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October 1, 2009You'd think that what Mike Neal's going through on Saturdays would take all the fun out of football.
The Boilermaker defensive tackle has regularly faced double-team blocking, preventing him from making a lot of the plays he envisioned himself making during his much-anticipated senior season.
"I think ordinarily it might, but Mike has done a really good job in not allowing it to bother him," first-year defensive coordinator Donn Landholm said. "He laid out and made a really nice play late in the ball game against Notre Dame. He seems to keep getting better and practicing better. In the short time I've been here, he's been practicing better and better."
Neal, touted by his coaches prior to the season as potentially one of the best defensive tackles in the country, is receiving star treatment from opposing offensive lines.
"It's really, really, really new to me," Neal said. "I'd never been double-teamed that much at all. I think I got doubled against Northern Illinois more in one game than I had been my whole career combined.
"Toledo and Oregon (doubled me) and then it was the most against Northern (Illinois), because they basically lined up and double-teamed me every single snap. Notre Dame didn't do it as much. They just kind of ran their offense against me. I had more single blocks against them."
It was at its worst against Northern Illinois.
"We played Northern Illinois," defensive line coach Terrell Williams said last week, "and they ran that power (running) play out of different formations probably 50 snaps ... and he got (double-teamed) on 50 snaps. That's what he's getting and what he's going to get (the rest of the season)."
Even while often occupying multiple blockers, it's not like Neal has been a complete non-factor. He's made 10 tackles, two-and-a-half of them for loss, in four games at a position that doesn't often put up big numbers.
There are no defensive tackles ranked in the top 50 in the Big Ten in tackles, which is certainly not surprising, as linebackers and defensive backs dominate the list.
The Big Ten leader among defensive tackles is Iowa's Karl Klug, who has 18 stops. In sacks, Minnesota's Eric Small is the conference's all-around leader with three, tied atop the standings with two other players, including Purdue linebacker Jason Werner.
Still, Neal - in spite of the attention he gets on the field - thinks his numbers could be better.
And, he says, he's happy to entertain multiple blockers if it frees up someone else to make a play.
Landholm said he can think of examples this season where it was clear that someone other than Neal made a play as a direct result of the attention paid to Neal.
"It can get frustrating at times," Neal said, "but what people watching the game might not realize is that when someone gets double-teamed, other people can step up and make plays. I think we're doing a pretty good job stepping up and making plays.
"You have to look at it that way. You want to free up everyone else when (you're getting double-teamed). Maybe it can help another D-linemen or a linebacker to make a play, but I think I can make more plays, too, whether I'm double-teamed or not."
With that said, Neal knows he'll keep getting ganged up on. He won't stop fighting it, though, he says.
"All you have to do is keep playing football and the chips will fall where they may," he said. "I know I'll get double-teamed a lot more, but I'll make more plays and if they're going to double-team me, I'm going to split every double team I get.
"It's fine. I'll accept that role and hopefully make more plays for my teammates."
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