Monday, November 30, 2009

Niumatalolo Falls Short in Return

Those same deafening cheers he heard as a high school player for Radford and as a University of Hawai'i quarterback and assistant coach reverberated through Aloha Stadium last night in the Warriors' 24-17 win against Navy.

But this time, it was different for Hawai'i son Ken Niumatalolo, Navy's second-year head coach. Those same cheers that inspired him to play hard were now backing his opponent.

"Feels weird," said Niumatalolo, just after listening to another familiar sound: UH's alma mater.

Trailing by seven, Navy just made a fourth-and-1 stand against the Warriors at the Navy 16 with 5:41 left in the game. Niumatalolo was on the line of scrimmage on his sideline to see the crucial play and pumped his right arm.

The Midshipmen would drive to UH's 39, but the Warriors preserved their lead on sacks on third and fourth downs as time ran out.

"Very emotional game," Niumatalolo continued. "To come back here to the stadium, it was different for me. I love these kids that I coach. Our guys on our team, I love them. It's unfortunate we came up short. I give Hawai'i all the credit in the world."

This is the same Niumatalolo who once sold newspapers with UH game lineups as a kid at Aloha Stadium.

It was the stadium where he would help Radford High — just in the shadow of Aloha Stadium — to the 1981 O'ahu Prep Bowl title that culminated an emotional season in which his coach John Velasco had passed away a few weeks earlier.

It was the same place he played collegiately for UH and graduated from in 1989. He also would help his college alma mater as a graduate assistant and assistant coach from 1990 to 1994.

Adding to the emotion was the presence of family.

On the Navy sidelines were cousins Thor and Fred Salanoa. Thor was his teammate at Radford and Fred, now Radford's football coach, was the team's waterboy.

Although his family lived in La'ie, Niumatalolo stayed with the Salanoas near Radford.

"I'm so proud of him," Thor Salanoa said. "Every week we talk to each other. In college (Thor went to Brigham Young), we were always calling up each other, still keeping in touch."

Also on the sidelines were Niumatalolo's sons, Va'a and Ali'i. It was extra special for Va'a, a 16-year-old linebacker for a Maryland high school. He said this was his first return to his father's home since he was about 1.

"It was great to come out there and see family and everyone," Va'a said. "This is the first time I've seen a game in here. Well, a second time. I saw the Kahuku (vs. Farrington state semifinal) yesterday."

He was impressed by the UH crowd.

"It's a lot louder than I thought it would be," he said. "Inside the stadium, it was as loud as Notre Dame and Ohio State. It got pretty loud. I was impressed."

Another family member was on hand and wished him well before the game. Mayor Mufi Hannemann greeted the nation's first college coach of Samoan ancestry as Navy left the field from its final pregame warmups to the locker room.

"It's very special because his mother and I are cousins," Hannemann said. "I'm so proud of him. He achieved what so many people just dream about."

Hannemann said Niumatalolo is a role model for coaches from here and those of Polynesian ancestry. He saw leadership ability when Niumatalolo was a youth.

"He was always a leader," Hannemann said. "He was always very intelligent; he was very disciplined. It's not surprising that he's doing so well."

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Moala Likes Tennessee’s History at Defensive Tackle

The Tennessee football program has a long history of producing some of the best defensive linemen in the history of the game. From Reggie White to John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth in recent years, the Volunteer program has always had a powerhouse defensive line. The Vols also have a long history of bringing in players from the state of California and have brought in a few from Grant Union High School in Sacramento, Ca.

About a decade ago, Onterrio Smith and Donte Stallworth were both recruited to Knoxville out of Sacramento and now the Vol staff is after another Grant star, this time it is a massive defensive tackle prospect from the California powerhouse. Viliami Moala has been a key cog for the Grant team since his sophomore year and the 2011 prospect still has another year to develop at the high school level before moving on to college.

Viliami dominated opponents last year on the way to the California state championship and now he has seen his stats dip a bit but that is only due to the constant double and triple teams he has been faced with.

“It can be frustrating because last year I was able to go one on one most of the time but now I have three guys on me almost every play. It can be tough but I guess it means they respect me so that means something for sure.”

Moala has strong ties to USC as he has had a couple of cousins play their college ball at Southern Cal and so he has always followed the program and has thoughts of playing for a program so rich in tradition.

“USC, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, LSU, UCLA, Cal and many other big time schools are all over me right now and most of them have offered me scholarships. It is really early and I don’t know what to do yet. I have work to do on the field and in the classroom before I even think about choosing a college.”

Moala can clog the middle as well as any other high school defensive tackle in high school football and has the athleticism to chase guys out on the edges.

“I feel like I can do a little bit of everything and my size comes into play. At this level, they really can’t move me around too much in the trenches. I like mixing it up in there.”

Right now, Moala lists no favorites in his recruitment but it is pretty clear that USC is the leader of the pack based on his family ties and his familiarity with the program. There is however, plenty of time for others to make an impact on him.

“There are plenty of schools who have a shot at my services. I like the history that Tennessee has at the defensive tackle position and they are a winning program all around. I think I will definitely be looking at Lane Kiffin and his school a lot more as time goes on.”

Vol Nation will stay in touch with Viliami Moala as his recruitment continues.

He will be a coveted recruit in the class of 2011.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Polamalu's Cousin Following In His Footsteps

There are few players more recognizable in the NFL than Troy Polamalu with his hits, his hands and of course, his hair.

He's become an icon in Western Pennsylvania in just seven short years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

However, in the eastern part of the state, there's another Polamalu who is turning heads as well.

Maika Polamalu is a junior at Pottsgrove High School, which is northwest of Philadelphia.

He is being recruited by area schools such as Pitt and Penn State, all of whom would love to have a Polamalu on their team.

"It's awesome. It is a younger generation of cousins that are starting to come up, so him along with a few other cousins, it's gonna be pretty cool to watch," Troy Polamalu said.

"Maika is the kind of kid that comes from a great family of football. His dad was a great athlete at Penn State, his uncle was a great athlete at USC and is now a running back coach with Jaguars," Rick Pennypacker said.

Now Maika, a running back and linebacker, appears to be the next leaf on the family tree to excel in football.

"I've been working with my dad since seventh, eighth grade. I've just been coming out here running my miles, getting my workouts in daily, just doing what I think I have to do," Maika Polamalu said.

While success on the field has been easy for Maika, off the field, it's a little harder due to the standard set by the Polamalu in Pittsburgh.

"I try telling Maika he's not Troy Polamalu, he's Maika Polamalu. The name is always gonna follow him. I think he's greatest player in the NFL and I don't know if Maika will ever live up to that, but everyone expects him to," Pennypacker said.

One possibility is that should Maika make it to the NFL, that he would get to play with Troy.

"That would be awesome. I don't know if I can last that long though," Troy Polamalu said.

"That'd be amazing. If he's still in there and I make it that far, it'd be an honor," Maika Polamalu said.

Unfortunately, Troy has never been able to make it out to Pottstown to see Maika play.

However, that hasn't stopped him from letting his biased opinion be known that Maika should play college football at the University of Southern California.

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Fanene, Peko Realizing Their Potential

Domata Peko invited his longtime friend and teammate, Jonathan Fanene, and Fanene's family to join him for Thanksgiving dinner. The invitation soon spread to all of the Polynesian players on the roster, their families, and any other player without a place to go.

"The Peko household is open to everybody," Peko said with a smile.

That he and his wife are so willing to host is a sign of how seriously he takes his role as a captain and team leader.

That he and Fanene are still together -- from American Samoa to College of the Canyons to the bottom of the Bengals roster to the starting lineup of a first-place team -- is a sign of how seriously they take their jobs.

"They are great guys to coach, and I couldn't be happier with either of them," defensive line coach Jay Hayes said. "I feel fortunate to have them in my room."

Neither grew up playing football, but they took to the game quickly enough to earn Division I college scholarships and get drafted by the Bengals: Fanene in the seventh round in 2005, Peko in the fourth round a year later. Peko became a starter by his second season, earned a multi-million dollar raise prior to his third and was named captain for his fourth. Fanene finally cracked the starting lineup this season after an injury to Antwan Odom, and he is second on the team with five sacks.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Fanene has improved more since arriving in the NFL than any player he has seen.

"I would agree with Marvin," Fanene said. "I've been working hard since the off-season with coach Mike Zimmer, and he taught me a lot of good stuff -- not only me but the whole D-line."

Fanene said he has made particular improvement with his technique and his knowledge of the defense, and Hayes said he is in better shape. "Right now I feel comfortable," Fanene said.

Peko believes his lack of experience prior to the NFL has been an asset, for it made him a blank slate for Hayes and Zimmer.

"I didn't learn any bad techniques," he said. "I had no bad habits."

Peko said he did not play football until his senior year of high school, but he showed enough talent to continue his career the next year at College of the Canyons, a junior college in California where he was reunited with Fanene. The two knew each other while growing up in American Samoa, though they were not close friends at the time.

Peko played defensive line in junior college and at Michigan State. His breakout season came as a senior in 2005, when he emerged as a playmaking defensive tackle for the Spartans.

Fanene began playing football at age 14, first as a receiver and tight end. He moved to defense as a high school senior and played outside linebacker in junior college. He then spent two years at Utah, where he played defensive line.

The Bengals drafted him mostly on long-term potential, and he was active for only seven games in his first two NFL seasons.

Thumbnail image for Fanene_Jonathan.jpg
Jonathan Fanene

"It took me almost a year to learn the defense," Fanene said. "It wasn't like college. There were just a lot of little things I wasn't prepared for."

Hayes agreed. He said Fanene was "green as grass when he got here," but gifted enough that the Bengals were willing to wait for his game to grow.

"The first time he ever got in a game, first play, he had a tackle for loss," Hayes said. "Pittsburgh game. Next play, he was all over Ben Roethlisberger. He's always been a disruptive player. He has that burst."

As Fanene learned how to watch film and play through pain, Hayes and the coaches found ways to get him on the field, including moving him from end to tackle on passing downs to take advantage of his pass-rush skills.

Peko was nearly as raw when he arrived in Cincinnati, but he was athletic enough and tough enough to fill a role as a rookie. He earned a starting job the next year.

Hayes credited each of them for their willingness to take instruction and work year-round.

"They always have been willing to do what you ask them and go the extra mile, work really hard in the off-season," Hayes said. "You could tell because of how they produce when the time comes. The one thing about both of them: I stress with them what they need to work on and they do it."

It is a point of pride for Peko, and perhaps the biggest reason why the gifted-but-green fourth-round pick has become a cornerstone of a rapidly improving defense.

"I've always been a hard worker. If I'm here at work, it's not time to play, it's time to work," he said. "I want to be remembered as a coachable guy. If my coach says there is something to work on, I'm going to work on it. I don't want to be, like, `Oh, I know what I'm doing.' That's the thing about Fanene, myself, a lot of these guys on this team, we're all coachable people and I think that's a big point."

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

All In The Family

Notre Dame-bound Utupo will leave a lasting impression.

Some high school football players give coaches headaches and tribulations. Others give them moments of ecstasy and memories that last decades.

But some players, like Lakewood senior defensive end Justin Utupo, found something unique to give his coach, and left Thadd MacNeal speechless in the process.

Earlier this season, Utupo and his family - as deeply rooted in Lakewood as any tree - gave a Kava Bowl in gratitude for what MacNeal has done for their son.

A Kava Bowl is a sacred item in Samoa. Tradition holds that it is given to chiefs and often passed down from royalty to people who have done something for the greater good of the Samoan community or family.

Utupo's father received his Kava Bowl as such a gift, and passed it on down to MacNeal - whose jaw still hits the ground every time he thinks of it.

"It's a gorgeous thing, large and with legs," MacNeal said this week as Lakewood prepares for Friday's CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division playoff opener against Newport Harbor. "I was flattered to get it and that was before I knew what it meant."

Simply, it meant the Lancer family took in Utupo and his family, and now MacNeal and his coaches have been taken in by the Utupos.

"It's something a Samoan family will do on special occasions," the Notre Dame-bound Utupo said in a soft voice Tuesday before practice.

"Coach helped me a lot. He gave film of me to a Notre Dame coach and a recommendation. He always says `it's you,' that they didn't recruit me just because he gave them a film.

"But I know other kids in the program who have the same story. They hear from schools and find out that Coach was the one who sent them film or talked to a coach about them. Coach does this out of love for his kids. It's a real family here."

A good football team is like a family, and family is intrinsically important to the Lakewood Utupos. Justin's older sisters Jane and Denise are Lakewood grads. He and his sister Emma currently attend Lakewood. His younger brother Jared will start at Lakewood in the fall.

"He's a baller," Justin said. "He's bigger now as an eighth grader than I was at the same age. He has the potential to make everyone forget about me."

Family also was a reason why he accepted Notre Dame's scholarship offer as soon as the Irish made it. He was floored that a school with its traditions welcomed him as quickly as it did.

"It's every kid's dream to play at the highest level," he said, "and Notre Dame is a school that everyone respects. When they offered me a scholarship, it was like `whoa, this is a great football program but also a great school that offers me a great education.' And the campus feels like a big family.

"It wasn't a hard decision."

It wasn't hard for Notre Dame and Charlie Weis to make Utupo a pre-emptive offer. He's that good. He has tremendous physical maturity and size as a high school senior, a chiseled 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, and he easily will be able to add more weight and muscle to his frame.

He's one of those players whose work often goes unnoticed because he's so adept at doing his job. He's not demonstrative on the field but respected for his leadership and toughness by his teammates.

There was a moment in Lakewood's Moore League-clinching win over Wilson when Utupo stood up Ezell Ruffin at the line all by himself, making it seem as if Ruffin had run into a wall. Utupo stood quietly by - no fist pump, no celebration.

"I just do my job, and inspire my teammates to do their job," he said.

Lakewood has a talented defense in general. Linebacker Keanu Kaholo has 77 tackles and Dion Bailey, Brennan Kelly and Rashad Wadood have 11 interceptions combined. But MacNeal said Utupo - 52 tackles, 71/2 sacks, four fumbles caused and three recovered, plus four TDs on four catches on offense - is its hub.

The last two summers, Lakewood participated in a passing league in Oregon. Even though he's an end and doesn't play much pass coverage, he went anyway for the learning experience and chance to further bond with his teammates.

Bernard Riley, the former Los Alamitos High and USC standout and current Lancers' line coach, says Utupo is the best technician he's ever coached.

"He makes all of the plays he's supposed to make," Riley said. "That's the thing in high school. A kid can make a `Notre Dame' play from time to time and then makes mistakes on the simple things. Justin has his six Notre Dame plays every game, and makes all the little ones, too. You don't realize how important that is.

"He's an emotional leader but not a rah-rah guy. He loves to play, and he loves to practice, which is also unusual. Some kids hate practice. He can't wait to put his pads on.

"He has the best hands, feet and mind of anyone I've coached, and he's only going to get bigger and better. Notre Dame will very happy."

Utupo is aware that the Irish have struggled of late and Weis' job is in jeopardy. But he likes the man when they met and he wants to play for him.

He can do a lot for Weis' career, and Notre Dame in general, if he can hand them a bowl or two, too - not necessarily a Kava Bowl, but perhaps a Sugar or Orange Bowl.

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President Obama stars in PSA with NFL players Troy Polamalu, DeMarcus Ware, & Drew Brees

One of the perks of being President of the United States evidently includes hanging out with NFL stars like Drew Brees and Troy Polamalu. In the video below President Obama catches a pass (in slow motion) from quarterback Drew Brees while being chased by safety Troy Polamalu. The President then manages to voluntarily fumble to a defender. So now that is six turnovers Chicago Bears fans had to endure this week.

Liberals will take great delight in the video as it promotes volunteerism while showing the President in all his slow-motion glory. Some liberals always see the President in slow-motion set to inspirational music so this commercial is no change of pace for that crowd. Meanwhile conservatives probably would have enjoyed the video more had Polamalu gone full speed to deliver one of his signature big hits on the President. One can not blame Polamalu for allowing the President to catch the pass as the Secret Service may have dragged him out by his hair had he done anything differently. It will also be interesting to see if Glenn Beck accuses Drew Brees and Demarcus Ware of being part of a civilian national security force devoted to taking over the country. Enjoy the commercial below and add your own commentary if you wish.

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Masoli Has Ducks Smelling Roses

There were big plays. There were strange plays. There were seemingly huge gaffes that really didn't mean much. An Oregon cheerleader got knocked out by water bottle hurled from the stands. There were expectant Arizona fans on the field, encircling this drama like a red ribbon, who ended up standing in stunned silence after Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli generated his sixth and final touchdown to conclude the second overtime of this thrilling and nearly four-hour evening.

"It got quiet really fast," Masoli said after Oregon prevailed 44-41 and took one step closer to its first Rose Bowl since the 1994 season.

Masoli scored three touchdowns running, including a 1-yard carry that won it. He also passed for three touchdowns, including an 8-yard toss that tied the score with six seconds left in regulation.

Oregon jumped to a 14-0 lead. Then Arizona scored 24 unanswered points. Both defenses were in control at times. And at times, both offenses seemed unstoppable. The score then was knotted at 24, 31 and 38, at which point Arizona's field goal in the second overtime fell short of the Ducks touchdown.

Both teams had 22 first downs. Oregon's 459 total yards was just 18 more than the Wildcats. It was about as closely contested as a game can be.

"There's nothing to be ashamed of," said Arizona quarterback Nick Foles, who passed for 314 yards and four touchdowns.

But the mood in the two locker rooms couldn't have been more different.

"I have no words for it," said jubilant Oregon running back LaMichael James, who rushed for 117 yards and set a new Pac-10 freshman rushing record with 1,310 yards.

The 11th-ranked Ducks (9-2, 7-1) now pause for a moment to collect themselves and before beginning earnest preparation for a Civil War showdown with Oregon State on Dec. 3 that has very simple stakes: The winner goes to the Rose Bowl.

James, by the way, broke the record Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers set last year.

The Wildcats (6-4, 4-3), meanwhile, will try to regroup for a visit to arch rival Arizona State on Saturday.

Said Arizona's senior safety Cam Nelson, "I can sit here and say we're not going to let it [get us down] but at the end of the day, we all know it is. It's something that is going to stick with us the rest of our lives knowing we let this opportunity slip out of our hands. I can sit here and say 'no, we're going to put it behind us,' but I'm not."

Perhaps most curious was when Kelly decided to go for a fourth and 4 from his 45-yard line with 6:26 left with Arizona ahead 31-24. The Ducks failed to convert, at which point the Wildcats fans started their plan to storm the field.

"We never flinched," Kelly said, bringing up the call before he was even asked about it. "I went for it on fourth down because I was confident we could get a stop and get another chance."

Which is exactly what happened. Foles threw his only interception in the endzone on a third and 16 play from the Ducks 40, which mostly functioned as a punt.

Masoli and company took over with 3:11 left.

"That's a lot of time for us," Kelly said.

Oregon went 80 yards in 15 plays. It converted a third-and-11 from the Arizona 46 with an 18-yard run up the middle from James. It converted on a fourth and 4 from the Wildcats 22 with a 7-yard pass from Masoli to Jeff Maehl, who had a career-best 12 receptions for 114 yards with two touchdowns.

The drive was vintage Masoli. A little out-of-control. A little unconventional. Lots of things getting made up as he went along.

"He's unflappable," Kelly said. "Nothing bothers him."

That take was seconded by Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops.

"The plays he made in critical situations are remarkable," he said.

It was a remarkable game that was worthy of simplifying what had been a complicated Pac-10 race.

A Civil War on Dec. 3 will send one Oregon program to the Rose Bowl.

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Unga Sets Cougs' Rushing Mark

As self analysis, Harvey Unga's description of the way he totes the football is beautiful and simple.

It is also misleading. Brutes don't own his footwork and the ability to make tacklers miss.

"Honestly, you guys can explain it better than me," the BYU runner said moments after the Cougars' 38-21 victory against Air Force on Saturday afternoon. "I just try to get out there and run the ball as hard as I can. I just try to make plays."

If trying was just enough, every back would rush for 1,000 yards a season and wind up as their school's all-time rushing leader. So, there is more to it than just wanting to go out and make plays.

The rest of the Mountain West Conference should also take note. Unga, who surpassed Curtis Brown's career rushing mark of 3,221 yards, is a junior. He'll be back.

Unga needed 21 yards to break Brown's mark. In addition, Unga was four carries away from passing Brown in that category as well.

For the day, Unga, nursing a sprained left ankle, did enough work in the first half to gain 67 yards on 11 carries. He needs 100 yards next week against Utah for his third consecutive 1,000-yard season.

"With Harvey healthy throughout the first half, we knew we'd have to use him and that gave us the balance we were looking for," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "When Harvey's healthy and we're able to run and throw the football, we're very hard to stop on offense."

Unga also caught three passes, which speaks to his ability to add another dimension to BYU's attack.

First and foremost, though, Unga's job is to gain the hard yards between the tackles. He gives the Cougars an aura of toughness. Often, as it has been this season, Unga took advantage of big holes, then broke tackles.

"It's great to block for Harvey," offensive lineman Terence Brown said. "He hits the hole hard and he does us a lot of favors, too. We don't block perfect on every play.

"We love Harvey. He's probably in there right now thanking the O-line."

He was.

Unga burst upon the BYU scene in 2007 as a freshman. He gained 1,227 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. The next season, Unga gained 1,132 yards with 11 scores.

While Unga may not match those numbers this year, his per carry average is an amazing 5.6.

"I wouldn't say I'm the most fanciest runner out there," he said. "My object is to get a first down, then eventually get into the end zone. I just try to play hard-nosed football."

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sellers Drops a 'Cowgirls' Reference

Mike Sellers has sort of gotten over the media darling thing; he doesn't seem to hold forth quite as much as he used to back in the day. I'm also sensing that a lot of fans have gotten over their previous infatuation with Mike Sellers, who might not qualify as "fan favorite" any more.

But when he does talk, you're reminded why people liked him so much in the first place. Here are four reasons, gleaned from his short post-game interview Sunday afternoon with Larry Michael and

1) He understands how the Redskins are supposed to play football.

"Man, we got back to playing Redskin football," he said. "We ran the heck out of that ball. Plain and simple, that's what we do. And coaches put us in a great position to make plays, and we just kept pounding it, and pounding it, and pounding it, and pounding it, and pounding it."

2) He's sometimes sort of scary. Like, as he finished saying that, he stared into the camera. See above. The man knows how to stare. Also how to grow intimidating facial hair.

3) He's honest-ish.

"Your boy Betts had over 100 yards rushing, and Rock came in and spelled him a lot and did well," Sellers was asked. Or told, I guess.

"They looked good, huh?" Sellers said. "I'm gonna leave it at that."

Might seem nondescript, until you watch the tape and see his eyes roaming to the sky, rolling around like grapes on grease, see the "I'm not going there" smiles creasing his face, and remember how he had a slight disagreement with injured star Clinton Portis earlier in the season, when Portis asked coaches to bench Sellers. So, yeah. Let's leave it at that.

(And before you accuse me of making up fake controversies, watch the interview yourself.)

4) He will rile up a fan base in pleasing, if slightly culturally unacceptable, ways.

"Who do you play next week?" Michael asked him to close the interview.

"Um, Cowgirls, right?" Sellers said.

Yup, Mike. That's right.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fifth-Grader's Letter Earns Visit From Unga

It's possible that Aspen Elementary fifth-grader Benjamin Diehl of Lindon may never think of class assignments in quite the same way again after some recent homework resulted in a personal surprise visit by BYU running back Harvey Unga.

Benjamin's teacher, Michelle Rotar, said that each year she assigns her class to write to a celebrity they admire as a way to teach the students how to write a letter using a business format, and how to correctly address envelopes. Benjamin, a big BYU fan, chose to write to Unga.

“The kids have written to singers, actors, actresses, other sports figures and even religious leaders,” Rotar said. “But we've never had a response quite like this before.”

In his letter, Benjamin introduced himself, then wrote: “I' am typing this because my class is supposed to write to our favorite person, so I chose you! I chose you because: you are a running back, you play for BYU, and you are just naturally awesome! I want to follow in your footsteps and become a running back just like you.”

As part of the assignment, the students were instructed to request a small item, such as an autograph or photo.

“I think that it would be great if you could send me a signed football card or a picture of you,” Benjamin wrote. “But if you can't, I understand that you are busy.”

Benjamin said he was outside during lunchtime when Rotar found him and said, “You have a visitor.”

When her student realized what was happening, Rotar said, “The smile on his face was huge. It was one of my top five teaching moments ever.”

Unga was in the hall, near the drinking fountain, Benjamin said.

When the class began, Rotar had Benjamin introduce Unga, who talked about receiving the letter, and how it made him fell “grateful, loved and appreciated.” The football player apologized for not having a picture of himself, then gave a signed pair of football gloves to Benjamin.

“It was really, really cool,” said Benjamin, recalling the incident with a measure of awe.

Rotar said that after letting others see the gift, her delighted student emptied his pencil box, placed the gloves inside and put a padlock on the box. Unga autographed a sheet of paper, and enough copies were made so that every student in the school who wanted the signature could have one.

Aspen principal Brad Davies said Unga's visit “meant a lot” to both Benjamin and the school.

“I was asked during the day, 'How many collegiate athletes would come out to a school and meet with a student who sent them a letter?'” Davies said. “My response? 'Well, at least one.' And Harvey Unga was so nice to do it.”

Coincidentally, Benjamin's dad, Nathan Diehl, an assistant civil engineer for the BYU campus, happened to encounter Unga at the university the next day, and was able to thank the football star in person for the special visit.

“I think that it's very nice that he went out of his way to go surprise someone,” said Benjamin's mother, Valarie Diehl, who said the event was also a confidence-builder for her son.

“It was a great day—especially for Ben,” Rotar said.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Roy Helu Helps Push Nebraska Into First Place in North

Nebraska's difference maker is finally getting producing as expected.

The resurgence of I-back Roy Helu Jr. has added a key element to a sputtering Nebraska offense.

Helu's big game helped power the Cornhuskers to a 31-17 comeback victory over Kansas Saturday afternoon.

The Cornhuskers are a different team when Helu is running the ball well. He showed it Saturday when he rushed for 156 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns. He added another TD on a fumble recovery earlier in the game.

After struggling during a two-game losing streak earlier in conference play when Helu was banged up, the Cornhuskers erupted for two late touchdowns in the fourth quarter after Kansas had assumed the lead.

Helu's heroics sets up a winner-take-all battle for the North Division next week in Lincoln between the Cornhuskers and Kansas State. If Nebraska wins, it's headed to the team's first Big 12 title game since 2006. And if Kansas State wins, the Wildcats are headed to Arlington on Dec. 5 for their first Big 12 championship game since winning the title in 2003.

The loss to Nebraska continues a frustrating spiral for Kansas, which started the season 5-0 and has lost its last five games. The Jayhawks need a victory either next week at Texas or Nov. 28 against Missouri in Kansas City to become bowl eligible.

It is Kansas' longest losing streak since the Jayhawks lost the final seven games of Mangino's first season in 2002 and the first game of the 2003 season.

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Tyson Alualu Strong in so Many Ways

Cal senior Tyson Alualu is a strong man.

His strength on the field is obvious -- just ask any opposing offensive lineman that he's moved out of the way on his path to some of the most impressive numbers posted by a defensive lineman in Cal history. Opposing quarterbacks and running backs who have been smashed to the ground by the 6-3, 290-pounder would certainly agree.

His skills make most NFL teams eager to acquire his services when he becomes available in the NFL Draft next April. Although Alualu looks forward to that day next spring when he learns where his new home will be, the one he's made for himself at Cal is going to be difficult to leave.

It hasn't always been that way. In fact, there was a time when all Alualu could think about was leaving.

"I got really homesick," remembered Alualu, who is one of nine children raised in a Polynesian culture that centers on family. "I just wanted to be with my family. Anything that would happen to me here I would use as an excuse to want to go back home."

And he did just that.

After a standout prep career at St. Louis High School in Honolulu, Alualu came to Cal in the summer of 2005 as a highly coveted recruit but didn't stay long. Shortly after attending the school's summer bridge program, he decided to go back home to Hawaii. He spent the fall back in his home state, but decided to give Cal another shot and returned to enroll in school the following January.

He didn't come back alone. This time, he brought a big part of home back with him.

Alualu's wife, Desiré, had given birth to the couple's son, Tyreé, two months earlier and the young family returned to the mainland together.

It would be easy to think that a 19-year-old student-athlete with the added responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood might have a tough time making a go of it, especially when he was thousands of miles away from home and even farther away from the culture he enjoyed so much.
Just the opposite proved to be the case.

Alualu admits that his affection for the school he now loves and will soon miss grew gradually during the first few months of his return, but his impact on the field was immediate.

In 2006, his first year with the Bears, he played in all 13 games and even picked up his first career start. In the three seasons since, he has started all 33 games and been named by his teammates as Cal's top defensive lineman each of the past two years. If the first eight games of the 2009 campaign are any indication, he will make it a three-peat.

"There is now doubt that Tyson is one of the very best players in the Pac-10," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "He is a guy that plays snap to whistle. He can run and is physical."

The list of people Alualu thanks for helping him to find the strength to be successful at Cal is long, but he begins with God and is also quick to point out his immediate family, the Polynesian players on the team and his entire Cal football family.

"In our culture, we put God first and then family comes right after that," said Alualu, who sports black strips under his eyes during games that read "God First".

He quoted his favorite Bible verse -- Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me-- when asked where he gets the strength to be one of the nation's best football players, a Cal student, a loving husband and devoted father.

"That scripture can translate to the field," emphasized Alualu. "I can have no energy left during a game, but can look up and say, `God, give me the strength.' I know he can give me the strength to give it my all and make that one more play. I definitely feel the difference. If you really trust in Him, you feel refreshed, you feel new. A lot of scriptures in the Bible relate to being on the field. That's where I get my strength."

The strength his family provides is also critical in his life.

Now a family of four with the addition of daughter Deréon in July of 2008, the family lives in Cal's University Village in Albany. Desiré has been a stay-at-home mom for much of her husband's time in Berkeley, but is now back on the career track as a nursing student at Western Career College in Emeryville thanks to the help of her sister, Tita Pomele, who has moved to the Bay Area and assists in the care of Tyreé and Deréon.

"I give props to my wife for what she does," said a proud Alualu with a big smile. "She was held back with her own stuff for a while with the kids, but now she's back doing what she's always wanted to do. I'm really proud of her. She's getting straight A's."

Having his own family around makes his success at Cal that much sweeter.

"It's really special after the game, when you have just given everything you've got on the field, that win or lose you can enjoy spending time with them," said Alualu. "They come down to the field and my son will run around a little bit. Just having them here to support me is really special."

Now, he finds himself savoring his last several weeks as a Cal football player.

"With the little time I have left here, I want to enjoy every day and have no regrets when I leave," said Alualu. "I love this place so much -- my teammates, my fellow defensive linemen and all the other great people I've met. I wish I had more years to come, but this is my last one, and I'm really going to miss it."

But the NFL prospect and 22-year-old family man who is mature beyond his years has so much more to look forward to in the future.

"I feel like I have to take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves," analyzed a cautiously optimistic Alualu when asked about his football future. "I don't want to get ahead of myself, thinking about the NFL Combine or the Draft, and then mess up right now and not produce. But at the same time, I do think of the big picture. I've got to work hard to reach my goal. Hopefully, I can give my family a better life if I succeed in my dream of playing in the NFL."

Still, life is pretty good right now and Alualu certainly appreciates what he has.

"It's awesome," Alualu said as he lights up when talking about his family. "I enjoy being with my wife and having two kids, and at the same time going to college. It just gives me extra motivation to reach my goal to play at the next level."

The spiritual Alualu has much bigger goals for himself and his family than the earthly riches of the NFL. "I want to do the same thing my father did for me," explained Alualu, whose father, Ta'avao, is a pastor at Solid Rock Christian Fellowship Church in Honolulu. "In the Bible, it says, `Train a child the way he should grow, so that when he does grow up, he'll never depart from it.' I strongly believe that's what happened to me and that's what I want to do for my kids."

Every child should be so lucky to have such a strong dad.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Polamalu one of few NFL Defensive Players Who Can Take Over a Game

The Pittsburgh Steelers watched a snow-splattered Troy Polamalu make a seemingly impossible, one-handed scoop interception on a mushy field against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers last season. That doesn't mean they believed it.

"Impossible," linebacker James Farrior said.

Not one quarter into the first NFL game of this season, Polamalu made a climb-the-ladder, one-handed interception of a pass by Titans quarterback Kerry Collins that the Steelers believe was comparable to last season's snowball grab.

"He's one of the all-time greatest safeties," safety Ryan Clark said Wednesday. "He's awesome. There's no other way to say it, he's the best safety in the NFL, point blank, period."

Which raises this question: Does Polamalu and all of his game-altering plays make the Steelers the best team in the league? With Polamalu in the lineup, the Steelers are 4-0 this season and 13-1 in their last 14 games, counting the post-season.

For all the attention the unbeaten Colts (8-0) and Saints (8-0) are getting, it almost seems as if the Super Bowl champion Steelers are being overlooked because of two last-minute losses that Polamalu missed with a left knee injury.

With Polamalu back, the Steelers (6-2) will carry a five-game winning streak into Sunday's pivotal AFC North game against the Bengals (6-2). Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Polamalu's one-time roommate at Southern Cal, already knows what he's getting into.

"Love watching him play," Palmer said. "Hate playing against him."

Statistics don't always quantify what Polamalu means to the Steelers - he was chosen for the Pro Bowl in 2007 without making a single interception all season - but they do illustrate how he might be having the best season of his seven-year career.

Because of his knee injury, Polamalu has played in only 3½ games, yet he is tied for fourth in the AFC with three interceptions and tied for seventh with 10 passes defended.

Polamalu, a Pro Bowl player each of the last five seasons, showed again Monday in Denver how a dynamic defensive player - and not just a quarterback, running back or wide receiver - can alter a game. And why his "43" jerseys are nearly as ubiquitous in Pittsburgh as Terry Bradshaw's "12" once was.

With the Steelers leading the Broncos (6-2) by 14-10 early in the fourth quarter, Polamalu jammed the line of scrimmage before bursting up the middle to drop Correll Buckhalter for no gain at the nine. One play later, Polamalu dropped into deep coverage to intercept a Kyle Orton pass intended for Brandon Marshall, and the Steelers scored three plays later.

"He didn't just take over the series, he took over the game," Farrior said. "He can do that at any point."

Against the Broncos, Polamalu once lined up outside the left tackle, only to streak across the field to tackle a wide receiver in the flat.

"That's what Troy does," Farrior said. "It looks like chaos, but he's definitely under control and has an idea what he wants to do. Sometimes things change during the play and he'll go do it, he'll take over. He's not afraid to take those chances and that's what separates him from other players."

Polamalu, told what his teammates were saying, almost seemed embarrassed. He also refuses to compare himself to the other top safeties, such as Baltimore's Ed Reed.

"I don't know," Polamalu said. "I'm just doing the things I'm coached to do. I'm just one of 11 guys out there."

To the Steelers, he's one of a kind. Quarterbacks rarely seem to target him, yet he has made an interception in all but one game this season.

"You've got guys who are irreplaceable, and then you've got Troy," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "There's no other Troy - not just on this team, but in the league. He's the difference."

What Farrior disputes is that Polamalu is a freelancer, someone who doesn't hesitate to abandon the defence that's been called to gamble.

"I think he watches more tape than anybody else," Farrior said. "Whenever he's out there taking chances, calculated risks, it might have been something he saw on tape a few weeks before. There might have been a game a couple of years before where he read something, saw something, so that he's not afraid to go and pull the trigger."

To Clark, Polamalu is more patient and less improvisational than he was a few seasons ago. He's also better.

"So much is written about him doing his own thing," Clark said. "I think he's improved on not doing that. ... Some guys in this league, you can make a mistake with them. You can't do that with Troy. He capitalizes on those and makes big plays. That's how he can take over a game."

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Speed Runs in Owusu's Family

The bar is set pretty high in the Owusu household.

All five of the kids are A students who play multiple sports. If one of them came home with, say, a B-plus on a report card? "I would take them out of sports," said their father, Francis Owusu.

There's something else that all five kids have in common: They're very quiet.

The eldest, Chris, Stanford's 6-foot-2, 201-pound sophomore wide receiver and kickoff return man extraordinaire, carries it to the extreme, his dad said.

"He's way too quiet," he said. "He keeps things to himself."

On Sunday, a day after Chris returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the third time this season, tying the Pac-10 single-season record, he talked on the phone with his mother, Luaiva. And didn't mention the touchdown.

The NCAA single-season record is five (Tulsa's Ashlan Davis) and the career record is six (Davis and USC's Anthony Davis).

"You've got to decide if you're going to kick it to him," said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who won't say which way he's leaning for Saturday's 12:30 p.m. game at Stanford. "It's like Barry Bonds when he was hitting all those home runs. You didn't have to pitch to him."

Francis Owusu had made the Ghanaian Olympic team in the 400 meters, but didn't compete because most of Africa boycotted the 1976 Games in Montreal over Olympic officials' refusal to ban New Zealand. There was an uproar over the New Zealand rugby team's tour of South Africa, which had been banned because of its apartheid policies.

He came to the United States in 1978 to attend Utah State on a track scholarship, met his Samoa-born wife and started a highly religious family. All five of their children are excellent athletes - Brian is a freshman defensive back at Harvard - but academics came first.

Chris, the oldest, plans to go to medical school. He had a 4.2 grade point average at Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village, a 35-mile drive from their home in Oxnard (Ventura County). When Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh came for a visit, he was given a combination of Samoan and Ghanaian food, including fried plantain. "Oh my goodness, he ate and ate," Francis Owusu said.

At Oaks Christian, Chris was one of the main targets for quarterback Jimmy Clausen, now at Notre Dame. But he didn't return kickoffs, despite his exceptional speed.

"That shows you how good a coach I was," said Oaks Christian's Bill Redell, whose teams have gone 111-11-1 over 10 years. "I was afraid of him fumbling because he had done that a little bit in practice. If I had let him run back kickoffs, we probably would have been 114-8."

As a college freshman, Owusu returned kickoffs in five games after returning from a knee injury he sustained in a preseason scrimmage. His longest return was a 54-yarder. Now he's practically a touchdown machine, showing why he was one of the state's top prep sprinters until he pulled a hamstring as a senior.

"Honestly, it doesn't surprise me at all," said Georgetown quarterback Isaiah Kempf, a longtime pal. "I knew he was an extraordinary athlete. When he got hurt last year, I knew it was just a matter of time before people saw what he could do."

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Tommie Harris Punches Deuce Lutui

Tommie Harris has been sent to the showers before he had time to break a sweat.

Harris, the Bears' defensive tackle, was ejected from today's game against the Arizona Cardinals just 1:05 into the game for punching Cardinals offensive tackle Deuce Lutui.

The punch came in a pile-up after a Cardinals running game, with Harris and Lutui tangled up on the ground. Harris hit Lutui in the face; there was no indication of whether Harris was reacting to something Lutui did.

Referee Ed Hochuli saw the punch and ejected Harris in addition to giving the Bears a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

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Polamalu Says Forget Prime Time, Whats Important is Streak

The Steelers are 11-1 in primetime regular season games under third-year head coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin is 4-0 all-time on Monday Night Football.

The Steelers have won 11 straight games in primetime under Tomlin. Pittsburgh is 2-0 this year in primetime games and is scheduled to play a total of five primetime games this season (Week 4 vs. San Diego, Week 9 at Denver, Week 12 at Baltimore and Week 14 at Cleveland).

Asked if there is something about playing under the lights, Steeler safety Polamalu said it is no different than any other game.

"I think what is important to keep our winning streak alive, and when you can do that against a team that has been successful its important," Polamalu said.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wyoming Wants a Piece of Cougars, & Their Recruiting Turf

Aside from their once-a-year meetings on the field, football coaches at Wyoming and BYU don't usually see a lot of each other. But that figures to change, now that former Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen has taken over the Wyoming program.

No, Christensen doesn't necessarily want to become best friends with BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff. The reason is because Wyoming has made it clear under Christensen that it intends to recruit the state of Utah more heavily, and that it is going after players of Pacific Island descent like never before.

"We are going to recruit the state of Utah probably more so than [Wyoming coaches] have in the past," Christensen acknowledged. "We have expanded our recruiting base drastically over the last year. We are willing to recruit everywhere and anywhere we can find a kid that fits our system and that can help us win."

The Cowboys (4-4) will have no Utahns on their roster when they take on the Cougars (6-2) Saturday (noon, the Mtn.) at War Memorial Stadium, but that will change in future meetings, coaches from both sides agree.

Jordan High lineman Billy Vavau, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound senior, committed to Wyoming earlier this season, and last year the Cowboys signed Cottonwood's Alo Moli, a defensive back who is currently on an LDS Church mission.

In the past, Wyoming coaches (and other Western States coaches) have avoided recruiting Utah not because the high school talent level is found lacking, but because the state has three Football Bowl Subdivision programs (BYU, Utah, Utah State) and two FCS programs (Weber State, Southern Utah), and beating all five programs for a local is difficult.

But when Christensen took over, one of his first hires was outside linebackers coach Mike Fanoga, a native of American Samoa who has strong ties to Pacific Islander communities in Hawaii, California, Texas, Utah and Las Vegas.

Mendenhall has noticed the difference.

"They are going after Polynesian kids," Mendenhall said. "... The comment was made [to a BYU assistant coach] that Wyoming wants to recruit the Polynesian kids that BYU is recruiting or [players] that they can beat BYU with on the field. So clearly, they are after an improved program, a conference championship, and to play at a very high level. To do that, they probably think they have to improve their recruiting base or talent level."

Mendenhall and BYU recruiting coordinator Paul Tidwell both said they have a lot of respect for Fanoga and his reputation as both a coach and a recruiter. Wyoming's media guide lists Arizona, Hawaii and Utah as Fanoga's recruiting areas.

"I am sure that's one of the reasons for [Christensen] hiring him, because of his Polynesian ancestry," Tidwell said. "But it is also because he is dang good defensive line coach."

Tidwell said Wyoming isn't the only school just now discovering Utah high school talent and Polynesian talent.

Polynesians "are good athletes, and I think we are going to see more and more of them playing Division I football," Tidwell said.

BYU running back Harvey Unga, a Polynesian, said he is "thrilled" to see more schools recruiting players from the Pacific islands.

"I am happy that a lot more Polynesian kids are getting opportunities to go play at different colleges, to get out there and show what they can do," he said. "To go to college and get an education is awesome, as they will find out. So I am proud of those guys."

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Adapting an Offense for Masoli a Tall Order

Oregon coaches describe quarterback Jeremiah Masoli as a work in progress. And coaching Jeremiah Masoli? That's a work in progress, too.

Ducks coach Mike Bellotti and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly know that "coaching up" Masoli won't make him taller; so, they are continually searching for X's and O's that make a shorter quarterback more effective.

"It's the same thing as if you have a quarterback who doesn't run as well -- you change your protection up," Kelly said. "You've got to try to compensate a little bit."

Masoli, a dangerous runner who has struggled with the passing game in his first year at Oregon, is listed as 5-foot-11, and probably isn't that tall. One of Masoli's issues is vision -- he simply can't see over the taller linemen in front of him.

"It's tough, man," said 6-5 center Max Unger. "I think I might be the shortest one out there. There are some big bodies flying around out there."

Kelly likes to quote former coach Lou Holtz, who, when asked how tall his quarterback has to be, said: "Tall enough so his feet touch the ground."

Kelly put together a highly effective game plan for 6-6 Justin Roper in last year's Sun Bowl, where Roper threw for four touchdowns in a 56-21 win over South Florida.

In the offseason, the coaching staff began searching for ways to best use a much-shorter quarterback. They were thinking of Nate Costa, the 6-1 sophomore who would suffer a season-ending knee injury in fall camp. Masoli fit that thinking, too.

A sophomore who came to Eugene after one season at City College of San Francisco, Masoli arrived at a good time for a shorter quarterback. Chase Daniel, a 6-foot native Texan who went basically unrecruited by Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, was making a run at the Heisman Trophy at Missouri. Todd Reesing (5-11) was doing the same thing at Kansas.

So the Oregon coaches' search led them to Columbia, Mo., where the Tigers have turned Daniel into a towering offensive weapon. Like the Ducks, Missouri uses the no-huddle spread offense. The Tigers rank fourth in the nation in passing (352 yards per game) and scoring (45 points per game).

But the talks with Missouri's coaches didn't accomplish much. To use Masoli as Missouri uses Daniel would have required a revamping of the running game -- the Ducks' strength (they rank fifth in the nation at 274 yards per game).

"They put (Daniel) at a different depth," Bellotti said. "They deep drop him. They separate him from the line of scrimmage, but they don't have the running game we do. It changes the mesh point for a lot of the run stuff. It also puts a lot more stress on your tackles. They do a lot more two-tight end stuff, too, for that exact reason -- to eliminate the tackle being one-on-one with a defensive end.

"Are you going to change that and change your running game to match it? Because right now, the depth of our quarterback and our two open edges give us two areas to attack and we can spread people. If you bring them back in, you create more opportunities for the defense to run their stunts and blitzes and that type of thing."

Bellotti said to expect some new wrinkles in the bowl game. In the offseason, Kelly will hit the road again, doing research and development. It's all part of the job for Kelly, who is also UO's quarterbacks coach: To go where ideas are working, and then "borrow" them.

"Show me a coach who isn't stealing from somebody else -- they're lying," Kelly said. "If you weren't in a room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne, then you got it from somebody else."

So what would make Masoli more effective? Experience. Beyond that, opinions differ.

Tight end Ed Dickson, whose production has suffered along with the passing game's struggles (one catch for four yards in the past four games), said he'd like to see Masoli roll out more -- to his side, of course.

"In my opinion, we need to get him out of the pocket a little bit more," Dickson said. "He's a great scrambler, and he's great rolling and throwing.

"We think we got our guy, we just have to find a system that works for him. That's where the offseason comes in handy. If he's our guy, we're going to find something that fits him. We're going to make it work, basically."

In the Civil War, Masoli's counterpart will be 5-11 Lyle Moevao. The quarterback who was most effective against the Ducks this season was Boise State's Kellen Moore, a 6-footer.

"I'm not the only quarterback who's not 6-6," Masoli said. "It's just passing lanes. It's not really seeing over the line as much as through the line."

The Ducks are a run-oriented team, but they spread things out to do it. And that spread formation, with bigger gaps between the linemen, helps create passing lanes. When the offense is clicking -- even if it's Roper doing the throwing -- the passes are thrown through the lanes.

So it's a matter of getting Masoli to see through those lanes. And if Kelly has to fly a few thousand miles to help complete a 10-yard pass, then so be it. You can only do so much on the ground.

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Navy Accepts Invitation to Texas Bowl

The United States Naval Academy has accepted a bid to play in the 2009 Texas Bowl, it was announced Saturday.

Navy's 23-21 win over Notre Dame on Saturday secured its spot in the December 31 bowl game, as the Midshipmen will play a team from the Big 12 at Reliant Stadium.

"We are very proud to host the Midshipmen at the Texas Bowl this year, and we want to congratulate Coach [Ken] Niumatalolo and the entire Navy program on the tremendous victory today," said Texas Bowl manager Heather Houston. "Navy has had a great season thus far and will provide a great match-up for the Big 12 opponent. Our fans will be in for quite a game."

Navy's win Saturday improved the team to 7-3, the best record among FBS independent teams. The Midshipmen are the first team this season to accept a bowl invitation.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Rey Sees Ray-Ray

When he was drafted by the Bengals back in April, it wasn’t said but people just assumed that head coach Marvin Lewis now had his Cincinnati version of Ray Lewis in the form of Rey Maualuga.

Same first name. Same swagger and intensity. Same division.

Even Ray Lewis, who was drafted and groomed into a Pro Bowler when Marvin Lewis was his defensive coordinator, figured it, too.

“I’ve watched him at USC,” Ray Lewis told the Baltimore media Wednesday. “I think he was a young kid who liked flying to the ball. I think they’re kind of bringing that same atmosphere over there. Marvin’s got him somebody who can turn into a thumper and be a leader over there.”

And Maualuga was watching Lewis long before this season.

“He’s definitely a person I want to see myself as. An intimidator. This will be a perfect game to make a statement,” said Maualuga, speaking as much for his fellow backers as for himself. “He’s a beast. A great player. Someone that can make an impact on a defense.”

Maualuga has had a more than a solid rookie year. He clearly brings the wood like few guys in the league with two forced fumbles, a pass defensed, a sack, and a team third-best 38 tackles. But he knows if he wants to be like Lewis, he’ll have to do something with the ball.

“Be alert,” he said. “Look for me in the end zone.”

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Agent Says Vakapuna is Back

The agent for Fui Vakapuna said Tuesday his client has agreed to re-sign with the club. Since the Bengals don't announce deals until they are signed, it appears Vakapuna plans to sign his contract when he arrives in town. Agent Dave Lee said Vakapuna is moving to the 53-man roster from the Arizona practice squad, where he has been since the Bengals released him just before the start of the regular season.

When the Bengals decided to cut seventh-rounder Fui Vakapuna and keep Jeremi Johnson on the active roster and Chris Pressley on the practice squad, they weren’t down on Vakapuna. What Johnson and Pressley have on Vakapuna at the moment is their ability to anchor and absorb jolts from linebackers and defensive ends in the blocking game.

But the Bengals love the 6-0, 260-pound Vakapuna’s athleticism and think he’s a good player whose best days are in front of him. Vakapuna, who re-signed with the club Tuesday, is a bright, engaging guy that knows all of this.

“They just want that punch, that shot, explosiveness,” Vakapuna said Wednesday before his first practice back. “Getting out and just hitting somebody. I think it is more leverage, learning how to get my legs under me, my hips, my thrust, everything.”

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Ross Apo Named All-American

Arlington (Texas) Oakridge senior receiver Ross Apo got to cross off one particular accomplishment he set for himself two years ago: Play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

"I wrote down my goals to start my sophomore season," Apo said. "And this was one."

Apo received his formal invitation Tuesday from the Army Strong contingent cutting a swath through North Texas with announcements that Plano West defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and Haltom defensive end Reggie Wilson also were named. There are more North Texas announcements coming the next three days.

Apo received his traditional U.S. Army jersey (No. 10) at Oakridge, a small private school in Southwest Arlington. He'll play in the 10th Anniversary game Jan. 9 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

The East vs. West matchup will be televised live on NBC and feature 90 of the nation's top high school football players.

Apo represents a new generation of players coming through the All-American Game in the last decade.

"The first players I really remember watching are DeSean Jackson (2005) and Ted Ginn (2004)," Apo said.

Apo (6-3, 190) is considered one of the nation's top recruits and is giving Brigham Young a highly rated class along with Seattle quarterback Jake Heaps. Apo's Oakridge teammate, 6-foot-6 offensive tackle Tayo Fabuluje Jr. and hard-hitting linebacker Teu Kautai, also have committed to BYU and were in attendance at Apo's announcement.

Oakridge hopes Apo returns this week against Cistercian. Apo has been recuperating from a leg injury and hasn't caught a pass in Oakridge's last two games. Apo last caught a pass in the first quarter (for a touchdown) of a Sept. 18 victory over Austin St. Andrew's.
The Owls certainly would like their star receiver back. He's been a mainstay of the program since he transferred in to start his sophomore year.

"The first time I saw him, I could tell he was going to be a special player," Oakridge coach Phillip Farhat said. "He had size, speed, explosiveness and great hands. And he loves to play. If I was as good as he is, I'd love to play too."

Apo has 10 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns in his limited time. Apo's athleticism also shows with touchdowns on a punt return and an interception return as well. Apo had 37 catches for 764 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior and 27 catches for 331 yards and one touchdown as a sophomore.

As a college prospect, he's looked as a wide receiver who has the length and frame to possibly morph into a tight end or H-back. Apo is proud of his accomplishments as a receiver against some of the nation's top players. He shined at a Stanford camp this summer as coaches set up a one-on-one matchup in skills drills between Apo and Palmdale, Calif., star defensive back Joshua Shaw.

"(Shaw) was burning everybody and the coaches got me to go against him about five times," Apo said. "He jammed at the line, but I made the catch. Coming from a private school, a lot of people don't think you play the best competition but I like to prove that we can."

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Heimuli is an All-American

Representatives from the U.S. Army All-American Bowl made a stop in Utah on Tuesday to officially announce Salt Lake City Brighton defensive lineman Ricky Heimuli as a member of the West roster for the 2010 edition of the game. In front of his teammates and school peers, Heimuli accepted his selection and reiterated a desire to work hard and represent his school and state well.

The excitement of the occasion was evident as Heimuli was flanked by family and friends Tuesday morning and he sees it as an opportunity to compete against the nation's best.

"I just get to go out there and play against some of the best in the nation," commented Heimuli.

For the humble 280-pound lineman however, it's easy to keep things in perspective considering all the attention he has received during the past year.

"I just see it as going out to have fun doing what I love to do," he said. "I really don't know what to say, I'm speechless right now. I want to thank the school for supporting me. It's a great opportunity."

Heimuli has been playing organized football since he was eight, and comes from a bloodline of football players. In the state of Utah, the Heimuli name is practically synonymous with football these days, considering Heimuli's uncles both played collegiately and his cousin, Latu Heimuli, currently plays for Utah.

Recruiting has kept up a rigorous pace with 22 offers and counting now for Heimuli, his most recent offer coming in from the East Coast.

"The newest one is West Virginia," he said. "I'm starting to do my research on them. I've gotten a few calls from the coaches, and they seem pretty nice."

Of the 22 schools vying for Heimuli's services, the schools he seems to be hearing the most from these days are Washington, UCLA, USC, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

So with schools coming and going, has Heimuli gotten to a point where he is ready to narrow his list from 10 down to five?

According to Heimuli, things have changed since he eliminated schools in August, and now he has opened things back up.

"That top 10 stuff was just to kind of get everyone off my back," admitted Heimuli. "They kept on bugging me so I just threw out a few names, but everybody still has a chance - I'm still considering all schools."

Looking ahead, a decision for the Rivals100 lineman will most likely not come until Signing Day if things keep going the way they are.

Said Heimuli, "Right now I'm pretty sure I'm going to be dragging this out until February."

When pressed about where his coaches and teammates want to see him end up, Heimuli indicated one school in particular seems to be brought up more than any other.

"A lot of the (coaching) staff members are thinking I'm going to go and play for USC," he said. "But I told them I don't know yet."

For now, the focus for the highly sought-after lineman will be getting his team into the state playoffs. The Brighton Bengals will face off against cross-town rival Jordan High School Tuesday night in a playoff elimination game.

"We just need to go out and play how we usually play. We sometimes step down to their level, but we just need to stay on our level and that way we can win."

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Masoli Named National Player of the Week

The Ducks jumped four spots in the USA Today coaches poll to No. 8, and three positions in the AP top 25 to No. 7. Oregon was 10th in last week’s BCS rankings, which will be updated later this afternoon.

Oregon junior quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has been named the national offensive player of the week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

Masoli ran for a season-high 164 yards and passed for 222 more, totaling 386 yards of offense in UO’s 47-20 victory over then-No. 4 USC. He also rushed for one score and threw another.

Over his past four games, Masoli has a quarterback rating of 156.91, completing nearly 71 percent of his pass attemps with six touchdowns through the air against zero interceptions. During that span he has four rushing touchdowns and is averaging 260 yards of total offense.

Masoli is the second Duck to receive the weekly honor his season. Ed Dickson earned the award in Week 4.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Masoli Make Trojans Pony Up

Oregon’s spread-option offense lived up to its billing in Saturday’s 47-20 win over No. 4 USC, the 10th-ranked Ducks spreading the field with screens in the passing game and gashing the Trojans on the ground with the option.

Jeremiah Masoli completed 19 passes, none longer than 23 yards, and also ran for 164 yards. He complemented the efforts of redshirt freshman tailback LaMichael James, who had a career-best rushing total for the third straight game, with 183 yards.

“You have to defend the entire field because of how good our running backs are, how well our offensive line is playing right now, and the quarterback,” UO coach Chip Kelly said. “It really stresses a defense when you’ve got all that clicking.”

A week after running for 154 yards against Washington, and two games after reaching 152 at UCLA, James put on his best show yet for the home crowd. He ran for 91 yards in the third quarter, when USC’s defense wilted under Oregon’s pressure.

“I was telling them to speed up,” James said. “I was like, ‘Go faster, go faster, they’re getting tired, they’re getting tired.’ And that’s what they did.”

With his patience and elusiveness Saturday, James resembled the other Willamette Valley wonder, Oregon State tailback Quizz Rodgers, who also has run the Trojans ragged the past two years. James’ yardage came on 18 carries, for an average of 9.4 yards per rush.

“They’re different in style, but very, very effective, and (James is) very fast,” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “On this turf, he was flying out there tonight. We just lost track of him back in the backfield about four or five times when he got 10 or 15 yards on us. They were making seven, eight yards a carry on bad plays for them. It was a terrible night for us, and he enjoyed the fun of that one. I don’t know who’s better and that kind of stuff. They’re both really good, and they’re too good for us.”

Masoli, meanwhile, av-eraged 11.8 yards on his 13 carries. It was possible to forget that, barely more than a week ago, there were fears that the knee injury that sidelined him against UCLA might do so for much longer.

With his three-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Masoli went over 1,000 rushing yards in his career.

“We had a tough time tackling Masoli tonight, and we didn’t feel that was going to be the big issue,” said Carroll, who said earlier in the week that Masoli’s running ability was the key to Oregon’s offense. “We thought we’d be able to get to him and get him down when we had our chances.

“They did everything that they wanted to do. It was really pretty easy for them tonight.”

Each of Oregon’s final four touchdown drives featured big runs by James and Masoli. James slipped a tackle for a 33-yard gain to set up the Ducks’ first score of the second quarter, and Masoli tucked the ball on a pass play later in the period for a 48-yard gain.

Similarly, Oregon’s first touchdown drive of the third quarter featured a 26-yard gain by Masoli, and the second included a 23-yard gain by James. The latter drive also included a 17-yard run by Masoli that was similar to his big 48-yard rush, when he took advantage of USC’s man coverage in the passing game to find room to run.

“We didn’t expect to do that, necessarily,” UO offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said of the Ducks’ season-best production. “But at the same time, our guys are capable of doing that when you get kind of close to the total package working.”

Which was the case Saturday.

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