the college football calendar. Maryland has scored 114 points in two games this season. Meanwhile, UCF hasn’t played since Aug. 31, its last two games cancelled due to the recent hurricane that swept through Florida. The Knights put up some points in that game, though, scoring 61 against Florida International. Maybe we’re in for a shootout?
The pick: Maryland
Rutgers at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Huskers are in a dire situation all of a sudden, with athletics director Shawn Eichorst fired from his post earlier this week. That cranks up the heat on Mike Riley’s already mighty-hot hot seat. Bottom line is Nebraska is in need of a win, and there’s no better conference foe to get that win against than Rutgers. While a Huskers win usually seems like a safe bet against the Big Ten’s worst program — and a team that gave Eastern Michigan its first Power Five win ever two weeks back — that defense has been horrendous against the likes of Arkansas State, and Tanner Lee couldn’t keep the ball out of the hands of Northern Illinois’ defense last week. There’s no good pick here, but if Nebraska loses, things will go from real, real bad to even worse for that program.
The pick: Nebraska
Georgia Southern at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Hoosiers are back in action after last week’s game was cancelled due to the hurricane. After the partially good showing against Ohio State and a predictable win over Virginia, Indiana should score an easy one this weekend against Georgia Southern. The Eagles have scored just 19 points in their two games this season, including a 22-12 loss to FCS foe New Hampshire. Blech.
The pick: Indiana
No. 8 Michigan at Purdue, 3 p.m., FOX
This one went from afterthought to much anticipated real quick. Thank the Boilermakers, who went into an SEC stadium last weekend and came away with a dominating 35-3 victory, making this look like a much different program under Jeff Brohm than the one we’ve seen for the past half decade or so. The offense will get deserved hype for its high power. Purdue’s scored 79 points in the last two games. But a defense that kept MIzzou out of the end zone could have a similar effect on a Michigan offense that has struggled mightily so far this season. Taking away all of Wilton Speight’s pass-catchers was going to obviously have an effect, but that side of the ball hasn’t been able to reload as easily as the defense and Speight & Co. look stuck in the mud. The Wolverines definitely have the ability to slow down the Boilers, but can they score any points themselves? While Michigan fans will surely be freaking out if this is a close game — something they might want to get used to this season if the first three performances are any indication — a close one wouldn’t be at all out of the question, which in and of itself should reflect wonderfully on Brohm. That being said, the best unit on the field is the Wolverines’ defense. And remember that David Blough and Elijah Sindelar teamed up to throw three picks in Purdue's season-opening loss to Louisville.
The pick: Michigan
No. 4 Penn State at Iowa, 6:30 p.m., ABC
Here’s another one that might have seemed like blowout material just a few weeks back but since has gained a lot of intrigue. Iowa has been pretty darn impressive through three weeks, 3-0 and riding high thanks to the play of new quarterback Nathan Stanley, who’s thrown 10 touchdown passes compared to just one interception in three games. Akrum Wadley’s been expectedly great, too, and that defense has shone in its two home games, holding Wyoming and North Texas to a combined 17 points. Of course, I’m conveniently leaving out the 44-41 shootout win over Iowa State, a phenomenally entertaining game in which the offense looked great but in which the defense didn’t. And now arguably the most explosive offense in college football comes to town. Penn State has predictably beaten up on its first three opponents, with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley looking like the Heisman candidates they are. While the Hawkeyes deserve credit for making this one closer than anyone could have thought, the Nittany Lions’ offense seems like too much to handle. For just about any defense.
The pick: Penn State
Notre Dame at Michigan State, 7 p.m., FOX
These two teams played just last season before teaming to go 7-17 in a pair of real disappointing campaigns. Notre Dame has shown it can dominate on the ground and it did just that against a Boston College team that typically has one of the better defenses in the country. That didn’t show last week, though, as the Irish racked up 515 rushing yards. Michigan State’s rush defense numbers are good through two games, but with those wins coming against MAC teams, who knows? Notre Dame has at least played Georgia, albeit with poor results, but Michigan State has done very little to give any indication of what kind of football team it is this season. This seems a complete toss up to me, but I’ll go with the team that’s pounded weak competition vs. the team that’s soundly beaten weak competition.
The pick: Notre Dame