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    Checking In: On Bye Weeks and Big 'Cats

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    One day last offseason, offensive left guard Brian Mulroe dropped by the football offices to chat with Adam Cushing, his position coach. It was then, as they kicked around life, that the senior mentioned that his group wanted to be different from those that had preceded it, that it wanted an identity distinct from the past and unique to itself. "So we thought, 'Hey, let's come up with something new. Let's let this group be able to be its own group,'" Cushing remembered late Thursday morning.

    So he talked to superbacks coach Bob Heffner, himself a former O-line coach, and learned that years ago he had called one of his groups the Big Cats. Then he talked to Al Johnson, the football performance coach who works closely with the O line, and learned that he was already using that term in the weight room. Now center Brian Vitabile, as well as Mulroe, were talked to, and soon enough this season's group had its handle. No longer would the line play with Hog Pride, which had been its cry for so long. Now it would simply be the Big Cats.

    "Hogs go to slaughter," Cushing would also say on Thursday, further explaining the change. "But big cats rule the jungle, rule anywhere they are."

    *****

    The Big Cats, entering this season, were just three-fifths complete with Vitabile and Mulroe and left tackle Patrick Ward as the only returning starters. But Thursday, as the 'Cats themselves held the one open practice of their bye-week, they were a fully-functioning force that had helped catalyze their team to its 7-2 record. Neil Deiters had slipped in at right guard, Jack Konopka had done the same at right tackle, and together the quintet was now the foundation of a rushing attack averaging 237.6 yards per game. The only Big Ten teams with more were Nebraska and Ohio State, and that was not all. Venric Mark, the prime beneficiary of the Big Cats, was averaging 119.7 rushing yards-per-game, best among all the conference running backs and behind only the 121.4 averaged by Buckeye quarterback Braxton MIller.

    That production testifies to the group's cohesion, which an O line must have to be productive, and that is the point here. This is no easy thing to achieve, especially with two new members, but without it the quintet is as useless as a glove with a gaping hole in one finger. "We spend a lot of time together outside of football. . . We try and go out of our way to meet up with each other," Vitabile will say when asked how that cohesion has been achieved. "I might even go out to dinner with some of the guys I live with, with the rest of the O linemen, check on some of the younger guys, see what they're doing, make sure we're getting together as much as possible. We know that's who we're playing next to and you've got to have that kind of relationship." "It's been a long process that's finally started to show how close the group really is," Cushing says to the same question. "We weren't playing our best early in the season. But guys just embraced getting better every single week and everybody on the line, we've bought into, 'We want all five all day.' We talk about playing with a fist and we need all five performing on every single play. So guys are, 'C'mon, man. We've got this. Let's get all five.' That kind of thing."

    But how does that closeness off the field translate to their work on it?

    "It's about the relationship you have," says Vitabile. "You know what kind of person they are. You know how they're going to react to certain things. You can trust them. You know what gets them going, what keeps them happy, what types of things keep their mood up. It's not just playing football. You're out there having a relationship. It's the whole group that succeeds. It's not just one person."

    "It translates quite a bit. Quite a bit," picks up Cushing. "Offensive line, you have more guys on the field at one position that all have to be on the same page than really anywhere else. So they have to have that chemistry, that intangible. The off-field thing is real important. It's a bye-week, but they're still going out to dinner together tonight. All those kind of things make a big difference because now they can trust the guy next to them. So even if they don't get the chance to make the perfect call, they know that guy's doing what he's supposed to be doing and that means I can do what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't need to overcompensate."

    *****

    One other adage about offensive linemen notes that they enjoy run blocking, where they are the aggressors, over pass blocking, where they are back-pedaling and absorbing blows. So we ask Vitabile how it feels to be handed a plan like the one the 'Cats used in the Iowa game, where they rushed 49 times and threw just 10. "During the week, we go through all our plays," he says. "We don't find out, well, we kind of have the idea that we want to run the ball. But then when it gets to game time and we're actually running the ball a lot, it's, 'All right.' We get amped up about it. I don't know how much we go into it knowing we're going to try and pound the rock. But after that first (75-yard touchdown) drive (all on the ground), we came to the sideline and everybody's, 'All right. Let's keep running. Let's keep going. Let's keep pushing it.' So we get excited more in-game by what is happening. Then we just want to keep pounding it, take some responsibility. It comes a lot from the coaches being able to trust us that much to say we're going to run the ball. If we're able to do that, it makes us feel good, knowing that we can do our job and have the coaches' trust."

    "Sure. Sure (we get amped up)," says Cushing, smiling again. "Obviously we like running the ball and we're going to take a lot of pride in doing that. Our running backs have been running hard this year, they always do. But there's a lot of energy out of those guys and having those guys succeed, the O line feeds off the energy of the running backs and of (quarterback) Kain (Colter) making plays with his feet. He has a lot of energy about him too. So it makes a difference."

    And when Mark breaks one?

    "When we get a nice, long run that cuts out about half the field, it cuts out a lot of work for us," says Vitabile, himself smiling now. "It's better to sprint down the field to celebrate rather than run five more plays. It's great knowing you did your job. That's how a play's supposed to work. So you know when you do it as it's drawn up, it's a teach tape. That's awesome."

    *****

    One last thing. When they break down after huddling up on the field, even when they get ready to leave a meeting, the offensive linemen yell just one thing. "Big Cats" is what they yell, which makes it no surprise that Cushing finally says this. He says, "They've really embraced it."

    QUICKLY NOTED:
    * Corners Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans, both injured against Nebraska, did not practice Thursday. Asked if they would be available for the 'Cats' Nov. 10 date at Michigan, Pat Fitzgerald said, "I think as we progress, I'll give you some updates. But I feel encouraged by the way things are progressing for both those guys."

    * When asked about having a bye week so late in the season, he said, "We need this right now from a standpoint of getting healthy. We've got some guys who've gone through the grind, nine weeks of the season, who need a little bit of time. Early in the year, I would have said, 'Wow, bye week at 10. I'm not really excited about it.' But now, as it's fallen and the season's progressed, I'm really glad we get it right now."

    * One more thing he was asked about was Bo Cisek grabbing a light saber from the stands and using it to lead the band after the 'Cats win over Iowa. "I got it on my Facebook page," he said with a laugh, and then he added this: "Number one, I think that's what college football's all about. If you're not having fun, what're you doing? Especially after you win a big game. I've gotten some notes from people that say, 'Coach, it'd be great if the guys acted like they'd been there before.' I'd say to those folks that the game's changed a little bit and times have changed a little bit. We're not trying to show up our opponent. Obviously, we've got great respect for everybody we play. The kid gave Bo a light saber. I think it's pretty cool, especially as a Star Wars fan."

    AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, when asked if he dressed up for Halloween: "No. No. I went as a dad. It's the first Halloween I've been with the kids because of the bye-week. So it was kind of cool."

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    1 Comment

    Hey, Skip. I think you accidentally called Brandon Vitabile "Brian" in the second paragraph. Cool post, though!

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