'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.

St. Joe's can't overcome Phil Martelli's ejection in loss to St. Bonaventure

St. Joe's can't overcome Phil Martelli's ejection in loss to St. Bonaventure

BOX SCORE

A coach receiving an ejection usually fires up a team. Phil Martelli’s ejection in the second half Wednesday night set St. Joe’s back against St. Bonaventure, as the Hawks lost, 83-77, at Hagen Arena (see Instant Replay).

In the middle of the second half, St. Joe’s held possession for four straight plays thanks to offensive rebounds. The Hawks were trying desperately to trim a 59-55 deficit to a one-possession game.

For nearly a minute and a half, the Hawks had four attempts to score before Brendan Casper drove the lane, drawing contact — a foul that would go in the Bonnies' favor.

Martelli went ballistic, a move that would result in two technical fouls and an automatic ejection. The head coach left the court as boos showered the officials and chants of Martelli's name rained down from the stands.

St. Bonavenure’s deadliest offensive weapon of the night, Matt Mobley, drained all four free throws to make it a 63-55 game.

"There was a play in front of me, maybe it was 50-50, I have no idea,” Martelli said. “And all heck broke loose. I’ll have to look at the film and figure it out. Now the second guy warned me, he didn’t just fly off the handle.”

James Demery, who led St. Joe's with 21 points, wouldn't use his coach's tossing as an excuse for the failed rally.

“It is tough but at the end of the day," Demery said, "we still have to continue playing and keep that energy high."

Martelli’s ejection certainly was a turning point, but it wasn’t the only reason the Hawks lost. The coach described it best: “It still comes back to the numbers for me: turnovers and foul shooting.”

The Hawks went 18 for 27 from the free throw line, 3 for 18 from beyond the arc and had 15 turnovers, which were converted into 24 points for the Bonnies.

The numbers don't lie, but Martelli never wavered when asked about the effort his team put forward — instead, he offered there needs to be improvements made.

“It’s not will, it’s skill. It’s skill,” Martelli said. “I don’t have any question about their efforts. Their skill, and that’s not an excuse, but with the limited bodies, we just don’t get enough skill.”

With four minutes remaining, the Hawks found themselves down, 72-62, and all hope seemingly lost. But a small surge brought St. Joe's to within three with 26 seconds left to play. Charlie Brown went 4 for 4 from the free throw line, Demery added a layup and Chris Clover drained a three during the stretch. Nick Robinson capped it off with a three, whittling St. Bonaventure's lead down to 78-75.

“We don’t give up over here, everybody on this team has heart,” Demery said. “Every day we are going to go out there and give 110 percent. There’s some plays we didn’t finish. I mean, I had five turnovers, so we just have to finish.”

The Hawks tried to foul to stop the clock but the Bonnies were too efficient from the free throw line. The charity stripe and lack of time were St. Joe's ultimate demise.

In Robinson’s mind, his effort still wasn’t enough.

“If I would have made three free throws, we would have been tied,” Robinson said, referencing the three free throws he missed earlier in the game.

“We picked up the intensity and the positive energy,” Demery said of the late surge. “That’s what we need as a unit to be great. Everybody lifting each other up, that’s what it takes.”

The Hawks' next game will be at Saint Louis this Saturday (4:30 p.m./NBCSN).

No. 2 Villanova's run at the Pavilion ends at 48 with loss to No. 22 Butler

No. 2 Villanova's run at the Pavilion ends at 48 with loss to No. 22 Butler

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. — It started with 9:37 left in the game with a foul shot by Kelan Martin, and it ended with 4:18 left with a three-pointer by Martin.

In between, nothing went right for Villanova.

It was a 5½-minute nightmare.

No. 22 Butler ran off 18 straight points against No. 2 Villanova on Wednesday, turning a seven-point deficit into an 11-point lead, and then hung on for a 74-66 win over the Wildcats, ‘Nova’s first loss on campus in more than four years (see Instant Replay).

Villanova has lost three games this year, two of them to Butler.

“You have to give them credit,” Villanova sophomore Jalen Brunson said. “They were just hitting every shot. As a team, we just didn’t really lock in defensively. All credit to them for what they were able to do offensively.”

Villanova led 49-42 with just over 9½ minutes left, but during that 5½-minute stretch, Butler made 7 of 11 shots — including 4 of 7 threes — to take a 60-52 lead.

Villanova went 6½ minutes without scoring. The Wildcats missed six straight shots and committed two turnovers during that 18-0 run.

“Nothing really changed,” Butler junior forward Martin said. “We just stuck together.

“We knew we might get punched in the mouth today, it happens on the road, especially with a good team. We responded well and stuck with it and went on a run and just kept grinding it out, possession by possession.”

The loss was the first ever on campus for Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and the other Villanova seniors. The Wildcats had won 48 straight games at the Pavilion since a 2013 loss to Providence. That was Ryan Arcidiacono's freshman year.

Villanova dropped to 26-3 overall and 13-3 in the Big East, and Butler — which had never won at Villanova — improved to 22-6 and 11-5.

One more Villanova win or Butler loss will still give Villanova the outright Big East Conference title and No. 1 seed in next month’s conference tournament in New York. 

Creighton lost Wednesday night to Providence, leaving Butler and Villanova the only schools that can win the Big East regular-season title. 

“We’ve got to have better attention to detail, and it starts with me,” Hart said. “On the defensive end, we got exposed and it started with me and that’s something that we’ve got to have better attention to detail from the seniors and [have it] trickle down.”

Villanova got the lead down to six — with the ball — with three minutes left and got as close as five during a wild last couple minutes, but Butler made its last eight foul shots to secure the win.

“It seemed like the last couple minutes took an hour,” Martin said.

Brunson shot 9 for 13 for 24 points, but the rest of the Wildcats were a combined 16 for 44.

Hart scored 18, but Jenkins shot 1 for 8 and 1 for 5 from three, Mikal Bridges had just three points and Donte DiVincenzo just six.

“They just played better than us in every phase,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We just have to give them credit. Sometimes you come into a game, and the other team plays better. You try everything and our guys competed to the end, I’m proud of them for that, but we just ran into a team that played better than us tonight in every phase.”

Butler led 8-0 early, but Villanova outscored the Bulldogs 44-28 over the next 22½ minutes and took its biggest lead at 44-36 seven minutes into the second half.

But Butler — down eight against the No. 2 team in the country in a gym where the Wildcats hadn’t lost in four years — kept battling.

“I thought our guys played pretty loose and free and were able to make some open looks against their pressure,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “They’re 15th in the country in defensive efficiency for a reason, but our guys just got into a rhythm and made some open shots.”

Martin had 22 points and eight rebounds for Butler on 7 for 11 shooting. Kamar Baldwin added 15 points before fouling out, and Avery Woodson scored 13.

Butler shot 51 percent and 40 percent from three. Villanova shot just 44 percent and 41 percent in the second half and made just 6 of 24 from the arc — 25 percent.

“Their physicality, we just didn’t handle it well,” Wright said. “We turned it over [and] couldn’t get any assists (eight on 25 baskets).

“They just do a great job of playing every possession. They get down, they don’t do anything different. They just keep grinding, grinding, and try to do the same thing. When they got down, they didn’t crack at all. They just kept executing.

“We didn’t crack either, but we just couldn’t get buckets. We didn’t execute well and a lot of it was their defense. They were just a better team than us tonight. We made more mistakes than they did.”