Bears

Salata, Libertyville make late-season run

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Salata, Libertyville make late-season run

The definition of a team player is someone who rushes 24 times for 135 yards and one touchdown in one game, then doesn't complain when he is told he is being replaced by another running back for the next game.

Meet Libertyville's Joey Salata.

"I really have no problem with it," said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior who also starts at free safety. "I like to fill in when I can on offense. I like to make an impact. But my first priority is to lead the defense, to make sure everybody lines up correctly and is in the right spot.

"Sure, it is exciting to run for 135 yards. I always take snaps in practice. Brian Swift is our leading rusher (77 carries, 535 yards) and he has been out with a hip injury for three weeks. So week to week, I was ready to play. But he's supposed to be back this week. That's a big plus for us.

"I grew up on offense. Guys who score touchdowns get all the publicity. But as a sophomore I played linebacker and grew to love playing defense. You don't get as much attention but I prefer hitting to carrying the ball. And I love the challenge of playing together as a unit, all 11 guys."

Libertyville's defense has recorded two shutouts in a row. The Wildcats completed a 7-2 regular season with a 40-20 victory at Wauconda last Friday. It is their first winning season since 2006. The Wildcats will play at Machesney Park Harlem in the first round of the Class 7A playoff.

It has been a time of transition for the program. Last year's team was 5-5. It was the last season for coach Randy Kuceyeski, who retired after posting a 133-58 record in 18 years. His 2003 team finished second in the state playoff and his 2004 team won the state championship.

Last year's team had to overcome a lot of adversity. The overriding factor was Kuceyeski's well documented battle with cancer. The Wildcats were 4-3 and shut out Warren to qualify for the state playoff. They lost to unbeaten state champion Rockford Boylan in the first round.

"We realized when we play as a unit and play consistent and everybody does their job, offense and defense, we can compete with anybody. We shows the kind of potential we have," Salata said. "Losing to Boylan gave us a taste of what playoff football is like, so much more speed. So I'm not surprised at what we have done this year.

"This is a core unit, the seniors. We've played together since middle school. We played on the Libertyville Boys Club traveling team in eighth grade. This is what we dreamed about, being seniors and leaders of the team, to have a great senior year and make a run in the playoff.

"Last year, we got experience. This year, we come back every week with a business-like approach. We love having fun. We enjoy being with each other. What is our edge? Our mental preparation. The coaches do a great job of preparing us each week."

In Libertyvlle's 17-0 victory over Zion-Benton two weeks ago, Salata rushed for 135 yards and one touchdown and intercepted a pass for the second game in a row. The swarming defense allowed only three first downs an 55 yards of total offense and forced five turnovers.

In last Friday's 40-20 rout of Wauconda, quarterback Jack Deichl completed 16 of 23 passes for 231 yards. Austin Williams caught seven for 114 yards and three touchdowns. Bryan Scanlan caught four for 52 yards. Conor Simpson rushed for 127 yards.

But while the offense averaged 30 points per game in the first five weeks, the defense has stepped up in recent games. "Our defense has done a great job lately. They've just played very sound football. They haven't given up the big play. They've been physical and smart and that's what we expect of them," first-year coach Mike Jones said.

Jones is no stranger to the Libertyville program. He coached at Grayslake Central for 13 years before moving to Libertyville. He was Kuceyeski's defensive coordinator for eight years so it isn't surprising that the Wildcats' 4-2-5 alignment has been effective.

"With 16 starters returning, I was optimistic," Jones said. "We kept the same defense. Offensively, we've gone more to a wing T from a zone pistol. Why? I wasn't thrilled with the running back eight yards deep in the pistol.

"We're trying to build some consistency. When we do consistently what we are coached to do, we are good. But we have been inconsistent this year, our blocking and tackling and execution."

Libertyville has fallen behind in several games but rarely failed to come back. The Wildcats trailed Barrington by 17 and rallied to win. They lost to Stevenson 14-9 after falling behind 14-0. They trailed Warren by 14 and came back to win.

"There is a lot of fight and determination in them," Jones said. "We could be better. I would like to revisit some games we lost. We laid an egg against Lake Forest (they lost 33-13). But we have come back and our defense is playing well. Going forward, we must be consistent in the playoff."

The key could be 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior quarterback Jack Deichl, who has completed 136 of 211 passes for 1,667 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was 18 of 21 for 235 yards vs. Barrington, 13 of 26 for 201 yards vs. Stevenson and 22 of 33 for 310 yards vs. Warren.

He struggled in recent weeks, according to Jones, until last Friday's game at Wauconda. He was 16 of 28 for 159 yards vs. Lake Forest. If he continues to regain his early-season touch and Swift returns to form and three injured offensive linemen return to the lineup, Jones is optimistic that his team will make a good account of itself in the playoff.

Other players he is counting on are 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior wide receiver Austin Williams, a big-play threat who has caught 42 passes for 575 yards and eight touchdowns, 5-foot-9, 180-pound junior running backreceiver Conor Simpson, who has rushed for more than 500 yards and caught 40 passes for 421 yards, 6-foot, 195-pound senior linebacker Drew Krinitsy, 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior linebacker Kevin Verkler, 6-foot-5, 235-pound senior offensive tackle Brandon Stanfel and 6-foot, 210-pound senior defensive tackle Logan Klepac.

"We have been in a lot of tough battles this year," said Salata, who didn't carry the ball at all until three weeks ago, when Libertyville defeated Lake Zurich 3-0. "We have been through pressure situations. We have been down against good teams. When we are down, it doesn't bother us. We have been in that situation and found a way to win."

Recalling moments in Tom Brady history ahead of his likely last meeting with Bears

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Recalling moments in Tom Brady history ahead of his likely last meeting with Bears

As Tom Brady approaches what in all reasonable likelihood will be his last game against the Bears and in Soldier Field, the first time this reporter saw Tom Brady comes very much to mind. Actually the first times, plural. Because they were indeed memorable, for different reasons.

That was back in 2001, when Brady should have started replacing Wally Pipp as the poster athlete for what can happen when a player has to sit out and his replacement never gives the job back. Drew Bledsoe, who’d gotten the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl, had gotten injured week two of that season. Brady, who’d thrown exactly one pass as a rookie the year before, stepped in and never came out, playing the Patriots into the AFC playoffs the same year the Bears were reaching and exiting the NFC playoffs when Philadelphia’s Hugh Douglas body-slammed QB Jim Miller on his shoulder.

After that the playoff assignments were elsewhere, including the Patriots-Steelers meeting in Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. Brady started that game but left with an ankle injury and Bledsoe came off the bench to get the Patriots into Super Bowl.

Then came one of those rare moments when you are witnessing history but have the misfortune of not knowing it at the time.

The question of Super Bowl week was whether Bill Belichick would stay with Bledsoe’s winning hand or go back to Brady. Belichick of course waited deep into Super Bowl week before announcing his decision at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, the second time that season Belichick had opted to stay with Brady over a healthy Bledsoe. And of course Belichick didn’t announce the decision himself (surprise); he had it put out by the team’s media relations director.

You did have to respect Belichick, though, going into his first Super Bowl as a head coach with a sixth-round draft choice at quarterback and leaving a former (1992) No. 1-overall pick with a $100-million contract on the bench. The Patriots upset The Greatest Show on Turf Rams in that Super Bowl, Brady was MVP, and Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo that offseason.

History.

That Super Bowl also included one of those performance snapshots the Bears envision for Mitch Trubisky but missed a chance to let him attempt last Sunday at Miami in his 17th NFL start. Brady took the Patriots on a drive starting at their own 17 with 1:30 to play and no timeouts, ending with an Adam Vinatieri field-goal winner.

If Belichick was all right letting his second-year quarterback in just his 17th start throw eight straight passes starting from inside his own red zone, the next time Matt Nagy gets the football at his own 20 with timeouts and time in hand, best guess is that the decision will be to see if his quarterback lead a game-winning drive with his arm instead of handing off.

It may not happen this Sunday. Brady is a career 4-0 vs. Bears, and if there is one constant it is that his opposite numbers play really bad football against him, or rather his coach’s defense. Bears quarterback passer ratings opposite Brady, even in years when the Bears were good: Jim Miller 51.2 in 2002, Rex Grossman 23.7 in 2006; Jay Cutler 32.9 and Cutler again in the 51-23 blowout in Foxboro. Cutler finished that game with a meaningless 108.6 rating, meaningless because Cutler put up big numbers beginning when his team was down 38-7 after he’d mucked about with a 61.7 rating, plus having a fumble returned for a TD, while the Bears were being humiliated.

A surprise would be if Trubisky bumbles around like his predecessors (New England allows an average opponent passer rating of 91.6), but whether he can produce a third straight 120-plus rating…. Then again, Pat Mahomes put a 110.0 on the Patriots last Sunday night, but Deshaun Watson managed only a 62.9 against New England in game one.

Trubisky will make the third of the three 2017 first-round QB’s to face the Patriots. The first two lost.

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski sits down with Kendall Gill and Will Perdue to discuss all the need-to-know topics to get you ready for the season opener. The guys analyze how Lauri’s injury will make its mark on the early season rotation, whether Jabari will return to the starting unit or embrace the 6th-man role and why Portis betting on himself is the right move. Plus, Kendall has the key to unlock a “6th Man of the Year” award for Portis this season.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: