Articles By All
Duke and Michigan State may look familiar to the untrained eye when the two teams meet Tuesday night in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
Mike Krzyzewski is here. So is Tom Izzo. Duke has talent. Michigan State has plenty of upperclassmen.
A deeper look, though, reveals just how strange these teams are for Krzyzewski and Izzo.
Duke is likely to start three freshmen. Perhaps that’s not odd for many teams, especially top teams that gobble up McDonald’s All-Americans. Duke's not always one of them. Consider this: Krzyzewski has coached 1,159 games at Duke. Only 37 times including this season has he started three freshmen and 27 of those lineups came during the 1982-83 season.
Meanwhile, the steady national contender Michigan State enters the season without any major expectations for a Big Ten title or Final Four run. The departures of Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling have left the Spartans with a changing of the guard.
Duke vs. Michigan State
Site: Indianapolis, Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Time: 7 p.m. Eastern
What’s on the line for Duke
The Blue Devils handled Presbyterian and Fairfield by a combined score of 222-103 in the first two games, but this could be a key moment for Duke to establish itself as one of the nation’s dominant teams early in the season. The Blue Devils also face Wisconsin at Madison and defending national champion Connecticut on a neutral court before Dec. 18 for an interesting first five weeks of the season.
What’s on the line for Michigan State
The Spartans will see where they stand against a national contender. The Big Ten may have only one elite team this season (Wisconsin), but the Spartans figure to be right in the mix. A lopsided loss in Indianapolis combined with the Spartans’ sloppy 64-59 win over Navy on Friday will allow some doubt to creep in.
You’ll tune in to watch: Jahlil Okafor
Duke’s freshman center is the projected No. 1 overall pick and an All-America contender. So far, Okafor has done nothing to counter that reputation. He’s shot 17-of-20 from the field overall this season with 17 points and 19 points in his first two games. If there’s any nitpicking to do, Okafor had five turnovers against Fairfield.
Pivotal player: Justise Winslow
Duke’s freshmen include Okafor, whose credentials have been established, and Tyus Jones, a freshman expected to challenge veteran Quinn Cook for the point guard job. Winslow is “simply” the other great freshman in this class. Winslow has been nearly as effective as Okafor, shooting 12-of-22 from the floor in two games and countering the argument that he’s everything but a shooter.
Biggest question: Does Michigan State’s experience help keep this close?
A veteran Michigan State team beat preseason No. 1 Kentucky in last year’s Champions Classic, but this game doesn’t have the same cliche of youth vs. experience. True, Michigan State has upperclassmen Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, Matt Costello and Denzel Valentine, but all but Dawson were role players on last year’s Elite Eight team. Beyond its three starting freshmen, Duke has plenty of experience as well. The key veteran will be Dawson, whom Izzo said needs to be Superman in this game with his versatility.
David Fox: Duke 68-58
Mitch Light: Duke 81-69
Nathan Rush: Duke 64-58
The knock on the No. 4 team this year with driver Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers was simple. Entering Homestead, they had clearly proven themselves as one of the fastest — if not the fastest — on the NASCAR Sprint Cup grid each week: four wins, including a Phoenix sweep and leading the most laps out in the series was their proof on paper. But for all the victories they’d tallied, this bunch still had a hard time finishing races. You can spend 10,000 laps up front over the course of a year but if you don’t perform in crunch time, in the final laps, all that number amounts to is a pretty stat.
On Sunday, Harvick and Childers proved that over nine months, in just their first season together, they’ve been able to overcome their deficiencies. Charging from 12th to first in the final 20 laps of the race, Harvick rocketed to the front in a winner-take-all Chase format that cemented his logic to move from Richard Childress Racing, where he’d spent his entire Cup career, to Stewart-Haas Racing.
“It really changed my life in a new direction,” he said after earning his first Cup title the way it should be earned — in Victory Lane. “(Wife) Delana and I looked at things and said, ‘What’s going to make us happy?’ Because in the end, if you’re not happy, nothing is going to work like it should.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my whole life than I have been this year. I have no idea how much money I make or what I do. I love showing up to work. And it’s been a long, long time since I can sit up here and honestly tell you that I love the experience of everything that’s been around me — it just makes it fun.”
So is that what pushed Harvick to the front — that and a gutsy call by Childers to give him four fresh tires while other contenders stayed out or took two? Was it pure emotion that made the difference? With athletes, we often forget that at the highest level, what separates the most talented individuals is smaller than the width of a fingernail. In Happy Hour practice Saturday, the top speeds of the final four contenders were separated by less than .07 seconds. And throughout most of Homestead’s 400 miles on Sunday, each driver ran within the top 5.
Considering that little separation, combined with a week’s worth of grueling media attention, mental health does play a bigger role. Harvick’s enjoyment of this process this time around was clearly better than the other times he’s entered the final weekend with a shot: 2006, ’10, ’13. In all those cases, he was clearly an underdog rather than the favorite but the pressure appeared to get to him.
Not this time. This year, Harvick turned to co-owner Tony Stewart and six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, both of whom have been in this position before and offered time and advice. It’s a resource he never quite had at RCR, a place where he was expected to be the unquestioned leader as opposed to SHR, a place where he can just … fit in.
“Tony was a big part of giving me the heads up and saying, ‘All right, bud, this is not going to be like [anything you’ve been through],’” Harvick said. “He was a big help to helping Delana and I just get through the week and keeping it low key. And Johnson was a huge help in just helping — he’d show up in the trailer after every practice and called (and) texted to Rodney and myself.”
Everyone in this top tier of NASCAR has talent. Just to make it to the 43-car grid says something about your level of stock car achievement. They can all put in a good qualifying lap, capture lightning out of a bottle in just one day. To put together a full season, reach the peak over 36 races they need the right combination of people.
Harvick spent 13 years trying to find that combo at RCR. Elsewhere, it took him just one year. That’s how close he’s been all this time.
“Through the Gears” we go, one final time in 2014 …
FIRST GEAR: Harvick made the right move
Harvick’s race at Homestead was the perfect mix of both strategy and speed. For much of the day, he actually found himself stuck behind Denny Hamlin, the 2013 Homestead winner, in position to capitalize and sneak away with a title. But Hamlin, during a late caution, chose to stay out on old tires while Harvick ducked down pit road for four. With a number of yellows that came after that, constantly bunching the field up on restarts, it gave Harvick the ability to sneak by traffic, get up to Hamlin and ultimately speed right past him.
“I have no idea how I got the lead,” he said afterwards. “I have no clue.”
Hamlin, though, knew exactly how he did it, claiming crew chief Darian Grubb made a bad call to keep him out on old tires.
“We were sitting ducks as long as cautions kept coming out,” he said. “The breaks didn’t quite work out for us.”
So Harvick takes the title, the best possible outcome for NASCAR and its new playoff format. In past years, this team would be dead in the water, strong on speed all year but crushed by inconsistency. But in using the “win and keep going” portion of the new rules, it was able to peak down the stretch, winning three of the final six races and establishing itself atop NASCAR’s hierarchy.
SECOND GEAR: Second is the first … winner?
Hamlin’s fall to third happened when Ryan Newman, bidding to become the sport’s first winless champion, worked himself to second place. It was the best finish for the No. 31 car all season, produced in the finale, as they finished off the Chase as one of the sport’s most unlikely underdogs. His Richard Childress Racing team now enters 2015 with plenty of momentum, lifting up what had been a disappointing year with its three-car program.
“Just a lot of fight,” Newman said. “I’m just so proud of our team.”
With a call for two fresh tires, Newman actually had track position on Harvick down the stretch but couldn’t hold on as the No. 4 car came streaming past. Clearing Hamlin for second, Newman had a chance but never really had the speed to get out front. Ending without a single lap led, his stat line for the season will read as one of the most surprising for a second-place finisher in points: 0 wins, five top 5s, and just 41 laps led in 36 starts.
Surely, Newman and RCR made the most of this new format, working the system and top 10-ing it to death to give themselves a chance. But don’t hate the players, hate the game … and remember that in the end, it was still the faster car that won out.
THIRD GEAR: Oh, what could have been
It was a small thing, nearly unnoticeable, but none of Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers were in the Chevy post-race “Notes and Quotes” release from Homestead-Miami. That’s in large part because all four were eliminated from title contention, the first time that’s happened for HMS since 2011 and just the second time in the 11-year history of the Chase.
Jeff Gordon, who wound up sixth in the points, has to be the most frustrated in the camp. At Homestead, he led the most laps (161) and seemed predestined to spoil the title party until an inexplicable late pit stop for tires. While Gordon charged back to run 10th, salvaging a decent day, it was a head-scratcher that made you wonder if HMS, aligned strongly with Stewart-Haas Racing, wanted to get one less car out of the way for Harvick to pass en route to the title.
Of course, some might say this championship should be Gordon’s anyway. His regular-season points tally was higher than everyone else and without a Chase, he takes the trophy by 37 over Joey Logano. Logano, in his own right, was also feeling the pain; his point total earns him a championship under the 2004-13 Chase format. But that’s not the way the game is played and both had their chances throughout the postseason to get the job done.
“Unfortunately, a great season like that makes this overall finish fourth because of one mistake, but that's what the rules are,” Logano said. “We understand that. This team did a great job of consistently being fast. In previous years, that would have been perfect but coming into this race and the way the points go, it doesn't pay any more, obviously. We still feel like we did a lot better than fourth this season.”
There were many still unsatisfied because of NASCAR’s new playoff format. However, the ratings over the last two races, combined with energetic interest and a sold-out crowd the last two events (Phoenix and Homestead) will create a perception difficult to break. I’ve got news for you, longtime traditionalists: this playoff isn’t going away.
“You know, what I wanted to do is grow the sport, put us in a stronger position for years to come,” Brad Keselowski said after becoming the epicenter for how it found emotions spilling over. “I think sometimes we get caught up in too much of the rhetoric around what a champion should reward, whether it's consistency or wins and those things. And I think I might be a little bit too close to the fire to provide an objective answer. But really all I care about with the format is that it takes the sport to another level for years to come. I think the jury is still out on that, but it looks like it's going to be good.”
FOURTH GEAR: Wrapping up odds ‘n’ ends
While the championship drama defined Sunday’s race, there were plenty of other storylines to follow. Kyle Larson, while running a disappointing 13th, easily defeated Austin Dillon among others for the 2014 Rookie of the Year title. Larson’s eight top-5 finishes left him 17th in points, the highest of any non-Chaser and he totaled more laps led (53) than all other freshman contenders combined.
“I felt like we would be the top contender once we got halfway through the season, and we definitely were,” Larson said. “(I’m) eally proud of that, proud of the effort everybody has put in on these race cars.”
Meanwhile, Chevrolet finished with victories in six of the final eight races, clinching the manufacturers’ title for a 12th straight year. Ford finished second, producing a healthy 14 victories while Toyota drivers managed just two en route to last place.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who gave Chevy something to cheer about much of the year, wrapped up his final race with crew chief Steve Letarte. The duo didn’t succeed in the postseason but still produced a respectable four-win season, Earnhardt’s best in a decade, during their final year together.
Finally, defending champion Jimmie Johnson wrapped up the year 11th in points. It’s the worst performance of his 13-year career in Cup and coincided with crew chief Chad Knaus getting called to the NASCAR hauler after the race. Knaus wanted to add a wheel spacer on a hub, preventing a loose wheel during the Homestead event but was told not to by a NASCAR official. Why is unclear, since the move isn’t exactly illegal but Knaus ignored the directive, exclaiming the sport holds a special set of rules for the No. 48 team. That angered many.
“We were just trying to clarify what went on,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton after the race, trying to downplay it although adding Hendrick GM Doug Duchardt to the hauler raised eyebrows. “It's fine. We just wanted to clear the air and clarify everything. It's really not an issue."
Tony Stewart’s streak of 15 straight seasons with a win came to an end early Sunday. A bashed front end grille caused the No. 14 car to overheat and left Stewart sitting inside the garage dead last. “All streaks come to an end at one point,” he told the press earlier this week, holding firm that crew chief Chad Johnston and the other major players working on his car would keep their jobs heading into next year. … It was a rough day for Roush Fenway Racing as two of three cars were involved in wrecks while the third of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could only muster 22nd. With Carl Edwards leaving for Joe Gibbs Racing next season, the three drivers that remain – Stenhouse, Greg Biffle, and incoming Trevor Bayne – had a total of one top-5 finish between them in the second half of this season. … Marcos Ambrose ran 27th in his NASCAR finale with Richard Petty Motorsports. The Australian, heading back to his home country, finishes his Cup career with two victories in 227 starts (both at Watkins Glen) but no Chase appearances and a disappointing zero in the win column on oval tracks. … Among the early offseason talk on rule changes: fixing sideskirts, so sheet metal doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb on the side of the cars and getting better adhesion on grille pieces to cut down on debris. The amount of metal coming off has been alarming, with “real” debris causing five of the 13 cautions at Homestead Sunday.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
You may have mistaken the 38-year-old edition of Kevin Garnett for Skeletor — but the former MVP and NBA champion is still in the league. KG is on the final year of his last big NBA contract, a deal that was signed with the Boston Celtics but eventually traded to Garnett’s current squad, the Brooklyn Nets.
Garnett’s minutes and productivity have shrunk considerably since he landed in New York, but he’s still a valuable personality. Often cited as the league’s best trash talker and a prodigious defensive communicator, he makes every locker room better by his presence. The man was simply born to be around basketball teams, helping them win — and that’s why his latest sentiments come as no surprise. "I want to buy the Timberwolves. Put a group together and perhaps some day try to buy the team. That's what I want,” Garnett told Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports.
Obviously, Garnett is a ways away from making this dream a reality. He’ll probably have to finish his playing career first. But the tiny cluster of NBA players wealthy enough to enter this discussion does include The Big Ticket. In fact, Garnett’s 20-year career has seen him earn more money than any player in league history. He’s made approximately $329 million from player contracts.
It’s hard to imagine an owner who would make the Wolves’ fanbase any happier. Garnett’s 12 years in Minnesota saw him put his team on the map in a way no one had before. And not a soul, including mega-talent Kevin Love, has matched Garnett’s impact on the franchise since. KG stayed loyal to his city much longer than many believed he should, consistently deflecting interest from other teams as he tried to lift the Wolves from mediocrity to the promised land; even as his best teammates were Ricky Davis and Wally Szczerbiak. Garnett bled T'Wolves blue like no one else.
And despite a championship, huge national exposure and an endless list of other accolades with the Boston Celtics, KG had always left a huge hunk of his heart back in Minneapolis. Now, he’s looking to reclaim it.
— John Wilmes
Time for a bit of a breather for a handful of teams.
Last week was plenty eventful with Alabama’s win over No. 1 Mississippi State, another Florida State comeback, a TCU scare, a Georgia rout of Auburn and an Arizona State flop in Corvallis.
This week may not be nearly as dramatic.
For starters, this week is the annual SEC-FCS challenge. SEC teams will face Eastern Kentucky, Charleston Southern, Western Carolina and Samford this week.
Even though we’re a little light on on games this week, there are a few highlights, chiefly the hotly contested Pac-12 South. UCLA faces USC this week, but Arizona State’s loss to Oregon State has opened the door for Arizona, provided the Wildcats beat Utah and catch some breaks.
The SEC has two key games, one in each division. Arkansas and Tennessee are more competitive this season, and they’ll look to keep up momentum against Ole Miss and Missouri, respectively.
The Week Ahead: Nov. 22
All games Saturday. All times Eastern.
Listen to the Week 12 recap podcast:
Arizona at Utah
When and where: 3:30 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... Arizona is clinging to life in the Pac-12 South. The Wildcats, who defeated Cal on a Hail Mary earlier this season, capitalized on a Washington turnover to set up the game-winning field goal as time expired against the Huskies. Arizona must solve Utah’s stifling defense on the road and defeat rival Arizona State for a chance at the South — while getting help from USC and UCLA (with a win over USC and a loss to Stanford).
Vegas says: Utah by 3 1/2
Ole Miss at Arkansas
When and where: 3:30 p.m., CBS
We’re watching because... one team in this game has an SEC losing streak, and it’s not Arkansas. Despite back-to-back conferences losses to LSU and Auburn, Ole Miss still has a shot at the SEC West and, thus, the playoff. The Rebels have a win over Alabama in hand and a shot at Mississippi State at home, but they’ll need to handle a rejuvenated Arkansas first. Ole Miss’ offense regrouped in the loss to Auburn, but the Rebels are working through injuries, chiefly to receiver Laquon Treadwell. Arkansas picked up its first SEC win under Bret Bielema, but it’s a debate what made this win more unlikely: A shutout against a ranked LSU team or that ground-and-pound Arkansas needed only 95 rushing yards to win.
Vegas says: Ole Miss by 3
Wisconsin at Iowa
When and where: 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2
We’re watching because... Melvin Gordon is can’t miss-viewing. The Wisconsin tailback was appointment viewing before last week’s record 408 rushing yards, but do you want to miss a single carry from now on? Not only did Gordon break LaDainian Tomlinson’s single-game rushing record, he’s within reach of Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing record that has stood since 1988. Gordon needs 719 yards to catch Sanders’ 2,628 yards. Including a potential Big Ten title game and a bowl, Gordon has to average 180 yards per game to pass Sanders. Gordon averages 191.
Vegas says: Wisconsin by 9 1/2
Missouri at Tennessee
When and where: 7:30 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... Missouri’s bizarre season always deserves attention. The Tigers lost at home to an Indiana team that’s now winless in the Big Ten, beat Florida on the road with 119 yards of offense and four return touchdowns and now sits at 8-2 after a 34-27 win at a Texas A&M that just upset Auburn on the road. A team that lost to the Hoosiers at home could win 10 games during the regular season. To do so, Missouri will have to defeat Tennessee in Oxford as the Volunteers are seeking their first bowl bid since 2010.
Vegas says: Tennessee by 3 1/2
USC at UCLA
When and where: 8 p.m., ABC
We’re watching because... this game has potential for some late-night Pac-12 unpredictability, and we don’t have to stay up after midnight Eastern to see it. With a win in hand against Arizona State, UCLA can take one step closer to a third consecutive trip to the Pac-12 title game with a win over rival USC. The game points to a quarterback showdown. Brett Hundley has completed 72 percent of his passes with 1,374 total yards and nine total touchdowns during UCLA’s four-game win streak. USC quarterback Cody Kessler’s season has been under the radar, but he’s completing 70.2 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s doing most his heavy lifting against weaker teams, so this is a chance to remedy that reputation.
Vegas says: UCLA by 3
Hosts Braden Gall and David Fox breakdown how a wild Week 12 in college football. Alabama takes control of the West, Mizzou and Georgia battle for the East and Florida is looking for a new coach. Melvin Gordon and JT Barrett star in the Big Ten, TCU struggles in the Big 12 and Arizona State opens up the Pac-12 South race. And Florida State survives yet another halftime deficit. We debate it all and much more this week's edition of the Cover 2 Podcast.
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of football. With that in mind, Athlon Sports rounded up the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from Week 11 of the NFL season.
With Arizona's win over Detroit Sunday, the Cardinals are 9-1 this season and owners of the best record in the NFL. They are 9-1 for just the second time in franchise history, joining the 1948 Chicago Cardinals. Arizona is 6-0 at home this season for the first time since 1970.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has thrown 322 consecutive passes at home without an interception, which is the longest streak in NFL history. His 29 consecutive touchdowns at home without an interception is also the longest streak in NFL history. He threw three more without a pick in the 53-20 win against Philadelphia in Week 11.
The Packers scored 30 points in the first half of their win against the Eagles, and are the first team in league history to score at least 28 points in the first half of four consecutive home games.
Green Bay is just the fifth team in NFL history to score 50+ points in consecutive games. That has happened three straight seasons in the NFL as the Packers join the 2013 Broncos and 2012 Seahawks. However, it has never happened in three straight games. Up next for the Packers are the Vikings, a team they beat 42-10 at home in Week 5 and a team that allows an average of 22 PPG.
The 53 points allowed by Philadelphia is the most the Eagles surrendered since a 62-10 loss to the Giants on Nov. 26, 1972.
Green Bay's Julius Peppers became the first player in NFL history with 100+ sacks and four interceptions returned for touchdowns. He picked off Mark Sanchez and returned it 52 yards for a score in the Packers' rout of the Eagles. Peppers joined J.J. Watt and Danny Lansanah as the only players with multiple defensive touchdowns this season.
New England undrafted running back Jonas Gray finished with 199 rushing yards and four scores in the Patriots' 42-20 win at Indianapolis and became the first NFL player since 1921 to record four rushing touchdowns in a game he entered with zero career rushing TDs. Evansville's Herb Henderson was the last to do so. Gray joined Priest Holmes as the only undrafted players to rush for four TDs in a game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Gray's four rushing touchdowns against the Colts matched the entire NFL's rushing total for Week 11 (entering the Monday night game). Kansas City's Jamaal Charles had two, teammate Kniles Davis one, and Green Bay's Eddie Lacy one.
Tampa Bay rookie wide receiver Mike Evans had seven catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the Buccaneers’ 27-7 win at Washington. At 21 years, 87 days old, Evans is the youngest player in NFL history with a 200-yard receiving game. The performance marked Evans’ third consecutive game with at least seven catches, 100 receiving yards and a touchdown catch. He is the first rookie in NFL history to accomplish the feat.
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt had five tackles, one sack, a forced fumbled, a fumble recovery, and a touchdown catch in the Texans’ 23-7 win at Cleveland. Watt is the second player in NFL history with two touchdown catches, an interception-return touchdown and a fumble-return touchdown in a season, joining Philadelphia’s Jay Arnold in 1938. He is the only NFL player to register a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and touchdown reception in the same game since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
San Francisco rookie linebacker Chris Borland had 12 tackles and two interceptions in the 49ers’ 16-10 win against the New York Giants. Borland is the first rookie linebacker in franchise history with two interceptions in a game. He also joins Ken Norton Jr. (October 22, 1995) as the only 49ers linebackers with two interceptions in a game over the past 40 years.
St. Louis' 22-7 win over Denver in Week 11, coupled with its 28-26 win over Seattle in Week 7 make the Rams the first team with wins against each of the previous season's Super Bowl contestants since Green Bay did so in 2003.
Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had seven catches for 103 yards in the Broncos’ loss at St. Louis. Thomas now has at least 100 receiving yards in seven consecutive games, tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history with Charley Hennigan (1961) and Michael Irvin (1995). Detroit's Calvin Johnson holds the NFL record with eight consecutive 100-yard receiving games in 2012.
Peyton Manning (2) and Eli Manning (5) combined for seven interceptions in Week 11. That is their second-highest one-day total. They had eight on Nov. 11, 2007 (Peyton 6, Eli 2). Peyton had his NFL record of 15 straight games with at least two TD passes snapped against the Rams. Eli joins Tony Romo as the only active QBs to throw five interceptions in a game twice.
Cincinnati rookie running back Jeremy Hill rushed for 152 yards in the Bengals’ 27-10 win at New Orleans. Hill, who rushed for 154 yards in Week 9 against Jacksonville, is the second rookie in franchise history with two 150-yard rushing games, joining Paul Robinson (1968).
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Nov. 17:
• One for the thumb: Eli Manning derped his way to five interceptions yesterday.
• His name is Jonas: The Patriots' Jonas Gray had a career game in his first start.
• Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee noticed that ESPN was pushing a narrative on Saturday. He didn't like it.
• Fat-guy touchdown celebrations are pretty enjoyable.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Rudy Gay’s reputation has been on quite the roller coaster ride. The Sacramento Kings’ 28-year-old forward has been a revered scorer and a FIBA gold medalist, but he’s also been an easy target for many analysts of the game, who eagerly underline his offensive inefficiency and bloated contract, which expires this season and pays him $19.3 million for the year.
Now, Gay looks like a bit of a bargain on his upcoming deal, reached November 16 and worth a reported $40 million over three seasons. Behind dark horse MVP candidate DeMarcus Cousins, Gay has been a sharp number two man on a surging 6-4 Kings squad, poised to make the Western Conference playoff outlook scarier yet.
Rudy has scaled back on ball-stopping and bad isolation shooting, as he’s worked smarter to get shots closer to the rim, and found his points within the potent Sacramento offense. Gay’s current 22.5 points per game, on a 22.1 player efficiency rating, come from only a 10-game sample size, but those figures are far better than any line he’s put up in recent years. It’s still early, but 2014-15 is shaping up to be Gay’s best season as a pro.
Like the rest of his Sacramento roster, the University of Connecticut alum has seen enough criticism and doubt to earn something of an underdog mentality. The Kings’ success out of the gates has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the early season, and Gay’s extension means that at least he and Cousins will be around for years more to continue making basketball — dead in Sac-town for nearly decade — a cornerstone of their city yet again.
Watch as they take on Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans at the edge of the Western postseason landscape, tomorrow night at 9 PM ET at the Sleep Train Arena.
— John Wilmes
The Pittsburgh Steelers will try and get back on track when they take on the Tennessee Titans on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Steelers (6-4) had won three in a row before losing to the Jets last week, while the Titans (2-7) have dropped their past three games.
Pittsburgh is in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt, thanks to the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense, but the Steelers can ill afford to lose to a team they are expected to beat. Tennessee is playing more for pride and draft position than anything, but first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt would no doubt love to see improvement and signs of growth, especially from rookies like quarterback Zach Mettenberger and running back Bishop Sankey.
The Titans have won two in a row against the Steelers, including last season’s 16-9 victory in Pittsburgh in the season opener. That game was dominated by both defenses, as Jake Locker and Ben Roethlisberger combined for just 316 yards passing and were sacked six times. Besides starting out 0-1, this game also was costly for the Steelers in that they lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey and linebacker Larry Foote to season-ending injuries. Pittsburgh would go on to finish 8-8, missing the playoffs for the second straight season while the Titans would win just six more games, resulting in the firing of head coach Mike Munchak.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -6.5
|Pittsburgh 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||@ JAC||W 17 - 9||Recap|
|10/12||@ CLE||L 10 - 31||Recap|
|10/20||vs HOU||W 30 - 23||Recap|
|10/26||vs IND||W 51 - 34||Recap|
|11/2||vs BAL||W 43 - 23||Recap|
|11/9||@ NYJ||L 13 - 20||Recap|
|11/17||@ TEN||W 27 - 24||Recap|
|11/30||vs NO||L 32 - 35||Recap|
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Don’t Play Down to the Competition
The Steelers are 6-4, including wins over AFC South division leader Indianapolis and AFC North foes Baltimore and Cleveland. Pittsburgh’s four losses have come against the aforementioned Browns and Ravens, the Buccaneers at home and the Jets on the road. There’s no shame in losing divisional games, especially in the AFC North, the only division in the NFL that has four teams with winning records. Tampa Bay and New York on the other hand are a combined 4-16. Besides the Steelers, the only teams the Buccaneers and Jets have defeated this season are the winless (0-10) Raiders and a 3-7 Redskins squad. That’s not exactly the resume of a playoff team is it? Fortunately for Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, his team’s postseason hopes are very much alive, but the Steelers need to treat every game from here out as a must win. To be fair, it’s not like Pittsburgh was blown out by either Tampa Bay or New York. The Bucs won on a last-second touchdown pass while the Jets took full advantage of four Steeler turnovers, but a loss is still a loss and either could end up costing Pittsburgh a playoff berth. If there’s anything that stands out, statistically speaking, in the four losses it is turnovers (minus-seven) and a lack of a running game (89.5 rushing ypg compared to 125 in the six wins). However, it also should be pointed out that for whatever reason, the Steelers have had a tendency under Tomlin to not show up against what is perceived to be lesser competition. This pattern needs to end tonight, especially if Pittsburgh wants any chance of ending its longest playoff drought since the late ‘90s.
|Tennessee 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||vs CLE||L 28 - 29||Recap|
|10/12||vs JAC||W 16 - 14||Recap|
|10/19||@ WAS||L 17 - 19||Recap|
|10/26||vs HOU||L 16 - 30||Recap|
|11/9||@ BAL||L 7 - 21||Recap|
|11/17||vs PIT||L 24 - 27||Recap|
|11/23||@ PHI||L 24 - 43||Recap|
|11/30||@ HOU||L 21 - 45||Recap|
Tennessee’s Key to Victory: Embrace the Spotlight
The Titans have just one win since beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in their season opener. And that was of the two-point variety against 1-9 Jacksonville. There have been some close calls for Ken Whisenhunt’s bunch, namely a one-point loss at home to AFC North leader Cleveland and a two-point loss in Washington. But the reason Tennessee lost to the Browns was because the Titans coughed up a 15-point fourth-quarter lead while also allowing the Redskins to go 76 yards in the final 3:14 to set up the game-winning, chip shot field goal. There also have been some blowout losses (33-7 vs. CIN, 41-17 vs. IND), which should be expected from a team that entered Week 11 ranked second to last in the NFL in both total (308.7 ypg) and scoring (16.0 ppg) offense and 26th in point differential (-8.8 ppg). Other than draft position, the only thing the Titans really have to play for at this point is pride. Tonight is the first of two primetime games for Tennessee (at JAC for the Thursday night game in Week 16), something not typically afforded teams who are already out of the playoff picture. So why not embrace the national spotlight and the chance to play spoiler? Honestly, what do the Titans have to lose at this point?
On paper, this is a complete mismatch. Pittsburgh has one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses while Tennessee has struggled to score any points of its own as well as slow down the opposition. However, the Steelers have been in this situation before, including twice this season, and have come out on the losing end. That said, there’s also some history between these two teams, and while it’s been nearly six years since the Terrible Towel stomp in Nashville, there are still a few players who were standing on Pittsburgh’s sideline when said incident occurred. One of those was Ben Roethlisberger and whether he will admit it or not, I expect Big Ben to make a statement or two of his own in the Music City tonight.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 31, Tennessee 20
ATLANTA — To the outside, Ron Hunter shouldn’t feel queasy when he sees the leading figures of his Georgia State basketball team.
On a team that went 17-1 in the Sun Belt last season, Hunter has a five-star, top-20 recruit at point guard. He has guard who played on a national championship team. He has an NBA Draft prospect at shooting guard.
For a program that’s had two winning seasons in the last decade and one NCAA Tournament berth since 2001, Georgia State should like its odds with that lot.
A team that rolled through its conference last year should do so again with that kind of team. At the same time, the foundation of that team knows nothing is certain, nothing is easy.
Another way to describe those three is the following: A washout who was the point guard of the worst Kentucky team the last five years, a guard recovering from the most publicly horrific college basketball injury in recent memory and, not least of which, the coach’s son.
Georgia State has talent and experience in Ryan Harrow, Kevin Ware and R.J. Hunter but also a group that’s taken the long road to find a spot it can thrive.
“My first year here, I wasn’t stressed,” Hunter told Athlon Sports. “I’m stressed now. I saw Ryan Harrow, R.J. and Kevin Ware on campus the other day, and my stomach started turning. I can’t mess this thing up.”
Georgia State is not only one of the best mid-majors in the country but also one of the most compelling teams of the 351 playing Division I basketball.
The Panthers start their season tonight at Iowa State, a program known in recent years for its open doors for wayward souls. The Cyclones have nothing on this group.
Let’s start with the newest arrival.
When Kevin Ware returned to Atlanta, he and Hunter didn’t talk much about why he landed at Georgia State after coming off the bench as a sophomore for an eventual national champion at Louisville.
This is a new Kevin Ware, his coach told him. Not the Kevin Ware from Louisville. Not the Kevin Ware whose worst moment was broadcast on television on the largest stage.
Then Paul George happened.
In an August Team USA exhibition, the Indiana Pacers wing chased down James Harden in transition, his right leg landing in the wrong spot in the support beneath the basket. On camera, a break was evident. A hinge where there shouldn’t be one. Bone touching air.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of college basketball could summon two words — Kevin Ware.
Too fresh in our minds was Ware in the 2013 Elite Eight against Duke. Taking a jump shot, Ware landed in a way that produced the same injury, also on national television.
Ware tweeted support for George, but at the same time, he was reliving his own injury. With all the public weight of his injury at Louisville behind him, Ware progressed in his first two months at Georgia State after a year in limbo.
Ware rushed back to play for Louisville the following season, but getting kicked in the leg against Missouri State essentially ended his comeback season. He played 53 minutes in nine games before shutting down and transferring to Georgia State. The parting with Louisville was easy, Ware said.
Louisville regrouped around Ware in 2013 and won a national championship. He’s still close with many of the players on this year’s team, but continuing at Louisville and Rick Pitino in 2013-14 was impossible.
“It was hard for him to coach,” Ware told Athlon Sports. “I honestly felt he couldn’t coach me at that point because he was so concerned about my leg.”
So was the media. Ware not only watched George sustain a similarly gruesome injury, Ware felt an obligation to take media requests to share his own recovery.
Between his injury and the George incident, Ware had connected on Twitter and Instagram with many younger basketball players suffering traumatic injuries since his own, but never this public and never in such a similar situation.
Reliving his experience came at the expense of his own progress.
Georgia State was in a practice period at the same time as George’s injury. Ware, described by his high school friend Harrow as fearless, suddenly was playing free throw line to free throw line.
Ware was in the same frame of mind when Georgia State took an eight-day trip to Costa Rica for four exhibition games.
In the third possession of the first game, Ware had his leg clipped by a Costa Rican player. He fell into a wall. Ron Hunter held back a trainer. The game was still in live play, and Ware sprung back onto the court. From there, Ware was back.
Now, Ron Hunter says Ware is a better athlete than he was in high school at Rockdale County southeast of Atlanta.
“It seemed like he wasn’t thinking; he was just reacting,” teammate R.J. Hunter told Athlon Sports. “I’m sure that dude had 40 steals in those games. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Ware wouldn’t have landed at Georgia State if not for his Atlanta AAU buddy, Ryan Harrow.
That’s a statement in itself. When Harrow landed at NC State as a top-20 recruit for coach Sidney Lowe in 2010, he couldn’t imagine being at his third school. Other point guards in his class included No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving at Duke and NBA Draft lottery picks Kendall Marshall at North Carolina and Brandon Knight at Kentucky.
“I didn’t think I’d be in college this long,” Harrow told Athlon Sports.
After Lowe was fired at NC State, Harrow transferred to Kentucky where he sat out for a season due to NCAA rules. The Wildcats won the 2012 national championship with Harrow on the bench.
When Harrow took over at point guard, Calipari was enjoying an unbroken record of standout point guards from Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans to John Wall to Brandon Knight to Marquis Teague.
Harrow may have had trouble filling those shoes under ideal circumstances, but outside factors made it impossible. In Georgia, Harrow’s father, Mark Harrow, suffered a stroke in the June before the point guard’s lone season at Kentucky.
The mental toll of his father’s ill health and his struggles on the court were only magnified by the scope of attention at Kentucky. He went scoreless in February home games against Florida and Tennessee. He shot 2-of-14 in a loss to Vanderbilt in an SEC tournament loss that banished Kentucky to the NIT. He scored five points in a loss to Robert Morris.
A season that started in the top three of the AP poll ended with a one-and-done in the NIT against a team from the Northeast Conference.
“It wasn’t as if Ryan came in here and it just worked,” Ron Hunter said. “When you get a kid who was at Kentucky and comes to Georgia State, you’ve got a lot you’ve got work through.
“What Ryan Harrow went through wasn’t injury, but he was beat down at Kentucky. I don’t know if you can be beat down any more.”
Beyond repairing his confidence, Harrow also began to encounter his father’s recovery head on. The stress of being helpless to aid his father was replaced by watching his father’s day-to-day challenges.
Harrow was eligible immediately to play at Georgia State last season, but he wasn’t ready to play at a high level. The Panthers started 3-6, only one win over a Division I team.
Eventually, Harrow returned to the form that was familiar to Ware, his teammate with the Atlanta Celtics. Georgia State won 22 of 23 games, and Harrow averaged 17.8 points per game and earned All-Sun Belt honors.
“When he came home, he came back to life,” Ware said. “I’m not used to seeing the Ryan that was at NC State or at UK. That wasn’t Ryan at all. When he came to Georgia State, coach let him play.”
The toughest challenge for Hunter, though, hasn’t been working to repair the confidence of Harrow and Ware.
“The hardest part of this has been as a father,” Hunter said. “I hope when this is all said and done, I don’t say, ‘Man, what happened with my son?’ That’s what I’m trying to balance a little better.”
With National Player of the Year Doug McDermott gone from his father’s program at Creighton, the Hunters are the most notable father-son duo in college basketball.
Of Georgia State’s top three players this season, R.J. Hunter was the first to arrive in Atlanta. R.J. was a three-star recruit with offers from a handful of mid-tier major conference programs, but he elected to follow his father to Georgia State where he was the Sun Belt player of the year last season.
Ron Hunter never coached his son in a game until Georgia State’s 2012-13 opener at Duke. Growing up, Ron always gave R.J. a choice of getting “coach” or getting “dad.” Most of the time, R.J. chose “dad.” Now, he doesn’t get a say in the matter.
Neither party, though, could say they were unprepared for the father-son/coach-player experience.
Ray McCallum, who coached his son a Detroit, is R.J. Hunter’s godfather. R.J. also spent time talking to Bryce Drew, who played for his father at Valparaiso.
“At one AAU tournament, he pulled me aside and said, ‘look, it’s going to be tough, but it was the best four years of my life playing for my dad,’” R.J. Hunter said. “‘If you can make it work, you can make magic.’”
Magic at Georgia State will take work, though.
Georgia State enjoyed a banner season a year ago before losing to UL Lafayette in the Sun Belt tournament. The Panthers lost their NIT opener to Clemson. The margin of error for a Sun Belt team is slim.
The Panthers are replacing two starters who averaged double figures last season. One new starter, forward Curtis Washington, is a transfer from USC, who also came as a project with “two bad shoulders.” A freshman may end up taking the final spot in the starting lineup.
And Hunter isn’t ruling out another round of Ware reliving his trauma from Louisville as more attention comes to Ware’s season.
The pieces, they hope, are in place — a lights out shooter in Hunter, a floor general in Harrow, a defensive game-changer in Ware.
“I feel like we’ve got the best 1-2-3 punch in the country,” Ware said. “We all have a different game but we all complement each other so well.”
Images courtesy of Georgia State athletics
Few players around college football have grown up as quickly and confidently as Ohio State starting quarterback J.T. Barrett this season. The Buckeyes are fortunate the maturing process has followed an accelerated path. Whatever College Football Playoff hopes may be on the table will be in the hands of the performance of Barrett.
For a moment, take a look back at the beginning of the season. Ohio State went into the season not really knowing just how things would gel after losing Braxton Miller just weeks before the start of the season. Barrett was chosen by head coach Urban Meyer to take control of the offense. It was Meyer’s best possible decision at the time, but one that left many questions to be answered. Ohio State suddenly went form playoff contender to potential Big Ten spoiler without a single game being played. It took time for things to work out. An early home loss to Virginia Tech was a difficult spot for Barrett. Virginia Tech was considered one of the best defensive teams in the ACC, and the Hokies took advantage of a young quarterback making his first big time start in front of a national audience. Since then, however, Barrett has grown up and blossomed to become one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Barrett is now coming off impressive back-to-back road performance in which he passed for 500 yards, six touchdowns and 275 rushing yards and three more rushing touchdowns. He piled up these numbers against teams ranked in the top 25 in cold conditions as well. Against Michigan State a week ago, Barrett had his best game throwing the football. There was never a doubt about whether or not the Buckeyes would go to Minnesota on a hangover. There is too much on the line this season, and Barrett lacks the experience to understand the concept of a letdown at this level. This is not a criticism, just an observation that Barrett is bringing some youthful energy to the offense and is still looking to prove something to any who watch.
Against Minnesota a week later, Barrett had his best day running the football. He did so against a Minnesota defense that has held four opponents under 100 rushing yards and was coming off a dominating performance against Iowa (84 rushing yards allowed to the Hawkeyes). Doing so in the snow is also no small feat.
Barrett’s emergence has coincided with the rise of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the playoff race, and this is not a coincidence. The play of the Ohio State quarterback has not gone unnoticed, and some are even jumping so far as to suggest he should be in the running for the Heisman Trophy. Regardless of where you fall on that debate, there is no denying Ohio State now has a quarterback more than capable of filling in for the injured Miller and Barrett keeps Ohio State one of the legitimate contenders for the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State’s next two games are at home against Indiana (10th in the Big Ten against the run) and rival Michigan (3rd against the run). Barrett and Ohio State look to be on cruise control to the Big Ten championship game, and Barrett is a huge reason why this is even possible this season.
By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
In his first game back from a four-game suspension, Georgia running back Todd Gurley suffered a torn ACL against Auburn and will miss the remainder of the 2014 season
Gurley rushed for 138 yards against the Tigers and helped to keep the Bulldogs’ East Division title hopes alive in a 34-7 win over the Tigers.
Prior to his suspension, Gurley was one of the leading candidates for the Heisman.
With Gurley sidelined for the rest of the year, true freshman Nick Chubb will carry the workload for Georgia’s offense. Chubb will also have help from Sony Michel and Keith Marshall at running back.
Gurley is expected to enter the NFL Draft this offseason. Despite the injury, the junior should be one of the first running backs off the board in the 2015 draft.
It seems as though the ACC Coastal has been up for grabs for a few seasons now, so it should be little surprise to see Georgia Tech once again looking to grab hold of the division coming down the stretch. It should also be no surprise how Georgia Tech has been put into this situation. Everybody knows what Georgia Tech will do on offense with Paul Johnson’s triple option schemes, but the defense is coming off another impressive performance in a win over Clemson. It could not have come at a better time.
Georgia Tech may not be typically known for its defense, but helped set the tone Saturday against Clemson. The Tigers lost their quarterback, which certainly had an impact on the outcome of the game, but credit Georgia Tech for seizing the opportunity to take advantage. Georgia Tech’s defense was relentless in holding Clemson to just 190 yards of total offense. It was the first time this season Georgia Tech held an opponent under 283 yards. Once Clemson had to go with Cole Stoudt under center, Georgia Tech pounced in a big way.
Jamal Golden gave Georgia Tech a lead late in the first half when he picked off a pass from Stoudt and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown. Later in the third quarter, Chris Milton picked off another pass from Stoudt. This one was returned 62 yards for a score as well as Georgia Tech padded its lead to 25-6 late in the third quarter.
Once Georgia Tech’s defense gets its hands on a pass, anything can happen. The Yellow Jackets now lead the nation in interceptions returned for a touchdown with five, and five different players (Jamal Golden, D.J. White, Quayshawn Nealy, Chris Milton, Paul Davis) have contributed to that total. Georgia Tech has the luxury of knowing any one player on the field can score at any time, on offense or defense. Only one team in the ACC has picked off more passes (Louisville). Any team facing Georgia Tech has to be careful protecting the football. Just ask any team that has played Georgia Tech over last month. In the last four games, Georgia Tech has forced 14 turnovers. In that same span, Georgia Tech’s offense has six turnovers. Turnover margin is significant, especially in a tight division race. Georgia Tech has had a plus turnover margin in all but four games this season.
Georgia Tech’s defense also got off the field often. Clemson only managed to convert three of 13 third-down plays for first downs. There have been a number of games this season when that was not the case. The only time this season when Georgia Tech’s defense performed better on third downs was in a win against Miami, when the Hurricanes converted just one of five third-down plays.
By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
The feeling for Florida State’s defense was familiar on Saturday night in Sun Life Stadium. The Seminoles trailed 23-10, and the defense did not force a punt through the first two quarters. The Hurricanes were rolling on offense in the first half, averaging 7.8 yards per play and entered the intermission with 319 total yards.
But once again, Florida State and coordinator Charles Kelly found the right answers at halftime.
The Seminoles held Miami to just 4.5 yards per play in the second half and limited the Hurricanes to just three points.
The strong defensive effort in the second half was enough for Florida State to extend its overall winning streak to 26 games and five in a row in the series against its in-state rival.
Safety Jalen Ramsey was the best player on the field Saturday night, as he recorded three tackles (one for a loss), one forced fumble, four pass breakups and the game-clinching interception.
The strong play of the defense in the second half against Miami wasn’t a surprise to anyone who has watched Florida State play this year.
The Seminoles allowed 24 points in the first half against NC State and trailed 24-21 at halftime. However, the defense limited the Wolfpack to just 17 second-half points, which allowed quarterback Jameis Winston and the offense to score 35 points over the final two quarters in a 56-41 victory.
Against Notre Dame, Florida State allowed the Irish to score on a seven-play, 83-yard drive in the third quarter. But after that drive, the Seminoles held the Fighting Irish to just three points over their final four drives, including a late goal-line stand to clinch the victory.
And on a Thursday night in Louisville, Florida State’s defense allowed only one drive of more than 27 yards in the second half and forced four second-half punts by the Cardinals. That was more than enough to lift the Seminoles to a 42-31 victory.
Sure, Florida State’s defense isn’t as dominant as it was last year. The Seminoles are holding ACC opponents to 5.4 yards per play (an increase from 4.0 last year) and are giving up 22.8 points per game (a 10-point increase from a 12.1 mark in 2013).
Injuries, inexperience and the coordinator change have all factored into the drop-off on defense for coach Jimbo Fisher. And let’s also not overlook the fact the Seminoles’ offense has surrendered 22 turnovers this year, which has placed the defense in a few difficult situations.
However, this group has stepped up with the game on the line. College football is all about surviving and advancing each week. Wins aren’t necessarily a beauty contest, and the Seminoles continue to find ways to stay unbeaten.
Florida State’s defense won’t become dominant overnight, but Kelly and Fisher have to be encouraged this unit has stepped up when called upon in the second half.
And as long as the Seminoles keep winning, the team’s youth will have more time to develop, especially with a month to prepare before the first playoff game.
It’s pretty clear Florida State won’t be as dominant this year on defense as they were in 2013. But this unit is still capable of getting stops when it matters in 2014, which is more than enough for the Seminoles to have a shot at a repeat title appearance in January.
To say Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon had an historic afternoon Saturday against Nebraska would be an understatement. Gordon’s 408 rushing yards against the Huskers clearly created some breathing room in his favor when discussing the top Big Ten running backs (Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah being the other candidate). It also threw Gordon to the top of the Heisman Trophy race along with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Gordon’s day was something incredible to watch unfold, but it almost took away from the bigger picture being painted by Wisconsin here. The Badgers are now a very dangerous team that could stand in the way of Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and perhaps spoil any potential thought of the Buckeyes playing in the College Football Playoff.
With a win against Nebraska, Wisconsin now sits in a favorable position to return to the Big Ten Championship Game for the third time in four seasons. Still with games against Iowa and Minnesota to play, there is still some work to be done by the Badgers. However, Wisconsin looks like the heavy favorite to come out of this Big Ten West race en route to Indianapolis. Having a healthy running game appears to be the fuel Wisconsin needs to finish strong in 2014. Having Gordon healthy certainly helps, but so does having a supporting cast of a talented, yet often overlooked defense.
The Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just 15.3 points per game. Want to run against the Badgers? Good luck. Wisconsin is second in the Big Ten against the run, allowing just 96.7 yards per game. Even Nebraska’s Abdullah could only manage to run for 69 yards on 18 attempts. The Badgers also allow the fewest passing yards per game in the Big Ten. When a team has a solid defense and a powerful running game, they can be difficult to beat.
And this is why Wisconsin may be generating enough steam at the right time to challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten title. The Buckeyes have emerged in recent weeks and have started to turn narrative in their favor as a result of recent success on the road. At the same time though, Wisconsin has begun to hit its stride and there may not be anything standing in the way of a collision course between the Badgers and Buckeyes.
Wisconsin has everything it would need to beat Ohio State, except for a steadily reliable quarterback. Joel Stave has done enough to keep things going in the right direction lately, but the Badgers may need just a little bit more at some point. If they can get that out of Stave, then watch out for these Badgers. A shot at the College Football Playoff may be out of reach at this point, but a third Big Ten title in four years certainly is not.
By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
It is hardly a secret to anyone watching Big Ten football that Penn State is getting by this season on the strength of the defense. With an offense struggling to find a rhythm behind a shaky offensive line, Penn State’s defense has had to carry the team to hard-fought victories. On Saturday it was the defense that once again led the way, this time guiding Penn State to its sixth win of the season to clinch bowl eligibility.
Early in the season, Penn State had the final two years of a postseason ban lifted by the NCAA. When the ban was lifted, James Franklin cautioned fans and his team there was still plenty of work to be done in order to be making bowl plans. Fortunately for Franklin, he has one of the top defenses in the country at his disposal.
Penn State was receiving plenty of fight from upset-minded Temple, with the Owls looking for a rare win over Penn State to clinch their own bowl eligibility. Penn State’s offense was once again off to a rough start, but the defense, led by players like linebacker Mike Hull, and defensive linemen Deion Barnes and Anthony Zettel up front, provided all the sparks needed in the second half. Penn State forced five turnovers to squash any upset plans Temple had in mind. This time it was the secondary that came up with the big plays with four interceptions being hauled in by Adrian Amos, Jesse Della Valle and freshmen Grant Haley and Christian Campbell. Through mid-November, Penn State now has the nation’s top passing defense efficiency rating with 15 interceptions and just six touchdowns allowed.
The turnovers turned a tight game into a bit of a blowout in favor of a celebratory Penn State. Not only did the Penn State defense keep a game within reach, it was the defense that helped deliver the knockout blows.
Penn State has allowed just 16.2 points per game, and they have had to play at that level. Penn State’s offense has been a constant work-in-progress with a shaky offensive line leading to quarterback Christian Hackenberg feel pressure to make plays which lead to bad decisions. The running game has had a tough time getting on track as well. Penn State’s defense has been put in some difficult situations all season long, but they have always managed to keep games within reach, with the exception of the Northwestern game.
Penn State’s defense has had moments where it has to resort to a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, but more often than not that seems to work. This defense also finds ways to get off the field. On 155 third-down situations this season, opponents have converted just 45. Only five schools have a better defensive success rate on third down. Penn State has also limited touchdowns inside the red zone. Opponents have reached Penn State’s 20-yard line 29 times this season, but have scored just 13 touchdowns. They have had to settle for nine field goals as well, leaving seven red zone trips with zero points produced against Penn State’s defense.
By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
The month of October belonged to the schools from Mississippi — first Ole Miss following its epic win over Alabama and then Mississippi State with its ascension to the No. 1 ranking.
It’s now November, however, and it’s Alabama’s time to shine. The Crimson Tide seized control of the SEC West race with a 25–20 win over top-ranked Mississippi State on Saturday afternoon. Alabama, at 6–1 in the league, is the only team in the division that controls its own destiny: A victory over Auburn in Tuscaloosa will send the Tide to Atlanta.
Alabama is in this desirable position thanks to an impressive effort from its defense — even on a night it which the Crimson Tide allowed a season-high 428 yards. Mississippi State, statistically the top offense in the SEC, was limited to a season-low 4.86 yards per play and only scored one touchdown in the first 59 minutes of the game. The Bulldogs advanced the ball into the red zone six times but only managed two touchdowns (one with 15 seconds remaining) and two field goals. Alabama forced three turnovers, all on Dak Prescott interceptions.
“This is a really good football team that we played today — they’re really hard to stop,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who is now 7–1 against Mississippi State since taking over in Tuscaloosa. “I think our defense did a fantastic job holding them to what we did.”
Alabama’s offense wasn’t at its best, picking up only 335 yards (on a 5.3-yard average) against an MSU defense that had given up at least 400 yards in its first five SEC games. But the Tide made the plays when it mattered, most notably on a crucial 15-play, 76-yard drive in the fourth quarter that extended the lead to 25–13. Saban was impressed: “That was probably one of the greatest drives in Alabama history to go down there and make it a two-score game in the fourth quarter.”
That drive, along with the aforementioned defensive effort, has put Alabama in position to move into the top four — possibly even the top spot — when the CFB selection committee releases its rankings on Tuesday night.
You can argue that Georgia is responsible for two of the most impressive performances by an SEC team this season. No team has looked better than the Bulldogs did on Oct. 11, when they shut out Missouri 34–0 in Columbia. Or last Saturday, when they rolled to a surprisingly easy 34–7 victory over Auburn.
That’s what makes this team’s overall record of 8–2 so maddening. The same team that held Missouri and Auburn to a combined seven points — and also beat Clemson (at full strength) by 24 points and scored 63 points at Kentucky — lost head-scratching games to South Carolina and Florida.
Georgia is clearly good enough to beat any team in the nation but has been unable to play with a sense of urgency on a week-in and week-out basis. There are a lot of teams with the talent to play well against the elite teams on their schedule, but it takes a certain type of mental toughness to handle the weekly grind of an SEC schedule. And it’s not like the Bulldogs are in the SEC West, where you might play three or four top-10 teams in a span of four or five weeks. Georgia’s schedule has been relatively kind — yet Mark Richt’s team still has managed to stub its toe on more than one occasion.
Despite these puzzling setbacks, Georgia is not completely out of the CFB picture. The win over Auburn could vault the Bulldogs — ranked No. 15 last week — back into the top-10. A win over surging Georgia Tech (which has won the ACC Coastal) would add another quality win to the Bulldogs’ résumé. If Missouri loses one of its final two games — at Tennessee and vs. Arkansas — Georgia will find itself back in the SEC Championship Game for the third time in four years. And SEC Champion, even with two losses, will be an attractive candidate for the selection committee.
That all sounds good, but Georgia has yet to show enough consistency to give us reason to believe it can string together two more wins against quality opponents.
Florida announced coach Will Muschamp would not return in 2015 after Saturday’s loss to South Carolina, which dropped the Gators to 5-4 with two games remaining in 2014. Muschamp will stay on the sidelines for the remainder of the regular season. Athletic director Jeremy Foley hired Muschamp after a stint as an assistant at Texas in 2011. Muschamp went 7-6 in his first year at Florida and finished 11-2 in 2012. However, the Gators stumbled to a 4-8 mark last season and needs a win over Eastern Kentucky or Florida State to play in a bowl this year.
Listen to the Florida coaching search podcast:
13 Candidates to Replace Will Muschamp at Florida
Justin Fuente, Head Coach, Memphis
Fuente inherited a roster and program in need of significant repair. Three years later, Memphis is one of the front-runners to win the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers went 3-21 in the two seasons prior to Fuente’s arrival but improved to 4-8 in his first year and 3-9 in 2013. In his third year, Fuente already has Memphis bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008, and the Tigers could claim a share of the conference title if they win their final two regular season games. Considering how far the program has progressed in three seasons, Fuente should be a hot commodity for Power 5 openings this offseason. And Fuente’s background on offense certainly has to intrigue Foley after Florida’s struggles on that side of the ball under Muschamp.
Hugh Freeze, Head Coach, Ole Miss
Before we dive into Freeze’s background, it’s important to note Freeze has a good job and is an Oxford native. Considering his ties to Oxford and background in Mississippi, Freeze won’t be too eager to leave Ole Miss. However, Florida is a bigger job and certainly has more resources. Freeze has been a winner at each of his stops, including one year at Arkansas State (10-2), two seasons at Lambuth (20-5) and now three years with Ole Miss (23-13). Freeze’s background on offense certainly has to be intriguing to Florida. Again, a longshot Freeze takes the job, but he’s quickly emerging as one of the top coaches in the SEC.
Mike Gundy, Head Coach, Oklahoma State
Gundy is in a good spot at his alma mater and is 82-43 since taking over as Oklahoma State’s head coach in 2005. The Cowboys have played in eight consecutive bowl games and finished No. 3 nationally in 2011. However, Gundy has showed interest in other jobs in previous years, and reports have indicated there could be some friction with athletic director Mike Holder. Combine Gundy’s background on offense, consistent winning in Stillwater and perhaps some uncertainty in the athletic department, and it’s easy to see why the former Oklahoma State quarterback could be interested in other high-profile jobs.
Jim Harbaugh, Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers
Whether it’s a college or NFL job, Harbaugh’s name is expected to be a popular one in coaching searches this offseason. Harbaugh is probably more of an option at Michigan than Florida, but the former NFL quarterback should draw plenty of interest after he transformed Stanford into a top-five team in just four years (2007-10). And prior to his stint at Stanford, Harbaugh went 29-6 at San Diego (2004-06). Harbaugh is 41-15 in four seasons with the 49ers, but there is plenty of uncertainty regarding his future after this season in San Francisco.
Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette
Hudspeth is ready for a promotion after a successful four-year stint at UL Lafayette. The former Mississippi State assistant is 34-15 in four years with the Ragin’ Cajuns and has the program on track to earn their fourth consecutive bowl appearance. Prior to his current stint at UL Lafayette and two years at Mississippi State, Hudspeth went 66-21 from 2002-08 at North Alabama. Hudspeth signed a six-year contract extension in June, but his track record of success, energetic personality and ability to recruit will no doubt be attractive to any Power 5 program with an opening.
Jim McElwain, Head Coach, Colorado State
McElwain is a former Nick Saban assistant, but even if that works against him in this coaching search, he’s still a proven head coach with a background on offense. Under McElwain’s watch, Colorado State is 21-15 overall and is 9-1 with a chance to win the Mountain West in 2014. Prior to the last three years with the Rams, McElwain worked as the offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-11, had a one-year stint at Fresno State (2007) and a short stop with the Raiders in 2006. McElwain is a rising star in the coaching ranks but has a hefty $7.5 million buyout.
Chad Morris, Offensive Coordinator, Clemson
Foley went the coordinator route with Muschamp and it backfired. Will that factor into Morris being considered a candidate? Morris is one of the nation’s highest-paid assistants and is regarded as one of the top offensive minds in college football. The Texas native has never been a head coach on the FBS level, but his offenses at Clemson were among the best in the ACC and averaged 40.2 points per game in 2013. Morris would be a splashy hire for a program looking to upgrade its offense. However, the lack of head coaching experience may steer Florida in a different direction.
Dan Mullen, Head Coach, Mississippi State
Many reports have indicated Mullen won’t be a candidate due to a questionable relationship with athletic director Jeremy Foley. However, Mullen has elevated Mississippi State during his six seasons in Starkville, which culminated in Mississippi State owning the No. 1 spot in college football’s playoff rankings for the first three weeks. Mullen is 45-29 since taking over the Bulldogs’ head coaching position in 2009 and has guided the program to four consecutive bowl games. Mullen worked under former Florida coach Urban Meyer from 2005-08 and has previous stops as an assistant at Utah, Bowling Green and Notre Dame.
Pat Narduzzi, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan State
As evidenced by passing on the UConn job last offseason, Narduzzi’s is in no hurry to leave East Lansing. But if Florida calls, Narduzzi’s interest level would figure to be significantly higher. The Ohio native is regarded as one of - if not No. 1 - top assistant coaches in college football. Narduzzi joined coach Mark Dantonio’s staff in 2007 and has developed an elite defense during his tenure in East Lansing. Michigan State led the nation by limiting opponents to just 4.0 yards per play last season, and the Spartans ranked first in the Big Ten in scoring defense from 2012-13. Prior to taking over the controls for Michigan State’s defense, Narduzzi worked on Dantonio’s staff at Cincinnati (2004-06) and had stints as an assistant at Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Rhode Island.
Dan Quinn, Defensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
Quinn is regarded as a rising star in the assistant ranks and has a previous stop at Florida on his resume from 2011-12. The New Jersey native has worked with Pete Carroll in Seattle in 2010 and from 2013-14. Quinn does not have head coaching experience and has only spent two years coaching at a FBS program.
Rich Rodriguez, Head Coach, Arizona
Rodriguez was a bad fit at Michigan, but he’s been a proven winner at every previous coaching stop. And Rodriguez is a name garnering plenty of interest in the rumor mill already, as he has Arizona at 8-2 and alive in the Pac-12 South title mix this year. Prior to the last three seasons with the Wildcats, Rodriguez went 15-22 at Michigan but was 60-26 at West Virginia. In addition to his proven track record, here’s something else that should make Foley very interested: Rodriguez is considered one of the nation’s top offensive minds.
Steve Spurrier, Head Coach, South Carolina
Spurrier has already said he plans to return to South Carolina in 2015, but if his alma mater called, he would have to at least listen. Spurrier is 82-44 with the Gamecocks and went 122-27-1 at Florida from 1990-2001. Spurrier would be a short-term solution as he will be 70 by the start of the 2015 season.
Bob Stoops, Head Coach, Oklahoma
Stoops already has a great job and would have to face his brother (Mark) once a year if he bolted Oklahoma for Florida. Most believe Stoops won't bolt Oklahoma for Gainesville, but he’s a former Florida assistant and has spent 16 years with the Sooners – is it time for change? Stoops has been a model of consistency with Oklahoma, but the program has slipped some in recent years. Again, Stoops is a longshot, but he’s a name to watch during this coaching search. Even if Stoops is going to say no, Foley would be wise to at least place a call to Norman.
Other Names to Watch
Tom Herman, Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Despite losing quarterback Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury in fall practice, Ohio State’s offense hasn’t missed a beat this year. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has emerged as the Big Ten’s top quarterback under Herman’s direction, and the Buckeyes are averaging 6.9 yards per play in conference games. The Ohio native has worked under coach Urban Meyer since 2012 and called the plays at Texas State (2005-06), Rice (2007-08) and Iowa State (2009-11). Herman also is a member of Mensa International. A rising star, but Herman is probably more likely to land a Group of 5 school as a head coach than Florida.
Doc Holliday, Head Coach, Marshall
Regarded as an excellent recruiter and has ties to the state of Florida. Holliday is 37-24 at Marshall but was only 27-24 prior to the start of 2014.
Ruffin McNeill, Head Coach, East Carolina
McNeill is 35-25 in five seasons at East Carolina – his alma mater. Even though McNeill has done a good job in Greenville, he’s an unlikely fit in Gainesville.
Greg Schiano, former Rutgers and NFL coach
Schiano was fired in Tampa Bay after two seasons but had a successful tenure at Rutgers. The defensive-minded coach is a longshot for Florida. However, he could land at another FBS program for the 2015 season.
Mike Shanahan, former NFL coach
Shanahan is probably a realistic candidate for open NFL jobs this offseason, but his name has popped up in some reports for college vacancies. Shanahan worked at Florida from 1980-83. However, he hasn’t worked on the collegiate level since that four-year stint. A longshot to take the job in Gainesville.
Kirby Smart, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
After striking out with a former Nick Saban assistant (Muschamp), it’s unlikely Foley goes in that direction again.
Charlie Strong, Head Coach, Texas
Strong already has a great job – maybe the best in college football. He’s not leaving Austin after one season.
Matt Wells, Head Coach, Utah State
Wells has continued to build off former coach Gary Andersen’s success at Utah State. Despite dealing with significant injuries at the quarterback position the last two years, the Aggies are 17-8 under Wells’ direction.
Why do boxers swish and spit out water instead of drinking it? — Jim Brigman, Jacksonville, Fla.
We posed this question to a guy who’s done a lot of swishing and spitting over the years, 49-year-old boxing legend Bernard Hopkins. Here’s what he told us: “Because our mouths can become dry in the ring, and a lot of times you just want to get your mouth moist enough to be able to continue to the next round. We do swallow some water, though, and spit the rest.”
Are there any outdoor games planned for the NHL season? — Joe Rush, St. Paul, Minn.
The NHL Winter Classic — an outdoor hockey game played at an iconic stadium on New Year’s Day — has become one of the highlights of the sports calendar. The 2015 Classic is set for New Year’s Day at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and will feature the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals. In addition, the NHL is launching a proposed “Stadium Series” with a game at San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium on Feb. 21, 2015, featuring the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.
Florida has announced coach Will Muschamp won't return to Gainesville in 2015. The move comes after the Gators lost to South Carolina 23-20 in overtime in Week 12. Muschamp is expected to coach the last two games of the regular season for Florida.
Muschamp went 27-20 in four years at Florida but missed out on a bowl appearance last season with a 4-8 mark.
The Gators were just 17-15 in SEC play under Muschamp and struggled to find answers on offense over the last four years.
Muschamp Out at End of Regular Season; Foley to Begin Search for Next Gators Head Coach http://t.co/ymTl3WbOBn— GatorZone Football (@GatorZoneFB) November 16, 2014
Full statement from athletics director Jeremy Foley: pic.twitter.com/hYVmorQQMK— GatorZone Football (@GatorZoneFB) November 16, 2014
Full statement from Will Muschamp: pic.twitter.com/PyafZHRC9j— GatorZone Football (@GatorZoneFB) November 16, 2014
The sport’s bid at returned relevance has become laser-focused on the instant highlight, every week, during every race. It’s tried to embed the best parts of its most TV-friendly races — restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega — into the season’s every moment and tried to scrub itself of cumulative, long-developing events like a season-long championship or a too-long green flag run.
Those restrictor plate races are sold on the premise that tight racing with no ability for faster cars or better drivers to separate from the field produces surprising results. It can be wildly exciting due to the tight confines and constant potential for on-track disaster. The nature of the races even gives the sport’s back-running teams a chance to win. They often produce the random.
NASCAR has bet that imposing more randomness in its other races, and the season as a whole, is the best way to stir instant interest from both its die-hard fan base and the casual one that has largely averted its gaze in the last decade. It’s a bet — and perhaps something of an impossible last grasp — that today’s sports fan wants to see something noteworthy any and every time they see a NASCAR event.
But the price may be the sport’s authenticity.
Look no farther than the championship model culminating Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. For the first time, the sport has reset its point standings at four scheduled times during the last 10 races of the 36-race schedule. The manual adjustments have drawn championship-hopeful drivers closer and also excluded ones who didn’t perform at the prescribed times — typically with little regard of prior performance.
The changes are creating more do-or-die theatrics at more points late in the season than ever before. There have been fights. There has been foolish on-track behavior. And there has certainly been hard-nosed, good racing. It’s been a lot of instant gratification for fans hoping for drama. But the system is flawed, and it’s rewarding less those who challenge weekly for wins and more those who have either raced more conservatively or are just not as fast. Those who stood out in 2014 — drivers like Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. among others who tallied 71 percent of the season’s wins — have already been excluded from the championship.
Meanwhile Ryan Newman, winless in 2014 and credited with just four top-5 finishes in 35 tries, is one good finish from walking away with the season championship, as are Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.
Harvick and Logano are by far the most worthy of the candidates for the title — Hamlin has only a win to his name this year and the series’ 10th-best average finish — but only Logano had a small semblance of comfort in last week’s final championship-qualifying race at Phoenix. Harvick faced a must-win situation despite having four wins to his name and the fourth-most top-5 finishes.
Making it worse is that Newman secured spot with a dirty move in the season’s penultimate race that knocked Kyle Larson into the wall on the final lap and secured Newman an 11th-place finish. Any other credible racing series would have penalized Newman for the blatant take-out move — it’s specious to argue Newman was even close to racing Larson for the spot at the time — but NASCAR celebrated it. If we’re drawing stick-and-ball equivalents, the move was akin to a basketball team winning a game with a last-second open layup after committing an obvious, yet uncalled foul to take possession and then watching as NBA executives herald the move as true-to-the-roots basketball.
As much as NASCAR is about contact and close racing, it can’t be expected to remain sustainable if even basic tenets of competitive automobile racing are ignored.
More damaging than the championship process, however, may be how the officiating has grown across the board to reflect the interests of marketing the sport instead of fair and authentic regulation. The most visible part of that is the influx of questionable application of caution flags during race events. Andrew Maness, author of the blog RacingNomics, noted recently that cautions for on-track debris are happening at a rate in the last decade typically double and occasionally triple of the previous decade.
Is this era of NASCAR with better car quality control than ever really putting more dangerous pieces on the track? Or are officials using the vague explanation to continually tighten racing and produce more restarts?
It’s hard to see how it’s not that latter.
The result is races that are artificially close and results that are more random. It’s a cheap thrill, a clickbait-type finish.
In recent weeks, the formula has seemingly worked. Ratings for NASCAR’s third- and second-to-last Chase races posted four-year highs and the total viewer count appears to be the highest since 2011.
But clickbait on the Internet — those links posted on social media and other places with eye-grabbing headlines that often link to articles without substance — often draws those cheap clicks before users learn that what they’re reading isn’t what they expected. After a while, a reader starts to tune out that particular source.
Will viewers eventually sour on NASCAR because of its preference for the now, and not the real? When every race finishes with a late restart, and every championship battle is built around a flawed system of identifying the best in favor the random, won’t that expectation of the wild start to feel like the normal? What happens when artificially tight racing becomes uninspiring and expected?
Sports need to be grounded in moments that naturally and organically produce dramatic and memorable moments. In its embrace of the instant, NASCAR is walking a path far from those roots.
Follow @GeoffreyMiller on Twitter.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
Sunday’s slate of action will end with a rematch of last year’s AFC Divisional Playoff matchup when the New England Patriots face the Indianapolis Colts on NBC. The Patriots (7-2) easily defeated the Colts (6-3) 43-22 in last season’s meeting, as Tom Brady is riding a four-game winning streak over Indianapolis. Two of those victories have come against Andrew Luck (twice), while the others were with Dan Orlovsky and Peyton Manning at quarterback. But all four of those games were played at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Brady is 0–1 on the road at Lucas Oil Stadium, which opened in 2008, and has a 3–2 career record in Indianapolis. Overall, Brady is 11–4 against the Colts — who shared the AFC East division with the Patriots until realignment in 2002.
New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Indianapolis -2.5
Three Things to Watch
|New England 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||vs CIN||W 43 - 17||Recap|
|10/12||@ BUF||W 37 - 22||Recap|
|10/16||vs NYJ||W 27 - 25||Recap|
|10/26||vs CHI||W 51 - 23||Recap|
|11/2||vs DEN||W 43 - 21||Recap|
|11/16||@ IND||W 42 - 20||Recap|
|11/23||vs DET||W 34 - 9||Recap|
|11/30||@ GB||L 21 - 26||Recap|
1. Measuring Stick for Luck
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck can take an important step in his development by playing well against a team that has proved to be his nemesis thus far in his career. In an admittedly small sample size, Luck has had a lowly 51.6 completion percentage with seven interceptions in two games against New England with a passer rating of 58.2 — Luck's worst rating against any team he's faced more than once. In last season's 43–22 playoff loss to New England, Luck completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and threw four crippling interceptions. Like his predecessor in Indy, Luck's ultimate reputation will be based in part on how he performs against the Patriots, and early returns indicate that any coronation of Luck as the clear successor to Brady/Manning is a bit premature. "This team is going as far as Andrew goes," said Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton. The jury's still out on just how far that will be.
|Indianapolis 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||vs BAL||W 20 - 13||Recap|
|10/9||@ HOU||W 33 - 28||Recap|
|10/19||vs CIN||W 27 - 0||Recap|
|10/26||@ PIT||L 34 - 51||Recap|
|11/3||@ NYG||W 40 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||vs NE||L 20 - 42||Recap|
|11/23||vs JAC||W 23 - 3||Recap|
|11/30||vs WAS||W 49 - 27||Recap|
2. Pressuring Brady
The Colts' ability to plant Tom Brady on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf will be a key indicator of success in this matchup. Indy has 24 sacks on the season and will need to muss Brady's hair a bit to disrupt what has become a well-oiled offensive machine. If they don't, it will be a long day for the Indianapolis defense, which has surrendered 31 passing plays of at least 20 yards and ranks 27th with an average of 263.6 passing yards allowed. "They blitz quite a bit more than most of the teams that we've played, which is going to be, I would say, a very critical factor in the game, our ability to handle that," New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. If the Colts can't get to Brady, it could be a big-play fest for the Patriots.
3. P-men on a Roll
The Patriots have had many impressive runs during the Brady-Belichick era, but their current five-game winning streak ranks among the best stretches of football in recent Patriots history. New England is averaging 40.2 points over those five games, handily winning the turnover battle (10-1) during that stretch. Superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski has helped spearhead the run with 36 catches for 516 yards and five scores in that span. Brady's touchdown-to-interception ratio for the last five games? A tidy 18-to-1. He has a staggering 63 completions in his last two outings alone. The Patriots have to be licking their chops in anticipation of facing an Indianapolis defense that is susceptible to big plays. Defensively, the Patriots have 18 takeaways, while Indy has turned it over 15 times. The Colts simply can't help the Patriots in any way with turnovers or penalties if they want to keep it close.
The Patriots are overdue for a bad performance, but a high-profile Sunday night game coming off of a bye week is not a likely spot for a letdown. Andrew Luck and the Colts offense will move the football, but look for an ill-timed turnover or two to turn the game in New England's favor. The Patriots' roll continues.
Prediction: New England 31, Indianapolis 28
The NFC’s best record will be on the line this afternoon when the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals face off on FOX. Entering this season, few if any would have predicted Jim Caldwell’s Lions (7-2) would be in first place in the NFC North this far into the schedule or that Bruce Arians’ Cardinals (8-1) would not only have a two-game lead in the NFC West, but also boast the NFL’s best record.
Leading surprising first-place teams is not the only thing Caldwell and Arians have in common either. Both have won Super Bowls as offensive coordinators (Caldwell with Baltimore in the 2012 season, Arians with Pittsburgh in ‘08) and are former Indianapolis head coaches as well. Caldwell took over for Tony Dungy in 2009 and went 26-22 in three seasons, including an appearance in Super Bowl XLIV in his first season. Caldwell was fired after the 2011 season and replaced by Chuck Pagano, who brought in Arians as his offensive coordinator. In 2012, Arians served as interim head coach while Pagano battled cancer, leading the Colts to a 9-3 record and earning AP Coach of the Year honors in the process. Despite their shared history, this will be the first meeting between Caldwell and Arians as head coaches.
Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Arizona -1
Three Things to Watch
|Detroit 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||vs BUF||L 14 - 17||Recap|
|10/12||@ MIN||W 17 - 3||Recap|
|10/19||vs NO||W 24 - 23||Recap|
|10/26||@ ATL||W 22 - 21||Recap|
|11/9||vs MIA||W 20 - 16||Recap|
|11/16||@ ARI||L 6 - 14||Recap|
|11/23||@ NE||L 9 - 34||Recap|
|11/27||vs CHI||W 34 - 17||Recap|
1. Drew Stanton’s Second Starting Stint
Arizona’s come-from-behind divisional win over St. Louis last week was somewhat bittersweet. At the start of the fourth quarter, Carson Palmer’s left knee appeared to give way when he dropped back to pass. He was eventually carted off the field and later diagnosed with a torn ACL. Drew Stanton replaced Palmer and promptly threw a go-ahead, 48-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Brown in the Cardinals’ next series. With Palmer on injured reserve and done for the season, this is now Stanton’s team. The pressure is on the seven-year pro to finish what Palmer started – win the NFC West and take this team deep into the playoffs. Stanton has started seven games in his career, but three of those came earlier this year when Palmer was sidelined by a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder. Stanton went 2-1 in those games, beating the Giants and 49ers before losing big to the Broncos in Denver. For the season, Stanton is completing less than half of his passes (46 of 93) for 614 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Stanton hasn’t been asked by Arians to do too much in the pocket, but he’s made plays when he’s needed to and, more importantly, he’s taken care of the football (no turnovers). Arizona has a very good defense and a productive running game powered by Andre Ellington, but much of its success moving forward also will depend on the quality of play it gets from Stanton. And to that end, he better be at the top of his game this afternoon against a Detroit defense that’s ranked No. 1 in the league in both yards and points allowed.
|Arizona 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||@ DEN||L 20 - 41||Recap|
|10/12||vs WAS||W 30 - 20||Recap|
|10/19||@ OAK||W 24 - 13||Recap|
|10/26||vs PHI||W 24 - 20||Recap|
|11/2||@ DAL||W 28 - 17||Recap|
|11/9||vs STL||W 31 - 14||Recap|
|11/16||vs DET||W 14 - 6||Recap|
|11/23||@ SEA||L 3 - 19||Recap|
2. Ground to Gain?
Besides the aforementioned coaching ties, another thing Detroit and Arizona have in common is what has transpired on the ground. The Lions are No. 2 in the NFL in rushing defense (71.3 ypg) with the Cardinals close behind (78.6). Both teams have allowed just one opponent to rush for more than 100 yards and the most either has given up to a running back is 84. On the flip side, both teams also have had trouble establishing their own running games. Detroit is second to last in the league (77.8 ypg) in rushing offense with Arizona not faring much better at 29th (83.6). In summary, neither team has given much ground this season nor have they gained much. Will either side of this coin flip this afternoon or it will be more of the status quo?
3. Saving the Best for Last
A big reason why Detroit and Arizona are a combined 15-3 entering Week 11 is that both have excelled in late-game situations. The Lions have won four games in a row, with the last three by a combined six points courtesy of fourth-quarter comebacks. The Cardinals have orchestrated three fourth-quarter comebacks of their own, two of which featured the game-winning points within the final three minutes. Detroit did yield an eight-point, fourth-quarter lead at home in its 17-14 Week 5 loss to Buffalo, but the Lions haven’t lost since. In Week 6, two touchdowns in the final 3:38 served as the final points in a 24-23 win over New Orleans at home. Next was a 12-point fourth quarter capped off by a 48-yard field goal with no time left to edge Atlanta 22-21 in London. Then last week, an 11-yard Matthew Stafford-to-Theo Riddick touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining produced a 20-16 win over Miami. The Lions have worked their late-game magic both at home and on the road, while Arizona’s three comebacks have all been at University of Phoenix Stadium. Both teams are certainly no stranger when it comes to late-game heroics, so it will be interesting to see which one gains the upper hand should this afternoon’s proceedings develop into a nip-and-tuck affair through three quarters. And considering just 1.5 points separate these teams when it comes to overall point differential, that’s an entirely plausible scenario.
Detroit hasn’t enjoyed this much success since 1954, while Arizona has seized control of what many perceive to be the NFL’s toughest division, despite having to deal with a rash of injuries. Both the Lions and Cardinals have relied heavily on their defenses, so don’t be surprised if this is a low-scoring affair. Arizona has to carry on without Carson Palmer, but Drew Stanton more than held his own during a three-game starting stint earlier this season. Detroit may seem to have the advantage offensively because of the quarterback situation, but the Cardinals are undefeated at home and Bruce Arians has been pushing the right buttons all season. I don’t expect that to change this afternoon, even with a backup quarterback going up against the league’s No. 1-ranked defense.