Big Ten

Spencer back but Brown on track to remain LG starter

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Spencer back but Brown on track to remain LG starter

The injury casualties this season may have an unintended but crucial benefit for the 2013 Bears.
 
Veteran Chris Spencer went down with a knee injury in the loss to Seattle. Edwin Williams was moved into Spencers spot at left guard but played poorly enough at Minnesota that undrafted free agent rookie James Brown replaced Williams.

READ: Packers' Woodson out for Sunday
 
Now Spencer is back practicing but strong indications are that the Bears think they have a nugget in Brown, who is expected to start Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
 
We like James, said offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Hes a big guy. When he hits you in the pocket, you stay hit. We anticipate James being in the mix this week.
 
MORE: What's the Bears' record? Don't worry, Lovie's got that information handy.

When a coach specifically alludes to an offensive linemans physicality, consider that a lineup tell.
 
Spencer had lost his job after the first Green Bay game and got back into the lineup as something other than just a short-yardage tight end only when Chilo Rachal failed completely in San Francisco.

MORE: Marshall says it's "personal" this week with Green Bay
 
What Brown also brings is a little more size to the line not weight (306), but height, something coach Lovie Smith wants in offensive linemen. Spencer and Williams are 6-3. With Brown, the Bears have 6-7 JMarcus Webb, 6-7 Gabe Carimi and 6-6 Jonathan Scott starting, with only center Roberto Garza (6-2) shorter than Browns 6-4.

See how they stack up: Week 8 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 8 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 8 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Alabama (8-0)

Of course the Tide continue to roll, this weekend rolling over an increasingly hapless Tennessee team to the tune of 45-7. No, the schedule doesn’t look any tougher than it did last week.

2. Penn State (7-0)

Hello, Penn State. We knew these Nittany Lions had an explosive offense, but the 42-13 beatdown they put on Michigan and its nation-best defense was incredible. Talk about revenge for last year.

3. TCU (7-0)

A 43-0 smackdown of Kansas? That’s to be expected. But the Frogs are still in the driver’s seat in the Big 12, with two road trips against top-25 teams — Iowa State and Oklahoma — coming in the next three games.

4. Georgia (7-0)

No game for the Dawgs this weekend, but how good is that win at Notre Dame looking now that the Irish are looking like one of the country’s top teams? That’ll get the Dawgs barking.

5. Wisconsin (7-0)

The Badgers had no trouble in their 25-point cruise-control win over Maryland. Poor Jonathan Taylor has to live in a world where Saquon Barkley exists, taking attention away from his fantastic freshman year.

6. Miami (6-0)

The Canes haven’t been making things look easy, but they’re still undefeated — and surprisingly the best team in a thought-to-be-loaded ACC — after sweating out giant-killing Syracuse.

7. Notre Dame (6-1)

The Irish are really, really good, you guys, as evidenced in their 49-14 throttling of USC on Saturday. Josh Adams carved up the Trojans for 191 yards and three touchdowns, another guy who unfortunately lives in the same world as Saquon Barkley.

8. Ohio State (6-1)

The Buckeyes sat back and watched as their game against Penn State this coming Saturday became a showdown of epic proportions. Quietly, no team is scoring more points than Ohio State and its 47.3 per-week average.

9. Clemson (6-1)

With a bye following that upset loss at Syracuse, here’s a rarity for you: Clemson will enter next weekend’s game without a win in three weeks!

10. Virginia Tech (6-1)

Playing North Carolina these days is like stamping the free space on a bingo card, but Virginia Tech will take the style points that came with a 59-7 crushing of a win.

11. Oklahoma (6-1)

The game of the week was the Sooners’ comeback win in the Little Apple, a classic Big 12 shootout against Kansas State. Baker Mayfield can still ball, and Oklahoma’s only a win over TCU away from being back atop the conference.

12. Michigan State (6-1)

It doesn’t seem that Michigan State is capable of winning any way but ugly, winning this weekend despite having just three points with six minutes left. But Sparty’s 6-1 with its only loss to a dominant Notre Dame team.

13. Oklahoma State (6-1)

Mason Rudolph and the Okie State offense lost their mojo this weekend in Austin but sweated out an entertaining-enough overtime win over Texas. The Cowboys need a statement win of some kind, and they’ll have an opportunity next weekend at West Virginia.

14. West Virginia (5-2)

Allowing 23 fourth-quarter points to Baylor is not a good thing to do. But West Virginia won behind Will Grier and David Sills. Sills has an insane 15 touchdown catches through seven games, eyeing the NCAA record.

15. Washington (6-1)

Who knows what the Pac-12 holds on any given Saturday. Washington didn’t play this weekend, and it’s nearly impossible to predict what it’ll do against any team left on its schedule. Pac-12 insanity ftw!

16. Washington State (7-1)

Wazzu showed up after that upset loss to Cal, blanking Colorado by a 28-0 score on The Palouse. Luke Falk has more touchdown throws than Pac-12 NFL Draft darlings Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen.

17. Stanford (5-2)

No game for the Cardinal after blasting Oregon the weekend prior. Expect another blasting next weekend against terrible Oregon State. Even with no game this week. Bryce Love is still the nation’s top rusher by more than 230 yards.

18. Auburn (6-2)

The Tigers can still run and ran all over Arkansas, with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson combining for 153 yards and four rushing touchdowns.

19. South Florida (7-0)

Another game, another 30-plus-point showing by the Bulls’ offense. USF racked up 378 rushing yards — 378! — against Tulane. The USF-UCF I-4 Lighting Bowl or whatever the heck they call it needs to happen yesterday.

20. Central Florida (6-0)

Speaking of UCF, an easy-enough 31-21 victory over a good Navy team showed its the Knights and the Bulls then everyone else in the Group of Five. Bring on the I-4 Lightning Bowl!

21. North Carolina State (6-1)

NC State is for real, nobody’s questioning that thanks to wins over Florida State and Louisville. But next weekend brings the test of all tests, a trip to Notre Dame Stadium against a red-hot Irish team.

22. LSU (6-2)

If only this LSU team could’ve been the one to show up against Mississippi State and Troy. Saturday brought a 40-24 beatdown of Ole Miss. The Bayou Bengals are playing real well right now, but this is a three-month season, guys.

23. Memphis (6-1)

Memphis knocked off another Group of Five big boy in Houston. Good for them. Sadly the Tigers aren’t as good as USF or UCF so … 

24. Iowa State (5-2)

For the second time in three weeks, Iowa State knocked off a good Big 12 team and now has the distinction of being a good Big 12 team itself. Clones haven’t been this big a deal since that sheep.

25. Louisville (5-3)

Thanks to James Blackman’s dumbfounding fumble, Louisville avoided a disastrous comeback loss to Florida State. Lamar Jackson is still really good, though, so you’d like to think the Cardinals are still a threat to beat anyone.

Others receiving votes:

Texas A&M (5-2)

For all the negative attention over that Week 1 blown game against UCLA — and the calls for Kevin Sumlin’s job that came with it — the only loss the Aggies have had since was to Alabama.

USC (6-2)

Getting trounced by Notre Dame proved what we already kinda knew: that USC ain’t the preseason national title contender it was cracked up to be. The Trojans’ loss also probably knocked the Pac-12 out of the Playoff. Oops.

Arizona (5-2)

Did you know that Arizona is secretly good? The Cats have five wins, in which they’ve averaged 52.4 points. That’s a lot of points!

Arizona State (4-3)

The Devils have had a penchant for beating teams they shouldn’t beat this season, and they did it again Saturday with a win over Utah. They’re 3-1 in their last four with wins over Oregon, Washington and Utah and the lone loss coming to Stanford.

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

Bears grades: Straight A's for the defense, not so much for the offense

QUARTERBACKS: D-

Mitchell Trubisky summed up his day with this line: “I thought I played really poor.” He thought he could’ve led Tarik Cohen better on that 70-yard completion — had he, in his mind, it could’ve been a touchdown. He took a sack for a loss of nine yards on third down in the first quarter that pushed the Bears back to the Carolina 34, leading to Connor Barth’s missed 52-yard field goal. Trubisky made a poor decision trying to fit a pass to Zach Miller into a window that wasn’t there to begin the third quarter. It was Trubisky’s first start without a turnover, though, which was more indicative of how little the Bears asked him to do. Eventually, the Bears are going to have to ask Trubisky to try to open things up assuming opposing defenses continue to find success loading the box to stop the run. But with an early 14-point lead, that wasn’t part of the gameplan for Trubisky on Sunday. 

RUNNING BACKS: C-

There wasn’t much there for Jordan Howard, who faced eight or more defenders in the box on 57 percent of his runs but averaged only 2.3 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, the lowest average among running backs in Week 7 so far. Howard wasn’t able to punch the ball into the end zone when the Bears got to the one-yard line in the second quarter, and Taquan Mizzell wasn’t able to get open in the end zone on third down, leading to Trubisky scrambling for the pylon and winding up just short. Tarik Cohen had a clear drop and bobbled a back-shoulder pass out of bounds (it looked like he might've turned too late, or the ball was there too early), but his 70-yard reception was the Bears’ most explosive pass play of the season. 

WIDE RECEIVERS: F

Tanner Gentry was the only receiver to be targeted on Sunday, catching that single pass for an eight-yard gain on third and long. The Bears weren’t going to force anything up by two touchdowns, but Gentry and Tre McBride struggled to get open and give the Bears at least an option of taking the lid off the passing game a little more. Kendall Wright only played eight snaps with the Bears lining up in plenty of two- and three-tight end formations. The deficiencies in this group are clear, and opposing defenses would be smart to do more of what Carolina did — make the receivers beat you — than dropping into coverage like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. 

TIGHT ENDS: D+

There were some highlights here, like Zach Miller’s 24-yard catch — and Adam Shaheen’s crushing downfield block on Jarius Byrd. Dion Sims leveled Panthers safety Mike Adams on Cohen’s 70-yard reception and had a few solid blocks in the run game. But when Carolina was stacking the box as much as they did, the Bears could’ve used more of a push from their tight ends, those (as you’ll see below) this was a difficult assignment.  

OFFENSIVE LINE: D+

Carolina stacked the box on more than half of Howard’s 21 runs, and the Bears struggled to maintain a push for their running game. But it’s worth noting that Carolina entered Sunday with the sixth-best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Even without star linebacker Luke Kuechly, this was a tough assignment. Trubisky being sacked four times doesn’t reflect well on the offensive line, even if he took some of those in lieu of forcing a semi-dangerous throw. On Trubisky’s deep ball to Cohen, though, the offensive line provided excellent protection. 

DEFENSIVE LINE: A

Akiem Hicks continued his dominant 2017 with five tackles, one sack, one hurry and two tackles for a loss as he bullied a banged-up Panthers offensive line. Eddie Goldman had another strong game, too, with six tackles, half a sack and a hurry — but his impact was felt more in the muted stat lines of Christian McCaffrey (seven carries, 10 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (14 carries, 48 yards). Jonathan Bullard and Mitch Unrein also contributed with Vic Fangio deploying a handful of fronts with four down linemen. 

LINEBACKERS: A

Danny Trevathan stuffed the box score with four tackles, one sack, two hurries, one tackle for a loss, two pass break-ups and an interception. Christian Jones led the Bears with 11 tackles and was rock-solid in run support. Leonard Floyd had a sack and two hurries, while Pernell McPhee was particularly disruptive late in the game, notching a sack and a hurry on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: A

Eddie Jackson’s two touchdowns stand out, with the rookie flashing his playmaking ability on 75- and 76-yard scores. Both Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller had solid games, with Amukamara’s breakup on a Kelvin Benjamin slant route leading to Jackson’s pick-six. Fuller locked down in coverage and was a sure tackler in the open field. When Fuller had to leave the game for a brief spell late in the second quarter, Amukamara and Marcus Cooper provided solid coverage on third-and-10 from the Bears’ 18, forcing an incomplete pass and a field goal that accounted for Carolina’s only points of the game. Adrian Amos had a fine break-up of a pass to tight end Ed Dickson in the fourth quarter, too. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Connor Barth missed 52-yard field goal in the second quarter, with his kick appearing to get tipped at the line of scrimmage. But other than that, this unit didn’t have the kind of calamitous mistakes that marred last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens — the team’s punt and kick coverage units both did well, and Carolina began eight of their 11 drives at or inside their own 25-yard line. Pat O’Donnell in particular punted well as the Bears’ offense stalled in the fourth quarter, including a 66-yarder from his own 10-yard line and a 35-yarder that pinned Carolina at its own 11. 

COACHING: B

Eventually, the Bears are going to have to lengthen the leash on Trubisky, but the John Fox and Dowell Loggains’ plan worked on Sunday in the form of a two-touchdown win. A thought here: The Bears perhaps would've opened things up on offense if Carolina had scored a touchdown, but weren't going to do that as long as the defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone. Fangio deserves a ton of credit for a gameplan that not only kept almost everything in front of the defense — Newton only had three completions that went 15 or more yards in the air — but also one that registered five sacks, two interceptions and two touchdowns. The coaching staff’s emphasis on cleaner play, too, paid off for the second straight week, with the Bears being penalized five times. It wasn’t completely clean, but it was much better than the flag-laden games of Weeks 2-5.