Bears

Austin drives Lanphier's title hopes

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Austin drives Lanphier's title hopes

The biggest day in the life of Larry Austin Jr.--up to now, that is--comes on Feb. 18. It will be his 16th birthday. It is only a coincidence that his Springfield Lanphier team, which is ranked No. 1 in Class 3A, will meet second-rated Peoria Central on that date.

"That morning I get my driver's license," Austin said. "I'm looking forward to being able to drive. I don't want to depend on my parents all the time."

If he had a choice, Austin would choose a Ford Explorer or Mercury Mountaineer for his first vehicle, not a Ferrari or Sting Ray or Lamborghini.

That's because Austin, or LA to his friends, is all about being a utilitarian, nothing flashy. He prefers the grunt work, not the spotlight. Of all the many things he does on the basketball floor, he likes to make steals, not shots. He plays with enormous poise and maturity, rare for someone who enjoys watching cartoons.

Austin is a 6-foot-1 sophomore guard who averages 11 points, four assists and five steals for a 20-2 team that will meet highly rated Chatham Glenwood and Peyton Allen on Friday night for the Central State Eight Conference championship.

He already has received scholarship offers from Illinois, Bradley, DePaul and Memphis but most of the major programs, including Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State, are showing interest. Longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com rates Austin among the top 50 players in the class of 2014.

Austin has built a national reputation despite his modest statistics. As a member of the 12-member USA men's developmental national team that won a gold medal at the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 championship, he averaged only four points but accumulated seven assists and seven steals per game while playing with Simeon's Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn and Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor.

"He has a great basketball IQ. He plays at a high level," Lanphier coach Chuck Shanklin said. "He does so many different things. His big statistic is the number of steals per game. His performance in the summer with Parker and USA Basketball brought him to everybody's attention. He will be a point guard in college."

That's what is attracting the major schools--Austin's point guard skills. Have you noticed how many teams in college and the NBA are desperately looking for leadership, someone to steer the ship and prevent it from sinking?

That's why former Thornridge and Indiana star Quinn Buckner, perhaps the most celebrated leader ever produced in Illinois, was the first player ever selected among the top 10 in the NBA draft who didn't average more than 10 points per game. Everybody coveted his point guard and leadership skills.

"The biggest thing that Austin has going for him are the positive intangibles that he brings to the table," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.

"He sports considerable toughness, is a strong man-to-man defender, has great leadership qualities and plays unselfishly. In addition, he has outstanding speed and quickness which combined with his strength allow him to consistently get to the basket.

"His perimeter shooting is still suspect and he is definitely not a scorer like Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, who is the other elite point guard in the class of 2014. Nevertheless, Austin possesses many of the attributes that warrant him drawing potential as a potential high major recruit."

Recruiting seems to be the last thing on his mind. With more than two years left to play at the high school level, he can expect many more offers, giving him endless options and opportunities to select the program of his choice, what is best for him. And there is no hurry to do it.

"I just want to stay focused and stay in the gym and do my schoolwork," he said.

At the moment, Austin doesn't play point guard on a team that is led by seniors Everett Clemons, T.J. Davis and Jaylen Briggity. But Austin will move to point guard as a junior. He knows that is his position for the future and he welcomes the challenge.

"A pure point guard is someone who controls the game very well and makes other players better," Austin said. "He has to have a pass-first attitude. His job is to get everyone involved in the game as soon as possible before he thinks about taking shots.

"Leadership is about communicating with other players, taking the game over when it is necessary, scoring when you have to, being in control of the game. When you see people arguing, you know they are in a bad position. It's your job to tell them what to do and when to do it."

Austin admires NBA stars Derrick Rose and Chris Paul and watches them whenever possible. He marvels at Rose's quickness and how Paul comes off pick-and-rolls. But he always talks about "playing my game" and not trying to copy someone else's.

At the USA Basketball camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he minded to his own business. "I learned how to compete every day. I realized that someone always is working when you aren't. It takes hard work every day if you want to be a great player, if you want to get better. We talked about little things that help you to win games...hustle plays, getting loose balls, breaking down defenses, drawing fouls, getting rebounds, how to make plays," he said.

It didn't take him long to realize that basketball was his future. He stopped playing baseball in second grade, after only one season as a first baseman. He said the game was too slow for him.

"Why basketball? I like intensity, the way we compete against other teams. The atmosphere is there," Austin said. "I like to make steals. If I get a steal and a breakaway and a dunk, it fires up my team and gets the crowd into the game. That's what makes it fun for me. I just go out and play and have fun."

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In a game full of pivotal moments, one seemed to irk the Bears in particular following Sunday’s 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

Driving on the Dolphins three-yard line, the Bears lined up in a T formation with Jordan Howard, Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen lined up left to right in the backfield behind Mitch Trubisky, who was under center. Burton motioned out of the backfield and to the right, and ran his route into linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Trubisky threw a short pass to a wide open Cohen for a touchdown, with Alonso late getting to the running back after being hit by Burton. But that score was taken off the board for offensive pass interference, with officials ruling what Burton did amounted to an illegal pick play.

“Trey did everything I asked him to do,” Matt Nagy said, sharply.

On the next play, Trubisky forced a pass into double coverage in the end zone, which was easily picked off by Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald. Miami turned that interception into eight points on Albert Wilson’s 43-yard touchdown and an ensuing two-point conversion.

The way Burton understood the rule was that offensive pass interference was only assessed on a pick play if he intentionally ran into a defender without running a true route. That’s what Burton felt he did; the officiating crew disagreed.

“I thought I ran a route and the guy ran into me,” Burton said. “I thought they changed the rule this year or last year — if you run the route, it doesn’t matter if you pick the guy or not, you’re good. Obviously they called it.”

A Rough Return

The conversations surrounding the Bears Sunday into Monday would be awfully different had a number of things happened — Trubisky doesn’t throw that interception, the Bears’ defense gets a stop, Tarik Cohen doesn’t fumble near midfield, etc. In that same group: If Cody Parkey hits what would’ve been a game-winning 53-yard field goal in overtime.

Parkey, instead, missed that kick wide right. His career long is 54 yards, which he hit last year while with the Miami Dolphins (and that was a game-winner with about a minute left against the Los Angeles Chargers).

“I had the distance, I just didn’t kick it straight enough, bottom line,” Parkey said. “But you’ve got to move on. I’ve made game winners, I’ve missed game winners. As long as I keep playing, I’m just going to keep trying to kick my best.

“… I control what I can control, and unfortunately I missed a field goal. I’d like to have that one back, but it is what it is and I’m just going to focus on the next game. That’s all I can do.”

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

Their points production in the 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday marked the fourth time in five games under coach Matt Nagy that the Bears have scored 23 or more points. All of the 28 were heaped on the Dolphins by the offense, which churned for 467 yards one game after amassing 483 and 48 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Bears did in fact lose, and not all of the reasons can be laid at the feet of the defense. Not nearly all of them.

In great position to put the game virtually out of reach for the struggling Dolphins, the Bears offense failed. The yardage total gave the Bears consecutive 400-yard games for the first time since games 14-15 in 2016, and well could have represented a statement that the offense of Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich was indeed hitting a potent stride.

It may be. But a combination of troubling factors gave Sunday’s output a hollow ring.

Against the Dolphins, 149 of the yards came on possessions ending in turnovers, including an interception thrown by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and fumble by running back Jordan Howard both occurring in the red zone with points well within reach.

The offense hurt itself with a handful of pre-snap penalties, and the overarching sense is that the belief in Nagy and the overall offense is growing amid mistakes that clearly rest with players themselves.

“For sure, 100 percent trust in Coach Nagy and what he believes is best for this team,” Trubisky said. “What he believes is what I believe is best for this team. Whatever he calls, we're going to run it to the best of our ability. We put ourselves in a great chance, and I have faith in our guys that next time we get the opportunity we make it.”

Opportunities taken and opportunities missed

For Trubisky, the linchpin of the evolving offense, it was a day of extremes.

His production (316 yards) gave him consecutive 300-yard games for the first time in his 17-game career. His passer rating (122.5) was the seond-highest of his career, behind only the stratospheric 154.6 of the Tampa Bay game. His three TD passes are second only to his six against the Buccaneers. Trubisky’s yardage outputs this season are pointing in a decidedly upward arc: 171 at Green Bay, followed by 200-220-354-316.

But decision-making proved costly at tipping points against the Dolphins. From the Miami 13 with a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, and holding a chance to create potentially decisive breathing room on the scoreboard, Trubisky forced a throw toward tight end Ben Braunecker, who was double-covered in the Miami end zone. The ball was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald, and the Dolphins went from the touchback to a touchdown and subsequent game-tying two-point conversion.

“I just thought the safety went with the ‘over’ route,” Trubisky said. “He made a good play. I lost him when I was stepping up [in the pocket], and I forced one in the red zone when I shouldn't have… . I forced it and I put my team in a bad position, and I shouldn't have thrown that pass.”

The second-year quarterback started poorly, with an overthrow of a wide-open Anthony Miller on the third play from scrimmage, resulting in a three-and-out and a concerning start for what would be only scoreless Bears first half this season. A failed fourth-and-2 conversion gave Miami the football at its 41 later in the quarter.

Trubisky badly overthrew an open Miller in the second quarter, creating a third-and-long on which the Dolphins broke down his protection for a second sack in the span of just 11 plays. After a 47-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel, Trubisky threw an checkdown pass nowhere near running back Jordan Howard.

Fatigue factor overlooked?

Running back Tarik Cohen totaled 121 yards for the second straight game and the second time in his career. For the second straight week Cohen led or co-led the Bears with seven pass receptions.

But the last of the seven came with a disastrous finish. Cohen was hit by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso after taking a swing pass and picking up 11 yards, fumbled and had the ball recovered by cornerback Xavien Howard at the Chicago 45. The defense did manage a stop, leading to the overtime, but the result was devastating.

“Personally for me, it’s [frustrating] because I know I took my team out of position to win the game late in the ball game,’ Cohen said. “So personally, that’s frustrating for me… . I feel like I had an opportunity to get ourselves down in scoring position. I let fatigue get the best of me, and I forgot about the fundamentals.”

That Cohen mentioned “fatigue” is perhaps noteworthy. A question was raised to Helfrich last week as to whether there was an optimal or max number of snaps for the diminutive Cohen, who had five carries and was targeted nine times – not including one punt return and plays on which he ran pass routes but was not thrown to in the south Florida heat.

“It was hot,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It was hot out there.”

Weapons rising

Last offseason and millions in contracts were spent upgrading offensive weaponry. The investments produced in Miami.

Touchdown passes were caught by wide receivers Anthony Miller (drafted) and Allen Robinson (free agent) plus tight end Trey Burton (free agent). Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (free agent) caught the five passes thrown to him for a team-high 110 yards, his second straight 100-yard game after none in his previous four NFL seasons.

Five different players posted plays of 20 yards or longer, including pass plays of 54 and 47 yards by Gabriel and a run of 21 yards and reception of 59 yards by Cohen.

Uncharacteristically for the normally fast-starting Bears offense, the group followed the scoreless first half with 21 points in the third quarter and 343 yards of combined offense in the second half and overtime.

“We came out with more energy and had the attitude that we were going to go down and score the ball,” Trubisky said, “and we played a lot better the second half.”