Articles By Mitch Light
By Mitchell Light
Which teams from a Big Six conference that did not make the NCAA Tournament last season are most likely to make it this season?
Well, North Carolina is the first team that comes to mind. With another strong recruiting class, led by Harrison Barnes, the Tar Heels have more than enough talent to be a top-15 team in 2010-11. Other than UNC, I’d say Virginia Tech is another team that should be in the expanded Field of 68. The Hokies suffered a setback this fall when combo forward J.T. Thompson was lost for the season with a knee injury, but Tech still has three All-ACC-caliber players, led by Player of the Year candidate Malcolm Delaney. The Hokies have a 26–22 record in the ACC over the past three seasons but have nothing but three NIT appearances to show for it. That should change this season.
Arizona — Derrick Williams should have the Cats back to the NCAAs after a one-year hiatus.
Colorado — The Buffs boast two of the best players in the Big 12, Cory Higgins and Alec Burks.
Connecticut — The Huskies will lean heavily on talented point guard Kemba Walker.
Georgia — Trey Thompkins should emerge as one of the better big men in the nation.
Illinois — Bruce Weber’s team features three solid seniors — Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis — and some outstanding young talent.
Mississippi State — The Bulldogs suffered heavy losses, but there’s still plenty of talent in Starkville.
NC State — A banner recruiting class must come through for the Pack to end their four-year NCAA drought.
Northwestern — John Shurna and Juice Thompson are two of the more underrated players in the nation.
St. John’s — Steve Lavin inherited one of the most experienced rosters in the nation.
UCLA — The Bruins will be pleased that the NCAA Tournament has expanded to 68 teams.
Which Big Six conference teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year are in danger of missing the field this season?
Two teams from the ACC headline this list — Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The Demon Deacons lost their coach (Dino Gaudio) and four key players — most notably Al-Farouq Aminu — from a team that went 9–7 in the ACC. New boss Jeff Bzdelik is known as an outstanding tactician, but his first Deacon team simply doesn’t have enough good players to be much of a threat in the ACC. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech lost its top three frontcourt players, including two draft picks (Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal), after barely making the NCAAs last year with a 7–9 record in the ACC. As usual, the Jackets will have talent, but as usual, they will underachieve.
California — Never count a Mike Montgomery team out, but not many teams can survive the loss of four double-digit scorers.
Clemson — New coach Brad Brownell will do well at Clemson, but the loss of Trevor Booker will be too much to overcome in the short term.
Louisville — Where will the scoring come from for Rick Pitino’s Cardinals?
Oklahoma State — The Pokes were the last team out in the Field of 68 in Athlon Sports’ preseason magazine.
Which current head coach is likely to make a move up the food chain after the 2010-11 season?
Billy Kennedy has taken two programs to the NCAA Tournament, Southeastern Louisiana (’04-05) and Murray State (’09-10). In four years at Murray, he has an overall mark of 84–44 and an OVC record of 56–20. He is a proven winner and his teams play an entertaining brand of basketball.
Rank the top 10 teams from outside the Big Six conferences.
Elias Harris and Robert Sacre form an intimidating frontline. The Zags will need better play at the point to be a top-10 team.
Lavoy Allen and Juan Fernandez should lead the Owls to a fourth straight NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers are painfully young, but very, very talented.
The Cougars outscored MWC foes by an average of 15.4 points per game last season.
The Bulldogs will still be good, but don’t expect another magical ride in March.
Kevin Anderson is a star, but this team needs to hit the boards to be a threat in the NCAA Tournament.
7. San Diego State
Steve Fisher welcomes back four double-digit scorers, including emerging star Kawhi Leonard.
Don’t ever doubt the X-Men, who have won four straight A-10 titles and been to three straight Sweet 16s.
9. Wichita State
It will be a shocker if Gregg Marshall’s fourth WSU team doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament
10. Murray State
All the key pieces are back from a team that beat Vanderbilt in the first round and took Butler to the wire in Round 2.
By Charean Williams
Doctors once doubted him, but Ravens linebacker Sergio Kindle always has believed he will play again.
Kindle is back in Baltimore rehabbing three months after he took a wrong turn during the night at a friend’s house and fell down two flights of stairs. Kindle, who has a hairline fracture in his skull, has yet to regain his balance.
“I’m encouraged every day,” Kindle said. “I might not have gotten this opportunity to come back. It’s a blessing that the team actually brought me back. I’m doing everything I can to get back to 100 percent, if not 150 percent, and be as good as I was before I got injured, if not better.”
Kindle was expected to have an immediate impact as a pass rusher after the Ravens made him the 43rd overall pick. He drew comparisons to former University of Texas teammate Brian Orakpo, who had 11 sacks for the Redskins as a rookie in 2009.
But Kindle never even made it to training camp.
On the night of July 25, he lost his way in an unfamiliar house after going to the bathroom during the night. Kindle doesn’t remember much after that.
“I remember when I was on my way to hitting the stairs,” Kindle said.
Doctors initially were not optimistic that he would ever play football again. He spent two weeks in an Austin, Texas, hospital.
“The doctors threw that out there as a possibility [that he wouldn’t play again],” Kindle said. “I know I have to play it safe, because it’s a head injury. But the way I’ve always felt about it: I felt I’d be able to play again. I just didn’t know how soon. I know for sure that next year I’ll be on the green grass again.”
Kindle signed a one-year contract that will pay him a prorated salary of $282,000. He received no bonus. (Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, drafted one spot before Kindle, signed a four-year, $4.44 million deal with a $1.76 million bonus.)
He is working out, learning the playbook, attending meetings and doing occupational therapy. Kindle attends home games and watches road games on television. For the first fall since he was 4 years old, he is not playing football.
Kindle, though, is taking it one step at a time, one day at a time.
“After falling down, and facing the possibility of not having your dream come true, a dream you’ve had your whole life,” Kindle said, “it made me seem like I was taking it for granted, the opportunity that I had. I’m not saying that I was, but I will just say there were things that I’ve done that weren’t great. Now, with this second chance I have, I’ve got to make the best of it.”
Michigan State (+6.5) at Iowa
We’re just about halfway through the Big Ten season, and Michigan State, picked no higher than fifth by most media outlets, remains as the league’s only undefeated team. The Spartans have been one of the most consistently solid teams in the country through the first eight weeks; they aren’t great in any one area, but they don’t have many weaknesses, either. Iowa is coming off its first Big Ten loss, a 31–30 setback at home to Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes’ defense, considered one of the best in the country, has given up a total of 329 yards rushing the past two weeks. Slowing down MSU’s two-headed tailback monster of Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell will be the focus this Saturday. Iowa is too good to lose two straight at home.
Iowa 24, Michigan State 21
Missouri (+7.5) at Nebraska
These two Big 12 North clubs both responded in big spots Saturday. Missouri proved that its undefeated start and gaudy defensive stats weren’t a fluke by beating Oklahoma 36–27 in Columbia, while Nebraska bounced back from its loss at home to Texas by outlasting Oklahoma State, 51–41, in Stillwater. The key development for the Huskers was the play of quarterback Taylor Martinez. After basically getting shut out vs. Texas, Martinez was sensational against O-State, throwing for 323 yards (by far his career high) and five touchdowns while adding 112 yards on the ground. Nebraska will be very difficult to beat if Martinez can replicate those passing numbers.
Nebraska 30, Missouri 24
Florida (+2.5) vs. Georgia
It’s the first time the Florida-Georgia showdown hasn’t featured at least one ranked team since 1979. The Bulldogs, however, are playing their best football of the season of late, with consecutive victories over Tennessee (41–14), Vanderbilt (43–0) and Kentucky (44–31). Aaron Murray has been very good at quarterback, and Washaun Ealey is finally emerging as a big-time producer at tailback. Florida, on the other hand, doesn’t have many answers on the offensive side of the ball. The Gators have scored a total of four offensive touchdowns in their last three games — all losses (two at home). Urban Meyer vowed to fix his team’s problems in the bye week, but the Gators just don’t seem to have the right pieces in the right places.
Georgia 27, Florida 17
By Ralph Vacchiano
In at least eight NFL cities right now, if this were any other year, there would be coaches pondering their futures and owners assembling a short list of replacements. There might not necessarily be firings this early, but there’d certainly be a feeling of inevitability in places like San Francisco, Dallas, Jacksonville and San Diego.
But the coaches in all those cities — and in places like Minnesota, Carolina, Cleveland and Cincinnati — might end up getting an unusual, and perhaps undeserved, stay of execution.
Because in the NFL, this is not any other year.
The looming lockout — which so many NFL sources consider to be a lock (pardon the pun) to happen at least in the offseason — could be enough to save the jobs of any of the on-the-hot-seat coaches and anyone else whose teams underachieve this season.
No matter how desperate or impulsive their bosses are, it might not make sense to end the marriage — even if the results are poor.
It’s simple, really. And all you have to do is look at Dallas. Jerry Jones has often said he will not make a coaching change during the season, but this isn’t most seasons. His Cowboys are off to a 1–5 start, and it is becoming more evident that his team will not be playing a home game at the Super Bowl in February.
But what is Jones to do? When you factor in the lockout, it might not make much sense to let Phillips go.
Let’s assume — everyone else is assuming, so it’s hardly a stretch — that the NFL owners will lock out the players beginning on March 1. And if that happens, play the scenario out to where there’s no urgency to sign a new collective bargaining agreement at least until training camp is scheduled to start in July — probably not until late August when the new regular season looms.
Can Jones, while he’s crying poverty and insisting on cutbacks with the rest of the NFL owners, be paying two coaches during the lockout? He’d still owe Phillips more than $3 million for 2011. And unless he simply promotes offensive coordinator Jason Garrett — a possibility since he makes $3 million, too, but not a likelihood given the disaster that is this season — he’d probably spend more than that on a new coach. So he’d be paying more than $10 million total for three coaches — none of whom would be coaching during the lockout.
And he’d have to have a new coach. He couldn’t let the Cowboys go without one, even for the short term, because the draft will still happen in April, and plans have to be made.
But even if Jones bit the financial bullet and endured the criticism of paying two coaches (or more) while trying to argue for a reduction in player costs, is that even a smart move? If there’s a lockout that lasts until August, his new coach won’t be allowed to have practices, workouts or any contact with his players for most of the first six months of his tenure.
He might have to install a new plan, a new offensive and defensive system, new team rules, a new workout program, and whatever else he wants to install in a matter of 2-3 weeks with the regular season closing fast. Even if he made the big move for an established, big-name coach like Bill Cowher, that’s not exactly the formula for success.
Maybe those are all leaps of faith that a lockout is coming, but the owners certainly are preparing as if that’s the case — which means Jones and so many others all have to keep that in mind. So maybe the smart call, even in the days following a disastrous season, will be to just hold on to the status quo.
And that takes some of the intrigue out of the remainder of the season. In Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis’ controversial tenure might continue despite the disappointment they’re suffering through right now. In Cleveland, unless Mike Holmgren wants to coach the team himself, he might end up giving Eric Mangini one more year. As beaten as Jack Del Rio seems in Jacksonville, that small-market franchise certainly won’t want to be paying multiple coaches. And yes, Chargers fans, you may end up with another year of Norv Turner, too.
And Phillips, and Mike Singletary in San Francisco and Brad Childress in Minnesota — they all might also be safe. None of them would’ve been in a very comfortable position in any other year. But the lockout that threatens the future of the NFL might end up being a security blanket for many on-the-bubble coaches around the league.
By Charean Williams
Eli Manning hopes to have his name in the Giants’ Ring of Honor one day in the distant future. His name already is in the visiting locker room at Cowboys Stadium, or was until it was painted over.
Manning reiterated again this week that he meant no disrespect to the Cowboys by leaving his autograph on a wall at the stadium. He said a locker room attendant asked him to sign the wall in the attendants’ private dressing room in the visiting locker room.
“A lot of different teams in opposing locker room, assistants have players sign the wall,” Manning explained. “I’ve done it at a lot of different places around the NFL, and I thought they were starting a new tradition. So it will be interesting to see if anybody else has signed the wall, or if I’m the only one, or if they erased it.”
“It’s not like I was trying to do anything disrespectful to their new stadium by any means.”
After the Giants beat the Cowboys 33–31 in the debut of the $1.2 billion stadium, Manning left the score, his autograph and “First win in the New Stadium” behind on the wall.
The Cowboys quickly painted over the signature.
Cowboys Stadium hosts Super Bowl XLV in February. The NFC team will be the home team, and Manning was asked if he might leave behind his signature in the home team’s locker room if the Giants win the big one.
He didn’t laugh at the question.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’d like to be there, but I wouldn’t want to disrespect the Cowboys or their new stadium.”
Manning led the Giants to a victory in Super Bowl XLII in 2007, winning MVP honors. His 2010 Giants are playing as well as any team in the NFC so far.
“I think we’ve done some good things,” Manning said. “We’ve gotten better as the season has gone on, and that’s what you like to see.”
LSU (+6) at Auburn
The SEC’s only two undefeated teams get together at Jordan-Hare Stadium for an epic battle. Auburn is led by junior quarterback Cam Newton, who has emerged as the top Heisman Trophy candidate in his first season with the Tigers. Newton, the SEC leader in rushing and passing efficiency, has topped the 100-yard passing and rushing mark in the same game four times this season. This week, however, he must solve the LSU defense, which is allowing only 242.1 yards and 14.4 points per game. Les Miles’ club still has issues on offense, but this team did take a big step forward two weeks ago, scoring 33 points and totaling 385 yards in its win at Florida. The Tigers — from LSU — will remain undefeated.
LSU 27, Auburn 24
Wisconsin (+5.5) at Iowa
The Big Ten race is wide open, thanks in large part to Wisconsin’s 31–18 win over then-No. 1 Ohio State last Saturday night. Iowa is one of three league teams without a loss, but the Hawkeyes still have to play Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Northwestern — though all but the Northwestern game are at home. The Hawkeyes have been very steady on offense and dominant on defense, limiting opponents to 13.2 points per game. The key in this game will be Iowa’s ability to slow down Wisconsin’s two-headed monster at tailback, John Clay and James White. The Badgers were able to run on Ohio State last weekend, netting 184 yards on 43 carries. The Hawkeyes can’t let happen this weekend.
Iowa 24, Wisconsin 14
Nebraska (-5.5) at Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State is arguably the biggest surprise of the nation’s 10 remaining undefeated teams. The Pokes lost 17 starters from the 2009 team that went 9–4 and were expected to take several steps back this fall. But Mike Gundy’s team is 6–0 overall and 2–0 in league play after last week’s impressive 34–17 win at Texas Tech. Nebraska figured it would also be undefeated at this point, but the Huskers were upset at home by Texas Saturday afternoon. Quarterback Taylor Martinez rushed for only 21 yards — 126 below his season average — and was benched in the third quarter. He will return as the starter this week and should have the Cornhuskers offense back on track.
Nebraska 31, Oklahoma State 17
Washington (-6.5) at Arizona
While most of the nation was tucked away in bed, Washington edged Oregon State in a double-overtime thriller in Seattle late Saturday night/early Sunday morning. Washington and Arizona are both 2–1 in league play and this is a game both teams must win if they want to remain relevant in the Pac-10. The Wildcats will be without quarterback Nick Foles, who dislocated a kneecap in the win over Washington State last weekend. His replacement is Matt Scott, a junior who actually beat Foles out for the starting assignment early last season. Don’t expect the Arizona offense to suffer much.
Arizona 34, Washington 24
By Ralph Vacchiano
The voice of reason came from the unlikeliest of places, from a man who once made his reputation and his living by pushing the outer limits of safety and legality in the NFL. But Rodney Harrison, once a known head-hunter, once considered the dirtiest player in football, had finally seen enough.
Never mind the damage he had inflicted his career. His reform movement was sparked by a weekend of carnage — last weekend, in fact — when a season-long parade of players to MRI machines and CT scans and concussion specialists all erupted in one perfectly hideous storm. For a while it seemed like every game featured a highlight of a player getting laid out in a vicious, violent, helmet-to-helmet hit.
Crowds cheered. Announcers yelled. Players celebrated.
Other players, meanwhile, laid crumpled in a heap on the ground being tended to by trainers. One man’s ticket to SportsCenter is always another man’s ticket for an ambulance ride.
It happened in Philadelphia, where Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson ran full speed at Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and collided with him head to head, helmet to helmet, leaving both players sprawled on the ground. Jackson later had memory loss and what was described as a “severe” concussion, with no one having any idea when he’d be back.
It happened, too, in Pittsburgh where linebacker James Harrison was remorseless in leveling two Cleveland Browns — receivers Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi — with helmet-to-helmet hits. The NFL has reportedly ruled the hit on Cribbs to be borderline legal, though the one on Massaquoi clearly was not.
And it happened in New England where Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on Ravens tight end Todd Heap so over the line that even New England coach Bill Belichick was furious.
Fines are coming. Probably hefty fines. But it took Harrison — who collected over $200,000 in fines in his 15-year career on the edge — to implore the NFL that fines just aren’t enough.
“You didn’t get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand,” Harrison, now an NBC analyst, said on Sunday Night Football. “You got my attention when I got suspended and I had to get away from my teammates and I disappointed my teammates from not being there. But you have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars.”
There should be a chorus of “Amen” from NFL players who by now must be furious about putting their safety at risk thanks to a growing handful of cheap-shot artists who mistake the act of launching themselves like a head-hunting missile for the lost art of making a solid tackle. Sometime, in the Age of SportsCenter, form was lost in favor of getting an opponent “jacked up” and getting on the highlight reel.
The NFL claims it takes blows to the head seriously, and for proof they levy fines — fines in four and five figures for players making seven and eight figures per year. That may be enough to get the attention of an undrafted rookie making the NFL minimum. But will even a $25,000 fine mean anything to a player like Harrison who is in the second year of a six-year, $51 million contract that pays him an average of more than $8 million per year?
Apparently not, and not just because he did it twice on Sunday, but because he was defiant about his actions and unconcerned about the bodies he left in his chaotic wake.
“I don’t want to injure anybody, but I’m not opposed to hurting anybody,” Harrison said. “There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. You get hurt, you shake it off and come back the next series or the next game.”
There’s also a difference between being dumb and dumber, and it’s about as slim as the difference between being injured and hurt. He smashed two players in the head with his own head and left both with concussions. And for one of the hits, despite the damage, he said it would be “a travesty” if he got fined.
No, the travesty would be if he wasn’t suspended. But that’s coming soon, too — and not just because Rodney Harrison said so. Ray Anderson, the NFL’s VP of operations was apparently so horrified by what he saw on Sunday, he spoke out against the disturbing trend and predicted that the discipline could end being as hard as the hits are — and soon.
“Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension,” Anderson said. “There are some that could bring suspensions for what are flagrant and egregious situations.
Again, from the chorus, can I hear an “Amen”?
“(If) the money does not seem to be a deterrent, then it has to be more than that,” said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. “It is quite frustrating, to be honest with you, if a player is forced to leave a game because of an illegal hit and the other player continues. That doesn’t really seem right.”
No it doesn’t. Nor does it seem safe. What it is, is disturbing on all fronts. And everybody is guilty. Coughlin may not like head-hunting, but his team spent $37 million on safety Antrel Rolle, whom last season as a member of the Arizona Cardinals went head-hunting on unsuspecting Giants tight end Kevin Boss. The Giants were furious with Rolle then. Yet they’re paying him now.
Meanwhile, the Robinson-Jackson hit — which was all over the highlight shows later that night — was shown twice on the four huge scoreboards inside the new, $1.7 million stadium while the Giants were beating the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Each time the crowd offered a cheer.
It was a sobering reminder of how distasteful that was later in the day when Lions linebacker Zack Follet lay motionless on the Meadowlands field after colliding, helmet-to-helmet with Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. That hit didn’t make some of the highlight shows because it was an inadvertent collision while Pierre-Paul was blocking on a kickoff return. It was poor tackling form, but likely won’t be considered illegal.
Plus, Follet was hurt — so badly, in fact, that he never seemed to move while laying on the field. He had to be rolled onto a backboard, carried to a cart, and carefully transported to a local hospital.
The highlight shows don’t want to celebrate results like that. But the hits? They’ll show the hits.
“(Fans) definitely like the big hits,” Boss said. “And guys want to make those big hits so they can get on SportsCenter.”
A few small fines won’t change that mentality. Just ask Harrison. Or Meriweather, who said after leaving Heap in a heap, “Point blank, won’t change my game, period.”
It’s time then, that someone changes the game for players like that.
Before somebody really gets hurt.
By Charean Williams
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was set to select Randy Moss with the eighth overall pick in 1998 when then coach Chan Gailey and others on staff talked him out of it on draft day. Citing character concerns, the Cowboys instead took Greg Ellis.
Moss, who was selected 21st overall by the Vikings, since has forgiven Jones. But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten.
“I always forgive, man. That’s in the Bible,” Moss said. “I always forgive, but I never forget. Mr. Jones, Jerry Jones, I still respect his organization, the accomplishments that he has made over the years, I don’t hold a grudge, and I’m not bitter about the situation. This is my 13th year in the league. I forgive him, but I don’t forget.”
In seven career games against the Cowboys, including the postseason, Moss has 35 receptions for 734 yards and 11 touchdowns. His average of 21 yards per catch is the most against any team. His team has never lost to the Cowboys.
“[Before the draft], I told my mom I might be a Cowboy, so she had her mind set on Dallas just as well as I did, so when they didn’t pick me, I was kind of more depressed because she was depressed,” Moss said. “…Just seeing her facial expression and how she looked, I really took that to heart, man, and I told myself any time I play the Dallas Cowboys I’m never going to forget that look.”
When the Patriots traded him to the Vikings last week, Moss circled this week’s game on his calendar. Jones quickly offered a public apology to Moss.
“I apologize. I apologize. I apologize,” Jones said. “I don’t believe that’s going to do any good. He’s too much of a competitor. He’s a real competitor, and I’ve known all my life that when people say you can’t do it or when people pass over you saying somebody else can do it, all that does is inspire you. …Certainly, he’s made us pay, and I’m sorry we’ve got to play him.”
Ohio State (-3.5) at Wisconsin
The nation’s new No. 1 team heads to Madison for its most difficult test to date. Wisconsin, as usual, boasts one of the league’s top rushing attacks, but the Badgers can throw the ball around the field, as well. Senior quarterback Scott Tolzein has thrown for 190 yards or more in all but one game and has only been intercepted two times in 132 attempts. This week, however, Tolzein & Co. must solve an Ohio State club that ranks third in the nation in total defense and sixth in scoring. The Buckeyes’ defense has only allowed one team — the mighty Eastern Michigan Eagles — to score more than one offensive touchdown.
Ohio State 20, Wisconsin 10
Arkansas (+4) at Auburn
Auburn improved to 6–0 by winning its third game of the season by exactly three points. Once again, quarterback Cam Newton was the hero, throwing for 210 yards and rushing for 198 and four touchdowns in the Tigers’ 37–34 win over Kentucky. This week, Auburn will face an improved Arkansas defense that held Texas A&M to 324 yards last week (186 below its average) in a 24–17 win in Dallas. The key for Auburn will be Newton’s ability to run the ball and make the big plays in the passing game when the opportunity presents itself. The Tigers’ magical ride continues.
Auburn 34, Arkansas 27
California (+2.5) at USC
USC has lost consecutive Pac-10 games — both on a field goal in the final seconds — for the first time since September 2001. And unless the Trojans can make dramatic improvements on defense in one week, that losing streak figures to hit three games. USC ranks 100th in the nation in total defense and an unthinkable 116th in pass defense, allowing 287.5 yards per game. California, which improved to 3–2 with a 35–7 win over UCLA, does most of its damage on the ground, but the Bears are good enough in the passing game to take advantage of the Trojans’ weaknesses.
California 30, USC 24
Iowa (-3.5) at Michigan
For the first time this season, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson failed to take over a game. Sure, the man they call Shoelace threw for 215 yards and rushed for 86, but he tossed three costly interceptions in the Wolverines’ 34–17 loss to their “little brothers” from East Lansing. Now, Michigan will face one of the premier defenses in the nation. Iowa is allowing only 10.2 points per game (fewest in the country) and has held four of its five opponents to seven points or less. Robinson will find a way to move the football, but Iowa, like Michigan State, will force some turnovers and keep the Wolverines from scoring too many points.
Iowa 30, Michigan 17
By Ralph Vacchiano
The morning after is always the hardest, isn’t it? After an event you’ve been waiting for and building towards for what seems like forever, then it’s everything you expected and you enjoy it just a little too much. It’s never easy to get up and get going the next morning to do it all over again.
So welcome to the New Orleans Saints’ world, dominated by a Super Bowl hangover just eight months after a championship the town had been seeking since the franchise was born.
Past the quarter pole of their defense, they’re just 3–2 — still very much in position to make another run. But after near-miss victories over the Vikings, 49ers and Panthers, a loss to Atlanta, and then a 30–20 setback to the Arizona Cardinals — and undrafted rookie quarterback Max Hall — on Sunday, there’s no denying this: The Saints just don’t look or feel the same as they did last year.
“It’s not a crisis,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But I told the players, ‘ We have to play better. We’ve faced challenges before, and we’re going to have to handle this one.’”
Maybe they will, but at the moment they’ve lost their aura, if nothing else. Last year their offense was unstoppable. Behind the genius of Payton and the lightning-quick throws of Drew Brees, it looked like the Saints constantly had receivers open everywhere on the field. And their defense, once maligned, had become opportunistic. It was a dangerous 1-2 punch.
Now, that once-dominant offense is averaging just 19.8 points per game — way down from 31.9 a year ago.
The defense is giving up 20.4 points per game, too. And they are sitting in the standings in their own division behind both the Atlanta Falcons (4–1) and the Tampa Bay Bucs (3–1). “We’re just not playing good enough right now,” said tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb. “We’re not hitting the panic button. But we haven’t played up to our standards.”
Unfortunately for the Saints, history suggests things won’t necessarily get better, either. Only six of the last 11 Super Bowl champs even reached the playoffs during their title defense, and three of those were bounced out of the playoffs in Round 1. Most of those teams returned with the same personnel — just like the Saints have, for the most part — and they still managed to fail.
It’s because things change fast in the NFL. Luck changes. Injuries happen. And no matter how hard the Saints try to deny it — like so many others before them — it’s nearly impossible to recapture the magic. It’s far more difficult to remain as motivated for an entire season when every team is gunning for you and you know in the back of your mind that you already have that coveted ring.
At least Payton is right. It’s not really a “crisis” At 3–2 they still have more than enough time to fix their problems, even though it’s highly unlikely they’ll duplicate their 13–3 mark from a year ago. And the odds suggest Brees will get on track, too. His self-described “terrible” three-interception performance against the Cardinals was only his second three-INT game since the beginning of last year.
Life for the reigning champs, though, won’t get any easier. They still have the Steelers on their home schedule and trips to Dallas, Baltimore and Atlanta ahead. The other games aren’t picnics either considering that the Saints are sure to get every opponent’s best effort. That means for the last 11 weeks — and maybe beyond — the Saints need to be at the top of their game, every time.
They’ll never face a game that won’t feel to someone like it’s the playoffs. And as the failures of past champions have proven, that’s a tough thing to have to deal with all season long.
Duke (National champ)
North Carolina (Sweet 16)
Virginia Tech (Two & Out)
NC State (Two & Out)
Florida State (One & Done)
Maryland (One & Done)
America East (1)
Stony Brook (One & Done)
Atlantic 10 (4)
Temple (Sweet 16)
Richmond (Two & Out)
Xavier (Two & Out)
Dayton (First Four)
Atlantic Sun (1)
Lipscomb (One & Done)
Big 12 (6)
Kansas (Final Four)
Kansas State (Final Four)
Baylor (Sweet 16)
Missouri (Sweet 16)
Texas (Two & Out)
Colorado (One & Done)
Big East (9)
Villanova (Elite Eight)
Pittsburgh (Elite Eight)
Syracuse (Elite Eight)
Georgetown (Two & Out)
West Virginia (One & Done)
Marquette (One & Done)
UConn (One & Done)
St. John’s (One & Done)
Notre Dame (One & Done)
Paul Carter, F, Minnesota to Illinois-Chicago
Solid role player in his two years with the Gophers, averaging 5.8 points and 4.0 rebounds in 63 games. Transferred to Illinois-Chicago to be near his sister, who is undergoing cancer treatments.
Malik Cooke, F, Nevada to South Carolina
Swingman should add some punch to a South Carolina lineup that needs proven scorers. Averaged 9.6 points and shot 44.8 percent from 3-point range at Nevada two years ago.
Seth Curry, G, Liberty to Duke
The younger brother of former Davidson All-American Stephen Curry averaged 20.2 points per game in his only season at Liberty. Curry shot .347 from 3-point range as a freshman, but that number should increase as his attempts diminish playing in the ACC. Figures to be a key part of four-guard rotation with freshman Kyrie Irving, sophomore Andre Dawkins and senior Nolan Smith.
Olek Czyz, F, Duke to Nevada
Polish power forward played sparingly as a freshman in 2008-09 and then left school at the conclusion of the fall semester of his sophomore season. Czyz, a former top-100 national recruit who played high school basketball in Reno, will have an opportunity to shine on a Nevada club that must replace its top four scorers.
Gregory Echenique, C, Rutgers to Creighton
Center from Venezuela should be a force in the Missouri Valley for new coach Greg McDermott after averaging 9.2 points and 8.3 rebounds in a 39 games at Rutgers. Will become eligible at the end of the fall semester.
John Fields, F, UNC Wilmington to Tennessee
Tennessee will be the third stop for the well-traveled big man who played two seasons at East Carolina and one at UNC Wilmington. After averaging 10.2 points and 8.7 rebounds for the Seahawks last season, Fields (granted immediate eligibility because he has graduated) will help provide some muscle up front for Bruce Pearl’s Vols.
Jio Fontan, G, Fordham to USC
Combo guard played for Bob Hurley at St. Anthony in Jersey City before taking his game across the river to Fordham. Fontan attempted to transfer after averaging 15.3 points and 4.7 assists en route to A-10 All-Rookie Team honors in ’08-09, but the school would not give him his release. Returned for his sophomore season, but left school after five games. Should start at the point for the Trojans, though he can play the 2.
Drew Gordon, F/C, UCLA to New Mexico
Former top-50 national recruit had a “mutual parting” with UCLA last December. The forward/center from San Jose was averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 boards while shooting .569 from the floor for the Bruins as a sophomore. With Darington Hobson off to the NBA, Gordon will have a chance to be a primary scorer up front for the Lobos when he becomes eligible in December.
Mike Holmes, F, South Carolina to Coastal Carolina
Burly power forward couldn’t stay out of trouble in Columbia, but he should be a force in the Big South when he becomes eligible in December. Averaged 10.8 points and 7.7 boards as a sophomore in ’08-09. Don’t be surprised if he is the Big?South Player of the Year.
Justin Knox, F, Alabama to North Carolina
Knox didn’t produce big numbers as a junior at Alabama (6.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), but he will be a
welcome addition for North Carolina, which lost Deon Thompson to graduation, Ed Davis to the NBA and the Wear twins, David and Travis, to UCLA.
Jeronne Maymon, F, Marquette to Tennessee
Bulky swingman from Madison, Wisc., lasted only one semester at Marquette, even though he was averaging 16.3 minutes per game for Buzz Williams’ club. The 6'6", 240-pound Maymon was forced to play center for the undersized Golden Eagles, but he should be used as an inside-out combo forward for the Volunteers.
Emmanuel Negedu, F, Tennessee to New Mexico
Former top-50 national recruit played only one season with the Vols (’08-09) before being sidelined with a heart condition. The Tennessee medical staff would not clear him to play, so he left school and landed at New Mexico. Barring any setbacks, he will be a Lobo this season.
Josh Parker, G, Drake to Dayton
Sweet-shooting guard averaged 10.7 points while hitting 43.2 percent from three as a sophomore at Drake in ’08-09. Parker can handle the ball but will likely start at shooting guard with highly regarded freshman Juwan Staten expected to take over at the point.
Juan Pattillo, F, Oklahoma to Western Kentucky
Highly regarded forward signed with Oklahoma out of junior college but was dismissed from the team following his only season in Norman. Averaged 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds for OU in ’08-09 playing with eventual No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin. Will only have one season of eligibility at Western Kentucky.
Jeff Peterson, G, Iowa to Arkansas
Point guard averaged 10.6 points per game while shooting 39.7 percent from 3-point range as a starter at Iowa two years ago. Peterson and 2-guard Rotnei Clarke should form one of the most prolific shooting backcourts in the SEC in ’10-11.
Eniel Polynice, G, Ole Miss to Seton Hall
Only has one season remaining — assuming the NCAA grants him immediate eligibility — but the versatile swingman will help Kevin Williard’s first Seton Hall club. Florida native can score (8.8 ppg at Ole Miss last year), rebound (4.1 rpg) and distribute (3.9 apg).
James Rahon, G, Santa Clara to San Diego State
San Diego native returns home to give the Aztecs some much-needed help on the perimeter. He averaged 11.3 points and shot 40.7 percent from three in his only season at Santa Clara.
Gerald Robinson Jr., G, Tennessee State to Georgia
Big-time scorer in the OVC — he averaged 17.8 points as a sophomore at Tennessee State — joins a Georgia club on the rise in the SEC East. Will team with Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie to give the Bulldogs three potent scorers.
Chris Smith, G, Manhattan to Louisville
Shooting guard averaged 13.4 points and 5.7 rebounds as a sophomore for the Jaspers but shot only .362 from the field and .288 from three. His shot selection will have to improve at Louisville.
Malik Story, G, Indiana to Nevada
Swingman spent one season at IU, where he averaged 5.9 points in 17.9 minutes on Tom Crean’s first Hoosier club. Will play major minutes for a Nevada team with many holes to fill.
Hank Thorns, G, Virginia Tech to TCU
Diminutive point guard didn’t put up big numbers but averaged over 20 minutes per game in his two seasons with the Hokies. Will be expected to slide into the starting lineup for Jim Christian’s Horned Frogs.
Malcolm White, F, Ole Miss to LSU
Baton Rouge native returns home after two seasons at SEC West rival Ole Miss. Played a key role on the ’08-09 Rebs, averaging 7.2 points and 5.7 boards in 24.7 minutes of action. Should fit in nicely on an LSU team looking for big bodies.
Nick Williams, G, Indiana to Ole Miss
With Terrico White off to the NBA, Williams, a shooting guard from Mobile, Ala., will have an opportunity to play meaningful minutes in the Rebels’ backcourt. He averaged 8.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in his only season at IU.
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
He inherited a tough situation, but the numbers aren’t good for Cronin, a UC alum and former Bearcat assistant in the Bob Huggins era. In four seasons, UC is 25–45 in the Big East without an NCAA Tournament appearance. His ’09-10 club, featuring Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson in the backcourt, finished with a disappointing 7–11 mark in league play.
Ed DeChellis, Penn State
Penn State is among the most difficult jobs in a Big Six conference, but at some point you have to break through and make the NCAA Tournament. Hasn’t happened yet for DeChellis, who is 32–86 in the Big Ten in seven seasons with the Nittany Lions. His ’08-09 team came painfully close (10–8 in the league), but last season Penn State finished last in the Big Ten with a 3–16 record.
Paul Hewitt, Georgia Tech
Despite having a front line with two 2010 NBA Draft picks (Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal), a former McDonald’s All-American starting at point guard (Iman Shumpert) and two freshman guards ranked among the top 50 recruits in the nation, Hewitt still failed to coax a winning ACC record from the ’09-10 Yellow Jackets. He now has had one winning league record (9–7 in ’03-04) in 10 seasons at Georgia Tech.
Karl Hobbs, George Washington
Hobbs guided the Colonials to three straight NCAA Tournaments (’05-07), but George Washington is 15–33 in the Atlantic 10 over the past three seasons. Hobbs survived an academic scandal at GW — he recruited several players from “diploma mills” — but will have a difficult time surviving another losing record in league play.
Pat Knight, Texas Tech
Knight’s numbers aren’t good — the Raiders are 7–25 in the Big 12 in his two full seasons — but his ’10-11 club is well-positioned for more success. Five of Texas Tech’s top six scorers are back, including guard John Roberson (14.5 ppg) and swingman Mike Singletary (15.0 ppg). The pressure will be on Knight to make this team relevant in the Big 12.
Sidney Lowe, NC State
The struggles on the court continued — the Pack went 5–11 in ACC play to drop Lowe’s record to 20–44 in four seasons — but a highly regarded recruiting class played a key role in the school’s decision not to make a change. Lowe signed two top 25 national recruits (forward C.J. Leslie and guard Ryan Harrow) and re-signed ’09 recruit Lorenzo Brown, a guard who failed to meet academic requirements last season.
John Pelphrey, Arkansas
Pelphrey reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season at Arkansas (‘07-08), but in the last two years the former Kentucky guard is 28–34 overall and 9–23 in the SEC at a school where it is difficult not to enjoy success. The program has also come under fire for several off-the-court issues, most notably an incident at a campus fraternity last August that led to the suspension of five players. Pelphrey is on the verge of signing a top-five recruiting class, which should be buy him some time, but the folks in Arkansas expect to win at a high level.
Doc Sadler, Nebraska
Sadler is well-liked and highly respected, but the Cornhuskers are 23–41 in the Big 12 in his four seasons in Lincoln. Last year’s club slumped to 2–14 in the league, the worst at the school since the ’62-63 Huskers went 1–13 in the Big Eight.
Tad Boyle, Colorado
Boyle’s four-year run at Northern Colorado culminated with a 25–8 record in 2009-10 that featured a 12–4 mark in the Big Sky. UNC joined the Big Sky in ’06-07, Boyle’s first season, and improved its league record from 2–14 to 6–10 to 8–8 to 12–4. With Cory Higgins and Alec Burks, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year last season, back in Boulder, Boyle and the Buffs could surprise in ’10-11.
Tony Barbee, Auburn
The former John Calipari aide did an outstanding job in four years at UTEP, guiding the Miners to an overall mark of 82–52 and a 39–25 record in Conference USA. His final UTEP club went 26–7 and won the league with a 15–1 record. Barbee is known as an outstanding recruiter, and he made a big splash at Auburn in the spring, signing Luke Cothron, a top-50 national recruit who also had offers from Kentucky, Tennessee and UConn.
Brad Brownell, Clemson
Brownell is far from a household name, but he has been a very successful — and highly respected — head coach for the past eight seasons, four at UNC Wilmington and four at Wright State. In those eight seasons, he has never had a losing conference record and has taken three teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Donnie Jones, UCF
Jones, a Billy Donovan disciple, is returning to the Sunshine State after three seasons as the head coach at Marshall, a C-USA rival of UCF. He went 55–41 overall and 26–22 in league play at Marshall. The Thundering Herd’s 11–5 C-USA mark in ’09-10 was the school’s first winning conference record since its days in the MAC in 2000-01.
Oliver Purnell, DePaul
Purnell has never been known for his Xs and Os, but the guy has won a lot of games in his 22 years as a head coach. And there has been a consistent theme during his stops at Radford, Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson: His program improves each season. He went 12–2 in the Big South in his final season at Radford; 21–7 in the CAA over his last two years at ODU; 24–8 in the A-10 in his last two seasons at Dayton; and his final three Clemson teams went a combined 28–20 in the difficult ACC.
Perception is reality. Over the last 10 years, these eight are the nation’s biggest ...
The Data: Boston College’s record over the past 10 years might surprise even the most knowledgeable college basketball observers. The Eagles have made the NCAA Tournament seven times and have a record of 94–66 in league games playing in arguably the two toughest conferences in the nation. They went 54–26 in the Big East (’01-05) and are 40–40 since joining the ACC prior to the ’05-06 season.
Reasonable Expectations: BC has a decent basketball tradition, but the Eagles made the NCAA Tournament only three times from 1986-2000. The school has a nice on-campus facility, but the 8,606-seat Conte Forum is rarely filled to capacity and lacks a big-time atmosphere when the opponent is not named Duke or North Carolina. Don’t expect more than three or four NCAA Tournaments out of Boston College over the next 10 years.
The Data: Mississippi State has been the top program in the SEC West over the last 10 years, compiling a 92–68 record in league play with five division titles. Alabama is next on the list with an 82–78 record. The Bulldogs have been to the NCAA Tournament six times since 2001 but have not advanced past the second round, despite being a No. 2 seed in 2004 and a No. 3 seed in ’02.
Reasonable Expectations: Mississippi State had a good run in the late 1950s and early ’60s under Babe McCarthy, but the program was a non-factor in the SEC from the late ’60s through the early ’90s. State has solid support when the team is winning and a decent in-state recruiting base, but conventional wisdom suggests that both Arkansas and LSU, and probably even Alabama, should be winning at a higher level than MSU in the SEC West.
The Data: Pittsburgh has been to the NCAA Tournament nine straight seasons after making it only six times in the first 16 years after the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Panthers have been a top-4 seed seven times during this span, including the school’s first-ever No. 1 seed in 2009. Over the past 10 seasons, Pitt’s record in Big East play is an astounding 116–50 with only one losing record — 7–9 in 2001.
Reasonable Expectations: Pittsburgh had a solid basketball program prior to Ben Howland’s arrival in 1999, but even the most optimistic Panther fan could not have expected so much success over the past decade. This is a program that should be a regular NCAA Tournament participant and in the hunt for an occasional Big East crown, but there is no doubt that 116 Big East wins and nine NCAA Tournament appearances in a 10-year stand constitutes overachievement.
The Data: The numbers that Stew Morrill has compiled over the past 10 years are staggering: 251–80 overall and 128–40 in league play (Big West, ’01-05; WAC, ’06-10). Over the last decade, his teams have averaged over 25 wins per season, and only one time, in ’07, have the Aggies won fewer than 11 conference games. They have played in the NCAA Tournament six times (with only one win) and the NIT four times.
Reasonable Expectations: Utah State has a solid tradition in basketball, but the record over the past 10 years is extremely impressive. Keep in mind that this school is a distant third behind Utah and BYU on the food chain in its own state. Granted, the competition isn’t always fierce, but 25 wins per seasons is quite an accomplishment.
The Data: The early part of the decade wasn’t kind to Virginia Tech (17–47 record from ’01-04 in the Big East), but the Hokies have been consistently strong since moving to the ACC prior to the 2004-05 season. Over that span, only three teams in the conference have had a better record in league play — North Carolina, Duke and Maryland. Virginia Tech, perpetually on the bubble, has made it to only one NCAA Tournament despite winning at least eight ACC games four times.
Reasonable Expectations: Let’s be honest: There were no expectations for Virginia Tech basketball when the school made the move to the ACC. This was all about football. But the basketball program has more than held its own in the mighty ACC, with a 48–48 record in league games over that span. And as long as Seth Greenberg is in charge, Hokie basketball should remain relevant in the nation’s most prestigious league.
The Data: West Virginia has been a consistent winner in the Big East over the past 10 years (83–83 in league play including a 1–15 mark in ’02), but where the Mountaineers have made their mark is in the NCAA Tournament. WVU has earned five NCAA invites (all in the last six seasons) with four trips to the Sweet 16 or beyond. In ’05, under John Beilein, the Mountaineers lost to Louisville in the Regional Finals, and last season, with WVU alum Bob Huggins in charge, they broke through with a trip to the Final Four.
Reasonable Expectations: West Virginia has enjoyed pockets of big-time success in basketball over the years, but the school was not expected to be a major player when it joined the Big East for basketball in the mid-1990s. Any time the Mountaineers are competing with the likes of UConn, Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, etc., for supremacy in league play, it’s fair to say that the program is overachieving.
The Data: The Badgers won the national title in 1941 but proceeded to make the NCAA Tournament only one time over the next five-plus decades. But since the late 1990s, Wisconsin has been a fixture in the field, with 12 straight appearances dating back to 1999. The Badgers’ run of success in the Big Ten has been quite impressive: Their 116–50 mark is the best over the past 10 years (one win better than Michigan State), and they have won at least 10 league games eight times over that span.
Reasonable Expectations: Wisconsin was arguably the biggest overachiever of the past 10 years, but the program has reached the point where we need to reassess the expectations. The Badgers have a tremendous home court advantage — they are 170–18 at the 12-year-old Kohl Center — and boast one of the game’s finest coaches in Bo Ryan. They might not recruit at an elite level — UW has signed one McDonald’s All-American (Brian Butch) since 1993 — but the program is hardly lacking in top-flight talent. As long as Ryan is in charge, Wisconsin should remain among the top programs in the Big Ten.
The Data: Xavier leads all non-Big 6 teams not named Gonzaga with nine NCAA Tournament appearances over the last 10 years. In seven of those seasons, the Musketeers have earned a single-digit seed, including two No. 3s (’03, ’08) and a No. 4 (’09). And unlike Gonzaga, they have enjoyed tremendous success in March, with four trips to the Sweet 16 and two trips to the Elite Eight. The X-Men have dominated the A-10 as well, with a staggering 122–38 (.763) record dating back to the ’01 season.
Reasonable Expectations: Xavier has everything in place — tradition, support, facilities — to win at a high level, but it is still very difficult for any school, let alone a team from outside the Big 6, to win with such consistency. This program has clearly overachieved over the past 10 years.
The Data: Arkansas was one of the most consistent programs in the nation throughout the 1980s and ’90s, advancing to the NCAA Tournament an amazing 22 times in 25 years from 1977–2001, but the Razorbacks have been quite ordinary — and that is being kind — over the past 10 years. The Hogs are 30 games under .500 in the SEC (65–95) and have made the NCAA Tournament four times, with the high-water mark being a No. 7 seed in 2001.
Reasonable Expectations: Arkansas should be the top program in the SEC West and play in the NCAA Tournament on an annual basis. The Razorbacks have everything in place to be a consistent power — a tremendous home court environment (when the team is playing well), outstanding facilities, tradition (1994 national champions, runners-up in ’95), a national brand and the necessary commitment from the University.
The Data: Paul Hewitt has been the boss at Georgia Tech since the 2000-01 season, and the numbers aren’t pretty — an ACC record of 67–93 with only one winning league record (9–7 in ’03-04). The Jackets have made the NCAA Tournament five times but advanced past the first weekend only one time, in ’04 en route to the national title game. Georgia Tech has not had much trouble attracting elite talent; the school has signed six McDonald’s All-Americans over the past 10 seasons, trailing only Duke and North Carolina among ACC schools. Still, the Yellow Jackets have not been able to win on a consistent basis.
Reasonable Expectations: There is a reason Hewitt has come under fire from Georgia Tech fans in recent years. For a school located in the heart of Atlanta — one of the top talent-producing metro areas in the nation — the Yellow Jackets’ record over the past decade simply is not good enough. Georgia Tech should be in the NCAA Tournament almost every season, and a winning record in league play should not be a once-in-a-decade occurrence.
The Data: Michigan has played in the NCAA Tournament only one time in the past 10 years, and that was as a No. 10 seed in 2009. That is shocking for a school that won a national championship in 1989 and played in the national title game in both ’92 and ’93. The Wolverines’ 68–98 record in the Big Ten from 2001-10 ranks ninth in the league, ahead of only Penn State and Northwestern.
Reasonable Expectations: There are some issues with Michigan basketball — the facilities are sub-par and support is not great — but this is still one of only 16 programs that can claim a national title in the past 25 years. The school has a strong national brand and can attract top-flight talent from around the country. Michigan should be an NCAA team at least three out of every five years and be a team that is in the top half of the Big Ten standings more times than not.
The Data: Nebraska is the only school in the Big 12 that has not played in the NCAA Tournament in the past 10 years, and it’s also the only school that has failed to have at least one winning league season over that span. (Colorado has three, Iowa State and Baylor two each.) The Cornhuskers have been competitive at times — they went 7–9 four times and 8–8 once — but have been unable to break through.
Reasonable Expectations: In a classic example of “Be careful what you wish for,” Nebraska fired Danny Nee after the 1999-2000 season ended with an 11–19 overall record and a 4–12 mark in the Big 12. But Nee had guided the Huskers to five NCAA Tournament appearances during an eight-year span in the ’90s, and the school’s record during the first three seasons of Big 12 play was 27–21. Since Nee’s departure, NU is 59–101 in the Big 12 with zero trips to the NCAAs. So what’s reasonable for this program as it moves to the Big Ten? Tough to expect too much success out of a football school with such a weak local recruiting base, but an NCAA Tournament berth every four or five years seems to be a decent goal.
The Data: Northwestern is the only school in a Big 6 conference that has never appeared in the NCAA Tournament, so the Wildcats have obviously missed the Field of 64/65 in each of the past 10 years. Their Big Ten record since 2001 is 51–115 with only one non-losing season — an 8–8 mark in 2004.
Reasonable Expectations: We’re not asking for much here — one NCAA Tournament appearance every five or 10 years. Maybe a winning record in the Big Ten every once in a while. Is that really too much to ask? Yes, the school has almost no tradition, very little support and faces some academic hurdles, but other prestigious private schools — Duke, Notre Dame, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest — have managed to enjoy varying levels of success.
The Data: Rutgers has been the worst program in the Big East over the past 10 years, with a record of 44–122 in league games and no appearances in the NCAA Tournament. During this span, the Scarlet Knights have won four or fewer Big East games six times, including two in both ’05 and ’09.
Reasonable Expectations: Rutgers lacks basketball tradition and faces an uphill battle in the brutal Big East, but the school has a tremendous recruiting base in the metropolitan New York area. And unlike Big East brethren St. John’s and Seton Hall, Rutgers has an on-campus facility, the 8,000-seat RAC. So does this mean RU should be an emerging power on the East Coast? No, but the school should at least be relevant in the Big East.
The Data: It’s been a forgettable past 10 years for South Carolina basketball. The Gamecocks have made one trip to the NCAA Tournament, as a No. 10 seed in 2004 — when they scored a total of 43 points in a 16-point loss to Memphis — and have had only one winning season in the SEC, 10–6 in ’09. Their record in the league was 63–97, the worst among Eastern Division schools.
Reasonable Expectations: South Carolina is far from basketball royalty — after all, the school hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973 — but it’s reasonable to expect a major state university that plays in an 18,000-seat arena to: a) make the NCAAs more than one time every 10 years and b) average more than 6.3 conference wins per season.
The Data: The Cavaliers reached the NCAA Tournament 13 times in a 17-year span from 1981-1997 but have basically been irrelevant in the ACC over the past decade. They have made the tournament only two times (’01, ’07) — fewest among the pre-expansion ACC teams — and have a 64–96 record in league games. And here’s a stat that won’t sit well with Virginia faithful: Since joining the ACC six years ago, Virginia Tech has averaged eight league wins per season, while Virginia, with far more tradition, has averaged six.
Reasonable Expectations: Duke and North Carolina are obviously the top two programs in the ACC, but there is no reason Virginia should not be in that second tier of teams that is consistently winning 9-to-11 ACC games per season and advancing to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis. With a sparkling new facility — which opened for the 2006-07 season — and an outstanding young coach (Tony Bennett), Cavalier basketball should be a factor in the ACC throughout the 2010s.
By Charean Williams
He has thrown more interceptions (41) than touchdowns (36). He has completed only 58.2 percent of his passes. He has a career passer rating of 73.7.
But for everything he supposedly hasn’t done, can’t do or will never do as a passer, Vince Young has done one thing right: He has won.
The Tennessee Titans quarterback is 28–15 in his career as a starter. His .651 winning percentage is one of the best among active NFL quarterbacks, right up there with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.
It’s the same thing he did at the University of Texas, where he went 30–2 in three years as the starter.
“There are so many doubters, and they’re still doubting now,” Young said. “A lot of people don’t even mention that [winning percentage]. They always mention all the other stuff. That’s why I’ve continued to stay focused and use that type of things as motivation to keep us going on with success for my teammates.”
Still, there remain questions about his commitment, his leadership and his maturity.
This summer, Young was involved in a fight at a Dallas strip club and was issued a Class C Assault citation.
“I was disappointed, but I’ve moved on from that,” Young said. “Things happen, and it happened.”
Against the Steelers in Week 2, Young was benched in the fourth quarter of a 19–11 loss. He threw two interceptions and fumbled twice before being replaced by Kerry Collins.
The Tennessean later reported that Young missed or arrived late for at least two meetings the week of that game.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher, though, said this week that Young’s preparation has improved since he entered the NFL as the No. 3 overall pick in 2006.
“He’s improved over the last couple of years, certainly,” Fisher said. “I think it started with his opportunity to watch Kerry win 10 straight [in 2008] and having to prepare himself to play at a moment’s notice as a backup. Through that experience, I think he’s really improved. He works hard at what he’s doing.
“He just had a moment. It’s one of those things. I’ve said this numerous times, I made a decision just as I would to make a decision to go for it on 4th-and-two.”
Young, 27, is a better quarterback now, facing the Cowboys, than he was when he made his first start, also against the Cowboys, in 2006. He is completing 66.2 percent of his passes, though he has had only 71 attempts, and for the first time, he could have more touchdowns than interceptions in a season.
“Whatever it takes to win a ball game,” Young said.
That’s the one thing he’s always been good at.
Clayton Having a Blast
It didn’t take long for Mark Clayton to become Sam Bradford’s new best friend. They both went to Oklahoma, after all, though at different times.
Clayton, the 22nd overall pick in 2005, was traded by the Ravens to the Rams only six days before the season opener. He became Bradford’s favorite target overnight.
“I was actually talking to Sam about [being traded to St. Louis] in the offseason,” Clayton said. “We clowned around about it. Man, for it to actually happen was surprising and very exciting.”
Clayton was the target on 14 of Bradford’s passes last week and had five catches for 72 yards. He leads the team with 22 receptions for 300 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s good to be in a position where an organization trusts you,” Clayton said. “Just knowing what you’re capable of using your God-given talents, to be able to go out week in and week out and demonstrate the work and diligence and everything you put into it on the field.”
The Rams are one of the league’s most surprising teams, with their 2-2 record tied for the lead atop the NFC West with the Cardinals and the Seahawks.
Clayton, a free agent after this season, hopes to stay in St. Louis long enough to help the Rams completely turn things around.
“I love it here. Hopefully, they like me enough to stay here,” he said.
Seahawks rookie safety Earl Thomas is all hands. He has three interceptions in four games, tying him for the league lead with another rookie, Eagles safety Nate Allen, and Panthers safety Charles Godfrey.
Thomas also is third on the team with 23 tackles.
“As a rookie, I didn’t want to be the weakest link on the team,” Thomas said. “I’ve just been working hard to correct my mistakes and try to get better.”
ª Eagles left tackle Jason Peters was called for two of the team’s four holding penalties last week. That makes three holding penalties and a false start on Peters in four games. In 20 games with the Eagles since signing a six-year, $60 million contract last year, Peters has been called for 14 penalties.
• Redskins nosetackle Albert Haynesworth looked more like an All-Pro than Just a Guy last week as he had four tackles, one for a loss, and a pass defensed against the Eagles. He also drew a couple of holding penalties in roughly 30 snaps.
• Running back Cadillac Williams acknowledged the Bucs may be readying to move on without him. He is splitting carries with rookie LeGarrette Blount and Kareem Huggins. Williams, who has undergone two major knee surgeries, is off to one of his worst starts in his six seasons with 139 yards on 55 carries, a 2.5-yard average. Williams will become a free agent after the season.
• Mike Tolbert has become the Chargers’ lead back, though coach Norv Turner insists on calling rookie Ryan Mathews by that title. Tolbert is producing like a No. 1 back going for 100 yards on 16 carries last week.
• The Seahawks love what Justin Forsett has brought to their running game with 215 yards on 51 carries, a 4.2 yard average. But Forsett is only 5-8, 194 pounds, which is why they traded for Marshawn Lynch, who is 5-11 and 214 pounds. Forsett, who played with Lynch at Cal and had him as a groomsman in his wedding last summer, will remain the starter at least in the short term.
• Ken Whisenhunt probably figures he has nothing to lose by starting an undrafted free agent this week. The Cardinals had only 124 yards on offense last week, including only 23 in the second half. The Cardinals can see what they have in Max Hall and another rookie, John Skelton, before the 2011 draft.
• The Ravens are 1–3 in the next game following a win over Pittsburgh. When the Ravens beat the Steelers in overtime last season, they lost at Green Bay by 13 points.
• The Titans have had a league-high six personal fouls called on them this year.
• Denver quarterback Kyle Orton has thrown for 1,419 yards, the second-most passing yards through the first four games of the regular season in NFL history. Only Kurt Warner (1,557 in 2000) had more.
• The Lions have allowed 24 points off turnovers in four games. They have been outscored by a total of 24 points in the four losses.
• The Texans never had a winning record on the road until last season when they were 5–3. Now they have a four-game winning streak away from home. Since the start of last season, they are 7–3 on the road. They are 9-4 over their past 13 games.
• Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and receiver Reggie Wayne have combined for 9,703 career yards, moving past Buffalo’s Jim Kelly and Andre Reed (9,538) into second place on the NFL’s all-time list for yards by a quarterback-receiver duo. Manning and Wayne now trail Manning and former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison (12,766).
• The Dolphins have had four punts blocked since the start of the preseason.
• Last season, the Saints won their first six games by double-digit margins and outscored those six opponents by a total of 111 points. They have won three games this season by a total of 10 points.
• Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb leads the league with four completions of at least 50 yards. They have gone to four targets — Santana Moss, Joey Galloway, Fred Davis and Anthony Armstrong.
Florida State (+6.5) at Miami
Someday soon, this might once again be one the marquee games of the season in college football. But for now, it’s just another matchup of two solid teams hoping to pick up a key win in conference play. Miami, which has won at Pitt and Clemson in consecutive weeks, is probably a bit closer to returning to elite status, but Florida State has played well over the past three weeks. After getting torched by Oklahoma for 47 points, the FSU defense has given up a total of 24 points in wins over BYU, Wake Forest and Virginia. The challenge, however, will be far more difficult this weekend.
Miami 30, Florida State 21
Michigan State (+4.5) at Michigan
For the first time since 1999 — when Nick Saban and Lloyd Carr were roaming the sidelines — both Michigan State and Michigan are undefeated heading into the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Michigan continues to be led by the brilliant play of sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson, who leads the nation in rushing (181.0 ypg) and ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency. Michigan State has been rock-solid on offense this season, both in the passing game (240.4 ypg) and running attack (220.2 ypg). That type of balance should give the suspect Wolverines defense a lot of trouble, but Robinson and the Michigan offense will score enough to win.
Michigan 40, Michigan State 34
Alabama (-6.5) at South Carolina
Alabama completed an impressive two-game run by winning at Arkansas, 24–20, and dominating Florida in Tuscaloosa, 31–6. Now, the Crimson Tide must get it revved up for a third straight week as they head to South Carolina in what is shaping up to be the Gamecocks’ biggest home game in several years. This is Steve Spurrier’s best team at South Carolina, but the Gamecocks will need to pay flawlessly on offense to hang with the nation’s No. 1 team. Alabama makes very few mistakes — in all three phases — and has been especially strong on defense this season. Consider the following: They have allowed a total of 29 points against Penn State, Arkansas and Florida.
Alabama 28, South Carolina 14
By Ralph Vacchiano
It was a risk when the St. Louis Rams drafted Sam Bradford, and they knew it. He had a surgically repaired shoulder that scared some in the NFL. It didn’t survive his collegiate career. And now he was going to be a sitting duck for fiery NFL defenders on a bad team, behind a bad offensive line.
Yet four games into his rookie season, Bradford has taken the hits — 10 sacks so far — and hasn’t shown any sign that he’s bothered at all. He’s already doubled the Rams’ win total from a year ago; the team’s 2–2 record is good for a first-place tie at the quarter pole of the season.
Hard as it is to believe, the playoffs don’t seem out of reach at all.
“I just think that the players that are playing with him are confident in him,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo told reporters in St. Louis this week. “And I think that gets him a little bit more confident. He’s a great competitor, and that filters through the whole offense.”
There was no doubt coming out of Oklahoma that Bradford was talented. He was the consensus choice for the No. 1 overall pick and, some believed, the only true franchise quarterback in the entire 2009 draft. But that’s not always a guarantee of success. For every Peyton Manning at the top of the draft there’s a JaMarcus Russell.
And for many first-round quarterbacks — even those that get picked No. 1 overall — it takes years to find their NFL groove.
Maybe that will eventually be the case for Bradford, too, but he certainly seems to have hit something of a groove early. He’s completed 58.2 percent of his passes (92-of-158) for 944 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions — numbers that may not be great, but they aren’t bad at all.
And Spagnuolo hadn’t exactly been protecting him either. Bradford threw 55 times in his first NFL game — completing 32 with a touchdown and three interceptions. He then settled down somewhat and averaged 34 attempts per game in his last three starts, completing 58.3 percent of those throws with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Rams, the worst team in the NFL for much of the last three seasons, lost their first two games by a total of six points. Then they won their next two — at home over the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks — by a total of 31.
Spagnuolo knew Bradford was good. But he couldn’t possibly have expected such wonderful early returns.
“I don’t think any of us ever know until you get into a real, live regular-season game,” he said. “We certainly all saw hints of it in the preseason. And we were hopeful that when the speed of the game got jacked up in the regular season he’d speed up with it.
“And he has.”
The only question about Bradford now is: How long will this last? Is he the real deal and a quarterback capable of leading the lowly Rams to respectability — or even better, to the playoffs in his rookie season? And even if he is, will his shoulder hold up when he’s on his way to a 40-sack season?
“To be honest, I feel very fortunate right now,” Bradford said. “I really haven’t gotten beat up. My body feels great. Other than a couple of bumps and bruises there’s really nothing out of the ordinary that’s sore.”
It’s early, of course. But for now, there’s no reason for the city of St. Louis to worry. After three miserable seasons they might as well enjoy the performance as long as it lasts — no matter how long it actually does.
Teams of the Week
Alabama — Just in case there were any doubters, Alabama made another statement Saturday night, cruising past Florida, 31–6, with alarming ease. This game was all about efficiency in the red zone: Alabama scored on all four trips inside the 20-yard line, with three TDs and one field goal, while the Gators went 1-of-4 in the red zone, with one field goal. Nick Saban’s club is the no-doubt-about-it No. 1 team in the nation.
Washington — The Huskies became the first team to beat USC in consecutive seasons since Kansas State pulled the trick in 2001-02. Washington was led by senior quarterback Jake Locker, who bounced back from a nightmare performance against Nebraska by throwing for over 300 yards and rushing for over 100. With home games against Arizona State and Oregon State looming, the Huskies have an opportunity to be a factor in the Pac-10 race early in the season.
Utah State — The Aggies snapped a 10-game losing streak to BYU, rolling past the Cougars 31–16 on national television Friday night. Utah State quarterback Diondre Borel, who threw for 341 yards in a seven-point loss to Okahoma in Week 1, was a very efficient 10-of-13 for 192 yards and one touchdown. The Aggies also picked up 242 yards rushing on 59 carries. It was Utah State’s first non-conference win against an FBS school since a 31–24 victory over UNL in September 2005.
Disappointments of the Weekend
Rutgers — The Scarlet Knights’ 2010 season took a very bad turn last weekend with a stunning 17–14 loss at home to Tulane. With quarterback Tom Savage knocked out with a hand injury (to go along with a rib injury), freshman Chas Dodd was forced into meaningful action for the first time this season. He completed only 13-of-29 attempts for 176 yards with one TD and one interception. Lost in the wreckage of the Knights’ second straight home loss was a banner performance from sophomore utilityman Mohamed Sanu, who rushed for 121 yards on nine carries and caught five passes for 70 yards.
Georgia — The Bulldogs are in the midst of the school’s first four-game losing streak since the final four games of the 1990 season. The latest setback, 29–27 at Colorado, was arguably the most painful. Trailing by two with under two minutes remaining, Georgia lost the ball on a fumble at the Colorado 30-yard line, well within field goal range for All-SEC kicker Blair Walsh. The Dawgs’ defense is taking plenty of heat, but the offense is averaging only 17.3 points against non-Sun Belt conference competition.
Texas A&M — The Aggies had a chance to make a statement that there was, in fact, progress being made in Year 3 of the Mike Sherman era. Didn’t happen. Despite rolling up 535 yards of offense, Texas A&M dropped a 38–35 decision at Oklahoma State Thursday night. One loss does not make a season, but it’s clear that the Aggies aren’t quite ready to be considered a contender in the Big 12.
Player of the Week — Denard Robinson, Michigan
Once again, “Shoelace” could not be tied up, as the Wolverines’ Heisman Trophy candidate completed 10-of-16 passes for 277 yards, three TDs and zero INTs through the air, while tucking the ball 19 times for 217 yards and two scores on the ground — including the game-winning TD with 17 seconds left — during a 42–35 win at Indiana.
Freshman of the Week — James White, Wisconsin
It wasn’t a great week for freshmen around the nation, but White was solid, rushing for 99 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries in the Badgers’ 34–24 loss at Michigan State. White has 244 yards and six touchdowns over the past two games.
• LSU has only given up three touchdowns in its last four games, all against BCS-conference opponents.
• Six of Vanderbilt’s eight second half drives went for three yards or fewer in the Commodores’ loss at UConn.
• Duke has lost eight straight games against FBS competition dating back to last season.
• Iowa State scored 24 points in the second quarter and 28 in the fourth quarter in its 52–38 win over Texas Tech. The 52 points were the most ever scored by the Cyclones in a Big 12 game and the most they have scored in a conference game since beating Kansas State, 55–22, in a Big Eight showdown in 1972.
• Notre Dame held Boston College tailback Montel Harris to 28 yards on 15 carries in a 31–13 win in Chestnut Hill.
• UCLA has averaged 322.3 yards rushing in its three-game winning streak over Houston, Texas and Washington State.
• Three teams are averaging over 230 yards passing and rushing — Michigan, Oregon and USC.
• Oregon State still has not committed a turnover this season.
• Northwestern has already missed four extra points this season.
• Western Kentucky has only forced eight punts in four games.
By Charean Williams
Michael Vick has been better this season. He’s also been better than good.
In his career before this season, Vick had a 38–28–1 record, a 53.7 completion percentage, a 75.9 passer rating and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt.
This season, he is 2–0 as a starter, with a passer rating of 110.2, a completion percentage of 60.7, and he is averaging 8.4 yards per attempt. He has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Expected to be Kevin Kolb’s backup this season, Vick is starring.
“I always knew I could play better,” Vick said. “My decision-making has gotten better. I’m more in control of the offense. As the weeks go on, you get... more in sync. I felt good in the past throwing the football, but we throw more here so you get into a rhythm a little quicker. [My hot start is] kind of surprising, but at the same time, I always believed in myself and my abilities. I know what I can do if given the opportunity."
The Eagles traded Donovan McNabb to Washington in the offseason and handed Kolb the starting job. But Kolb suffered a concussion in the season opener, giving Vick his long-awaited second chance.
McNabb returns to Philadelphia on Sunday to play Vick, whom he mentored last season.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Vick said. “It’s crazy the way things happen. Sometimes things fall into place. I think everything happens for a reason. Everything I [saw] Don doing [last year] I tried to emulate. It was great playing with Donovan. Everything Andy [Reid] tells me to do, I do. I see how it’s paid off for Donovan and that’s why he’s been so successful. I want the same thing.”
Johnson making good
Derrick Johnson has made good on his second chance.
The Kansas City Chiefs linebacker was the subject of trade rumors last year when he got into Todd Haley’s doghouse. But Johnson worked his way out of it — literally — and now is starting again.
He has 25 tackles and a forced fumble for the undefeated Chiefs.
“[Starting] means a lot to me,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “I have a lot of goals — team goals and personal goals — and one of those goals that I had to put on my list that I usually don’t is starting. I put on my list to work hard and to get that starting spot, and I got it. Now, I’m just trying to be a consistent player week in and week out and help this team win games. That’s the main thing: If I can help this team win games, then I’ve done my job.”
The Chiefs, then coached by Dick Vermeil, made the former University of Texas standout the 15th overall draft choice in 2005. Herman Edwards moved Johnson from outside linebacker to inside linebacker in 2008, hoping for more productivity.
Last season, Johnson wasn’t consistent enough for Haley and was benched. He started only three games and was inactive for one. When he did play, Johnson played mostly on passing downs.
Johnson, who started 58 of 59 games in his first four seasons, had taken starting for granted until he wasn’t.
“It was tough. It was real tough,” Johnson said. “I think I handled it really well. I was strong-minded the whole time. It actually developed me into a better person on and off the field, having gone through it.
“I’ve always started my whole life, going back to Pee Wee. Not starting was just uncomfortable; it was probably a little inconvenient for me. In life, you’ve got to take situations and make it positive. Even though I still wanted to play last year, I’m a much stronger player this year because of it. Everything’s worked out for the good.”
Johnson returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a season-ending victory over the Broncos, and then won a starting job over Demorrio Williams in training camp.
Johnson, 27, said he is in his “prime right now” and more prepared than ever to prove the Chiefs right about him. He has “Pro Bowl” on his to-do list for this season.
Florida (+7.5) at Alabama
Alabama survived its first scare of the season last Saturday, rallying for an impressive 24–20 win at Arkansas. The Tide showed their championship mettle by outscoring the Hogs 10–0 in the fourth quarter on the strength of some dominant running by Mark Ingram. Florida is coming off by far its best offensive effort of the season. With Wildcat quarterback Trey Burton leading the way with six touchdowns, the Gators rolled to a 48–14 win over Kentucky. This is still not a great offensive team, but it’s getting better each week, and Burton’s increased role will give Nick Saban and Alabama something to worry about this week.
Alabama 24, Florida 20
Texas (+3.5) vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas)
When is the last time there has been so little buzz nationally for the Red River Shootout? Well, that’s what happens when one team is coming off a 34–12 loss at home to UCLA and the other team has defeated Utah State, Air Force and Cincinnati by an average of four points per game. Texas’ struggles are very surprising. The Longhorns continue to have difficulty running the football, and Garrett Gilbert has been average at best in his first season as the starting quarterback. The big issue last week, however, was the run defense; UCLA ripped UT apart for 264 yards on 56 carries. Oklahoma, too, has been mediocre on both sides of the ball. The Sooners rank 97th in the nation in total defense and have been equally bad against the run (93rd) and the pass (90th). Texas, however, might not be good enough to expose the Sooners’ deficiencies.
Oklahoma 28, Texas 21
Miami (-3.5) at Clemson
We’ve been teased by Miami in the past — remember last year’s 2–0 start that feature wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech — but the Hurricanes looked very good in their 31–3 win at Pittsburgh last Thursday night. Clemson had a week off after its emotional overtime loss at Auburn. Quarterback Kyle Parker, who labored through the Auburn game with a bad back, should be good to go. The Tigers are a tough to team to get a read on; they lost to the only good team they have played (Auburn) and beat two teams bad teams (North Texas and Presbyterian). This is the week Clemson proves it will be a legitimate contender in the ACC.
Clemson 24, Miami 21
Penn State (+7) at Iowa
Penn State’s last trip to Iowa City in 2008 did not go very well. The 9–0 Nittany Lions, ranked No. 3 in the nation, had their sights set on the BCS national title game, but the 5–4 Hawkeyes, fresh off a loss to Illinois, stunned Penn State 24–23 on a last-second field goal. Neither team is in the national title hunt this year, but this is still a very important game for a couple teams that figure to be jockeying for position at the top of the Big Ten standings. Penn State has a ‘better’ loss on its resume — at No. 1 Alabama (Iowa lost at Arizona) — but the Hawkeyes have been the more impressive team.
Iowa 28, Penn State 14
Wisconsin (-2) at Michigan State
Both teams are 4–0 and ranked in the national polls, but Wisconsin is still a bit of a mystery. The Badgers struggled in the first half before pulling away from UNLV in the opener, and then beat a bad San Jose State team by only 13 in Madison and held on to defeat Arizona State by only one point the following week. This is a good team that hasn’t played its best football yet. Michigan State is also 4–0, and the Spartans have been getting it done on the ground. With Larry Caper slowed by injury, sophomore Edwin Baker (112.3 ypg) and true freshman Le’Veon Bell (99.0 ypg) have been leading the charge.
Michigan State 27, Wisconsin 21
By Ralph Vacchiano
They were so bolstered by their success in December and January one year ago, so emboldened by the idea that they had finally gotten past their choke-filled recent history. When the Dallas Cowboys finally won a playoff game last January for the first time in 13 years, Jerry Jones was so sure his suffering was over that he stood in the middle of his team’s locker room and shouted “The demons are gone!”
Well, maybe they were. But they’re back. And the Cowboys’ train towards playing Super Bowl XLV in their own stadium may have gotten an early, self-inflicted derailment.
It was so stunning, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine this happening to anyone but the Cowboys — the team that once blew a playoff game when Tony Romo bobbled the snap on a game-winning 19-yard field goal. This may have been the season opener, not a playoff game, but the pain was just as bad.
It all started to unravel for the Cowboys on Sunday night when they were trailing the Washington Redskins 3–0, sitting at their own 36-yard line with time for one more play before the half. With 64 yards between them and the end zone and no time to get into field goal range, even the most casual football fan knows the only choice is to take a knee.
But Wade Phillips, the Cowboys’ always embattled coach, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett would have none of that. They called for a “Hail Mary” pass, which was risky enough, but for some reason Romo decided to throw a short pass to running back Tashard Choice.
Then DeAngelo Hall, the Redskins’ quarterback, stripped him, recovered the fumble and returned it 37 yards for a game-changing touchdown that put Washington up 10–0 at halftime of a game they would go on to win 13–7.
Yes, the Cowboys nearly won it anyway — the game-winning, 13-yard touchdown pass was nullified on the final play of the game by a holding penalty on tackle Alex Barron. But that was poetic justice considering their remarkably stupid call at the end of the first half.
“That’s my fault before the half,” Phillips sais. “We should’ve taken a knee.”
That’s noble that he’d take the blame for a colossally bad decision, and I’m sure the feeling inside Valley Ranch is that one lost game and one bad call doesn’t mean their season is over. The problem is that these are the Cowboys and it’s always something, isn’t it? Year in and year out they seem to have as much talent as any team in football.
But something always seems to go wrong.
For years, in fact, that was the law. That’s why “America’s Team” had gone without a playoff victory since 1996. It wasn’t that Jones wasn’t willing to spend on top players or a top coach. It was … well, “demons” was about as good an explanation as anything else.
Then last year they pounded the Philadelphia Eagles 34–14 in the first round. Sure, they were crushed by the Minnesota Vikings one week later. But the big picture was still bright. Before last year, they were 5–8 in December under Romo. And things looked dire when they started last December 0–2.
But then they shocked the Saints in New Orleans and posted back-to-back shutouts over Washington and Philly before knocking off the Eagles in the playoffs, too. That’s a 4–0 stretch in the most important part of the season. They made smart calls, played well and did everything right. The demons, indeed, looked gone.
Then, as Jones saw on Sunday, those demons made an unexpected and unwanted return to the Cowboys’ locker room — though Jones, diplomatically, wasn’t fingering anyone with the blame.
“Everybody had a hand in some mistakes that kept us from winning this game,” Jones said. “I hate this for our fans. We know that the road to success in this thing has ups and downs, but I am surprised.”
Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe this is just a blip on the Cowboys’ Super Bowl radar. Maybe they now have the toughness to overcome it. Maybe they have the character in the locker room that it won’t disintegrate into a circus like it has done in previous years. Maybe one loss, one demon really can’t define a team.
But history — at least the last decade or so — isn’t exactly on the Cowboys’ side. Those demons got pretty comfortable inside their heads in recent years. For one night, it appeared those demons were back.
Teams of the Week
Kansas — One week after opening up the Turner Gill era with a 6–3 loss at home to FCS foe North Dakota State, Kansas bounced back with a very impressive 28–25 win over Georgia Tech. Redshirt freshman Jordan Webb, making his first career start, completed 18-of-29 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns. The KU running game was effective as well, with true freshman James Sims and senior Angus Quigley combining for 147 yards on 25 carries.
South Carolina — The Gamecocks improved to 2–0 with an important 17–6 win over Georgia in Columbia. South Carolina outgained Georgia 352-to-253 and received big-time performances from its big-time playmakers. Freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore rushed for 182 yards on 37 carries, and sophomore wideout Alshon Jeffery caught seven passes for 103 yards. It’s still early, but this Gamecock team appears to have the necessary ingredients to be a serious contender in the SEC East.
Oklahoma — Those of us who questioned the Sooners after a lethargic Week 1 win over Utah State were apparently a little too quick to judge. Oklahoma flexed its muscles with a dominating 47–17 win over Florida State. Sophomore quarterback Landry Jones was terrific, completing 30-of-40 attempts for 380 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. And that suspect pass defense we were all worried about? Christian Ponder and E.J. Manuel combined to complete 15-of-36 for 322 yards with two interceptions.
Disappointments of the Week
UCLA — The Bruins simply aren’t showing any progress under Rick Neuheisel. UCLA dropped to 0–2 with a disheartening 35–0 loss at home to surging Stanford. It was the Bruins’ first shutout at home since losing to Cal, 17–0, in October 1999. UCLA managed only 233 yards of total offense and converted only 1-of-9 third down attempts. Starting quarterback Kevin Prince was 6-of-12 for 39 yards; backup Richard Brehaut was 5-of-9 for 42. “Tonight was an offensive disaster. There is no other way to say it,” Neuheisel said.
Virginia Tech — There’s no excuse. Yes, it was only five days after the emotional loss to Boise State, but there is no excuse for a team as talented as Virginia Tech to lose to any school from the FCS ranks. But that is what happened to Frank Beamers’ club Saturday afternoon. James Madison totaled only 235 yards of offense, but the Dukes took care of the ball (no turnovers) and rallied past the Hokies 21–16. “This is the biggest win of my professional career,” said JMU coach Mickey Matthews, who also led the Dukes to the 2004 FCS national title.
Minnesota — It’s hard to find a scenario in which Tim Brewster keeps his job at Minnesota. The Gophers dropped a 41–38 decision at home to a South Dakota team that lost its opener 38–7 to UCF just one week earlier. The Gophers’ defense was torched for 444 total yards, including 352 through the air. Minnesota opened the season with a decent 24–17 win at Middle Tennessee State — which played without star quarterback Dwight Dasher — but took a huge step backward last weekend.
Player of the Week
Denard Robinson, Michigan — The Wolverines’ sophomore quarterback was sensational once again, almost single-handedly leading Michigan to a 28–24 win at Notre Dame. He accounted for 502 of his team’s 532 yards of offense, throwing for 244 and rushing for 258. Robinson leads the country in rushing (by over 20 yards per game) and total offense (by almost 50 yards per game) and has not thrown an interception in 62 pass attempts.
Freshman of the Week
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina — Lattimore, the top high school back in the nation last year, has been a true difference-maker in Columbia. In Saturday’s win over Georgia, he rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries. Through two games, he is one of only three running backs with over 50 carries.
• Wake Forest and Duke combined for 68 pass attempts and only one quarterback sack, recorded by Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons won the game, 54–48.
• Houston converted nine of its 11 third down attempts in a 54–24 win over UTEP.
• Navy managed only 193 yards of total offense in a 13–7 win over Georgia Southern, an FBS school coached by Paul Johnson disciple Jeff Monken. It was the Midshipmen’s worst offensive performance since 2002, when they had 82 total yards in a 38–0 loss to UConn.
• The average of Vanderbilt’s 13 third down opportunities against LSU was 3rd-and-13. The Commodores converted only three times.
• Washington State trailed Montana State 22–7 heading into the fourth quarter but scored 16 unanswered points to avoid the upset.
• New Mexico has given up a total of 122 points in two games.
• Pitt tailback Dion Lewis closed his true freshman season with eight straight 100-yard games, but he has struggled so far in 2010. He rushed for 75 yards on 25 carries in a loss at Utah and 27 yards on 10 carries in a win over New Hampshire.
• Five quarterbacks are averaging over 100 yards rushing per game — Michigan’s Denard Robinson (227.5), Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez (142.0), UAB’s David Isabelle (124.0), Auburn’s Cam Newton (120.5) and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick (110.5).
• Northwestern’s Dan Persa has completed 86.4 percent (38-of-44) of his passes through two games.
There were so many questions about Joe Flacco when he was coming out of the University of Delaware in 2007. He was big and he could play. In fact, he was setting records for the Fighting Blue Hens. But there were still so many questions about what he could do on an NFL stage.
“He has the God-given ability. He’s 6-6. He has a cannon for an arm. He’s fast for a big guy. And he has ice water in his veins and he makes great game-day decisions,” said K.C. Keeler, Flacco’s college coach, near the end of his prized pupil’s first NFL season. “What else are you looking for?
“I told Cam (Cameron, the Ravens offensive coordinator) and (Ravens coach) John Harbaugh, ‘If this kid’s at USC, we’re having a debate about why he’s not the first overall pick.’”
Flacco, in fact, lasted until the 18th pick of the 2008 draft and he was the second quarterback taken behind Matt Ryan, who went third to the Atlanta Falcons. But Flacco’s already been to the playoffs twice and even to the AFC Championship Game once, as a rookie.
Now, two years later, he’s going to do something else to convince all the skeptics: He’s going to lead the Baltimore Ravens all the way to the championship of Super Bowl XLV.