Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Postgame Report Card: Steelers 23, Ravens 20 (OT)

The word of the game is... disappointing. In a game where the Ravens could have taken control of the AFC North, they could simply not keep their composure and let a lead slip away. Kudos to this team for coming back and forcing overtime, particularly behind a rookie quarterback, but this was a game that should have been sewn up and wasn’t. A terribly disappointing game for a Ravens fan.

And just a note: why does this have to be our blog's 100th post?

Offense - Overall Grade: B
Quarterbacks: C

Flacco played well enough to win, and for a rookie quarterback under those conditions his grade easily could have been higher. However, he still waited too long in the pocket, failed to protect the football on a few key occasions and got away with several throws that could have been intercepted.
Running Backs: C+
This unit did make some key plays, and had some stretches in which it was able to control the game. The difficulty was that the running game was not consistently solid, and that was one of many factors that led to Pittsburgh getting back into the game. Traditionally this unit has taken over when the Ravens obtained a second half lead, but they failed to do so on Monday night.
Wide Receivers: B-
Derrick Mason played a monster of a game, catching everything possible and taking immense hits in the meantime. However, he was the only receiver to be significantly involved in the offense, and that’s going to need to change.
Tight Ends: C-
Todd Heap has to start showing up. Zero catches for the Ravens’ all-pro tight end, not to mention very poor blocking. Wilcox caught an easy touchdown pass, but aside from that this group was a nonfactor yet again.
Offensive Line: B
The offensive line was not great by any means, but considering the opponent and the environment I would say they did an admirable job overall. They generally gave Flacco good time and they occasionally opened up good holes in the running game. The consistency is not there yet, though, and that’s another easy factor that can be pointed to as to why the Ravens failed to win this game.

Defense - Overall Grade: A
Defensive Line: A

Superb job, as always. This unit controlled the line of scrimmage from the opening kickoff to the bitter end. Regardless of the running back injuries, none of Pittsburgh’s backs were going to find room against that defensive front.
Linebackers: B+
The linebackers did play exceptionally well, as they harried Ben Roethlisberger all game and stuffed the parade of Steelers’ running backs. The grade is marked down because of Jarrett Johnson’s personal foul penalty in the third quarter that, in my opinion, led to the Ravens losing this football game.
Defensive Backs: B+
All in all a very solid job by the Ravens’ defensive backfield, but a few key lapses keeps this grade from being an A. There were still times when they lost receivers (Hines Ward) running free, and tackling as always is a concern.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: B
Kicker: B

Stover took care of business on field goals (2-2), and did a fairly good job of kicking deep. Only a few kickoffs had a chance at being returnable.
Punter: A+
Arguably the best performance of the night, Sam Koch kept the Ravens in this football game. On eight punts he averaged 47.4 yards and pinned the Steelers twice within the 20. Fantastic performance.
Returners: C-
Yamon Figurs had one of his worst games as a Raven. He was hesitant and made consistently poor decisions with the football. For this game, I’ll chalk it up to rust because of his week off.
Coverage: B
Figurs didn’t get very much help at all from his blocking, but the coverage unit was able to hold down Santonio Holmes and Mewelde Moore to under 20 yards a kick return and under 5 yards a punt return.

Coaching - Overall Grade: B+
Offensive: B

Cam did an excellent job with the offense, although not in a winning effort. Certainly things could have gone better but to be able to get that much production out of a rookie starter is impressive under these conditions. It did seem, however, that the Ravens’ offense was far more vanilla than in past weeks and didn’t have many of the same wrinkles. Where was the hurry-up we saw in the first two games?
Defensive: A
Even though the defense let them back in the game, it’s hard to fault them—they controlled the Steelers nearly all game, and one of the touchdowns against Baltimore was on defense. They had one slip by them in the overtime period, but there’s not much that can be done about it.

And for my MVP/LVP...
MVP (Most Valuable Player) – Joe Flacco –
I know I gave him a C, and I know that he made some crucial mistakes; however, Flacco did rally the team back to score the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. For a rookie to show that in his third start, on MNF at Heinz Field, is MVP-worthy.
LVP (Least Valuable Player) – Jarrett Johnson – I know I gave the linebackers a B+, and I know that he played a good game; however, he made the single most boneheaded play of this game. His 15-yard personal foul penalty was wholly inexcusable and gave the Steelers momentum when they had none and were down by ten. And if you think I’m going to let this go…

Bonus grade:
Discipline: D- - I won’t let this go. There was hope that with Harbaugh (and this might still be the case later in his tenure) we had seen the last of the Ravens gagging on national television and looking like immature fools. Unfortunately this hope was misplaced, because the Ravens committed the same silly penalties in prime time that they have been for years. When will they stop embarrassing themselves?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ravens-Steelers Preview: Playing with the Big Boys

Windsor and I ventured to Ann Arbor this weekend to catch the Michigan-Wisconsin game, and by the time there was 3 minutes left in the third quarter and Michigan trailed 19-0 we wished we had traveled to Clemson instead. By the end, as Michigan upset #9 Wisconsin 27-25 in a furious comeback and fantastic finish, there was no were else is the world I would have rather been. Look out for a full recap and report on Tuesday of one of the most exciting game I have had the pleasure to attend, especially with Windsor. I know this is a Maryland blog, but Go Blue!

However, the world of football moves fast, and it is already time to turn around and prepare for the primetime debut of the Baltimore Ravens. It is no secret that this is an intense rivalry, and that this game means a great deal more to the teams engaged than control of the AFC North. The Ravens have fans starting to believe, at least tentatively, that perhaps this team has a chance to make the playoffs, to even win the division. With San Diego barely putting Oakland to bed today and the AFC South not playing to its potential, the playoffs seem like a legitimate possibility. The Steelers, on the other hand, are trying to reassert themselves as the top dog in the North after a lackluster start that has included a loss to a resurgent Philadelphia squad and a defensive struggle against the hapless Browns.

What I’m Wondering:

How effective will Flacco be against a smart Steelers D?
As long as the Ravens are starting a rookie in Joe Flacco, the quarterback position will continue to be the Number One concern for the Ravens. The Steelers front seven is known to pull numerous stunts and the occasional zone blitz at the line, which will go a long way towards confusing the young (but so far effective) Ravens signal caller. One player in particular to watch out for is second-year player LaMarr Woodley, a force of nature in college, has taken time to bulk up and adjust to the pro game but has 2 sacks in the first 3 games and has been said to figure more and more into the pass rush of the Steelers this season. Lest we forget, Troy Polamalu has a long history of wreaking havoc on Ravens quarterbacks from the safety spot for years. The last time a Ravens rookie qb faced the Steelers for the first time it was not pretty. Will Flacco be able to stay poised in the highest-pressure situation he has faced as a Raven.

Are the Ravens ready for top-flight competition?
I understand how excited everyone is after a 2-0 start against division opponents- really, I do. But did anyone see the Browns-Bengals game today? These are two of the worst teams in the league, and the Ravens failed to put either team away until late in the game. The Steelers, meanwhile, are reigning division champs who won the Super Bowl only 3 years ago. They may have had a difficult run of it so far, but this team is still one of the top teams in the AFC. Unlike years ago, they have recently boasted an explosive offense to go with the second best defense in the NFL. Beating up on the doormats of the AFC is always fun, but how will the Ravens react to playing against top competition for the first time this season?

Will Ben Roethlisberger be held in check?
The defense has looked incredible, ranking 1st in the NFL in yards allowed- again however, against absolutely atrocious offenses. The Steelers, for their part, haven’t looked all that secure along the offensive line themselves. Alan Faneca means a whole lot more than a big body in the middle of the field. He is the field general of the offensive line, setting protections and identifying the rush. With Faneca gone to the Jets, the Steelers have scrambled to make adjustments. The line fell apart against the Eagles, allowing 9 sacks, and didn’t look much better against the Browns. Will the Steelers be able to keep Roethlisberger on his feet long enough to make plays with his arm?

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

This is a rivalry. I know everyone in the AFC North claims a rivalry with the Steelers- one of the troubles with such a repetitive playing schedule, but the Ravens are the only team that has been able to challenge the Steelers consistently in recent years, leading the series 4-2 since 2005. Regardless of the year, the Ravens have always been a tough play for the Steelers. Why? They do what the Steelers do, only they are just as intimidating up front. While the Steelers have migrated more towards a finesse offense with the departure of Jerome Bettis and the maturation of Ben Roethlisberger, the Ravens have remained hardnosed and old fashioned, if old fashioned is defined as a mediocre offense. Don’t throw the records out altogether, but remember that far more will be on the minds of these players tomorrow night.

The Ravens Offense vs. the Steelers Defense
As predicted here last week, Ray Rice’s carries were replaced in large part by Willis McGahee and La’Ron McClain, though neither one was particularly effective. What did surprise me was the failure of Cam Cameron to utilize either back more in passing situations out of the backfield. Flacco made some poor decisions and could have used more of a safety valve to throw to, particularly early on in the game before the defense handed turnovers and great field position over to the offense. I believe the coaching staff may have been too ambitious with Flacco’s development last week, and they would be loathe to repeat the same mistake this week. The running game will likely not be explosive against this tough Steelers defense- that is to be expected. But if the backs can be used to manufacture a short passing game and keep the front seven spread out along the line of scrimmage with linebackers protecting the flats, Flacco could be given the time he needs not to rush his throws downfield.

Unlike Romeo Crennel, Mike Tomlin has been in a position to bring the house. During his year in Minnesota as defensive coordinator, the Vikings ranked 1st in rush defense but 31st in pass defense. To compensate for this disparity the Vikings rarely had the luxury of blitzing, finishing 25th in the NFL in sacks with 30. Upon arrival with the Steelers and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers dropped somewhat in sacks to only 36 in 2007, but remain one of the more fearsome units in the AFC, particularly in terms of stopping the run. That could get into Flacco’s head the first time he is knocked to the ground. Cam Cameron will need to diversify his play calling to keep the Steelers away from the line to open up enough lanes for McGahee and McClain to legitimize the threat of the run.

The Ravens Defense vs. the Steelers Offense
Like the Browns and Bengals, it is difficult to determine what the Steelers offense is right now. This team struggled to put up points against any of their opponents except the Texans in the opener, and without Willie Parker running the football it could get worse. However, I have never felt that Parker was the key to the Steelers success on the ground. The Steelers have always succeeded in a scheme with their running backs- and Rashard Mendenhall, though he was the most overrated running back in the draft, will be a serviceable backup.

The Steelers offensive line has struggled, but it is not so bad that it cannot be remedied. Pittsburgh has been so dominant up front for so long that they may have taken it for granted- calling plays that took far too long to develop. Roethlisberger may have to get back to his roots, getting out of the pocket a bit more and even using his legs to get necessary first downs. Last year in particular Roethlisberger was encouraged to become even more of a pocket passer. Allowing Roethlisberger more freedom should alleviate the difficulties caused by a confused offensive line that does not lack for talent but has yet to gel so far this season.

The Rundown
This game comes down to one sad but critical fact- looking back the Ravens haven’t beaten anyone they should not have beaten. The Ravens, even if they were the 20th or 25th best team in the NFL would still have beaten the Bengals and Browns. So are the Ravens any better than we thought they would be, or are the two Ohio doormats just that bad? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Steelers are good. They have proven it by winning the division consistently since 2000 with the exceptions of 2005 (Cincinnati) and 2006 (Ravens). Based on what I know, the Ravens are unlikely to pull out a win, especially in the swirling winds of Heinz Field.

Flacco will be harried and confused by the Steelers 3-4 defensive front and the running game will not be able to do enough to keep the chains moving consistently. Meanwhile, the Steelers will break out of their offensive funk long enough to make a few big plays and have greater success on the ground than most prognosticators anticipate. The Ravens may be good, but they are not ready for primetime.

The nod goes to the Steelers, 24-13

Photo Credit: (Baltimore Sun; Lloyd Fox)

Postgame Report Card: Maryland 20-Clemson 17

The word of the game is....shocking. Shocking that Maryland looked terrible in the first half. Shocking that James Davis and C.J. Spiller had nearly 100 yards a piece after the first half. Shocking that Maryland adjusted well for the second half and scored two touchdowns. Shocking that Clemson crumbled at home. Shocking that Maryland could come back.

For the second time in a row, Maryland defeated a ranked-Clemson team while being unranked themselves in Death Valley. Despite a terrible first half, where really it should have been over, the Terps put enough together in the second half and completely shut down the Clemson offense to win. Ralph Friedgen said after the game that it was that Maryland made less mistakes than Clemson, but a lot more credit should be given to the Terps.

For WMUC, I was down in Death Valley only 10 feet from Deborah Yow in the Clemson press box. What we all saw shocked us. Maryland has won three straight and improved to 4-1, with two wins over ranked opponents. Could anyone have seen this after what happened in Tennessee?

Offense- Overall Grade: C+
Quarterbacks: C+
One of the overall themes you'll see in this report card is a tale of two halves. Chris Turner was terrible in the first half; he himself said it was the worst first half since Middle Tennessee State. But he didn't do anything destructive. The second half was muc better, he looked more fluid and took advantage of Clemson's defensive issues across the middle. His worst pass in the second half was deflected off a receiver's back and caught. Overall he did enough, just he still need to play a full game.
Running backs: C
Da'Rel Scott was a complete non-factor against Clemson's powerful defensive line, averaging 1.7 yards a carry. He didn't have a lot of help from the play-calling and Clemson has a solid run defense, but Scott needs to be a little better, though he did have a touchdown. He would have had another touchdown that was ruled off because of a false start. Practically no play for Davin Meggett or Morgan Green.
Wide Receivers: B
The WR core was big in the second half. The Tigers kept Darrius Heyward-Bey with no catches, so Danny Oquendo was the senior leader with four catches. Mainly the WR core was heads up, catching the deflected pass and not dropping a potential touchdown. Heyward-Bey did have a huge end-around for 75 yards, and juking and jiving most of the way.
Tight Ends: B
Dan Gronkowski does exist! Only two catches but both were on first down and resulted in first downs. I've often felt Turner doesn't use Gronkowski enough, be they had a good relationship today.
Offensive Line: C
On the one hand, Turner didn't get sacked or throw a pick, and against Clemson's line that is very impressive. On the other, Maryland running game couldn't get anything going, and that destroyed the first half possibilities. Worse, a false start negated a Maryland touchdown.

Defense- Overall Grade: B
Defensive Line: C+
The first half, the line got run all over by Davis and Spiller. Both ended with over 100 yards and a touchdown. But in the second half, the line dominated, completely shutting down the running game and effectively pressuring Cullen Harper. They held when Maryland had the lead. It took a while, but the defensive finally got the job done, and just in time.
Linebackers: B+
Alex Wujciak and Moise Fokou are absolute monsters, combining for 25 tackles. They had to make big stops in both halves to help fill in the line holes. Obviously had some problems in the first half like the whole defense did, but a much better job all-around for the LB core.
Secondary: B
Coverage for the most part was solid, Harper never had a chance to throw deep, instead focusing on short passes. It is hard to grade since Clemson focused mainly on running, but because the Terps are dealing with a lot of injuries in the secondary, it was a good job overall.

Special Teams- Overall Grade: B+
Kicker: A
Obi Egekeze had two field goals against the Death Valley student section and did well on kickoffs.
Punter: A
Travis Baltz might be the best player outside of Heyward-Bey. He landed three punts inside the 20 and averaged 43.9 yards a punt.
Returners: C+
Nothing special, nothing dire. Torrey Smith had some decent kickoff returns and Oquendo had less than great punt returns.
Coverage: B+
Spiller, a very dangerous returner, didn't have any big returns. No decent punt returns either. But the big thing was the fumble recovery in the first half on the punt that set up the first score for Maryland.

Coaching- Overall Grade: C+
Offense: C-
Overall not good play-calling from James Franklin. The first half was extremely predictable, with Scott always getting the ball and Clemson stuffing him. Then, with two starts inside the Clemson 30, neither turned into touchdowns. The second half was better, but a lot of help was from the defense. Plays need to become less predictable and get your stars the ball a little more.
Defense: B-
Chris Cosh's defense didn't look ready for the Thunder and Lightning duo in the first half, giving up 100 yards to each in the first half. But the second half adjustments were great, forcing short passes and shutting down the running game. No points in the second half for Clemson gave Maryland a chance to win, and they did. I still have issues with Cosh, but his defense came through when they needed to.

MVP: Alex Wujciak
Wujciak is just a monster, getting 16 tackles on the day and leading a stellar second half defense.
LVP: Da'Rel Scott
It is hard to have an LVP is such a big victory, but Scott's lack of production really hindered the offense's capabilities. Only 1.7 yards a carry just won't cut it.

Maryland (4-1) will head on the road to take on Virginia next week.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Pregame Thoughts: Maryland-Clemson

So here we are, the start of the ACC schedule in a season that has already been a roller coaster in classic fashion. The Terps come into this game with the confidence that they can beat anyone (Cal) when they focus themselves and the knowledge that they can lose to anyone (MTSU) when they let their guard down for a moment. This game is a classic litmus test, where the identity of this team could be revealed. Over the past two weeks Maryland has accomplished what they’ve needed to, in (1) beating a major power and (2) flexing offensive dominance over an inferior team.

Make no mistake; Clemson needs this game to establish their identity as much as the Terps. The only significant competition Clemson has faced was Alabama, where they were entirely dominated from the opening kickoff which resulted in their only loss this year. Since then Clemson has dominated creampuff competition; which one is real? For Clemson fans that might be answered this weekend. As for a few questions Maryland looks to have answered…

Can Chris Turner step up on the big stage?
Terrapin fans wanted Turner to put up back-to-back solid games and he did just that. Now, Turner will be asked to put up not just a solid but a great game. Clemson will score a good number of points; that’s an assumption that this offense has to make. It will be up to Turner to make sound decisions and to effectively go through his progression. He must be capable of finding his second, third options, as Clemson will key in on Heyward-Bey and try to scheme him out of the game. This should open up opportunities for Isaiah Williams, Danny Oquendo, Torrey Smith, and Dan Gronkowski among others.

Will the secondary be able to hold down Clemson’s passing game? The big question mark on this defense is the poor performance and lack of depth in the secondary. The secondary was torched against Cal in the fourth quarter and struggled with EMU’s passing game. As a related question, Terp fans have to wonder which pass rush will show up. Will it be the one that put on consistent pressure against Cal, or the one that has struggled to get even mild pressure against any other team? That, more than anything else, might be the key for the secondary’s success or failure. One name to watch: Cameron Chism, freshman cornerback – fantastic athlete who Friedgen wanted to redshirt but has been put into duty because of the need for cornerbacks, and is expected to see some playing time. How much is yet to be determined.

Will the Terps continue their dominance in the ground game? The Terrapins have shut down every rushing offense they have faced, and the Da’Rell Scott-led running corps has been nothing short of outstanding. The problem is that none of the Terrapin’s opponents have had the sort of neither two-headed running attack that Clemson has, nor the superior size on the defensive line that Clemson has. The Cal Bears sported a top running game and was shut down by this front seven, but whether the Terps will be able to do the same to CJ Spiller and James Davis (who have historically had significant success against Maryland) is still a big question. The running game offensively for the Terps last week was lackluster against EMU, but the loss of Da’Rell Scott clearly hurt as Davin Meggett was shown to be clearly not ready for the starting role. With Da’Rell Scott coming back from injury, I expect Meggett to still thrive as a secondary back to come in after Scott has worn the defense down. Also keep in mind that Josh Portis led the Terps in rushing last game against EMU, so he could be yet another wildcard in this game.

Can Egekeze make them when they matter? Egekeze finally has made a field goal. Check. He has made multiple field goals. Check. He has made a clutch field goal. Not yet. If Maryland is going to win by this game, it will almost certainly come down to a very small margin and Egekeze very well might be the difference. Now that he has some confidence maybe, just maybe, he can become the hero and not the goat.

Those are just a few points that are important to look out for. While both teams sport excellent running attacks, I expect this game to be decided on the arms of both quarterbacks and this game to become something of a shootout. Call it a hunch.

The Terps have a chip on their shoulder and know that they have a real shot of entering the mix for the ACC title this year. That being said, it’s hard to call the upset with such overwhelming firepower for Clemson against a banged-up Maryland defense.

Prediction: Clemson, 35-21

Photo Credit: (Baltimore Sun:Doug Kapustin), (AP: Richard Shiro)

#2 Terps Men's Soccer Takes Aim at #1 Wake Forest

A battle for #1 in the nation will commence at Ludwig Field on Friday night. The #2 Maryland Terrapins take on the defending national champion #1 Wake Forest. This game is bound to be great.

Maryland has had a tremendous start. Now armed with go-to strikers redshirt sophomore Jason Herrick and freshman Casey Townsend (four goals), Maryland has seen a lot more success out of the gate than last year. Junior defender Omar Gonzalez has been great on defense and has three goals, and senior midfielder Graham Zusi (pictured) scored the goal-winner against Boston College. Thanks to solid all-around play, Maryland sits at 6-1-0, winning their last five at home and 2-0 in the ACC. Maryland has outscored their opponents 15-3 and has defeated three-then ranked teams: UCLA, Boston College, and Duke.

Wake Forest so far is defending its title well, being the only team left in Division I that was won every game, sitting at 6-0-0, with two wins against then-ranked teams: UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. Senior striker Marcus Tracy (pictured), the College Cup MVP, has been stellar in his final season, notching six goals and three assists, including three game-winners. Top to bottom this team is solid, including Baltimore native Akita Fitzgerald who has five shutouts and has only allowed three goals in his seven games between the pipes. Wake Forest has outscored their opponents 21-3.

This is a classic ACC battle, two very evenly matched teams will take the field. Maryland's all-around talented squad will have the home field and 6,500 fan advantage whereas Wake Forest has the experience of big games and the reputation to win. We may not get a winner, we may not get a glimpse of what the better team is after the game. But one thing is for sure. A #1 vs. #2 matchup will commence, and both teams will be ready to fight for it all.

You can listen to the game on WMUC Sports at 8:00 PM on Friday, or if you have cable you can watch it on Fox Soccer Channel. You don't want to miss this game.

(Photo credits: Maryland athletics (Zusi), ESPN (Tracy))

Free Kicks

I saw it. I flipped over to the USC-Oregon State game as an afterthought when I realized I had already seen that episode of “First 48”. Then things got interesting. In the summer you forget the sudden-ness of football, the feeling that you know on that play that things will change for one way or the other. There are no fouling off pitches in football. There was nothing more exciting than watching USC line up for the onside kick...

God I Love Thursday Football

I shuddered when I saw the students start to claw over the walls with 2:39 left to go in the game. I winced when I saw Mike Riley doused with Gatorade with 1:40 left and an onside kick yet to play, clinging to a 6 point lead. I had seen all of this before. USC would somehow come back and steal a game they had no business winning. But then Oregon State recovered the onside kick and the celebration could begin in Corvallis. How incredible is college football? Let’s be honest, no one really thought that Oregon State could beat Southern Cal… again. This team that was throttled by Penn State and Stanford took apart the Trojans from start to finish.

Then again, USC has had a tendency to give away the easy one lately- be it to Stanford or Oregon State, they seem to wilt when facing a team that refuses to be intimidated. Either way, I love games like this. In the NFL, a 1-9 team beating an 8-2 team is unusual, but not Earth shattering; the league is built on parity. College Football is built on a hierarchy, of Storied Programs, Major Conferences, Mid-Majors, FBS, etc etc. It is so much sweeter to watch that hierarchy turned on its head.

It’s Almost Funny… Nope, Still Depressing

Matt Millen is gone. I will spare you the diatribe about how terrible a General Manager he was, that will be all over the news. The more important thing to consider is the future of the Lions. The city of Detroit will shrug their shoulders and give a weak smile, but the problems of the Lions will likely remain for years to come. This is a team that just seems snake-bitten with incompetence at all levels. People will applaud Bill Ford Jr. for his statements and subsequent pressure to remove Millen, but we shouldn’t be too excited. The Fords have never cared much about the quality of their product on the field.

Like Peter Angelos, they care about keeping butts in the seats. They knew that the fan base had reached its breaking point. Lions fans are loyal fans, but even their spirits have limits- a statewide depression lasting over a decade long and 8.9% unemployment will drag down the willingness to shell out a few thousand to watch a football team go 4-12. The Fords are following in Angelos’ footsteps- do nothing until the fans start to turn away, and then fire some executives to make it look like real changes are being made. It won’t be until the Lions enjoy a couple more seasons of failure that a complete overhaul will be made. The slogan for this year’s Lions reads “Do You Believe in Now?” No, we don’t. Don't ask again for another few years.

Now That’s Some Job Security

The Mets have awarded GM Omar Minaya a 4-year extension, and I actually don’t have a huge problem with giving him an extension. I do raise an eyebrow about giving him an extension NOW. I mean, this tells the fans that where they are is okay, that possibly missing the playoffs after a sizeable September lead is more than acceptable. I am not arguing that Minaya is to blame for the 2007 or 2008 collapses, but that the organization cannot start patting itself on the back just yet. Remember, the only reason they are still tied for the wildcard is because the Brewers decided to lose 5 out of 14 during one stretch earlier this month. Minaya put this team together, and if this team fails to make the playoffs with a $140,000,000 payroll, fans will have to question what they are paying for. If you have the second highest payroll in the majors to work with, you better be able to put together a playoff team. If not, then maybe there IS a problem with the GM.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Prospect Report: Postseason Awards

Yes, yes, another opinion post, I know. But! I promise I’ll get back to writing actual prospect reports once we move closer to the Arizona Fall League. But in the meantime, seeing as the Orioles recently announced their postseason minor league awards (naming Matt Wieters the Player of the Year and Brad Bergesen the Pitcher of the Year) I felt I would put in my own award picks. While I am in complete agreement with the Orioles on those two picks, I thought I’d throw in some awards of my own to hand out.

Pitcher of the Year Brad Bergesen I felt like possibly going in a different direction, but if I did it would be for no other reason than to be contrarian. Bergesen was outstanding this year, setting the Bowie Baysox team record for wins after coming up from High-A Frederick. No reason to disagree with the organization on this one, however Chris Tillman is a tempting pick simply for his upside.

Player of the YearMatt Wieters Goes without saying; although Montanez won the triple crown in the Eastern League Matt Wieters established himself as possibly the best prospect in baseball. Because of his outstanding play both offensively and defensively, not to mention his consistent improvement throughout the year even through an upward move in competition, Wieters is the clear winner. It is a tough break for Montanez, because any other year he would’ve been bringing home this piece of hardware.

Most Improved PitcherBrad Bergesen Bergesen picks up his second award here, albeit by a very slim margin. Bergesen went 3-6 last year in ten starts at Frederick with an ERA of 5.75 runs per game, and solidified his, well, anonymity. Essentially forgotten, he burst onto the scene this year and (see above) put up the finest performance of any pitcher in the organization. I will mention however, that a strong case can be made for Brandon Erbe. Erbe tweaked his mechanics over the offseason and regained his high prospect status with a resurgent performance this year after a horrendous 2007.

Most Improved PlayerBrandon Snyder What can I say, I’m a huge fan of Brandon Snyder. The topic of my very first Prospect Report this summer, Brandon Snyder had a fantastic season at High-A Frederick which has helped complete his comeback from a serious shoulder injury early in his career. Snyder was essentially dismissed after his lackluster play following shoulder surgery, putting up merely average numbers at Delmarva. He followed that disappointment by leading the Hawaiian League in batting and catching fire at Frederick. He finished the year batting .315 with 13 home-runs and 80 runs batted in for the Keys, picking up the offensive slack once Wieters left for Bowie.

Most Disappointing PitcherTim Bascom Bascom struggled mightily in his second professional year, pitching to a 5.78 ERA with a record of 6-5 in 19 starts. His career started in stunning fashion last season as he impressed mightily at Delmarva and contributed to the Keys’ run to the playoffs late in the year. Bascom raised hopes as being a big-time prospect, but his struggles this year raise serious doubts as to that possibility.
I will note, however, that it was seriously tempting to make this a shared award with Pedro Beato—Beato’s recent shoulder surgery causes me to cut him some slack. All that aside, I will say that Pedro Beato’s significant drop in velocity and performance makes me far more worried than Bascom’s struggles as they indicate more of a serious long-term problem. While Beato was a notable prospect before the season, I’m relatively certain that that run is over for good.

Most Disappointing PlayerBilly Rowell He struggled in every way imaginable this season; his batting average plummeted, minimal power production, poor defense, a lack of effort, and a poor attitude. Rowell has all of the gifts in the world, and that’s what makes his season the most disappointing of anyone in this system. Yes, he is very young, but couple the bad numbers with the arguably worse intangibles and he gets this ‘award’ in a runaway.

Manager of the Year – Brad Komminsk – I understand this is a prospect award segment, but I did want to take a moment to recognize Komminsk for his fantastic work with the Bowie Baysox this summer. He both developed young talent and created a winning atmosphere with a team that hadn’t found themselves in the playoffs for ten years. He did a masterful job handling his pitching staff and he deserves to be commended by all Orioles fans for his performance.

Special Awards:
Melvin Mora Award (or, “the late-bloomer award”)Luis Montanez “Sweet Lou”, they’ve come to call him in Bowie; Luis Montanez has found new life with the Baltimore Orioles. He was first drafted in 2000 as the 3rd overall pick by the Chicago Cubs, and failed to match up to expectations. His early encounters with the higher levels of competition were marked by failure and disappointment. For that reason he was essentially given up on and the Orioles picked him up as a minor league free agent. Fast forward and you have a 26-year old outfielder winning the Triple Crown in a league that he didn’t even play in for a month, batting .305 in the majors with three home runs in 36 games. That’s what we like to call a late-bloomer.

Mark Prior Award (or, “the once-amazing-talent-who-can-never-find-the-field-anymore award”)Hayden Penn This should be relatively easy for any Orioles fan who has had the misfortune of tracking this once top prospect during the past few years. Unlike Mark Prior, Hayden Penn’s injuries do not all stem from the arm, but the comparison still remains. Hayden Penn’s string of injuries makes it difficult to discern whether his lackluster performance is a result of diminished ability or simply not having enough time and opportunity to get into a groove. Whether it is appendicitis, a shattered bat on the leg, or merely a sore shoulder, this prospect can’t catch a break. Here’s to hoping for next year.

Manny Ramirez Award (or, “the fantastic-hitter-but-please-don’t-make-an-error award”)Ryan Adams The good: he has drawn rave reviews for his bat at Delmarva, reflected in an impressive .308 batting average for the 21-year old. The bad: he broke the record for errors in a season at second base. Hence the Manny Ramirez comparison. Unfortunately he’s not a good enough hitter to move to a corner infielder or outfielder position, and is going to have to get things straight to stay at second base. This is why people are very divided on what sort of prospect he will be, and why I personally leave him off of my Top-20 Orioles Prospects.

Jeff Fiorentino Award (or, “the horrendously-overmatched award”)Billy Rowell At 19, Billy Rowell proved that he had no business playing at High-A Frederick in his dismal performance this season. Many Orioles fans remember Jeff Fiorentino, who was rushed up to Baltimore early in his career and was hopelessly overmatched at the major league level. The one difference with Rowell is that I believe the organization had good reason to put him in this situation. With Billy Rowell the problem is with arrogance, and so I believe the Orioles front office might have been looking for him to experience this failure to ‘bring him down to earth’, so to speak.

Jamie Moyer Award (or, "the way-too-old-to-be-still-around award") - Julio Manon - Yes, that Julio Manon, who made a brief appearance with the Orioles last season and got pounded. Probably because of his straight fastball that serves up hits to major leaguers. Nonetheless this 35-year-old pitcher is still going, serving as the closer for the Bowie Baysox this season and accumulating a league-best 32 saves this season. If the man loves the game and can contribute to the Baysox, who am I to argue?

Photo Credits (top-to-bottom): Matt Wieters (MiLB.com); Brandon Snyder (Mike Janes/MLB.com); Lou Montanez (Will Bentzel/MLB.com)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

#3 Terps Field Hockey Takes Aim at #1 Wake Forest

Maryland has a few big games against Wake Forest in the next few days. The first, the #3 field hockey team takes on the #1 team in the nation in Winston-Salem.

Maryland has gotten off on the right foot this year out of the gate, starting the season 7-1. Despite a setback to upstart Syracuse (now #2), they have convincing wins over ranked teams Penn State, Michigan, American, and Boston College. Sophomore forward Katie O'Donnell (pictured), the U.S. National Team member before she even came to Maryland, continues to be a strong leader with nine goals and nine assists. Senior back Susie Rowe has had a huge year thus far, notching ten goals, including three game winners. Maryland has outscored their opponents 37-6 in eight games and have proven themselves time and again against solid competition.

Wake Forest has had a tremendous after reaching the Final Four last season. The Deacs are 8-0 to start, with top-10 teams North Carolina, Iowa, James Madison, and Duke all biting the dust. While Maryland has two big stars, Wake relies on a more balanced offense. U-21 senior Back Michelle Kasold has 10 assists with senior Minou Gimbrere having nine. On the scoring front junior Hilary Moore leads the team with seven goals.

Wake Forest isn't a team that will overwhelm you. Whereas Maryland has five wins by four goals or more, Wake only has one. But the Deacs have incredible wins and the home field advantage. This is going to be an incredible game, and the winner will be the favorite to win the ACC.

You can listen to the game on WMUC Sports live from Winston-Salem at noon on Saturday.

(Photo credits: Maryland athletics (O'Donnell), USA Today (Wake))

Juan Dixon returns to Washington

Juan Dixon has returned to the Washington Wizards, according to the Associated Press. No word on how long the contract is or what his salary will be, but it is confirmed he's returning.

Ever since leading Maryland to the 2002 NCAA Championship, he has been everywhere. He was drafted by Washington 17th overall in 2002 and served out his three-year contract. He then signed with Portland for two years, where the Trail Blazers tried to remake the Maryland guard combo of Dixon and Steve Blake. Dixon had his best year in 2005-06, averaging 12.3 points and 2.0 assists per game. In 2006-07, he was traded to Toronto, who would trade him to Detroit the next year.

He's never been the star Maryland fans hoped he would become. He was never able to transition his solid three-point shooting from college to the NBA. Though he had a decent year in 05-06 with Portland, he's never had that breakout year that many have waited for. But he has been a decent player off the bench for most teams.

He'll be 30 years old once the season gets underway in Washington. I'm not sure how much time he'll get. He definitely won't start over DeShawn Stevenson at shooting guard, and Dixon probably won't be made a point guard since he's never been one. He won't even be the backup shooting guard; Nick Young is a rising guard for the Wizards, and has a solid shot. So Dixon overall probably won't see a ton of time. But it is good to see him back around the area, and I hope that he gets some sort of stride with Washington.

(Photo credit: Loyola athletics)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Around the Harbor Radio Show Hits the Airwaves 10-12 on Tuesday!

Around the Harbor returns to the WMUC airwaves Tuesday from 10-12 PM. Listen to Falco and Windsor live on WMUC Sports in College Park!

Topics of the show will include:
--Windsor's list of the top-20 Orioles prospects, we'll discuss
--Ravens with a big win against Cleveland, with the problems in the AFC, what are the Ravens playoff chances?
--Maryland football with a solid win against Eastern Michigan, are they ready for Clemson and the ACC?
--Navy football with a big win against Rutgers, back on track for a bowl?
--Maryland men's soccer with a big victory against Duke, #1 Wake Forest awaits........
--Around the NFL: rounding up the stories of the week, including the rumors of Lane Kiffin's eminent firing and the beatdown given to the Patriots by Miami
--The Heisman Watch: after four weeks, we'll check out the current top-10 according to SI's Gene Menez
--Because of Maryland's victory with six touchdowns, Papa Johns giving 12 free toppings on a cheese pizza. Windsor and I will experience the 12-topping pizza.

AFC QB's Struggling, NFC QB's On the Rise

Did you ever see the movie Space Jam? You know, the one where these aliens steal the NBA stars’ talent and suddenly they are completely inept at basketball? I am just young enough to have enjoyed that movie (perhaps a little too much) when it came out and looking out at AFC quarterbacks this year I think they might be doing a sequel.

The easiest one to point out is Tom Brady, who is out for the season so I will give him a mulligan on that. Peyton Manning, after 3 full regular season games, is still out of sync with his receivers, particularly Marvin Harrison. Manning is completing 6% fewer passes than last season, with a passer rating of only 73.1! His Colts are only 1-2 this season, with losses to Chicago and *gasp* Jacksonville! Does this mean Jacksonville is ready to take over the AFC South? Not so fast my friend, because David Garrard, after going the first 10 weeks of the season last year without throwing an interception has already thrown 4 this season, to sport an embarrassing 63.1 passer rating. As of today, Kerry Collins might be the best quarterback in the division. Ouch.

But there are other reasons quarterbacks are struggling- just look at Ben Roethlisberger and Derek Anderson. Roethlisberger was sacked 8 times last week against the Eagles, and it seems as though the loss of Alan Faneca has hurt the Steelers far more than we may have otherwise anticipated. We will see whether Roethlisberger’s line will continue to struggle against Baltimore this week. Derek Anderson is a much more severe case. His receivers have dropped everything thrown their way, and after being sacked only 14 times all of last season Anderson has already been sacked 8 times through the first three games. Jamal Lewis has been ineffective and a porous defense has consistently put the offense in unattractive situations. His 43.5 rating is down almost 40 points from last year, but his team is not helping him out. Do they make the switch to Brady Quinn? They might eventually, but it wouldn’t do much good.

Of course not all the top AFC quarterbacks are struggling (Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers happen to be playing out of their minds). However, by and large the stars we are accustomed to having success have fallen on hard times. Manning and Roethlisberger have a history of success and may be able to shake things out- Anderson and Garrard have had one year of great play and may have been flashes in the pan. Give me until week 7 or 8, but these quarterbacks are definitely to be watched.

The traditional quarterback dominance of the AFC has kept them as the far and away better conference. With AFC quarterbacks falling on hard times, the NFC may have taken a step forward. The NFC has been able to rely on Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb and Drew Brees in recent years, and this year has been no exception. However, this year some new quarterbacks have been emerging, and others have been returning to old form.

I have always been a Kurt Warner fan, but this year his 6 TDs to only 1 interception have been bringing back memories of his MVP days with St. Louis. The way Warner plays, you get the feeling he could play for a few more years to come. People keep writing him off, but this quarterback is on his way to a third consecutive season with a passer rating of 89 or higher after entering the offseason as the underdog. Matt Leinart has been an embarrassment on and off the field- let the veteran play, especially when the veteran is playing like he’s ten years younger.

J.T. O’Sullivan. Rarely before have we seen a quarterback adjust to Mike Martz’s offense as fast as this San Francisco quarterback has. However, this player is not entirely anonymous. Back in 2004 he was a necessary part of the deal that sent Mike McKenzie to New Orleans from Green Bay. This quarterback been waiting a long time to start and has always been considered a valuable backup/potential starter in the NFL. He has not yet gotten that opportunity before this year, but his rise this year was not a surprise within NFL front offices. Will this hot start continue? With that supporting cast I doubt it- but in the meantime, it is certainly fun to watch the 49ers score some points.

Does Aaron Rodgers count here? Did anyone think he wouldn’t be good? He is not Brett Favre just yet, but I said he would be much better than Alex Smith at the draft and might finally be proven right. Mel Kiper, eat your heart out. Either way, Rodgers has risen to the occasion- even after a loss to the Cowboys he still has yet to throw an interception this season. Is the NFC better than the AFC? I don’t know, and I am not sure I care. However, while it may seem that some of the stars of the NFL are playing under expectations, there are plenty of up and coming signal callers to watch.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Postgame Report Card: Ravens 28, Browns 10

The word of the game is... vintage. Vintage Ravens football, that is. Utilizing strong defense, a power running game, and capitalizing on turnovers. Certainly there were differences from the old formula, after all the quarterback didn’t lose his composure and the team didn’t rack up stupid penalties. This was a fantastic game if you were a Ravens fan, as they were able to rebound from a 10-7 halftime deficit to land a convincing 28-10 victory. The defense shut out and shut down the Browns offense in the second half, picking off Derek Anderson three times and harassing him constantly. The Ravens successfully rode their momentum to steamroll the Browns in a game that the Ravens very well could have lost considering the lackluster first half performance and failure to capitalize on early drives. This team showed a fire and passion that hasn’t been seen in Baltimore for some time.

Offense - Overall Grade: B
Quarterbacks: C+
Joe Flacco finished the day 13-19 for 129 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. Don’t let that line fool you into thinking Joe Flacco had a terrible game; he only made one truly terrible decision, and the other interception was on a flea flicker (although he should have run with the ball or thrown it away because the defense didn’t bite). At the end of the day Joe still showed excellent poise under pressure and had a command of the offense. The yardage and attempts are limited because Flacco was asked to do very little in the second half as the defense and running game took over.
Running Backs: B+
Perhaps I’m being generous in this grade, as this unit struggled to gain consistent yardage in the first half. The running backs get a B+ grade primarily from their dominating performance down the stretch. La’Ron McClain has burst onto the scene as an outstanding power runner who can dominate the fourth quarter. As with the Cincinnati game, he was the closer in the fourth quarter. This unit also accounted for three touchdowns, the most impressive of which McGahee’s five yard touchdown in the first half to put the Ravens on the board.
Wide Receivers: B-
The receiving corps was not involved much at all in the game past the first quarter, and non-existent after half. This was significantly dictated by the flow of the game, but the lack of production sticks them at B-.
Tight Ends: C+
Another lackluster game from Todd Heap, although he was able to catch a couple of balls for 32 yards in total. Ravens fans have to wonder when Todd is going to break out of this uncharacteristic slump, as he still left a number of plays out on the field.
Offensive Line: A-
I thought that this unit did a very impressive job, especially in light of the Browns’ impressive defensive front. The Browns were desperate for a win and threw a lot at the Ravens, and the offensive line did an excellent job by and large of containing the Browns’ pressure. Joe Flacco had good time in the pocket throughout the game and they dominated the Browns up front in the second half. It looks like this young and talented line might be starting to gel.

Defense - Overall Grade: A
Defensive Line: A

Get used to this letter; I’ll be using it a good deal for the defense. The line seemed to get stronger as the game progressed, freeing up the linebackers and steadily shrinking the pocket for Derek Anderson.
Linebackers: A
Each of the linebackers contributed something of their own to this game. Terrell Suggs had two sacks; Jarrett Johnson blew by Joe Thomas for a key sack on third down; Ray Lewis had the hit of the day on Kellen Winslow leading to an interception. And I left out Bart Scott who is more and more looking like the ’06 Bart Scott, shedding away last season’s disappointment.
Defensive Backs: A
To explain how good this unit was, I need to only read one stat line: Derek Anderson – 14 of 37 (37.8%) for 125 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, and a 22.9 quarterback rating. Braylon Edwards was held down to only three catches for 27 yards, and Anderson’s lone touchdown came on a screen pass to Jerome Harrison. Jim Leonhard stepped up big-time for Dawan Landry, who is in all of our prayers after his on-field collision.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: B

Kicker: C
Stover was 0-1 on field goals, and although he did successfully kick away from Josh Cribbs, some of his kickoffs were too short and led to excellent Browns field position.
Punter: B+
Sam Koch averaged 48.7 yards on three punts, and did an excellent job of directional kicking to limit Cribbs’ opportunities for a big return.
Returners: A-
Jim Leonhard. What can you say. This backup strong safety earned his paycheck today, not only in filling in for the injured Dawan Landry at strong safety, but in returning punts and kicks all game for Yamon Figurs (inactive (hamstring)). He averaged 26 yards on three kick returns, and 21 yards on a punt return. That’s pretty special.
Coverage: A
The coverage team contained one of the best returners in pro football, along with opening up big lanes for Jim Leonhard. Another plus; only one holding penalty for the game, keeping Leonhard’s excellent returns intact.

Coaching - Overall Grade: A

Offensive: A
Cam Cameron continues to impress with this offense. Like in Week 1, Cam managed his rookie quarterback very well while not coddling him and allowing him to make plays. There was a very good use of in-game adjustments, and the choice to go for it on a couple of key fourth downs helped to give the offense confidence and put the game away. The coaches also recognize that they have a ‘closer’-type running back in La’Ron McClain and they know when to put the game on his back in the fourth quarter. This coaching staff has given the offense a killer mentality for the first time in Baltimore history.
Defensive: A
Vintage Rex Ryan yet again in both drawing up and managing the defense throughout. Although not quite as impressive as Week 1 against Cincinnati, the defense wore down the offense in the second half and not the other way around. Rex Ryan is showing what he can do with some healthy starters.

And for my MVP/LVP...
MVP (Most Valuable Player) – Ed Reed
– There are many choices, but the vote goes to Ed Reed for his interception return for a touchdown which broke Cleveland’s back in the third quarter.
LVP (Least Valuable Player) – Joe Flacco – Egh, it’s terrible for me to say this, because he didn’t have a terrible game and he showed good poise. However, he did give the ball away twice and was unable to capitalize on a couple of long drives. For a rookie quarterback in his second game he played fine, but if I have to choose an LVP, I have to choose someone.

Bonus grade:
Intangibles: A+ - The fire and camaraderie that this team showed was absolutely inspiring. Keep in mind that the team was trailing at the half, and the Browns had capitalized on opportunities while the Ravens could not. After Dawan Landry went down at the end of the first half, the group could have lost its composure. Instead this team came out with immense passion and showed something special. Harbaugh has this team in excellent shape.

(Photo Credit: AP)

Ravens-Browns Preview: Great, Now Try it Against a Pass Rush

Well, I hope everyone got all that offensive enthusiasm out of their system with the Terps beat down of the EMU Eagles today, because it isn’t likely we will see much offense today. After a an unexpected bye week in which the Ravens were forced to practice for a game that didn’t happen, they now have to switch gears to face the trendiest preseason pick to take the AFC North crown from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Luckily for the Ravens, the Browns have looked like anything but a playoff team. They look more like, well… the Browns. Will that change this week in Baltimore?

The Browns look like a team trying to recapture the offense of last year’s prolific scoring machine, anchored behind former Raven draft choice Derek Anderson. Anderson, in his two starts this season has only mustered 280 yards and 1 touchdown to 2 interceptions, but has not been aided much by his supporting cast. Number 1 wideout Braylon Edwards had 5 drops last week against the Steelers and is questionable for tomorrow with an apparent shoulder injury. In every sense of the game the Browns look like a team completely lost- poor quarterback play, a secondary that has been absolutely abhorrent without Leigh Bodden to solidify the corner position, and a rushing offense that ranks 27th in the league despite an occasionally stellar Jamal Lewis.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Baltimore Still be Wacko for Flacco?
Joe Flacco is universally adored among Ravens fans for his serviceable performance that led the Ravens to a victory in week one- he managed the game and made very few mistakes against a defense not known for forcing many (the Bengals showed that against the Titans last week). This game will present a completely different challenge against a defense that has loaded up the interior of the defensive line with the acquisition of Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams. The line has only forced 2 sacks in the first two games, but that is unlikely to continue over the long term. Will Flacco be able to make the necessary plays with his arm and read the blitz against this staunch defensive line?

Will the Ravens be able to “run” away with this one?

Two weeks ago the lone question mark had to be the running game, most notably in the form of Ray Rice’s struggles. While he was given the majority of the carries, he gained only 64 yards and failed to reach 3 yards per rush. La’Ron McClain was more successful, providing a greater burst and an excellent change of pace in the passing game. How will the running back situation shake up with Willis McGahee returning from injury? Will he be able to perform as the every down back in Cameron’s offense? Bear in mind, Rice and McClain were running against arguably the most porous run defense in the NFL- how will that change against the interior of the Browns D?

Is that old school Ravens D here to stay?

I am very curious about this one. Sure the D looked great against the Bengals, but the Bengals struggled almost as much against the Titans and look generally to be an awful team. With Kelly Gregg out for at least a couple weeks, it will be up to Justin Bannan to continue to anchor the defensive line and make sure that Jamal Lewis is hit at the line of scrimmage, if not before. Lewis, as Ravens fans know, has the capacity to dominate when he is able to get a head of steam before churning out the yards after contact he is guaranteed to get. Will the D be able to force Anderson to put the ball in the air and make a mistake against an opportunistic secondary? I see Ed Reed in your future, Derek.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

I wanted to put my analysis right in the questions, but I just had to hold back. I am excited for this one- I know too many bitter Browns fans not to be. However, this game is about far more than rivalry. It is about one team struggling to reach expectations against another team hoping to win every game but not expected to win many. Make no mistake- the Browns are determined not to go 0-3. Moreover, do not make the mistake of thinking this is a bad football team. They began the season against the best team in the NFL in Dallas (until they lose try to tell me otherwise) and then against the Steelers who they lost both games against last season. This may still be the team that went 10-6 last year, but hasn’t had the opportunity to show it.

The Ravens Offense vs. the Browns Defense
The Ravens offense could be very interesting this week. Fans should expect to see less of Ray Rice but still a good amount of La’Ron McClain, particularly receiving out of the backfield. The one element that Willis McGahee lacks is a consistency in the receiving game, and Cam Cameron will not hesitate to put multiple backs out there who can catch the football. McClain also offers Flacco a safety valve that he has not enjoyed yet from his tight ends or receivers outside of Derek Mason. In 2006 Sean Payton employed a similar strategy with Mike Karney, amounting to several unexpected touchdown catches and just one more weapon for Drew Brees to employ. I am not suggesting that this offense is like the Saints, but only that Flacco could use all the weapons he can get.

And he will have plenty of chances to use them. This Brown defense has its moments, but only when it is able to apply pressure on the quarterback. On paper it boasts one of the best defensive lines in the league, but beyond that it leaves quite a few questions to be answered. If either the running game can wear down the tough interior of that line or the offensive line can continue their dominating performance from the Bengals game, Flacco could get into a rhythm against their secondary. However, one must recall that the dominating offensive line performance was against the worst defensive line in the NFL. With an extra week of practice to gel as a unit, the line could manage some success- particularly with Crennel’s hesitation to blitz.

The Ravens Offense vs. the Browns Defense
On defense, it will be all about turnovers. Make no mistake, this Browns offense is capable of moving the football. Derek Anderson will be out to prove his worth against the wave of criticism thrust upon him since the end of last season. Jamal Lewis always runs hard against his former team. All numbers aside, this team is due an offense output like last season’s. Donte Stallworth may join Edwards on the sideline tomorrow (also listed as questionable), leaving Kellen Winslow as the lone receiving threat- though mismatches may be possible as Winslow runs more like a wide receiver than a tight end. Even so, the Ravens coverage will be able to play closer to the line with the top two “big play” threats essentially neutralized. Aside from this general overview, it is hard to make any determinations about the Browns offense because they have looked embarrassing in their first two games.

The Rundown
This is not the day the Browns turn it around. The Ravens are lighthearted, they are enjoying success but are not burdened by expectations just yet. The Browns are a good team, but even they know they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs after starting 0-3. Cleveland’s defense will be unable to apply consistent pressure- a front four will only be effective when aided by a blitz, which will enable Flacco to engage a worse secondary than most of his 1-AA competition. The Ravens defense will wear down as the season goes on and injuries pile up, but today they will take advantage of a Cleveland team pressing for points and making critical errors down the stretch. They will move the ball between the 20’s, but I don’t expect the Browns to capitalize with touchdowns.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 17-9

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Postgame Report Card: Maryland 51, Eastern Michigan 24

The word of the game is.......cool. This was expected to be a Maryland win and it was, but now the focus goes to the ACC. The Terps didn't overlook their MAC foes and got a solid win, if a little unsettling at times. But the fact is Maryland got the win, improved to 3-1, and learned a lot of info about their offense to be ready for conference play.

This is the 4th time Maryland has played Eastern Michigan, subsequently the fourth time the Terps destroyed the Eagles.

Offense- Overall Grade: B
Quarterbacks: B
When you have a very balanced attack, the field general deserves a lot of the credit. Chris Turner for the most part was solid on the field and hit his receivers. Two interceptions, both in EU territory, were problematic, but his production was very effective, including a 32-yard TD throw to Darrius Heyward-Bey. Josh Portis got to run the last Maryland drive, primarily running and getting a touchdown at the end.
Running Backs: C
With no Da'Rel Scott, the Terps needed production from Davin Meggett and Morgan Green, and neither played well. Both combined had 20 rushes for 63 yards. Green did help red zone production with two touchdowns on short runs. If Scott isn't ready for Clemson, Maryland may have big problems next week. Cory Jackson caught two key passes and had solid blocking.
Wide Receivers: A
The stars of today's game. Heyward-Bey had a huge 32-yard TD catch plus two 35+ yard end-arounds. No one had more than three catches, but Isaiah Williams and Torrey Smith had big receptions. Danny Oquendo had a fantastic throw for a touchdown after a double reversal play. The wide receivers looked at their best today.
Tight Ends: B-
Not really a factor today, only two catches for Dan Gronkowski, one for a TD. Most of Maryland's formations didn't include tight ends except for blocking, which wasn't anything special.
Offensive Line: C+
The running game never got going, and if not for a solid passing game, the grade would be worse. Holes just never opened up for Green and Meggett. But, Turner only got sacked once, so the quarterback was well protected.

Defense- Overall Grade: C+
Defensive Line: C+
I'm being a little nice since Chris Cosh rarely called a blitz and Eagle quarterback Kyle McMahon played nearly the entire game in shotgun. But the Eagle running game was getting decent yardage and not nearly enough pressure was put on an O-line that was much smaller than them. They'll need to improve that, especially against much stronger ACC running games.
Linebackers: B-
Alex Wujciak and Dave Philistin had solid days, combining for 19 tackles and two tackles for loss. Nothing special from the core, but an overall decent job.
Secondary: C-
A 2nd-string quarterback with less than dependable receivers, and the secondary couldn't shut down the air strikes. A number of 1st downs from the air, and a third string tight end was burning them on receptions. The lack of pressure from the D-Line was giving McMahon a lot of time, but the secondary needs to play much better. They did have two interceptions, both in Maryland territory, to stop key drives.

Special Teams- Overall Grade: A
Kicker: A+
It's great to see Obi Egekeze back to form. 3-3 on field goals (all under 33 yards), 6-6 on extra points, and had most kickoffs putting EU on or inside the 20-yard line. He's bounced back, and just in time.
Punter: A
Only one punt for Travis Baltz, but it was a 44-yarder that put EU inside the 20.
Returners: B+
Torrey Smith was a monster on kickoff returns, including a 57-yard return. He ran intelligently on the field and ran well on the outside. Nothing special on punt returns, but not many chances were given anyway.
Coverage: A
The first blocked punt since 2006 and giving great room for Smith to run on kickoffs. The special teams deserve a ton of credit for Maryland's win today.

Coaching- Overall Grade: B-
Offensive: B
It is hard to argue with putting 51 points on the board and getting Josh Portis some useful playing time. The no-huddle offense needs work however, as often the plays called on the no-huddle were stuffed running plays at the line. But overall, considering the running game was getting nowhere, the end arounds and solid passing game were great, plus the double reverse pass from Oquendo shows confidence that the Terps rarely show.
Defensive: C
It may be true that EU doesn't have a strong offense, but that first half was terrible defensively. Allowing the EU passing game to drive down the field and not call for blitzes to pressure the quarterback, leaving the secondary to dry. But the second half showed good adjustments to first half problems. Cosh will need to keep it up, and Maryland need to show more aggression.

MVP: Chris Turner
When the balanced offense is effective, the quarterback is the one to thank. Chris Turner played a solid game, 15/23 with two touchdowns and two interceptions, but had no running game to work with. Really, a number of players could be chosen here.
LVP: Davin Meggett
Meggett wasn't finding the holes and often looked lost on the field. Only 23 yards on eight carries. The Terps needed him to step up in Scott's absence, and he didn't do it.

As always, one extra category:
Maryland athletics: A
During the game, the Terps softball team was selling programs for $1 to support themselves. A number of athletic programs wouldn't dream of doing that, but Debbie Yow and the athletic department deeply care about all 27 sports Maryland has.
(Photo credit: Maryland athletics)

Pregame Thoughts: Maryland-Eastern Michigan

The Maryland Terrapins versus the Eastern Michigan Eagles, the titanic matchup you’ve all been waiting for. The Terrapins come into today’s game at a typically manic 2-1 record, having beaten heavily favored Cal last week and embarrassed one week before that losing to Middle Tennessee. Where the Terps are now represents something of an eerie pattern for this program, as Maryland football has typically played up (or down, as the case may be) to their competition. That’s the reason why they can beat teams like Cal while lose to Middle Tennessee.

The thing that all Maryand fans want to know is whether or not this team will continue that pattern and ultimately underachieve, or will the team be at (or near) their best every game regardless of competition. So, with the MTSU Blue Raiders loss in the rear-view mirror, can the Terps turn that psychological corner? That is the overarching question that this game could help answer. As for what specific things we should be looking for…

Can Chris Turner put together back-to-back solid games? Inconsistency has plagued Turner throughout his career and it’s been a big factor early in this season (see Middle Tennessee). Although Falco insists that it might be good for Turner to get his ‘bad game’ out of the way so he’ll have a good game against Clemson, most Maryland fans are hoping he comes out and has a good game and gain more confidence in this offense.

Will Kenny Tate emerge as a playmaking safety? There have been a good number of glowing reports on Kenny Tate’s development as a safety in this year’s defense. Originally recruited as a wide receiver (four stars by Rivals.com), Tate was switched to safety this summer to make up for lack of depth. Friedgen has been impressed with his aptitude and soft hands. Tate is set to get a good deal of playing time today, so he’s a major player to watch; he will also be the short man on punt returns because of the difficult rugby-style punts that EMU employs.

Can Josh Portis find a rhythm? There’s been a lot of confusion amongst Terrapin fans regarding the use of Josh Portis in games, because nearly all of his plays have been predictable and generally ineffective. It has come to light however that there have been issues with Portis making the correct reads on those plays. Considering how much time that Josh Portis has gone without being on a football field (two full seasons and then some), it’s somewhat understandable that he’s been having some of these issues. This game provides another opportunity for him to get things right; if Portis can become the weapon he has the potential to be, Terrapin fans will have good reason to get excited.

How will the running game look without Scott? Most likely Da'Rell Scott will not be playing in this game, leaving the running duties to Davin Meggett and Morgan Green. Davin Meggett will be most likely the primary ball carrier, with Morgan Green spelling him on certain series. We know that Davin can be very effective at spelling Scott, but how he handles the starting duties will be something very important to watch. Morgan Green was one of Maryland's better backs going into spring practice but has been continually slowed by injury; a strong performance could ease a lot of Terp fans concerns were Da'Rell's injury to become a sustained problem.
Can Obi Egekeze regain his confidence? Ralph Friedgen desperately wants his kicker to find his stroke heading into next week's ACC matchup versus Clemson. He is currently 0-5 on field goals this season earning him LVP for two games this year according to this blog. If the Terps are going to win big games, Egekeze needs to get on track. Now's the time to do it.

Those are just a few points that are important to look out for; Eastern Michigan is not a good team. They were throttled by Michigan State by over thirty points, the same MSU team that was trounced by Cal. From that we can safely say that Maryland, playing at or near its best, should win handily. If the Terps can only squeak out a victory, we might be looking at the same old team. If they blow EMU out like they’re capable of, we might be looking at a new team. (Note: And if they lose… please drink responsibly)

Prediction: Maryland, 31-17
(Photo Credit: Greg Fiume/ umterps.cstv.com)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Free Kicks

With Falco posting up a storm I wanted to give y’all a chance to breathe in between all the O’s and Terps postings before the Free Kicks came in. While we had a very illuminating post up earlier today, I have to mention West Virginia again. Is there a head coach on that team? This is for all those WVU fans who thought “Pat White made Rich Rod.” Bill “Nice Guy” Stewart has the same team, folks. That team was so awful last night, I wondered if they could even line up for the kick…

The Ryder Cup Matters

Okay, so there’s no Tiger. But it is still the respectability of the country on the line at the Ryder Cup this weekend. It isn’t a major, but like the Olympics it is a stage where pride is on the line. Our claim to have the best athletes in the world is under fire. We took back basketball (finally), but we lost out on softball and have long since been out of the talk for baseball (Japan and Cuba seem to steal that one). The United States cannot simply sit back and expect to dominate. I love sports because it enables me to root for my city, my state, or my school through a certain outlet- and like it or not the Ryder Cup allows that avenue. So what if an American player is the best in the world? If the best of Europe can wipe the floor with the best of our nation, that is a problem.

The Americans fall from grace in the Ryder Cup is even worse than the recent basketball slump- the US has lost 5 of the last 6 Ryder Cups, losing the last two matches 18 ½ to 9 ½. For those of you uncertain of the scoring, that’s bad. Going into the second day this year, the U.S. leads 5 ½ 2 ½. We got basketball back, let’s take back golf.

The Kicker Matters

Obi Egekeze is still the starting kicker for the Terps this weekend against Eastern Michigan. Luckily it’s Eastern Michigan so the pressure level might be down (though you never know with the way Maryland plays down to the competition- but I’ll save that for the guys’ preview post), but you have to keep in mind that this is a mental game. There are a million guys who can kick the ball 50 yards, it takes psychological fortitude to do it in front of 55,000 screaming fanatics with the game (and possibly your career) on the line. Just ask Mike Vanderjagt, who shanked the big one (again) against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, struggled with Dallas and was unemployed for a year before signing with the Toronto Argonauts! This is the same Vanderjagt who holds the NFL record for kicking accuracy at 86.4%! Does keeping Egekeze the starter a result of Friegen’s loyalty or the incompetence of his backups? I would argue that it must be a little bit of both because no matter how loyal you are to a player you have to win the game- if there was a star in the wings, Ralph would not have the choice of holding him back.

The Orioles Matter

No, not next year’s Orioles. Not the Orioles of 5 years from now. Not the Orioles team you come up with in your head when you read Windsor’s top 20 prospects list. Yes, this year’s Orioles. The Orioles have the pleasure/misfortune of playing the last series ever at Yankee Stadium in the most drawn out funeral procession since Barbara Streisand announced her “final show” about 8 shows ago. The O’s dropped the opener, 3-2, but still have a chance to win the last series ever at Yankee Stadium tomorrow and *gulp* Sunday. There is nothing that would make me happier than to have the Yankees remember this series as they are sitting at home in October with nothing but excuses to warm them while they watch the playoffs. While the season may have gotten rough for Baltimore, the Orioles still have a chance to start tearing down Yankee Stadium before the season even ends.

Most Impressive Terps Win This Season?

Maryland Athletics puts up poll every now and then asking a question of their fans, like most do. I personally enjoy questions like who has the best chance to win a national title, because most casual sports fans don't know anything about collegiate sports other than football and basketball, so they'll get the most votes even if the college has no shot at getting them.

But, the poll question that Maryland has put up: What is the most impressive Terps win in the 2008 Fall season so far? Your choices:
--Football's 35-27 win over #23 California
--Men's Soccer's 2-1 OT win at #14 UCLA
--Men's Soccer's 1-0 win over #9 Boston College
--Field Hockey's 8-1 win over #8 Old Dominion
--Field Hockey's 5-1 win at #9 Michigan

Now, in some ways, this is an unfair question. Obviously most people care about football and so that will win the poll. Also keep in mind Maryland men's soccer and field hockey are currently in the top-4 of their respective sport, while Maryland football is unranked. But, let's break this down.

First off, I'm removing two choices from the list, the men's soccer win over UCLA and the field hockey win over Old Dominion. UCLA, though historically very good at men's soccer, has fallen out of the rankings since Maryland's win, only receiving one vote in the last coaches poll. Currently they are 1-3-1, and Maryland may have gotten lucky with a goal in the last minute of regulation. And for field hockey, I'm removing the Old Dominion game because half of the Terps goals were scored in the final 11 minutes, and I feel an away win at Michigan is a better win than a home victory against Old Dominion.

Now, that said, I'm now removing field hockey's Michigan victory off the list. As great a victory this was, if I'm comparing it to the men's soccer victory over Boston College, I have to give the edge to the BC win. Maryland was expected to win handily over Michigan; not the case with BC. BC has had Maryland's number in the regular season the past two years, with stunning upsets of two goals each time. The Terps may have been favored, but field hockey was supposed to win easily over Michigan. Despite that soccer was a home game, I edge this one to men's soccer. Each time the Terps have beaten BC in the last two years, the lone goal was scored by Graham Zusi (pictured).

But when it comes down to it, the football victory is the right answer. Maryland football was expected to lose, and not only did they win, they were up 28-6 with seven minutes left in the 4th quarter. Men's soccer is a top-5 team, football isn't ranked and lost to Middle Tennessee State. The whole of the victory was extremely important to the season.

So even though the poll may be skewed because it is football, it is correct. Maryland football's win over California is the right answer as the most impressive in the 2008 Fall Season.

(Photo credit: Maryland athletics)

West Virginia Football is Self-Destructing

Many of us saw this coming. But not this soon.

West Virginia was made into a powerhouse by Rich Rodriguez. From 2005-2007, the Mountaineers had a combined 33-5 record including BCS wins in the 2006 Sugar Bowl over heavily favored Georgia and the 2008 Fiesta Bowl under interim head coach Bill Stewart over heavily favored Oklahoma. By all means, with Rodriguez only 44-years-old and the fact he was a WVU alum, the Mountaineers looked like they could rule the Big East for years.

Then, because of inner problems in the athletic department, Rodriguez left WVU for Michigan before the '08 Fiesta Bowl. He had been offered the Alabama job in 2006, but declined then. WVU hired interim head coach Bill Stewart shortly after the Fiesta Bowl win, a coach with only three years head coaching experience.

During the offseason, many players had liked Bill Stewart's new system. Some even said that with Rodriguez that they were afraid to come to practice. Now workouts weren't as tough. And the Mountaineers had Heisman watch quarterback Pat White and speedster Noel Devine back in what should be a powerful offense. But the results of a change in style are very clear already.

The Mountaineers are already 1-2, losing on the road to East Carolina and Colorado in OT, which equals their number of losses all last year. And the reasons are clear. Almost every throw Pat White had, all 14 of them, were short passes and/or behind the line to a running back. And WVU may be a rushing powerhouse, but 52 rushes with 14 short passes is a terrible offense. They look undisciplined and there is no leadership on the field. WVU got the ball back with 2:09 left and two timeouts in a tie game, and horrible clock management was used and with they didn't have a chance to score, ending regulation with a timeout. They would lose the game when their kicker missed a 23-yarder in OT and Colorado hit their 25-yarder.

I don't claim to know Rich Rodriguez's practice runs well, but the fact is he had his team ready everytime they took the field. The three times I saw the Mountaineers face Maryland, Steve Slaton, White, and eventually Devine would tear the Terps apart with a strong and tactical rushing attack. To be honest, I don't care that some players were "scared to come to practice." With WVU's very low academic standards and Rodriguez's track record, the Mountaineer football team is a nice place to play. If you don't like it, get better grades or play for a worse football team! It is easy to see why Michigan would want a guy like Rodriguez, and I have no doubt he'll get that program in top form.

Now under the player's choice of Stewart, WVU looks like an average college football team that is completely undisciplined. But West Virginia did this to themselves. They had a tremendous coach who wanted a lot of control over the team, which isn't an unreasonable request, and fantastic players despite an average history before Rodriguez. But now, they have a head coach with no useful experience and who's unable to control his team. But they did this to themselves. In the words from the movie Cool Runnings, "You had it all! Why'd you do it?"

I guarantee Big East teams and Maryland are laughing at West Virginia right now. We just didn't think it would happen this quickly.

(Photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)