'Genius' Urschel steps up to line for Penn State

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'Genius' Urschel steps up to line for Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- John Urschel has been labeled many things by the Penn State Nittany Lions. Some call him a genius with a mean streak. Others simply know him as a burly offensive lineman working on a second master's degree in math.

And now, maybe more important to the team overall, the soft-spoken guard has emerged as an unlikely -- but ideal -- leader in Happy Valley as Penn State opens preseason camp.

All in a day's work.

"He's a very, grounded young man, levelheaded. He's certainly prioritized his life right," offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said. "He's not a guy who craves a lot of flattery ... His idea of relaxing is much different (from everybody else)."

The big guys up front usually don't attract the notoriety that players like wideout Allen Robinson do. Robinson, an affable junior, led the Big Ten in receiving last season. But when it came time to taking players to conference media days in Chicago last month, Urschel was the only offensive player to go for Penn State.

"I think everybody knows by now he's a genius," Robinson said during a charity event in the offseason. And left tackle Donovan Smith even jokingly refers to Urschel, who boasts a perfect 4.0 GPA, as "Einstein."

Either way, it was back to work Monday after second-year coach Bill O'Brien whistled the first preseason practice into session at dawn. The top priority is to settle on a starting quarterback between junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and touted freshman Christian Hackenberg.

Keeping the team healthy and conditioned is also especially important with O'Brien coping with a downsized scholarship roster approaching 65 -- the limit mandated by the NCAA by 2014 for four seasons as part of sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. That means more reliance on walk-on players to fill depth, such as the perilously-thin linebacker corps.

Up front, beyond the transition to a new center, the team appears to be in relatively good shape this preseason with experienced players returning led by Urschel, a fifth-year senior.

The 6-foot-4 Urschel had dropped about seven pounds in the offseason from his 2012 listed weight of 307. McWhorter likes his flexibility and calls him one of the strongest players on the team -- a nice combination to have for guards who must pull on running plays and hold up against blitzes.

"He's not that vocal, but I say he definitely has leadership inside the huddle," Robinson said. "He's looked at a lot by players by how he studies film and the fire he brings to practice."

That attitude was evident during an outdoor conditioning workout during a cold early morning in February. The workout ended with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald pitting offensive against defensive players in a one-on-one, tug of war-type contest. The winner was the first player to pull the makeshift contraption -- and his opponent -- to a respective finish line about 10 yards away.

"OK, I want the biggest, baddest" player on each side, yelled Fitzgerald, using colorful language. Before Fitzgerald could finish his sentence, Urschel emerged from the offensive pack and stomped to the middle of the circle with a crazed look as if a gladiator ready to do battle. He easily beat his defensive opponent.

"That epitomizes his leadership ... John is not a rah-rah guy," McWhorter said in a recent interview. "His forte is leadership by example."

"When someone asks `Who wants to rep the offense?' Boom, John's out there."

Smith remembers first meeting Urschel in downtown State College while on a recruiting visit. He called the chance encounter "pretty awkward" at first.

"He just figured I was just a big guy on campus and figured out I was a recruit. He stopped and talked to me, and basically just told me what I had to do before I came in," Smith said. "Not a lot of people will just walk up to you like that ... They say first impressions are key."

Urschel is so respected he was asked to deliver an address on behalf of Big Ten players two weeks ago at the conference's luncheon. It was an honor that went to well-known quarterbacks the previous two seasons.

"I'm not nearly as eloquent as (Michigan State's) Kirk Cousins, nor as charismatic as (Michigan's) Denard Robinson, but I'll do my best. I took a course in public speaking my sophomore year, but unfortunately for me it was online," said a smiling Urschel, looking knowingly at the approving audience as if a comedian seeking applause.

Wearing a dark suit, the bearded Urschel appeared as if he could easily slip out to talk at a calculus conference. During the spring, he taught a section of a trigonometry-and-analytic geometry class three days a week. His bio lists him as doing research on "multigrid methods" and computational mathematics.

He told the audience that players should have four goals: To master the craft of being a football player; to get involved with the community; to help younger players; and to prepare for life after the game.

"Because our football careers are so short, and our lives hopefully long, planning and preparing for a life without football is the most important of these four goals," he said, "but also the easiest to neglect."

Urschel plans to pursue a doctorate and teach when he's done on the field.

Fastbreak Friday: No. 1 Villanova faces huge test vs. undefeated Notre Dame

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CSN

Fastbreak Friday: No. 1 Villanova faces huge test vs. undefeated Notre Dame

Fastbreak Friday is a weekly preview of the weekend's local college basketball action. CSN anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and CSN producer Sean Kane provide their analysis on all the games involving city teams and predict the outcomes. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season. Season prediction records can be found at the bottom of the column.

No. 1 Villanova (9-0) vs. No. 23 Notre Dame (9-0), Saturday, 12:00 p.m. in Newark, NJ

SK: This isn't just the best game involving a local team this weekend, it's the most highly-anticipated matchup in the country — a pair of undefeated teams going toe-to-toe in the Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.

No. 1 Villanova and No. 23 Notre Dame bring identical 9-0 records into this renewal of an old Big East rivalry. It's an opportunity for each team to make a statement on a national stage. The Wildcats want to prove they're worthy of that No. 1 ranking, while the Irish can prove they are among the country's elite teams. This really should be a fantastic basketball game. Villanova and Notre Dame are both well-coached, veteran teams brimming with players accustomed to playing in big games.

Villanova is coming off a hard-fought 89-79 win over La Salle on Tuesday. It marked the Wildcats' 16th straight Big 5 victory. With a win over Temple next week, seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds would become the first four-year class ever to go undefeated in Big 5 play. But city history can wait — Notre Dame has the Wildcats' full attention this weekend.

Jalen Brunson enters Saturday's game with no shortage of confidence. He was the difference for Villanova against La Salle, scoring a career-high 26 points on 10 of 17 shooting from the field. The sophomore point guard delivered clutch basket after clutch basket as the Wildcats held off the pesky Explorers in the second half. Despite Brunson's heroics, it's becoming more and more clear that Villanova sorely misses his backcourt mate Phil Booth.

Booth has missed the last six games with inflammation in his left knee, the same knee he underwent arthroscopic surgery on in the spring. Jay Wright is understandably being cautious with Booth, who has been listed as questionable for the last three weeks. The more time Booth misses, the more doubts there are concerning his long-term status for the season. Villanova has survived without Booth to this point, but they'll need him once Big East play begins. The Wildcats are down to a seven-man rotation without Booth, with Brunson tasked with the majority of the ballhandling responsibilities in addition to being one of the team's top scorers.

Villanova could use Booth against Notre Dame on Saturday. His status won't be revealed until a few hours before tip-off. I'd be surprised if Wright chooses this game for Booth to return. Ideally, the coach would ease Booth into a lower-stress game. If Booth does play this weekend, it will likely be on a limited role with a minutes restriction.

Notre Dame is led by the veteran trio of junior Bonzie Colson (17.1 ppg) and seniors V.J. Beachem (16.8 ppg) and Steve Vasturia (16.4 ppg). Vasturia is a St. Joe's Prep product who has become one of the best shooters in the country. He's connecting on 46 percent of his three-point attempts and he's missed just one of his 31 free throw attempts. The Fighting Irish have wins over Iowa, Northwestern, and Colorado this season. But they haven't played anyone in the same weight class as Villanova, and they certainly haven't seen a player of Hart's caliber.

Hart will be the best player on the floor Saturday and I expect him to be the difference. He'll be eager to shake off a frustrating outing against La Salle. Hart finished with 21 points and eight rebounds, but missed a handful of 10-12-foot pull-up jumpers in the lane that he normally makes in his sleep. Hart will seize the opportunity to prove he belongs in the National Player of the Year conversation. The college basketball world will be watching, and Hart knows it. 

Notre Dame should be able to exploit Villanova's thin frontcourt. But Hart — with some help from Jenkins, Brunson and Mikal Bridges — will make just enough winning plays to keep Villanova undefeated and atop the national polls for another week.

Villanova 77, Notre Dame 72       

La Salle (4-3) vs. Georgetown (5-4), Saturday, 2:00 p.m. in Miami, FL

AF: The Explorers are coming off a heck of a game against Villanova at the Palestra this past Tuesday night. I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t think they had it in them. I watched La Salle in several games this season, and to me they were playing more like a group of talented individual players rather than a team, a natural side effect of so many transfers.

But that game against Villanova showed me that they do have the ability to play as a team. Keeping it close down the stretch — and save for a few more made shots — they might have taken the Wildcats to overtime. Yes, Villanova won the game by 10, but it was closer than the score would indicate. And that’s a tribute to other players — like Pookie Powell, who had 27 against Nova — helping out the scoring department. That's something I’d imagine pleases his coach as well as the man who’s usually forced to carry that load, Jordan Price. 

So, quite the momentum builder and confidence booster for Dr. John Giannini’s team as they go on the road to the HoopHall Miami Invitational to face Georgetown. This is definitely not your father’s Hoyas team. They are reeling right now, getting punched in the gut right out of the gates of the season, losing a heartbreaker to Maryland only to follow it up with a loss to Arkansas State. Georgetown also had a pretty bad Maui Invitational late in November, losing by double digits to both Wisconsin and to Oklahoma State, the last one by 27 points. And just last weekend, the Hoyas barely beat Elon, a small school in Burlington, NC. Go Phoenix! 

I honestly have no idea which team the Explorers are going to see on Saturday. But they need to prepare like it’s Villanova, since that was by far their best effort of the season. That way, if La Salle faces the Hoyas team that lost by one point to Maryland and beat Oregon, they’ll be ready. I’m going to take the Explorers, because I hope they can build off a great team effort this week.

La Salle 76, Georgetown 72

Temple (6-3) vs. DePaul (5-2), Saturday 11:30 a.m. in Miami, FL

AF: Temple unfortunately had its five-game win streak snapped this week after a close loss to George Washington. The Owls found themselves down by as many as 15 in the second half before making a comeback late in the game. But a three-pointer didn't go at the buzzer that would've tied it and Temple fell, 66-63. Certainly a heartbreaker for a team that's surprising many around the city. 

In that loss to GW, the Owls made a season-high 12 three-pointers as a team, something that bodes well for Fran Dunphy's team moving forward. Long known for a defensive, perhaps even plodding offensive team, this year's Temple squad is showing it can score at a more efficient clip. Some bright spots in the GW game: 21 assists with just eight turnovers and 21 points off turnovers. Those numbers are going to keep you in, as well as, win you games. Also, you can't talk Temple unless you talk Obi Enechionyia. The junior forward has now posted double figures in scoring in all nine games for the Owls this season, and 20 or more points in five of them.

Temple, coincidentally like La Salle this weekend, heads to Miami to take part in the HoopHall Invitational. The Owls will face DePaul, who's coming off a win over Lamar. The Blue Demons are led by their two returning starters, sophomore Eli Cain and senior Billy Garrett. Garrett, averaging 12.6 points a game, is a former Big East Rookie of the Year in 2014. Cain meanwhile leads DePaul and ranks fourth in the Big East with 19.4 points. 

But Dave Leitao's squad has not fared well when tested by good defensive teams in the early season. In both of their losses, the Blue Demons failed to get close to their scoring average of 72 points a game, only posting 59 and 64 points against Rutgers and Northwestern, respectively. Plus, they have yet to play in a neutral site game, something Temple has already successfully done this season. 

I like the Owls to pick their momentum back up down in South Beach.

Temple 72, DePaul 66

Saint Joseph’s (3-4) at Drexel (4-4), Sunday, 4:00 p.m.

AF: The Dragons welcome St. Joe’s to the DAC this weekend as winners of two in a row. With eight games ialready played the season, this will just be Drexel’s third home game. They are coming off a nice win over High Point on the road in which Kari Jonsson more than doubled his average scoring output, pouring in 25 points, a career high. The Dragons are still paced by Kurk Lee who’s averaging 16 points and is a decent outside threat at 12 of 31 from three-point range. Zach Spiker seems to have his players on the same page, which has shown in the last two wins, both close games on the road, winning by a combined 10 points between the victories over Lafayette and High Point.

St. Joseph’s meanwhile is coming off a drubbing at the hands of the then-No. 2 team in the country. The Hawks visited Villanova last weekend at the Pavilion and came away with an 0-2 record in the Big 5 and a 88-57 loss. Of course, Villanova is now the top team in the country and they looked every bit of it last Saturday.

If you asked Phil Martelli at the beginning of the season, he openly admitted that he knew his team would have some growing pains and that their youth in certain positions would not likely serve them well in the tougher games. You certainly saw that against 'Nova. Still, Shavar Newkirk has been a very good player for Martelli and the Hawks, showing his leadership on the court as well as his scoring prowess. Newkirk is tallying over 20 points per game and leads the way for a total of four players who are scoring in double figures for the Hawks. I have also been impressed with the play of local kid, sophomore Lamarr Kimble. The Neumann-Goretti product posted 15 points to lead the Hawks against Villanova, no small feat against that team.

There haven’t been too many meetings between these two city rivals where you find that Drexel is averaging more points a game than St. Joe's. But that is the case for this year’s game, with Drexel posting more than five points a game above the Hawks. That, coupled with it being a home game, I think should work in the Dragons favor. The only issue is, you can’t underestimate a Hawks team that felt embarrassed by a 31-point defeat last time out. I think Martelli rights the ship in a close one at the DAC.

Saint Joseph’s 74, Drexel 72

George Mason (7-3) at Pennsylvania (3-4), Saturday, 2:00 p.m.

SK: This is a sneaky good game Saturday at the Palestra. George Mason has won six straight, including a huge 19-point win at Penn State on Wednesday. The Patriots trailed by one at halftime before roaring back to outscore the Nittany Lions by 20 in the second half. The six-game win streak is the longest in four years for George Mason.

Marquise Moore has been the driving force behind the Patriots' success, averaging 18.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. For the senior guard — listed at 6-2 — to be averaging more than 10 rebounds is remarkable. Moore had 25 points and 13 rebounds in George Mason's win over Penn State.

Penn is coming off an impressive win as well, beating Lafayette by 29 on Wednesday. That win came on the heels of a hard-fought loss at Temple last weekend. Don't be fooled by the 3-4 record — Steve Donahue's team is making progress. The Quakers' losses this season have come to No. 1 Villanova, Miami, Temple and Navy by two points. Freshman big man A.J. Brodeur continues to show why he'll be a star in the Ivy League for the next four years. Brodeur had 22 points on 10 of 13 shooting against Lafayette and added seven rebounds and five assists. He plays with a maturity well beyond his years, and Donahue is wisely running his offense through Brodeur on the low block more and more. 

I'd be surprised if this game doesn't come down to the last handful of possessions. I'm a big believer in what Donahue is doing at Penn, but I just don't see him having the horses to win this game against George Mason.

George Mason 76, Penn 72

Prediction Records

Amy Fadool: 6-1

Sean Kane: 5-3

TicketIQ: Penn State to face USC in most expensive Rose Bowl this decade

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TicketIQ: Penn State to face USC in most expensive Rose Bowl this decade

Editor's Note: The following is sponsored content written by TicketIQ.

Penn State is headed to the Rose Bowl Game, and it will cost a pretty penny to be on hand in Pasadena on January 2.

With a statement win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game Penn State clinched their first Rose Bowl berth since 2009. The No. 5 school in the nation will face No. 9 USC in a rematch from seven years ago. Such a long absence for both schools in the bowl game is driving resale ticket prices to new heights, so much so that the Rose Bowl Game will be the most expensive bowl game this season – including the two Semifinal games.

On TicketIQ, an event ticket search engine that pools tickets and data from over 90 percent of the secondary market, the average resale price for Rose Bowl Game tickets is now $804. Not only does that make it the most expensive Rose Bowl since at least 2010, but also the priciest bowl game of the last seven seasons. If looking just to get in on January 2 the cheapest tickets are now priced from $346 each.

The showdown between Penn State and USC is so expensive that it will be more than twice the average price of both Semifinal games. As it stands now the resale average for Peach Bowl tickets between Alabama and Washington at Georgia Dome is $389 with a get-in price of $185. Clemson and Ohio State will clash in the Fiesta Bowl to the tune of a $241 average and $71 get-in price.

Prices are so high for this year’s game in Pasadena that they rival the 2015 National Championship Game. The first-ever Championship Game under the new College Football Playoff system, that year’s game between Ohio State and Oregon averaged a $858 ticket and $317 get-in price.

While Penn State fans, students and alumni raced to snag tickets during the general on sale, prices were quick to skyrocket on the secondary market following the school’s invitation to the Rose Bowl Game. On Saturday afternoon, several hours before the Big Ten Championship kickoff, Rose Bowl tickets were averaging under $600, marking a nearly 40 percent increase since that time. The cheapest resale ticket price has jumped more than $100 since Saturday, climbing from its $245 price tag since.