The Morning Line’s Christmas Edition
Merry Christmas to everyone from The Sports Notebook. There’s plenty of sports under the Christmas tree on Saturday and Sunday. Here’s the rundown…
*College football gets in on the act with the Hawaii Bowl between Nevada and Southern Miss (8 ET, ESPN) on Saturday night. Can I ask why this game wasn’t played on Friday? There was no bowl action yesterday. What sense can it possibly make to play a game when a lot of people are unwrapping presents and you could’ve played the same game the night before? But I digress.
*And the Notebook’s historical museum takes you on a tour of a memorable Christmas Day in 1971, when the NFL played two divisional playoff games and one of them ended up as the longest game in league history, a record that still stands. Check back later this morning.
Everyone have a Merry Christmas and the Notebook returns on Monday.
Friday, December 23
Say what you will about Houston playing with a third-string quarterback in T.J. Yates. Think whatever you want about the performance of their secondary last night, surrendering 244 passing yards to Indianapolis’s Dan Orlovsky. What I want to know is how a team looking to get playoff ready can commit 11 penalties. Penalties like that hurt even more when you’re built around a running game and low-key passing attack that the Texans actually ran pretty well. Arian Foster had 158 rush yards, Yates was 13/16 for 132 yards, but penalties, along with four sacks, kept it a game and Indy finally pulled it out. The loss is cause for celebration in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as the winner of the AFC North is now all but certain to get the #2 seed and first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. And I suppose if you’re a fan who would rather your team lose and get the #1 pick in the draft, Minnesota and St. Louis are right back in the race to the bottom for Andrew Luck.
No one in football could have raced to the bottom faster than the Arizona State Sun Devils did. After losing their final four games of the regular season, ASU was humiliated by Boise State last night in a 56-24 final in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Broncos completely dominated the line of scrimmage, holding Arizona State’s Cameron Marshall to 12 yards on 11 carries and getting a big 151-yard night from Doug Martin. A sad ending for veteran ASU coach Dennis Erickson and a happy one for BSU’s Kellen Moore and his fellow seniors, who conclude their four-year tenures in Idaho having not only rebuilt a program, but effectively transforming the landscape of college football.
There’s no football tonight, as the bowls take off and the NFL plays its regular slate on Saturday. So its college hoops and hockey for the sports fan on Friday. Here’s a quick look at what went down Thursday and what’s ahead Friday…
On the court…
Missouri got a big win over Illinois 78-74, as their guard-heavy lineup (five of Mizzou’s seven players are in the backcourt) got to the line, outscoring the Illini 19-8 from the charity stripe. Michael Dixon came off the bench for 18 points. The Tigers’ Big 12 rival Kansas got back on track after a loss earlier this week to Davidson. The Jayhawks beat rebuilding USC 63-47 as big men Thomas Robinson and Jeff Whitney controlled the glass.
Georgetown beat Memphis for the second time this year, winning 70-59 as four starters got into double figures. The Tigers took their fifth loss and have put a lot of pressure on themselves to win the Conference USA tournament in March. Florida took out Florida State 82-64, forcing nineteen Seminole turnovers. The Gators are smaller than they were a year ago when they won the SEC, but Billy Donovan is getting it done with an attack built around the backcourt. Bradley Beal delivered 21 points last night.
And if you want to keep an eye on a mid-major, how about Long Beach State? They’ve already played a tough schedule this year that includes a closer-than-expected loss at North Carolina and last night LBSU knocked off Xavier, as the Musketeers couldn’t get to the foul line and shot bricks from three-point range.
Tonight it’s a doubleheader of Western Kentucky-Louisville (7 PM ET, ESPN) and Baylor-West Virginia (9, ESPN). Western’s basketball team isn’t on the level of its football team (second place in the Sun Belt and robbed of a bowl bid), so the first game can be safely skipped. Baylor-WVA is a matchup out in Las Vegas, and the Bears bring their quality front line led by Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy to go against a Big East opponent who can still go either way this season.
On the ice…
Toronto beat Buffalo 3-2 as the Leafs and Sabres joust for position among the teams chasing Boston in the Northeast Division. The Leafs’ Phil Kessel scored his 20th goal, putting him in a four-way tie for the league lead. Montreal is the last-place team in the Northeast and the coaching change hasn’t inspired better play as of yet. Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler scored early on a power play, added another goal and the Jets beat the Canadiens 4-zip. Finally, the Minnesota Wild continued their slide, dropping their sixth straight in a loss to Edmonton. The Oilers came out firing early, with 20 first-period shots, grabbed an early lead and never looked back. Minnesota’s lead over Vancouver in the Northwest Division is down to a single point.
Tonight’s action is on the NHL Network and it’s a rivalry game between Philadelphia and the NY Rangers, with the Flyers holding a two-point lead in the Atlantic Division.
Thursday, December 22
The NFL goes back into action tonight as Week 16 begins with Houston visiting Indianapolis (8:15 ET, NFL). With the Colts finally getting a win and the Texans still playing with T.J. Yates at quarterback, who threw two interceptions last week, this one looks better than it did a couple weeks ago. It’s also a big game for Houston, who is currently slotted in the #3 seed for the playoffs, but if they win out and Baltimore drops a game, the Texans can move up and get the two-spot and a first-round bye.
Indianapolis got its win over Tennessee by pounding the ball on the ground with Donald Brown getting 190 yards. That’s another factor that makes this game interesting, because while Houston is a terrific defensive team—tied with Baltimore at the top of the AFC in points allowed—that strength comes primarily from its pass defense. The rush D is in the middle of the pack. Who knows, if Yates makes a couple mistakes and Indy runs the ball again, maybe we’re looking at an upset that takes Houston out of the race for a playoff bye and puts the Rams and Vikings back in the race for Andrew Luck.
In the college bowls…
TCU got a win over Louisiana Tech 31-24, but it didn’t come easy. The Horned Frogs trailed by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, before a pair of TDs put them over the top. Louisiana Tech did a nice job in keeping the passing attack led by Casey Pachall under control, but TCU showed resilience and found a solid rushing game behind Ed Wesley and Waymond Tucker to eventually scrape out the win. It got the Mountain West on the board after a pair of losses to start the bowl season. Was that enough to turn the conference’s fortunes around or does this narrow escape mean the league is still on rough times? We’ll find out more tonight as Boise State meets Arizona State (8 PM ET, ESPN). It’s the last game at ASU for head coach Dennis Erickson and likely the long-time coach’s final game ever. The preview is included in yesterday’s article about the Mountain West.
Good games are ahead tonight, with an ESPN2 doubleheader of Memphis-Georgetown and Illinois-Missouri. The action tips off at 7 PM ET and the opener is a rematch of a game in Maui when the Hoyas edged the Tigers in overtime. Neither team has beaten anybody good yet, but no one has a bad loss either. Illinois is coming off a victory over Gonzaga and a narrow escape over Cornell as they meet a Tiger squad that’s ranked 8th and deserving of the part.
Mizzou’s Big 12 brethren had it rough on Wednesday night. Texas was hammered at North Carolina because the big Tar Heel frontline dominated the glass to the tune of 46-30. Harrison Barnes scored 26 points and 11 rebounds, while big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson combined for 19 more rebounds. Oklahoma State looked awful in a 69-52 loss at Alabama, as guard Keiton Page, the key to the offense, was held to three points. The long December in Stillwater shows no signs of letting up.
In other action, St. John’s barely escaped UT-Pan American 66-61, as Steve Lavin’s Red Storm are extremely young and continuing a rebuilding process. Sun Belt contender Middle Tennessee knocked off Ole Miss 68-56 as the Rebels turned it over 21 times.
In the NHL…
Leading Western Conference contenders Chicago and Vancouver each got wins. The Blackhawks pulled away from Montreal 5-1 with three third-period goals, and the Canucks got a solid 4-2 win over Detroit. Vancouver won in spite of not getting a single power-play opportunity, but they not only took away the Red Wings’ opportunities with the man advantage, but Vancouver scored a short-handed goal in the third period that clinched the win.
Wednesday, December 21
Marshall and Florida International put on a good game before the people of St. Petersburgh last night in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. “Good game” doesn’t necessarily mean a well-played one and the attendance rivaled that of a Tampa Bay Rays game, but it stayed tied 10-10 until the final five minutes when Marshall blocked a punt, did everything they could to push themselves out of field-goal range, then finally scraped a kick inside the right upright. An add-on touchdown in the closing seconds made the final 20-10.
The key to the win was Marshall’s abilty to shut down Kedrick Rhodes in the running game. He only generated 28 rush yards and while receiver T.Y. Hilton had a nice night with eight catches for 88 yards, none of them was really a game-breaker. FIU quarterback Wesley Carroll is one who relies on his playmakers and a mistake-free game wasn’t enough last night in St. Pete’s.
Louisville was nearly upended by the College of Charleston before restoring order and rallying to win and stay unbeaten. This game was similar to Davidson’s upset of Kansas on Monday, in that the three-point shot was critical. Charleston hit 12-of-23 from behind the arc, but as you would expect from a more physical power conference team, Louisville made up for it rebounding. Across the front line, center Gorgui Deng had 12 rebounds, power forward Chase Behanan had 8 and swingman Kyle Kuric had 8 more. In Tuesday’s main TV college hoops game, Gonzaga handled Butler 71-58, as the Bulldogs could muster only one point from the foul line.
Minnesota’s misery continued last night in Calgary as the Wild lost 2-1. It was the fifth straight loss and while Minnesota still leads Vancouver by three points in the Northwest Division, they have been passed Chicago for the top spot in the West. The Blackhawks dropped a tough one in Pittsburgh last night, drawing several early penalties, allowing an power play goal, digging themselves a 3-0 hole after two and then not quite being able to work their way out of it.
WHAT’S ON TAP TONIGHT
TCU-Louisiana Tech (8 PM ET, ESPN) will be the bowl game of the evening and will be featured on the home page later this morning, along with Boise State’s game tomorrow night against Arizona State, as the Notebook delves deeper into the Mountain West.
College basketball offers a good doubleheader, with Texas-North Carolina and Oklahoma State-Alabama going back-to-back on ESPN2 starting at 7 PM ET. The Longhorns, after a rocky November, have beaten UCLA and Temple in December, but a trip to Chapel Hill is a whole new test. Okie State is really playing poorly, and while ‘Bama hasn’t impressed, forwards JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell have to be enough to win this game at home and build the Tide’s resume for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth in March.
For hockey buffs, it’s Philadelphia-Dallas tonight at 7:30 PM ET on Versus, a game that fails to excite.
Tuesday, December 20
The college bowls swing back into action tonight, with Florida International meeting Marshall in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, played in St. Petersburgh (8 PM ET, ESPN). If this game draws your ridicule as an example of the excess of bowls, you are absolutely right. FIU had a disappointing year, finishing fourth in the Sun Belt and shouldn’t have gotten this bid ahead of second-place Western Kentucky (The Hilltoppers were passed over by a local team in FIU for this spot, along with the Sun Belt’s place in the New Orleans Bowl in favor of third place UL-Lafayette). Marshall struggled to 6-6 in Conference USA. But if you’re a college football fan, a bowl’s a bowl, and if you’re looking for something to watch tonight, the bowls are the prime focus when the NFL is off. Here are some thoughts on tonight’s game…
*Marshall has played the tougher schedule and by a lot. Even though the Thundering Herd only went 6-6, they went out and played West Virginia, Louisville, Virginia Tech and Ohio in their non-conference games. That’s in addition to a C-USA slate including Houston, Southern Miss and Tulsa.
*Florida International just couldn’t close out the tight games, losing nailbiters to Lafayette and Western Kentucky. But they went out and beat Louisville in September and also beat C-USA defending champ Central Florida, even if UCF didn’t have a good year this time out. Turnovers are absolutely vital to FIU’s success. They won this battle in those two non-conference games and lost it to Lafayette and to eventual Sun Belt champion Arkansas State, a game they led into the fourth quarter before falling apart.
*The player to watch tonight is Florida International’s running back Kedrick Rhodes. If FIU is going to win the turnover battle they want to run the ball effectively. Rhodes is a 1,000 yard rusher and Marshall has no comparable threat. Furthermore FIU quarterback Wesley Carroll is the persona of the no-mistake game manager.
*The wild-card factor is Florida International’s receiver T.Y. Hilton. In preseason he was expected to be the conference’s most explosive player and over 200 receiving yards against Louisville only heightened the expectations. It never panned out after that, but if Hilton can make plays after the catch, he can be the difference tonight in St. Pete.
*Marshall’s also a team where turnovers have played a big role in their losses. They lost six in an embarrassing 44-7 loss to Ohio. The run defense seems to have declined over the course of the year, playing well against Big East foes West Virginia and Louisville and being overrun by Houston and Tulsa. The flip side for the Thundering Herd is that those teams are ones where the passing game had to draw primary defensive focus and that won’t be the case with FIU.
Overall, I lean Florida International for the win. I think coach Mario Cristobal has the program on the right track and there’s better personnel in FIU’s program than Marshall.
*College basketball has the top four teams in the country—Syracuse, Ohio State, Kentucky and Louisville all playing home tuneup games. You can watch Kentucky’s scrimmage against Samford at 7 PM ET on ESPN2. That’s followed by a Butler-Gonzaga game that sounds better than it really is. Butler is off to a 5-6 start, while the Zags dropped early games to Illinois and Michigan State.
*Chicago goes to Pittsburgh in NHL action tonight for a 7:30 PM ET faceoff on Versus. Also of note is that Minnesota has the second night of a back-to-back in Calgary.
*Ben Roethlisberger got his yards last night in San Francisco, throwing for 330 against the San Francisco pass defense. But the Niners got everything else, from three interceptions to three sacks and ultimately a 20-3 win. This game’s importance in the playoff race will be taken up in the Notebook’s free weekly newsletter (normally sent out Monday, but whose inaugural edition is sent out this afternoon). Later this morning, the featured commentary will be comparing the Niners to NFC rivals Green Bay and New Orleans.
*Three surprises in college basketball last night. Davidson knocked off Kansas 80-74 on the strength of shooting 11-for-33 from three-point range, while Kansas struggled to a 6-of-23 note. That kind of air bombing can happen, but Kansas’ Bill Self can’t be happy about five turnovers from Tyshawn Taylor or the lack of anyone besides Taylor and Thomas Robinson contributing the offense. Down south, LSU beat Marquette 67-59 by shooting 53 percent from the floor. And the other surprise didn’t end in an upset, but Cornell took Illinois to the wire before losing 64-60 in Champaign. Although after Cornell hammered Wisconsin in the 2010 NCAA Tournament on the way to the Sweet 16 maybe I should stop being surprised.
*Vancouver shut out Minnesota in the big game in the Western Conference. The Canucks only got three power-play opportunities, but made two of them count on the way to a 4-0 lead. In the east, Boston beat Montreal 3-2 in a prototypical Bruins-Canadiens game. Goalies Tim Thomas and Carey Price had good games and the rivals came down to the bitter end. No power play goals for either side ultimately favored the Bruins who are better in 5-on-5 play than in special teams.
Monday, December 19
Some closing thoughts on NFL Sunday…
FROM THE PLAYOFF RACE
*Matthew Stafford reached a new level for Detroit yesterday. Trailing 27-14 he not only leads the Lions to two late touchdowns, but does it without the help of any kind of running game and the final drive goes 98 yards for the game-winner. The Lions win puts them and the Falcons both in very good shape in the wild-card race, at 9-5 with all chasing teams at 7-7.
*Would it have killed the Bears to call Brett Favre? Chicago threw away another game with Caleb Hanie tossing up three interceptions in a 38-14 home loss to Seattle that got away in the second half.
*New England’s pass rush continues to be this D’s saving grace. They got to Tim Tebow four times yesterday in Denver, and combined with the Broncos losing three fumbles, was enough to put an end to Denver’s unreal winning streak.
*LeSean McCoy continues to be the straw that stirs the drink in the Eagles’ offense, rushing for 102 yards in Philly’s astonishing 45-19 blasting of the Jets, a game they led 28-3 in the first half.
*Even if you believed that San Diego was surging (and wins over Buffalo and Jacksonville hardly had me convinced of that), there’s no way you saw that they would not only beat Baltimore in the prime-time game, but flat-out whip them in the line of scrimmage. The Chargers won rush yardage 145-89. They protected Philip Rivers to perfect. And on defense they sacked Joe Flacco seven times, four by Antwan Barnes.
*Did Jared Allen disappear in the Vikings’ 42-20 loss to the Saints? Its one thing to let Drew Brees torch you, but it’s another to leave him clean in the pocket all day, with Minnesota’s premier pass-rushing end nowhere to be found.
*I’m less than inspired by Cincinnati’s 20-13 win in St. Louis. Even allowing the game wasn’t really that close, because it took a very late touchdown to get the Rams within seven, this is still a game that saw the Bengals commit 11 penalties for over 100 yards. How do you that against a bad team with your season on the line?
*After his heroics in Dallas last Sunday night and a pretty good year, Eli Manning reverted to 2010 form against Washington, throwing three picks and resulting in an embarrassing home loss to a team that’s been improving the last few weeks.
*Even though his two interceptions were a big part of Houston’s loss to Carolina yesterday, I continue to like what I see in T.J. Yates. The third-string rookie quarterback completed 19-of-30 for 212 yards. I had the Texans on my list along with Chicago as teams that should’ve been dialing Favre, but in Houston’s case it looked like they had a good kid on the bench.
FROM THE UNBEATEN/WINLESS EXTREMES
*I watched Green Bay’s loss to Kansas City and not only wasn’t it a fluke, the 19-14 final makes the game seem closer than it really was. The Packer offensive line continues to be terrible, and Tamba Hali had a field day, sacking Aaron Rodgers three times. While this performance was poor in the extreme, the issues with protecting Rodgers have been persistent all year.
*Indianapolis quarterback Dan Orlovsky seems to have found his inner Tebow, in riding 82 pass yards to a win. Indy suddenly found a run defense, something they didn’t even have the last couple years with Peyton at the helm and shut down Tennessee’s Chris Johnson. Colt runner Donald Brown had 191 yards to key the win.
FROM THE DREGS
*Arizona’s John Skelton played really well yesterday against Cleveland. Skelton completes 28/46 for 313 yards and only three of the completions were to Larry Fitzgerald. He’ obviously spreading the ball around well.
*Ryan Fitzpatrick’s meltdown continues in Buffalo, throwing three interceptions in a 30-23 loss to Miami.
There wasn’t much besides NFL football going on yesterday, although a couple games were of note…
*Xavier played without its backcourt of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons against Oral Roberts, due to suspensions pertaining to the Musketeers’ brawl against Cincinnati. It was costly, as Xavier shot 32 percent from the floor, hit 1-of-11 from three and turned it over 17 times in a bad 64-42 loss.
*In the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks got a 4-2 win over Calgary. Both teams execute the power plays, scoring twice in those spots. But even with only 25 shots to stop, Flame goaltender Mika Kiprusoff still let two additional goals in.
MONDAY NIGHT ACTION
*The big game is the Pittsburgh-San Francisco battle on Monday Night Football (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). The Notebook preview of this game is in our free weekly newsletter that you can sign up for on the right hand side of the website.
*If, for some reason, you don’t want to watch football, the options are pretty limited. There’s no college basketball on national television and the only games worthy of even a raised eyebrow are Marquette-LSU and Creighton-Tulsa, as a pair of Top 25 teams go on the road. LSU has beaten Georgia Tech, Houston and Rutgers. None of which is earth-shattering, but it does suggest that the Tigers are no longer on the opposite extreme of the BCS leagues from their football teams.
*Versus carries its Monday night hockey fare with Anaheim-Dallas (7 PM ET), although it would have been nice if the network would carry Minnesota-Vancouver. Not only is it a late start (10 PM ET) that has less conflict with football, but the Wild are at the top of the Western Conference, while the Canucks are the conference’s defending champ.