Tuesday, September 8, 2009

College Football Week 1 Notebook

South Carolina-N.C. State: South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia was able to put his disastrous Outback Bowl performance behind him, playing steady and riding the wave of an energetic and talented youthful Gamecocks defense as Steve Spurrier continued his opening game dominance. Linebacker Eric Norwood is the leader of a defense that, while young, could be Spurrier’s best in his Carolina tenure. N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson displayed his cannon arm and elusiveness at times, but the sophomore was unable to get his offense untracked for a second consecutive contest against the Gamecocks. N.C. State lacked energy and execution for this first three quarters before showing any sign of line whatsoever.

Oregon-Boise State: There’s no question that the first of two major stories evolving from Week One was the LeGarrette Blount punch heard ‘round the world. But putting that instance aside—and the absurd suspension thereafter—the most shocking aspect of this game was the inability of Blount to get anything going on the ground and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli’s failure to move the ball in the air for the Ducks. Chip Kelly’s offense could never get untracked, and Boise State dominated the entire game—save for a late but failed rally by the Ducks in the fourth. Hats off to the Broncos again, who beat Oregon for the second consecutive season and are poised to make a dent in the BCS rankings at the end of the year.

BYU-Oklahoma: Obviously the injury to reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford was the biggest story that came out of this Top 20 matchup. However, the determined play of quarterback Max Hall and the stellar play of its defense might have been the two biggest reasons why BYU was able to pull the upset. Hall didn’t play his best in the Cougars’ biggest games against TCU and Utah last season, but he stepped up on Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium. While he did throw two picks, he was able to lead the 16-play, 78-yard drive that culminated in the game-winning TD on fourth-and-4 with 3:03 left to propel BYU to victory. On the other side of the ball, the Cougars’ defense showed it was not intimidated by the Sooners, and the unit took full advantage of an inexperienced and nervous OU offensive line. The tough, quick and gritty defense not only kept the team in the game after a turnover-filled first half from its offense, but it also disguised blitzes nicely in harassing Sam Bradford and eventually laid the hit that knocked the quarterback out of the game. Moving forward for the Sooners, the offense should feature a healthy dose of DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown if Bradford is to miss a significant amount of time. And while I was disappointed in the play of cornerback Dominique Franks, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is definitely as good as advertised for the Sooners.

Alabama-Virginia Tech: Alabama successfully began its national championship push in Atlanta for the second straight year as running backs Roy Upchurch and Mark Ingram helped Greg McElroy survive a beating in his first game as Alabama’s starting quarterback. Despite substantially outgaining the Hokies in total yards, Alabama played sloppy on special teams and had numerous penalties and miscues that saw it having to come back in the fourth quarter before putting Virginia Tech away. Tyrod Taylor again showed that he will continue to struggle throwing the ball consistently, so Frank Beamer will be leaning on freshman running backs all season to help carry the offensive load. Alabama’s confusing looks on defense caused Taylor problems, and the Tide’s linebackers showed that they may be the most complete unit in college football. Wideout Julio Jones, by the way, is absolutely scary looking—more so than last year. Alabama looks for real if they could eliminate dumb penalties.

Missouri-Illinois: Illinois never looked prepared for this game, and the team looked as if it wanted to head for the bus at halftime. This poor effort falls right on head coach Ron Zook. No matter how good of a talent Arrelious Benn is, the Illini had more than enough talent—including Jarred Fayson—to make up for his loss in a game against a good, but not great, Missouri squad. While the defensive line showed aggressiveness early, the Illini’s secondary looked lost and undisciplined. I was impressed with Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s demeanor in his first game as Chase Daniel’s replacement, especially as the game progressed. He looked comfortable sitting in the pocket and taking off and running when necessary. Danario Alexander looks to be healthy again and—while he may not be as dynamic and explosive as Jeremy Maclin—he will score plenty of points in Columbia this season.

Nevada-Notre Dame: So maybe the performance of Jimmy Clausen and the Notre Dame offense against Hawaii to close out the 2008 season wasn’t such a fluke after all. Wideout Michael Floyd picked up right where he left off as a freshman—and looks even more ridiculous as a sophomore. Tight end Kyle Rudolph will certainly benefit from the presence of Floyd and Golden Tate, and running back Armando Allen seemed to have an extra jump in his step. The ND offensive line looks tougher, but it’s the Irish defense that really made a lasting impression. Linebacker Brian Smith may be the most talented player on that side of the ball, leading a unit that looked hungry in its pursuit of Colin Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack running backs.

LSU-Washington: It was great to see such a revived, raucous crowd at Husky Stadium on Saturday night. I expect Steve Sarkisian to do wonderful things in Seattle and bring the Huskies back to Pac-10 and eventual national prominence. Jake Locker, Chris Polk and James Johnson give the Huskies some firepower to work with in Sarkisian’s new offense. But it was LSU who was able to grab the road win as Jordan Jefferson certainly didn’t play like the youngest quarterback in the SEC, tossing three touchdowns in the victory—including two to Terrance Toliver. The Tigers didn’t play great, but they escaped a tough environment. The defense was aggressive and looked as athletic as ever, but I still worry about this unit as it struggled with giving up the big plays it allowed last year. It’ll be interesting to see if new coordinator John Chavis’s scheme could eliminate some of holes in the defense and allow the unit to get more rest, as it was on the field for a significant longer amount of time than its counterpart.

Miami-Florida State: It was nice to see both Jacory Harris and Christian Ponder answer their critics early in this game. Miami coach Randy Shannon showed faith in his offense by going for it on fourth down in the first quarter, and Harris rewarded him with an easy 38-yard touchdown toss on the next play. Ponder, meanwhile, showed that he could be just as effective throwing as running in converting two critical third downs on the Seminoles’ opening drive, including a closing touchdown. The opening possessions for both teams were a sign of things to come, as both signal callers took turns playing hero in an old-fashioned shootout. Ponder didn’t have a great second half and ultimately came up short on the game’s last play, but he gave Seminoles fans a glimpse of what certainly will be an exciting season. Harris flat out played beyond his years, and it’ll be interesting to see what they could do against an Oklahoma team that is expected to be without Sam Bradford.

Other notes: I’ll hold off on bashing the Big Ten (and believe me, I’m a lifelong Chicagoan so I’ll always be partial to the conference), but the league did not have its greatest showing this opening weekend. Ohio State’s struggles with Navy could be attributed to being out of sync defensively against the option attack, but I would worry more about its O-line if I were an Ohio State fan. Iowa should never have allowed Northern Iowa to be in any position whatsoever to win the game, while I expected a lot more from Adam Weber and Minnesota against the Greg Paulus-led Syracuse squad. I will say, however, that the Gophers’ Eric Decker might be the most unheralded receiver in the nation. Michigan has speed on both sides of the ball, and the defense that I expected to help the offense out last year has finally showed up under new coordinator Greg Robinson.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Va. Tech's Evans Tears ACL, Will Miss Season

Virginia Tech, the favorite to win the ACC and a popular pick for a darkhorse national champion this season, suffered a devestating blow during practice on Tuesday when running back Darren Evans tore his left ACL. Evans, who set several school rushing records as a freshman, will miss the entire season.

Evans, the MVP of last season's Orange Bowl, rushed for 1,265 yards last year and set a Virginia Tech single-game record for rushing with 253 yards against Maryland. His 11 touchdowns also set school freshman records for rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns.

While the Hokies certainly have depth at running back, none of the backs are as accomplished as Evans. Redshirt freshman Ryan Williams, following an impressive spring showing, and Josh Oglesby, a redshirt sophomore who saw some playing time last year, are expected to carry the load this fall. Highly touted true freshman David Wilson should also receive plenty of carries as the season progresses. But the loss of Evans puts even more pressure on mobile quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who will have to play steadily in his first full season as a starter in order for the Hokies to play up to many people's expectations.

Meanwhile, USC quarterback Aaron Corp sat out practice on Tuesday after bruising his left knee when a lineman rolled into him on Monday. Corp will undergo an MRI on Wednesday to determine whether the injury is more serious than a bruise. This is bad news for Corp as freshman Matt Barkley has garnered a lot of attention and praise on campus. The Trojans, who have won seven straight Pac-10 titles, open the season against San Jose State and can very well use that matchup to let Barkley get his feet wet. It's stunning that Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain cannot even generate buzz anymore playing on a campus so close to L.A. But I guess that's life when you're playing on a team with so much talent.

A couple of notes from the Phillies-Cubs game in Chicago last night...

Brad Lidge blew the seventh save of his injury-shortened season and is clearly not the same player who was automatic last year during the Phillies' World Series run. Although he came into the game 8-for-8 during save situations in the second half, his pitches have not been as crisp and he is still struggling with location.

The Cubs are not without their own relief woes, however. While some may consider the injuries to Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly to be the most detrimental, I still believe Carlos Marmol's inability to consistently throw strikes will ultimately lead to the Cubs' demise this season.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ricciardi Blunders Again, But What Else is New?

I think it may be time for J.P. Ricciardi to take his commemorative copy of Moneyball home with him and let real baseball executives play General Manager for a change. The same GM who let his star pitcher Roy Halladay hang out to dry has made yet another boneheaded decision, letting outfielder Alex Rios walk away for free to the Chicago White Sox without getting anything in return. Sure, the Jays are saving money by unloading Rios' huge contract to another team, but Rios is a player who is simply having a down year and whose best baseball is in his immediate future.

Sure, $62 million remaining on a contract of a guy who has underachieved this year is tough for a Canadian baseball team in a rough economy to endure. And ESPN's Jayson Stark had an interesting take on Rios this morning on Mike & Mike in the Morning. Stark rattled off the following Alex Rios statistics in regards to his major league rankings since he signed his big deal:

-110th in slugging
-99th in home runs
-105th in batting average
-169th in on-base percentage

So Ricciardi did the right thing by dumping Rios, right? Absolutely not. No one in baseball could tell me that acquiring even lower level prospects was impossible in exchange for taking on a big contract. Ricciardi stated that the White Sox wanted the Jays to include money for Rios' contract in the deal if they were to give up any players. According to Ricciardi, he didn't see the worth in that because he apparently wouldn't be able to address other team needs. "For us to eat money and not get players that we thought we wanted," Ricciardi said, "I think it would've been counterproductive. We weren't able to get some of the players that we would've liked. From that standpoint, we just said the best thing in this case is to get the financial flexibility from every dollar."

Financial flexibility to do what? Sign B.J. Ryan again? Give big money to an Alex Rios-type who supposedly is not worth the time after one down year? Was keeping the contract on the books in the hopes that Rios bounces back next year too simple of a solution for a sabermetrically obsessed GM? He did, after all, hit .297 with 24 home runs and 85 RBIs just two years ago.

The main problem I have in acquiring zero prospects in return is the fact that Ricciardi was unable to move Lyle Overbay, Scott Downs and a host of other veterans who could have netted cheaper bodies at the trade deadline. I mean, money was what this was all about, right J.P.?

From the White Sox standpoint, the club was able to acquire a versatile power-speed combo who can play all three outfield positions but will likely settle into center field for the long-term. With the exception of one solid season from Aaron Rowand, the White Sox haven't had a decent center field option since Lance Johnson. And despite his disappointing .264-14-64 line this year thus far, Rios' numbers will be helped by playing in hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.

Combined with new acquisition Jake Peavy, the pair will make more than $115 while on the White Sox payroll--a stunning development for a club led by a very very financially conservative owner. It'll take a few years to see if the Rios acquisition ends up paying dividends for the White Sox. But two things are clear: First, this isn't your older brother's tight-spending White Sox club. Second, J.P. Ricciardi has to go.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Yanks Dispose of Sox, Extend AL East Lead

Jon Lester did everything he could on Sunday night to prevent a four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees, but Daniel Bard surrendered back-to-back two-out homers as the Bronx Bombers took all four games at Yankee Stadium this weekend to give the club a 6 1/2 game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East. Boston is now tied with Texas for the lead in the AL wild-card race, while Tampa Bay sits just a game and a half behind. The Red Sox led the AL East by five games on June 24.

Boston carries a season-high six-game losing streak as it heads home to welcome the Detroit Tigers into town.

Clearly, the Red Sox are struggling mightily offensively, and ESPN's Buster Olney made a great comparison over the weekend, noting that the Sox look very similar to some Yankees teams from a couple of years ago: overloaded with older, defensively challenged corner infield/DH types. I didn't want to believe it this past winter when the Yanks snagged Mark Teixeira, but he just may have been the tipping point in the battle for AL East supremacy. The Red Sox have had to deal with nagging injuries to Mike Lowell, a terrible season from David Ortiz (despite his coming around a little bit the last few months) and an average season from J.D. Drew. These factors forced the club to deal for Adam LaRoche--who was later dealt for Casey Kotchman--and Victor Martinez, who is a solid all-around player but is not the frontline pitcher that the club probably could have acquired at the deadline to pair with Josh Beckett if not for its offensive woes.

Now the club will have to stare history straight in the eye, as Boston has never overcome a defecit of 5 1/2 games or more to the Yankees in either the American League or AL East.

The Cleveland Browns held a scrimmage on Sunday, and ESPN's Chris Mortensen told Mike & Mike in the Morning that neither Brady Quinn nor Derek Andersen was great...or terrible. Quinn registered a 51-yard TD pass while Andersen produced a long drive that was stalled when D'Qwell Jackson picked off a pass near the goal line. The one thing that remains clear is that head coach Eric Mangini will not be swayed by public opinion in deciding who will line up under center in Week One.

Tiger Woods came from three shots behind Padraig Harrington on Sunday to win the Bridgestone Invitational for the seventh time and will now try to win the season's last major at Hazeltine. Finishing with a 5-under 65, Woods won back-to-back tour events and became the first golfer in history to win on one course seven times.

Down one shot to Harrington and in the trees on the par-5 16th, Woods used an 8-iron to deliver a shot that landed a foot from the hole, and his subsequent birdie started an incredible turn for the worse for Harrington. A winner of two majors last year, Harrington carded a shocking triple bogey on the same hole that led to Woods winning for the 70th time in his career.

It's ashame, however, that the event was seemingly marred by the pairing being put on a clock on the 16th tee after apparently falling behind schedule. Woods even admitted that he was probably aided by the fact that Harrington rushed his shots on the disastrous 16th, where Harrington entered with a one-shot lead. Both men hit errant tee shots, but Tiger was able to escape disaster with his beautiful iron play--and he escaped the 16th with a three-shot lead. Was the victory tainted, or was it just Tiger being Tiger?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blackhawks Make Splash Again, Sign Hossa

Last offseason, coming off a campaign full of renewed energy and optimism, Chicago Blackhawks management decided to break the bank in an all-out effort to compete for the team's first Stanley Cup championship since 1961. With the blessing of chairman Rocky Wirtz, general manager Dale Tallon promptly went out and signed the best defenseman available, Brian Campbell, to an eight-year, 56.8 million dollar contract and goaltender Cristobal Huet for four years at a combined 22.5 million dollars on the very first day of free agency. After an incredibly quick turnaround this past season, one in which saw the Hawks advance to the Western Conference finals, management is intent on reiterating just how serious the franchise is about reclaiming its past glory.

With unrestricted free agents Martin Havlat and Nikolai Khabibulin expected to be of main concern, general manager Dale Tallon shocked the league and hockey fans in Chicago by announcing the signing of four-time All-Star right wing Marian Hossa to a 12-year, 62.8 million dollar contract. The 30-year-old Hossa skated for Detroit last season after signing a one-year deal with the Red Wings in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup. He'll have plenty of chances--12 to be exact--to try to win one with his hungry new teammates on the Hawks.

The Slovakian, a first-round pick of Ottawa in the 1997 Entry Draft, led the Red Wings in goals with 40 last year while also contributing 31 assists. In 23 playoff games, he tallied 15 points (6-9) as the Wings fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins--his former team--in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. In 11 NHL seasons with four teams, Hossa has amassed 719 points (339-380) in 775 regular season games and has 76 points (31-45) in 98 playoff contests.

Hossa had been on the receiving end of mocking--particularly from Penguins fans--for bypassing opportunities to sign a mega deal last offseason, instead choosing to sign a one-year deal with the Wings, the team he thought had the best chance to win the Cup. With the main objective winning his first championship since hoisting the Memorial Cup 11 years ago with Portland of the Western Hockey League, Hossa believes the rejuvenated Blackhawks offer him the best chance to win the highly desired Cup.

With the signing of Hossa, Martin Havlat will be signing elsewhere after finally staying healthy for an entire season and arguably being the Hawks' best forward throughout last season. Havlat announced his desire to stay in Chicago on his Twitter page, but has clearly been replaced by the more experienced and stronger Hossa. It also looks as if Nikolai Khabibulin will have a new home, as the Hawks seem to be positioned to have Corey Crawford or Antti Niemi back up Huet next season.

The Hawks also announced the signing of fourth-line center Tomas Kopecky to a two-year contract on Wednesday afternoon. Kopecky, 27, was a teammate of Hossa's last season in Detroit, and he finished second on the team with 109 hits while tallying career highs in goals (6), assists (13) and points (19) in 79 regular season games. In four seasons with the Wings, Kopecky appeared in 183 regular season games.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Can Barnes Hold Off Field For Open Championship?

The U.S. Open Championship concludes today--hopefully--as Ricky Barnes tries to put a disastrous third-round behind him and hold off co-leader Lucas Glover in the conclusion of the final round at Bethpage Black. Barnes held a six-shot lead at one time on Sunday during the third round, but slipped to a tie for the lead at 7-under-par when play was halted due to darkness. Barnes and Glover enter the day with a five-shot lead, but both are rookies when it comes to dealing with the immense pressure of contending in a major.

Among the notables chasing the leaders are Phil Mickelson, who sits five shots back after making a couple of long birdies to close the third round. David Duval, winless since 2001, also sits five behind and has played steadily throughout the tournament. What a great story it would be if the one-time British Open champ could make a run on Monday. Tiger Woods, who at one time was 15 strokes behind the leader, sits at even par with 11 holes to play after a frustrating Sunday with the putter.

The Open is undoubtedly my favorite golf tournament of the year--with the British coming in a close second. But for whatever reason--most likely because of the inclement weather--it's been hard for me to really be intrigued by this year's edition. Let's hope that this year's Monday play is as exciting as last year's when Tiger outlasted Rocco Mediate in an epic 19-hole playoff.

You can follow the leaderboard throughout the day here for your comprehensive hole-by-hole coverage.

On the tennis circuit, the Championships at Wimbledon is underway as Roger Federer, James Blake and Maria Sharapova, among others, take the court today at the All-England Club. Federer looks to coast to another Wimbledon title with ailing number-one seed Rafael Nadal missing this year's tournament with a bum knee.

Follow match-by-match results here all day long.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Favre, Pennington Cross Paths on Sunday

How great is it that the playoff hopes of the New York Jets hinge on their juicy matchup Sunday in the Meadowlands against the Miami Dolphins, who are led by the man run out of New York when the Jets acquired Brett Favre. Chad Pennington has a chance not only to ruin the Jets' once-flourishing season but also the New England Patriots', as well.

Just four weeks ago, the Jets sat at 8-3 following back-to-back wins on the road against the Pats and unbeaten Tennessee Titans. But bad losses to Denver at home as well as San Francisco and Seattle on the road have left the Jets in a precarious situation. However, if they can beat the Dolphins on Sunday and have either New England or Baltimore lose, they will find themselves with a playoff berth and renewed life. The Pats travel to Buffalo to play the Bills, while the Ravens will host the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, the Jets must take care of business against a Dolphins team led by the castoff QB with the second-highest passer rating in the NFL. Pennington has helped lead the Dolphins' incredible transformation from a 1-15 team to a sound 10-5 group that is playing with the utmost confidence in coach Tony Sparano's first season at the helm. What many considered to be the one team with no chance of competing in the AFC East this season now stands as the team that controls its own destiny.

For the Jets, Favre has struggled mightily just when the team has needed him the most. He leads the NFL in interceptions with 19 and has looked, quite frankly, like a 39-year-old quarterback. His arm strength seems to have waned, and he is back to throwing the rock up for grabs. The key Sunday for the Jets is to employ a healthy dose of Thomas Jones and to utilize Dustin Keller and their wideouts in shorter passing routes. Third-and-long situations could bring out the worst in Favre and pave the way for--what at the beginning of the season looked like--a Dolphins victory and the ultimate vindication.