Monday, November 26, 2007

Let's talk sports

Here's the frustrating thing about sports and writing about sports: There are certain times during the year when there are so many games I feel I must watch, there is little time left to scribe about what I see.

Especially when I'm visiting relatives, as was the case for most of last week. And now, as I sit down to write about everything circumventing my head, my eyes keep wandering to the television screen in front of me, which is displaying one of the most intriguing games of the season — Miami 0, Pittsburgh 0.

In the fourth quarter. Of course, the offensive paucity is partly a result of the torn-up field in Pittsburgh that resembles a giant green-and-brown sponge.

Very entertaining indeed. Big Ben goes down!

But let me proceed. There's a lot to talk about outside of the Rain Game.

Let's talk college football

I was really tempted to go to a movie Friday afternoon, "American Gangster" for the curious.

But I couldn't draw myself off my aunt's couch. The reason?

The-Friday-after-Thanksgiving college football.

While my cousins watched gangsters cap each other, or something like that, I sat intrigued as No. 1 LSU and Arkansas traded punch after punch.

It was 7-6 at halftime, when I turned the game on after my sister relinquished the TV (after, I must add, watching approximately eight straight episodes of "The OC").

Then things got flat-out nutty.

Arkansas went up 14-6 on a 73-yard run by Heisman Trophy canddidate Darren McFadden.

LSU's offense awoke to tie the score 14-14.

Another Razorbacks RB dashed 65 yards. 21-14.

Back came the Tigers' suddenly efficient offense. 21-21.

After the defenses briefly stiffened, the multi-faceted McFadden — who played most of the game from the shotgun — faked a run by ducking forward, took a step backward, and found a wide open receiver down the middle. 28-21.

Back facing the prospect of that devastating second loss, the Tigers responded, driving down the field, converting an interesting 4th-and-1 on a swing pass, and then scoring the tying touchdown on another fourth down. 28-28.

Catch ya breath, we're just getting started.

The offenses went back and forth through three overtimes, with the Razorbacks making good on a 4th-and-10 in the opening overtime to keep their upset hopes alive. Then little-used QB Casey Dick fired a perfect spiral down the right sideline to tightly covered fullback Peyton Hillis, who warded off the defender to tie the game ... again.

After trading scores again in the second overtime, the drama built with the onset of the third OT, which is when both teams have to start going for two with each score.

And that's what, ultimately, decided Arkansas' 50-48 shocker in Baton Rouge. After the Razorbacks, behind the inexorable McFadden, marched into the end zone and added the two-pointer, the Tigers went to the air to score in a quick two plays.

I really thought the game was headed for a fourth extra period. The defenses were tired. The offenses were unstoppable. But that's the beauty of the two-point conversion rule. All Arkansas' defense needed was one play, one stop to turn the crowd of 92,000 into a state of bitter disappointment.

Matterral Richardson rose to the occasion. The Arkansas cornerback read the crossing pattern perfectly, cutting in front of the LSU receiver for an easy interception that finally put an end to the greatest, most exciting game of the year.

And a game with huge implications.

Friday's barn-burner was even greater because it meant so much. Because it knocked the Tigers out of the national title picture.

No, the current BCS — or "BS" — system is far from good. It does leave open the door for teams with a legitimate resume to be left out of the national title game.

But it's also great because each regular season game is so meaningful. Institute an eight-team playoff, and LSU (No. 7 in the BCS) is still alive despite Friday's loss. It still has a shot at the national title.

Teams can't afford more than one loss and still have hope of playing for college football's greatest prize. (Except in this nutty season, as 10-2 Georgia — No. 4 in the BCS — could reach the title game via losses by Missouri and West Virginia.) Teams in the weak ACC, such as Boston College, could qualify for an eight-team playoff by winning their conference title game. In this system, they're not even on the national title radar.

It's not great, but it's enjoyable. It makes games like Friday's that more enjoyable.

Saturday's games weren't bad, either. Tennessee's four-overtime victory over Kentucky provided further proof why college football's overtime system trumps the NFL's sudden death, coin toss-winning mess any day. The momentum switched several times, as one team scored only to watch the other guys tie it up.

And ultimately — how great is this? — the game came down to a missed two-point conversion by the Wildcats (similarly to the end of the LSU-Arkansas battle on Friday). Can't create much more drama than that.

After enjoying Chicago's best Mexican food at Oak Park's "New Rebozo," I caught the second half of the weekend's biggest game, the border war between Missouri and Kansas. And watching Missouri's Chase Daniel for the first time this season, I was very, very impressed.

As Kansas' offense tried to get the Jayhawks back into the game with touchdown drive after touchdown drive, Daniel wouldn't let it happen, connecting on pinpoint pass after pinpoint pass to keep the Tigers comfortably ahead until the final minutes — when Kansas' final touchdown cut its deficit to 34-28.

If the diminutive Daniel — 6 feet, 0 inches — can lead the Tigers past Oklahoma Saturday and into the national title game, he should be strongly considered for the Heisman Trophy (although considering that the trophy winners of recent memory have lost in the title game — including Troy Smith last January — Daniel might want to stay away from the trophy). Anyway, I hope voters haven't already mailed in their ballots. Let Daniel make his final pitch.

Finally, I have to nitpick. After a Missouri sack created a safety, giving the Tigers the final margin of 36-28, the game wasn't completely over. The Jayhawks could have tried an onside kick from their 20-yard line instead of booting it deep like they did. They could have tried for the miracle ending. But they didn't. Just thought I'd point that out. After watching the Trinity Miracle a myriad of times last month, I'm a believer of the Anything Can Happen Doctrine.

Let's talk NFL (and, by the way, the Steelers just scored to win 3-0)

I can't comment too much here, considering I was in a car from 8:30 a.m. CST until 11:59 p.m. EST Sunday driving from Chicago to Durham, but here are a few random thoughts.

There's no doubt the 6-5 Lions are much improved this season, and despite three straight losses, they're still in position to snag the second wild card spot. Don't expect it, however. They played over their heads the first eight games, and now the schedule is daunting — with games against 10-1 Dallas and Green Bay and at San Diego remaining.

Don't expect to see Detroit in the postseason. Seven or eight wins is more realistic.

Pundits are saying the Patriots' 31-28 scare against the Eagles might serve as a blueprint for teams unlucky enough to have the Pats on their remaining schedule. While I don't doubt that teams will view Sunday's video in preparing for New England, I think the game will help the Patriots.

No, New England wasn't overlooking Philly. And, no, it didn't lose its focus. It's immune to these common diseases — we know that. But I'm sure Bill Belichick will use the uncharacteristic dropped passes and the porous defense against a second-string quarterback to push his guys this week. And, yes, they'll kill Baltimore next Monday night.

The Patriots' close victory will help them just as much as it hurt them.

As I was driving through Ohio, I picked up the Bengals' game against Tennessee. The hometown radio announcer was clearly excited when Chad Johnson scored a second-quarter touchdown — "Go get it Chad, go get it!" — but no one should have lauded Johnson's celebration.

After making the relatively easy TD catch — his first in five weeks — Johnson ran over to a TV camera and briefly panned the crowd. The obvious result was a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff for the use of a prop in celebration. Abetted by the free yards, the Titans returned the kickoff to their 42-yard line and waltzed in for a field goal.

Ultimately, the transgression didn't matter, as Johnson (103 yards, three touchdowns, and the franchise's all-time catches record) helped the Bengals (4-7) cruise to a 35-6 win. But for a team that needs to win out to have any chance of reaching the postseason, it was stupid. Every yard matters. There's nothing wrong with a wild celebration as long as it's not at the team's detriment. Johnson's theatrics Sunday don't fit that bill.

Let's talk NBA

I was in Chicago for five days, so can you guess which underachieving team (by a long shot) I'm talking about?

Yes, the 2-10 Bulls. In my NBA preview, I picked the Bulls to make the Eastern Conference finals. Right now, they're far from a playoff team. They're a team that really, really needs Kobe Bryant — because they can't shoot.

Their leading scorer, Ben Gordon, is shooting 36 percent from the field. Their point guard, Kirk Hinrich, is making 35 percent of his shots and 21 percent from 3-point range. Yeah, you can leave him open. And this is a team that's supposed to have frontcourt issues?

My cousin in Chicago is very, very fed up with the Bulls.

On a brighter note, it appears the Celtics' experiment is running nicely. Everyone's getting along and enjoying the fruits of winning. They've won by blowing out teams, and by making last-second shots, as was the case Saturday night when Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Charlotte 96-95.

It's way to early to consider, but the question of whether these Celtics can challenge the 1995-96 Bulls' 72-10 regular season already abounds. My take: Let's wait and see. If they're 45-5 through 50 games, then we can really start talking. More importantly, the Celtics — despite that loss to the 13-3 Magic — are the class of the Eastern Conference. They're as good as advertised.

Let's talk college basketball

I'm starting to fatigue here, so I need some college hoops talk to assist my droopy eyelids.

I got a chance to watch both Duke and North Carolina during my time in Chicago, and I was impressed by both teams. The Blue Devils, behind a balanced offensive attack, beat a very solid Marquette team to win the Maui Invitation and remain undefeated. They have 10 guys who can step up offensively on different nights.

And, lest we forget, they play stingy, turnover-creating defense. Sounds like a recipe for success to me.

The Tar Heels fought off adversity to outlast a feisty BYU team in the Las Vegas Invitational Saturday night. They lost starting point guard Ty Lawson early in the contest and he didn't return. With their playmaker out, and Tyler Hansbrough neutralized by a strong BYU frontline, the Heels turned to a couple of wing players — Danny Green and Wayne Ellington — to lead them to victory.

And they did. Green made a couple of big second-half shots and played stellar defense all night, and Ellington knocked down a 25-footer that turned out to be the key shot in the final minutes.

Additonally, UNC played strong defense down the stretch, allowing just four points in the final seven and a half minutes. We know the Heels can score, but if they can lock down defensively like they did Saturday, they'll be tough to beat the rest of the season.

Oh, I guess the freshmen deserve a mention. Guys such as Eric Gordon (27 ppg, 56 percent shooting for Indiana) and Michael Beasley (27.2 ppg, 15.5 rpg for Kansas State) are quickly erasing from mind the fond memories of Kevin Durant and Greg Oden a year ago. This freshman class is shaping up as possibly the best of all time.

And the youngsters will only improve as the season progresses. Yes, scary.

Lastly, let's talk baseball

I never thought I'd applaud Alex Rodriguez, but kudos to both him and pitcher Kenny Rogers for sidestepping zealous agent Scott Boras in their negotiations with their respective teams. Sure, A-Rod will still make loads of money for the Yankees — at least $270 million over 10 years, and as much as $305 million if he attains all five $6 million bonuses — but he showed a human side in wanting to re-sign with his team to try to win a World Series.

In Rogers' case, Boras was the only obstacle in the way of him re-signing with the Tigers. That guy is manipulative, no doubt about it. But now Rogers has freed himself of Boras, and I fully expect him to pitch for Detroit next year (although — have I said this before? — anything can happen).

Something that did happen recently was the indictment of a guy named Barry Bonds for perjury and obstruction of justice. Too bad this didn't come down before Bonds hit No. 756 last August.

At least now Bonds' career is likely over. And hopefully sometime in the next five years his name will be out of the news. Bonds is a great player, but he brought this indictment upon himself by allegedly lying to the grand jury. If he had told the truth back in 2003, there wouldn't be an indictment.

Now, after all the celebratory home runs and sellout crowds in San Francisco, the ugliness begins. Bring it on. Bonds deserves it.

And on that pleasant note, my eyes are officially closed. That's enough sports talk for one night.

5 comments:

zekejennings said...

Jake,

I moved. I'm midwestsportsbeat now. I added your link to my new site, please add me to yours. Thanks, bro. Hope all is well in the N.C.

Zeke

twins15 said...

Good stuff... and I know how you feel, sometimes there is too much going on, you just don't know what to write about! Usually I get lazy then and don't write, but it's good to see that some people have the proper motivation. :)

I too was really impressed by Duke... a lot to like there. I think they might be able to challenge UNC for the ACC title.

Sportsattitude said...

Let me add to twins15 on the Duke view and jump on the Blue Devils' bandwagon. Announcers on ESPN were pointing out Coach K reached out to some other coaches in the off-season (partly as an offshoot of his Olympic team development) and was bringing some new wrinkles to the program. Duke looked very, very impressive in Maui and, quite frankly, didn't look like a Duke team...which I think is a good thing. Sometimes we all get stagnant in our lives and it appears Coach K took a look around, sized up his talent, and is maximizing their abilities to the fullest. I truly believe based on what I saw of them the three games in Maui they have what it takes to make the Tar Heels think twice about automatically fitting themselves for the ACC title.

Jake Lloyd said...

Yep, I'll be at the Duke-Wisconsin game tonight. Should be interesting to see how Duke responds to Wisconsin's slow, stagnant style.

Joey K. said...

I agree it gets hard to write about everything. I feel your pain!