Two weeks ago, when I predicted that Michigan would beat Ohio State on the road, and Minnesota would do the same to Indiana, I was hit with an avalanche of Big Ten fans insisting that I didn't know what I was talking about, and that IT WAS REALLY, REALLY HARD TO WIN ON THE ROAD IN THE BIG TEN. It was repeated so often that I started to wonder what the hell goes on in Big Ten gyms that makes them so different from everywhere else. Are the visiting players poisoned in some subtle way before the game? Does the home team get an extra player? Do they flash the lights and pump loud metal music into the visitors locker room, like the torture scenes in Homeland? What was this damn mystique?
I really wanted to be cynical about the whole thing — sure, it's not easy to win on the road, but it's no harder in the Big Ten than anywhere else — but then Michigan and Minnesota had awful first halves, came up short in their second-half comebacks, and the avalanche quickened. Big Ten road games were like land wars in Russia, said the legions. Then the anti-ACC comments trickled in, and I bunkered down in defense, accepting the Big Ten Road Logic against my better instincts.
Manassas Junction, Virginia, 1861 — It's July 21, and the Civil War is about to begin for real. Union soldiers march south from Washington, D.C., to meet the Confederates, and the feeling throughout the north is that the rebels will hightail it back south after they get massacred on day one. The high muckety-mucks from D.C. — congressmen, business owners, and various other rich people — come down to picnic and watch the rout. Instead, after a long day of fighting, Stonewall Jackson and the Confederates send their enemies into a headlong retreat for Washington. As they flee north, the soldiers find the roads blocked by the panicked civilians who had come to watch the end of the pesky rebellion. And that's how the Battle of Bull Run ended.
I was a Civil War nerd as a kid, so it probably figures that while watching the Pac-12 shock the world last Saturday, I thought of Bull Run. It was the conference's best day in years, and it completely transformed their image around the country. The three ranked teams did their job, and that was expected — USC beat Syracuse, Oregon beat Fresno State, Stanford beat Duke. But the little guys did their part, too. Arizona dominated no. 18 Oklahoma State at home, Oregon State stunned no. 13 Wisconsin, UCLA outgunned no. 16. Nebraska in one of the best games of the weekend, and Arizona State destroyed Illinois. (Only Washington disappointed in the high-profile games, failing to make a dent against the Baton Rouge Tigers of the NFL's Second Division.)
There are now five Pac-12 teams in the AP top 25, and two more within sniffing distance. It's a revolution! The games were mostly at home, sure, but even under those circumstances the odds were long. Yet the mighty programs of the Big 10 and Big 12 left with their tails between their legs, fans in tow, realizing they'd underestimated the enemy. Week 2 was the Pac-12's Bull Run, and now everyone has to take them seriously.
So I'm calling it: This is the year of the Pac-12. Here are three more semi-ignorant reasons to love the rejuvenated conference.
Graham did the Pitt job for all of 11 months. Then he sent his Panthers players a text message. The message announced he was leaving for Arizona State and was signed, “God Bless.” A few days later, Graham was knotting a maroon-and-yellow tie for yet another introductory press conference. “No class, he’s a quitter, soft, liar, hypocrite,” tweeted Pitt receiver Devin Street. He added, “I feel like dirt and I was just abused.”
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
In what may have been his last home game as a Colt, Reggie Wayne grabbed the game-winning touchdown reception in a stunning 19-16 win over the Texans. The Colts are now tied with the Vikings and Rams for the worst record in the NFL, ensuring that we'll probably have to hear the spiritually unsettling phrase "suck for Luck" over and over in the next two weeks until we suffer a mental breakdown.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
The no. 12 Florida Gators were pushed to overtime, but 25 points and 10 rebounds from Patric Young were enough to lift them over Arizona 78-72. "In my whole tenure being here I haven't really done too much offensively in the post to make teams come in and try to keep me out of my game," Young said. "Tonight I established that and I'm really thankful." In related news, Young learned to speak English from Nigerian spam emails.
Rivalry Week is here, and there's a lot more at stake than just pride. Which is great because, really, who cares about pride? Most of us threw that out the window when we went on welfare just so we could afford HBO. It's the American story, folks. Don't blame the messenger. Anyway, there are more games with BCS implications this week than I can ever remember. The rundown is enough to make you store canned peaches and rifles in an underground shelter and pray for Thursday. So, here it be. (Note: I realize that not all of these games are true rivalries, so quit it with your semantics. There are bigger problems in this world, dude, such as your reflexive anger at trivialities.)
Stanford – An article with the headline “For once, Stanford RBs grab spotlight from Luck” shows that even in grabbing the spotlight from Andrew Luck by rushing for 446 yards, none of Stanford’s running backs could get their name in the headline, or get Luck’s out of it.
Kansas State – Despite a victory over the Jayhawks, the K-State Wildcats were unable to get Kansas coach Turner Gill fired. This came two weeks after Gill said: “We have some work to do on that side of the ball … or on all sides of the ball, for that matter.”
Penn State – Despite being one of the least electrifying players in the country, Matt McGloin has “Irish bravado.”
Texas Tech – With a shocking upset win over Oklahoma, that Texas Tech finally won the hearts and minds of Lubbock sports fans who had spent the last three years mourning the end of the Lubbock Renegades.
Arizona State – The Sun Devils must’ve done something impressive in their bye week in order to jump into the BCS, despite being unranked the week before and passing two teams that also had byes. At this rate, Arizona State will be in position to play in the national title, so long as they don’t play any other games until then.
Georgia – Controversy filled the campus as a satirical cartoon implied that Georgia students are more enthused about drinking and watching football than they are about their academics.
Across the college football landscape Saturday, undefeated heads were rolling. Georgia Tech lost, Illinois lost, Michigan lost, and for a while, it looked like that unlucky group would welcome a fourth member. Humility and history beckoned in College Park, as no. 8 Clemson trailed Maryland 35-17 in the third quarter. The usual spark was missing. Quarterback Tajh Boyd had a terrible first quarter, highlighted by an interception return for a touchdown, and the Tigers defense showed no signs of making a stop. In situations like these, there are two choices for the favorite: go quietly into the night, or
Let's confront the scourge of college football. Forget the boosters, the agents, the arrests, and the embarrassing lack of a playoff. Those distractions can be stored in the attic of our minds on Saturdays. What's really aggravated me recently — and what I'm convinced will soon have a major impact on a big game — is the excessive-celebration penalty.
On Friday night, BYU and Central Florida were knotted at 17 in the fourth quarter, when UCF forced BYU to punt. It was a booming 61-yard kick, and J.J. Worton had to sprint toward his goal line to receive it. The ball went off his hands as he tried to make the catch, and BYU's Michael Alisa recovered at the 8-yard line and ran into the end zone. Because it was a "muffed" punt rather than a fumble, BYU wasn't allowed to advance past the point of recovery. But members of the punt unit, thinking they had just given their team a critical lead, were ecstatic. They formed a massive, celebratory pile in the end zone, and the flags flew for excessive celebration. Instead of first-and-goal, BYU was pushed back to the 23. The Cougars eventually scored, but the penalty could have changed the outcome of the game.
And what's the point? There's so much adrenaline in football, so much violent tension, that to expect players not to celebrate after a score is absurd. What's behind this conservative ideal? Exactly whom does celebration hurt? Why don't we want players to express their joy and showcase their personalities?
Football is supposed to be fun, but the draconian rules feel designed to stifle that aspect and turn the players into automatons. Any flicker of personality is punished. In its absence, we're supposed to revere some imaginary stoic star who calmly hands the ball to the official after a big touchdown and trots back to the sideline. It almost feels like the NCAA is trying to enforce a broader moral code, and, hypocrisy aside, that is most definitely not its place. It makes me so mad I could dance in front of a referee.
If I had to design the touchdown celebration rules, they'd be a lot shorter than the NCAA's Rule 9-2. This is all you need:
1. Don't taunt, bait, or demean an opponent. Keep the celebration about you and your team. 2. Keep it under a minute. 3. The team with the best choreography gets a four-point bonus.
I'm willing to negotiate on the last rule. Otherwise, one and two are all you need.
Let's move on to the Week 4 highlights before I make myself dizzy.
Lately I've been getting that panicky feeling in the pit of my stomach that lets me know the weeks are about to get really long. It's a seasonal thing. Once baseball ends there is literally nothing to get us from Sunday night to Saturday morning. OK, not literally. Maybe you've got friends. Maybe family. But those things can't fulfill you the same way. So my question this week is, how do non-baseball fans make it through July and August? Those months are already the worst of the year. If I didn't have baseball to pass the time, I'd probably pay thousands to those lobbyists who want to make hibernation pills available to the public. And guys, I'm not even sure those lobbyists exist.
But I shouldn't complain. Playoff baseball is about to start, the college football season is in full swing, and October has the best weather of any month in the year. This is the golden age. Let's get to business.
It was a fine, solid, decent week in college football. Not great, because that would imply the promise of high drama was realized, and that didn't happen very often Saturday. It was a bit of a day-long tease, in fact, with game after game ending one or two plays short of delirium. But as a table-setter, which is all we can really ask, Week 3 delivered.
First, let's begin with some
That no. 1 ranking next to Oklahoma's name didn't feel quite right. As I mentioned in the preview post, the Sooners are 1-5 in their past six BCS bowl games, and they've had some trouble beating Texas over that same stretch. I didn't trust them, and maybe I got a little too swept up in the narrative of Florida State's resurgence.
Grind your teeth and set your jaws. It's college football, Week 3.
Remember Keith Jackson's trademark call? "Whoaaaaaa Nellie!" I was sitting around my apartment the other day thinking about that. Whoaaaaa Nellie. Who are you, Nellie? Where did you come from? And for God's sake, why are we trying to hold you back? What do you have in store?
A quick Google search later, and it turns out Jackson doesn't quite know. That makes total sense to me. Whenever I get excited about college football, I speak in gibberish. There's not a good way to articulate how psyched I am, so I just make up something that feels appropriate. Something like the first sentence of this blog post. Or a passionate string of words inspired by, but not belonging to, the Italian language. This is also how a crazy person operates, but I'm not afraid of the comparison. Not during college football season.
When I was a kid, before I knew any better, I rooted for Notre Dame football. You can blame the influence of my stepfather or my Catholic roots or the musty old books I found in the school library, with their whitewashed tales of Knute Rockne. It certainly didn't hurt that starting in 1991, every Irish home game was on television. In any case, one of the greatest moments of my young life came in 1993, when Notre Dame beat Charlie Ward and no. 1 Florida State 31-24 in the second-to-last game of the season. All that remained was to knock off Boston College at home, and the Irish would have a shot at a national championship.
But things didn't go as planned. The Eagles jumped out fast and held their ground. It took a furious 22-point, fourth-quarter comeback for Notre Dame to reclaim a slim lead near the end, but David Gordon, BC's left-footed kicker, found himself lining up a 41-yard attempt with seconds left to pull off a stunner. The kick wobbled, and appeared to be heading right. I still remember the tiny swell of hope as I let my mind map out the ball's trajectory. It would veer wide, wouldn't it?
No. Gordon had done his worst.
A year or two later, I realized there was no good reason for me to support Notre Dame. In college football terms, I became a man without a country. That's continued to present day, and it's actually quite a nice break from the usual stress of affiliation. But the melodic strains of those two weeks in 1993 have persisted, reemerging from time to time in my personal sports landscape. Ward played 10 seasons for my New York Knicks, including the ill-fated 1999 trip to the NBA Finals. After his starring role in my personal sports tragedy, Boston College coach Tom Coughlin later balanced his karmic output in one of my greatest triumphs — a New York Giants Super Bowl win against the hated, undefeated Patriots. And 17 years to the day after his kick, David Gordon married my elderly Aunt Gloria.
Just kidding on that last one. Nevertheless, the connection lingers. That's the origin story, and this is Gordon's Left Foot.