Friday, October 30, 2009

Free Kicks: Baseball & Unscrupulous Sports Leagues Edition

Work has forced me to delay this until late in the day, but hopefully I can get the most out of another opportunity to look silly this weekend- and no, I am not talking about my Halloween costume. Though maybe that too, we’ll see. Lots to get to, so let’s line up for the kick…

Yanks Even the Series at 1-1
This was still a great start for the Phillies, who have wrested homefield advantage from the Yankees and had a chance to win last night. That was an exemplary performance from Pedro Martinez where I expected him to implode last night, but the Phillies were unable to get runners across when they needed to and that right field wall was again kind to the New York hitters. Of course, it was that same jet stream that helped Utley homer twice in the opener. Now we travel to Philadelphia where the park will again be friendly to power hitters of both teams, and Cole Hamels will look to rediscover his magic from last year’s postseason.

I still don’t trust the back end of the Phil’s rotation, and if they have to go into that bullpen with a tied game in the 8th, I have to think that the Yankees will score first. Not that the Yankees bullpen has been lights out either… Still, the pressure is on Philadelphia to make the most out of their 3 games at home. It won’t be easy to take one (much less two) games in New York in Games 6 or 7.

Brett Favre Returns to Green Bay

Just kidding, I will let every single other sports outlet cover this story. They can have it, I am burned out on Favre.

Jeff Datz Hired as O’s Bench Coach

I am no expert on MLB coaching staffs (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Falco knew all about them), but this seems like a solid hire to me. He has 29 years of major league experience, he has been a player (something Trembley was not and at times could have taken away from his legitimacy in the clubhouse), and most importantly, he played as a catcher. He will be able to serve as a mentor to Matt Wieters but is not a “hot” manager-in-waiting who will threaten Dave Trembley’s authority. Yes, he was with the Indians when they went into free fall over the last couple seasons, but I won’t fault the bench coach for the team’s failure. Datz is a good pickup, and seems to know the game. He isn’t a flashy name, but who were you expecting, Davey Johnson?

Sports Leagues Silencing Critics Instead of Changing for the Better
Okay, so the SEC is now fining coaches who criticize the refs following a set of massive gaffes that helped Alabama and Florida stay undefeated in recent games. The Redskins have banned signs in the stadium after fans started criticizing the ownership. Bud Selig has shut the door on expanded replay right as his umpires commit horrible mistakes in the postseason. Earlier this season, the Coaches Poll mulled making their ballots secret to avoid criticizing coaches for their individual ballots that were self-serving or uninformed. It seems like every league is electing to punish their critics or hide their acknowledged failings rather than confront them and make change for the better. They would rather sit back and hope that nothing goes wrong for the rest of the season, and we over time forget until the next controversial move.

Believe it or not, the SEC, Redskins, MLB, and the Coaches Poll officials could learn something from an unlikely league- the NHL. Hockey has not been afraid of changing rules- even in the middle of the postseason- in order to make the game better. When did these leagues forget that there was a game involved, a sport that needed to be nurtured and maintained even as players, coaches, and schemes changed? The integrity of sports has been violated by their only arbiters, the leagues and conferences that support them. We the fans are left with this intentionally imperfect product, with the commissioners’ pride taking precedence over what made the games great to begin with.

And the lack of signs in the stadium? Come on Dan Snyder, a big boy like you should be able to handle a little bit of criticism. If you can handle watching the team you put together, you should have a pretty thick skin by now.

Weekend Prediction:
Should I even do this anymore? Okay, I will take another shot at this after getting burned since my first attempt. Looking at the sports landscape, I try to take picks that I still think will happen but are a little bit of a stretch. I am not going to sit here and predict Arizona over Carolina or Jacksonville over Tennessee, but how about taking another stab at college football? I am drinking the Oregon Kool-Aid, as they have thumped every team since Boise State, and regardless of the Pete Carroll love-fest USC has not looked consistently great for any stretch this season. The nod goes to the Ducks, 38-35.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ravens-Broncos Preview: Taking Down an Upstart Undefeated

I am going to take a different approach to the preview this week- I am going to talk about one major point for each part of the offense and defense (rushing and passing games) and what the Ravens will have to do in order to win. Because after all, isn’t that what we really care about? This team is good enough that if it plays up to its talent in every phase of the game, every game is more than winnable.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Broncos Pass Offense vs. Ravens Pass Defense
Kyle Orton is an effective but not terrifying quarterback. Compared to the other QB’s the Ravens have had to face this year- Favre, Palmer, Brady, and Rivers come to mind- Orton just doesn’t compare. However, he has tall, strong receivers to throw to who can make any quarterback look good. The key in the passing game is not only going to be the ability of the cornerbacks to contain Denver’s threats in Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall, because they won’t, but it will be Dawan Landry and Ed Reed’s commitment to their assignment. I have seen way too much freelancing in the secondary with Reed trying to make plays outside his assignment and Landry biting up on play action. A desperate playmaker will often try to compensate for a weak overall unit by taking more risks- but that often works against the team and allows long touchdowns. The Ravens cornerbacks are not good enough to handle being all alone, the safeties need to be disciplined.

Broncos Rush Offense vs. Ravens Rush Defense
Some have voiced a concern over Tavaris Gooden’s size and whether he is too slight to be an inside linebacker, but I think this is too much worry over making another Bart Scott and not enough looking at what Gooden does well. Smaller, quicker linebackers can be great at stopping the run provided they have the lanes to penetrate to the ball carrier. I have seen Ray Lewis hit too often and taken out of the play, and I put this on the defensive line. Ngata is playing fine, but Kelly Gregg is not the dominating tackle he was two years ago. In the Ravens’ defense, unlike other systems, the DT’s job is not to rush the passer, but it is to occupy the interior offensive lineman and allow athletic linebackers (like Gooden) to penetrate to the running back. That has not been happening, and I see it as the reason that the Ravens have allowed two consecutive 100 yard rushers. It doesn’t matter who carries the ball for Denver- if Baltimore does not control the line of scrimmage, especially inside, they won’t be able to stop the Broncos on the ground.

Ravens Rush Offense vs. Broncos Rush Defense
Ten rushes for Ray Rice? Even against a rush defense like Minnesota’s you need to keep pounding the football just to keep the defense honest. McClain? McGahee? The Ravens made a great comeback at the end of the game, but Joe was being pounded back there when Jared Allen & Co. didn’t have to watch for the run. Flacco was cool under pressure in standing in the pocket despite getting hit, but he won’t be able to keep that up forever. It is okay to run the football once every few plays, Baltimore needs to do what made them great. Despite this, Rice is quickly becoming the next Brian Westbrook with his ability to do so many things on the field, from pass blocking to making linebackers miss in the open field. However, this side of the ball comes down to the offensive line returning to form with (hopefully) Jared Gaither moving back into the left tackle spot and Michael Oher taking his superb play of late to right tackle. That will not only protect the quarterback (as we will discuss later), but it will open up opportunities for Willis McGahee off-tackle rushes or the occasional stretch play to Rice where he could threaten to break a big play. With McGahee and McClain in the fold, Rice has the complementary backs to help him become even more effective than Westbrook, who has suffered being the undivided attention of whatever defense he’s lined up against.

Ravens Pass Offense vs. Broncos Pass Defense
Champ Bailey has rediscovered his old form and Brian Dawkins is showing that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. If the Ravens try to throw at the Broncos secondary all afternoon, they will turn the ball over. No 43 pass attempts this week, and no dropping back 43 times against Elvis Dumervil at linebacker, who has a whopping 10 sacks so far this season. The Ravens offensive line will have to come together quickly to regain their rhythm and work as a unit to keep the Denver pass rush at bay. Utilizing Todd Heap over the middle could keep the linebackers in a short zone and draw attention away from Derrick Mason. I worry about the passing game if Flacco can’t sling the ball to Derrick Mason on a regular basis. If Champ Bailey can shut him down and keep him to 4 or fewer catches, I don’t see how Joe Flacco will get going. If need be he will find other targets, like Rice out of the backfield (or how about swing Rice into the slot receiver spot after the team lines up and get him matched up on a linebacker?) or Mark Clayton. The key here will be Flacco using all of his weapons and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Of course, in order to do that his receivers need to get in position and catch the ball. I am still not sold that they can do that.

Special Teams
Okay, so I have never considered this before in the preview (because they were too long already), but I found an interesting statistic that I wanted to pass along. Despite being roughly tied with the Ravens in punting distance, Denver ranks second to last in the league in punt coverage, allowing 14.6 yards per return. Baltimore comes in at 7.7 yards per return. That could wind up being a difference of 7 yards of field position each time the teams trade possessions. This is why Lardarius Webb is so important. Not only will he be called upon to take a greater role in the secondary, he will have the opportunity to put the Ravens in great field position if he can break one. With the way the offense has been performing at times, this could be critically important.

The Rundown

Baltimore can score, but how consistently? The offense went into hibernation two weeks ago for 2 ½ quarters after falling asleep at the wheel for a whole game against the Bengals. Was that an aberration? The defense has shown that its flaws are not cosmetic, but are fundamental shortfalls that will haunt this team throughout the season. Will it hold together long enough to contain Marshall, Royal, and running back Knowshon Moreno? I just don’t think so. People keep saying the Bronco’s aren’t that good, yet they keep winning. The offense will once again have to put up big numbers for this team to win. This game was a really tough one to call, and against my better judgment, here's the pick:

The nod goes to the Ravens, 31-28.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Maryland Football In Deep Trouble, Including the Future

It is obvious that there are problems with the Terps football squad right now. At 2-6, the team is one loss away from being non-bowl-eligible, which look likely with their remaining schedule including ranked Virginia Tech plus a road game against Florida State. A loss to Duke last Saturday was the ultimate lowpoint, but the whole season has been a nightmare for Maryland.

The backups don't even look good. A number of young players have had to start. At the skill positions, like running back and wide receiver, the Terps look fine for the future, but at others, like the linemen, the team looks very poor. It is not helped that the backups lost a game against Fork Union this past week.

It is hard to see what can be done in the long term, but some things can be done in the short term to try to help. Part of the problem is that it is hard to see where you should try new things; the Terps have two road games but one of the home games is against Virginia Tech, the toughest game left on the schedule. The coaching staff is in place; nothing anyone can do about that. The school would need to spend around six to seven million plus to fire the whole staff; money which the athletic department does not have.

Sometime in the rest of the schedule Jamarr Robinson should play at quarterback. He is almost guaranteed to be the front runner next year, so he should be the one playing some time, plus you don't want to burn Danny O'Brien's redshirt right now. At running back, play Caleb Porzel. He looks better than Davin Meggett and Gary Douglas, but allow Da'Rel Scott some time if he is healthy. But Porzel is the best healthy back right now with his good speed.

For other positions, play some people that do not have redshirts to burn. Let's see some new linemen play, or some new linebackers, just to see what they can do. Nothing to lose in some cases. But it is important to save some of the freshmen. One of the reasons some teams have been so good is that they can save their freshmen until later.

Enjoy the bye week, NC State is in two weeks.

(Photo credit: McClatchy-Tribune)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 8

No Windsor this week- where has he gone? Falco and I made the poll for this week. Major areas of disagreement? Houston, Mississippi, Central Michigan, and Oregon had some decent margins, but we mostly agree at the top. Your thoughts? Remember, you can see all of the results of each week's compiled College Football Blogpoll at the CBS Sports blogpoll.

1) Florida (2)- They may have gotten a couple more “controversial” (that is, wrong) calls go their way, but they win and they looked a lot better than Alabama. At this point, it’s just week-to-week to determine who is #1.
2) Alabama- Tennessee should have won that game. Twice. I know that blocking those kicks shows that Alabama is the better team- and they are, but there is no reason they should have even been in that position. LSU could give them fits.
3) Texas- Thought about moving them to #2, but they haven’t looked great just yet. If they can thump Oklahoma State, then we can talk about perhaps them jumping one of the SEC competitors.
4) Boise State- Tied with Cincinnati, and for no good reason I kept Boise State on top. I can’t determine which one of these teams are better. If Oregon beats USC, Boise State stays here.
5) Cincinnati- They will have enough good-but-not-great opponents in the Big East to validate why they belong in the national championship discussion. This team sure doesn’t seem to miss Tony Pike all that much.
6) Iowa- They keep winning, though they only barely escaped East Lansing with a victory. Beat the Buckeyes later in the season and there won’t be many reasons to keep this team out of the National Title picture.
7) TCU- They got their first big win, and they did it in style. Thumping BYU in Provo was a huge statement, and one that the voters should remember if the Horned Frogs beat Utah the same way.
8) LSU- Tied with USC, but I gave LSU the nod. Why? Their lone loss is to the #1 team in the country, and they beat Washington. USC didn’t. How are the other polls not seeing this?
9) USC- The defense didn’t look great, and for the second straight week they escape with a win. How are they #4 in the AP poll and coaches polls? I don’t get it.
10) Oregon- The Ducks rank here because of what I see as underrating by Falco. This weekend should solve the question of whether USC should be ahead of Oregon, but Oregon’s only loss came on the road to an undefeated Boise State team. No reason that as of today, Oregon should be behind SC.
11) Georgia Tech- Tied with Penn State, but I will give it to the Yellow Jackets based on their strength of schedule. Even in a down ACC, they have played and beaten most of the solid teams in the conference.
12) Penn State- Absolutely throttled a Michigan team that is looking more and more like last year’s squad. Still, it was a huge win in a tough environment.
13) Oklahoma State- Tied with Va. Tech, and this was a tough one. One squad has a bad defense, one has a bad offense, one has a great defense, one has a great offense. Fair or not, Tech has 2 losses so State gets the nod.
14) Virginia Tech- They will have a very manageable schedule going forward, but that offense is still shaky. With the Big 12 schedule hitting its toughest point for Oklahoma State, Tech will have plenty of opportunities to jump them.
15) Miami (FL)- Clemson can, at times, be the best team in the ACC. They can also be the worst. This was one of the latter kind of games. This is a young team with a great future in front of them, especially next year.
16) Pittsburgh- Does Wannstadt have this team back in contention? They have a brutal last three games of the season with West Virginia, Cincy, and Notre Dame. An early seven point loss to NC State keeps this team from being undefeated- they are very quietly creeping up the rankings.
17) West Virginia- Tied with Ohio State, but I think this team is more balanced than Ohio State. They took control of UConn late and have a good shot in the Big East. Late season show1downs with Cincy and Pittsburgh will tell us how good this team is.
8) Ohio State- I still don’t trust this team. Pryor could throw a pick any time he drops back, though the coaching staff is slowly adapting the offense to him (that is, adding the spread-&-shred). The defense is fantastic.
19) Houston- I guess the win over Oklahoma State needs to count for something, but Falco and I had a major disagreement on this one. I put them down at the tail end of the top 25, but they are hardly among the more impressive mid-majors.
20) South Carolina- Tied with Utah, but Utah just hasn’t been that impressive even in their wins this season. South Carolina may have two losses, but they are doing it in the SEC. This one was real close.
21) Utah- They aren’t the worldbeaters of last year so far, but they do only have one loss so far. Their seven point loss to Oregon is looking pretty good right now.
22) Central Michigan- Another one-loss mid-major, but I like them a lot. Falco and I had a bit of a disagreement, which led to Central dropping this week. Maybe it’s the Midwest bias of mine, but they lost in Week 1 and are the best team in Michigan, for whatever that counts.
23) BYU- Tied with Mississippi, but despite their blowout losses at home, the Cougars have at least beaten someone of note (Oklahoma). As for Ole Miss, they have beaten no one of any consequence. Falco ranks them, but I left them off.
24) Mississippi- Why are they here? I guess it would have something to do with winning all of 2 games against major conference opponents and losing to Alabama and South Carolina, two respectable teams. Not a fan of this pick so much…
25) California- They beat up on the little guys, but get blown out by the big players. If I didn’t look at margin of victory, I might have put these guys in my poll as well. Their only losses are to Oregon and USC, and there is no shame in that… but they were absolutely crushed in both games…

Others receiving votes: Navy, Arizona

Update: Spiffy presentation I realized that I should probably be using!

1 Florida 1
2 Alabama 1
3 Texas
4 Boise State
5 Cincinnati
6 Iowa
7 TCU 4
9 Southern Cal 1
10 Oregon 1
11 Georgia Tech 1
12 Penn State 2
13 Oklahoma State 3
14 Virginia Tech 1
15 Miami (Florida) 8
16 Pittsburgh 2
17 West Virginia 3
18 Ohio State 3
19 Houston 3
20 South Carolina 3
21 Utah
22 Central Michigan 3
23 Brigham Young 6
24 Mississippi
25 California
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Texas Tech (#24), South Florida (#25).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Free Kicks: Abbreviated Kinda Late in the Day Edition

Okay, today might be a once in a lifetime moment for Free Kicks- I am going to be defending the Yankees and the defending a Buckeye (kind of). Windsor is coming up to see the Penn State-Michigan game, and so you may have to put up with a Michigan mention next week if the Wolverines take down the Nittany Lions. Probably won’t happen, but I can dream. Let’s line up for the kick…

Unlikely Yankee Apologist

I won’t be the guy to pile on Girardi for keeping A.J. Burnett in the game after the Yankees took the lead in the top of the seventh. Through six innings, Burnett had only thrown 80 pitches, and hadn’t allowed a run since the first inning. I prefer a manager let his starter keep pitching until he shows that he is slowing down or struggling. Burnett had been solid since his disastrous first, and deserved the chance to go out there. Granted, he then put the first two runners on board, but New York still held a 2 run lead at that point. That vaunted Yankees bullpen allowed not just those baserunners to score, but then tacked on one of their own.

And what would have happened if he had brought in a reliever at that point and they had given up the lead on their own? We would be toasting Girardi for not letting Burnett stay on a roll. Baltimore fans have watched Dave Trembley give his starters a quick hook and lose the game as a result. He made a judgment call, and it went the wrong way- it has gotten to the point that we inherently question every pitching call Girardi made last night because of the Yanks revolving bullpen door a couple games ago. He hasn’t been particularly solid in his decision making in the playoffs, but he stuck with his starter, and I won’t fault him for that.

An Overrated/Underutilized Buckeye

Terrelle Pryor has been under fire (and rightly so) for his deplorable performance with Ohio State this year, his poor play dragging down a team that could easily be undefeated with their staunch defense and overall talent. If you recall, Pryor was adamant that he wanted to play in a pro-style offense to increase his draft stock. However, he did this assuming that he could play in a pro-style offense. He assumed that he had the accuracy, poise, and arm to stand back in the pocket, read defenses, and deliver the ball to his receivers in tight windows. One problem: he wasn’t ready for it, still isn’t ready for it, and is asking to be put into a role he isn’t comfortable with. No matter how hard he wants to be Peyton Manning, he isn’t. He’s a better version of Pat White- and that isn’t anything to shy away from.

It seems that the Buckeye coaching staff is relenting to what was obvious two years ago about Pryor’s talents, and have begun incorporating the zone read into their offense- incidentally the foundation of the Rich Rodriguez offense that has made mobile quarterbacks so successful. And if Pryor was worried about lacking the opportunity to throw in Rich Rod’s offense, he could look no further than Tate Forcier’s success this season. But Pryor is getting what he wanted, with teammates telling reporters “He couldn’t do any worse.” This #1 recruit, the “LeBron in Cleats” may be wasting his talent the same way a great writer tries to be a math major and fails miserably despite their best efforts. OSU will turn it around, but only after they start calling the right plays, and forcing Pryor to start playing to his strengths.

Prediction for the Weekend:
Why do I keep doing this? I keep going out on a limb and getting crushed out here, but I will keep throwing them out there and see what happens. I am 1-3 now, in stark contrast to the 5-1 Ravens predictions. Well, I will return to college football to feature the matchup of mid-major ranked teams- how often does this happen in mid-season? TCU will travel to BYU, and while I would love to say that the Horned Frogs will show that they belong in the top 10 with a convincing win on the road, I can’t go there. I am going to give this one to BYU at home, where, Florida State game not withstanding, it is a very difficult place to play. TCU gets winded in Utah, and BYU takes it 34-21.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Arizona Fall League Gives O's Fans Glimpse at the Future

This morning, in reading the box scores for the Arizona Fall League (a bye week for the Ravens will do that to you) a thought popped in my head. By mid-season next year, the Orioles could have the following position players: Matt Wieters (C), Brandon Snyder (1B), Josh Bell (3B), Nolan Reimold (LF), Adam Jones (CF), Nick Markakis (RF), and veterans Brian Roberts and Cesar Izturis in the middle infield. Add in Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, and Brian Matusz into the starting rotation and this is a team well deserving of the oft-used “Baby Birds” moniker. I know that management has stated that both Snyder and Bell could use another year in the minors, given what transpired over the past season I would not be surprised at all to see either or both of them in the starting lineup in June. This of course will pose its challenges for manager Dave Trembley, but what else is new? Whatever you give the man, he will have to produce wins. After all, he is the one controlling the hitters and pitchers… or something like that.

Given the free agent pool out there, the kind that makes Russell Branyan seem like a decent investment, it is more than likely that whoever the Orioles put on the corners will struggle, be he Ty Wiggington or some other low cost veteran. This will push the battle at the corners into the season, and if the O’s stand mired 10 games below .500 in June, count on the Orioles to call up a couple young bats.

However, Bell and Snyder are giving management some reasons for optimism. Josh Bell has been on a tear from both sides of the plate (historically the switch hitter has struggled against lefties), going 12-20 in 5 games with the Phoenix Desert Dogs. He is hitting for power, as expected, but has put up good results against both righties and lefties. Of course, the sample size is small, but he will need to learn to hit better against southpaws if he is going to avoid matchup problems in the majors. This deficiency has been in his scouting report since he was a 2005 high school pick, and will always be there- but it would be good if the O’s can help him narrow this somewhat.

Brandon Snyder got hot late in Norfolk, but it couldn’t keep his average above .248 at the O’s Triple-A affiliate. He is finding his power in a smaller ballpark in Arizona, but he is going to need time to adjust to AAA pitching. Snyder has taken a long road through the minors, and apparently has improved his defense at both 1st and 3rd to make him more versatile for the Orioles- he began his minor league career as a catcher before a host of surgeries forced a move. Looking back, I am certain he’s glad not to be stuck behind Matt Wieters at this point in his career.

The foundation of this team will still be pinned on the development of Tillman, Matusz, Bergesen, Hernandez (wherever he ends up) and the not-yet-arrived Brandon Erbe’s and Jake Arrieta’s of the farm system. Pitching is how you win in the AL East or any other division. But if Snyder or Bell can become protection in the lineup for Nick Markakis, this team could solve one of their biggest problems from within, even if it might take a little longer than plucking a free agent bat out of the bargain bin.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What We Learned: Vikings 33, Ravens 31

Sorry for the delay, but this loss took longer than others for me to digest. Here are my processed and hopefully detached comments on the Ravens-Vikings game. By the way, I did call a 2 point Vikings win, but I didn’t think it’d quite go down like that. I think I would have rather taken the 17 point beat down than a heartbreaker like that, at least when it comes to maintaining sanity.

The Ravens defense isn’t getting any better.
Brett Favre or no Brett Favre, this secondary is awful, which is one preseason prediction that I deeply wanted to be wrong on. It doesn’t matter how fast your cornerbacks are if they can’t cover, just like it doesn’t matter how fast your wideouts are if they can’t catch. Right now, Dominique Foxworth, Fabian Washington, Frank Walker, Chris Carr, and even safety Dawan Landry are just getting front row seats to some blistering passing attacks. How did it occur to Ozzie Newsome & Co. that this was a good group to go into the season with? Landry has been a huge disappointment this year, and Ed Reed has been a nonfactor so far this season. Reed is talented, but I think he is trying to cover the entire field rather than sticking to his side, and it is getting him burned. Stay disciplined, Ed, and they will go to you eventually.

However, the front seven deserves some of the blame as well. They haven’t been as good rushing the passer as their reputation would say over the past few years, and it is showing this season. They were able to harass Favre, but too often their blitzes just didn’t hit home at all. This unit needs to be at 100% in order to compensate for the lapses in the secondary.

Joe Flacco has arrived.

I can’t deny it anymore, I can’t rip him for sailing passes, and I can’t talk about baby steps towards him becoming a top tier QB. He will have bad days, but his poise, accuracy, and decision-making were beyond anything I have ever seen out of a Ravens quarterback. Yes he started slow, but so did the entire offense. The way he hung in the pocket until the very last second in delivering that late-game dump-off pass to Ray Rice was executed to perfection. I cannot recall such a tremendous jump from Year One to Year Two for a QB’s progression, and based on his performance in putting the Ravens in a position to win the game was incredible. His supporting cast consisting of an aging Derrick Mason, a slowing Todd Heap, and a host of skill position players who would be on most teams practice squads hasn’t helped him out much- imagine what he could do with a great set of receivers? Sadly that may have to take second chair to the needs in the secondary this offseason.

This team is the best of the average.
What I mean by that, is the Ravens still can’t deliver a complete game against the top tier of AFC teams, which is disappointing considering that if the defense hadn’t experienced such a massive drop-off this year this team would probably be 6-0. However, this team finds themselves in familiar territory from the last few years- good enough to contend, but not an elite team just yet. Looking at the schedule, I see them playing 5 more times against teams that I would call “very good” or better. Indianapolis, Denver (6-0 will do that for you), Pittsburgh (twice) and Green Bay/Chicago (one of these teams is going to take a leap, I don’t know which one) all will be major tests for the Ravens. You could throw Cincy in that list, but I won’t. Not yet. That said, I still think this team is more talented than, say, the Jaguars, Texans, or Jets, all of which are also 3-3 right now. A lot of things will change in the next few weeks- if Baltimore can reach even mediocrity out of their cornerbacks, this team will go to the playoffs. Perhaps they can watch some extra film over the bye week.

Yes, we should be concerned about Steve Hauschka.
I won’t spend too much time on this, but Hauschka was brought in originally to handle kickoffs and to work on his accuracy. He is still just 1-3 from beyond 40 yards this season, and only won the starting job in preseason because of the spectacular failure of Graham Gano. Distance doesn’t mean a whole lot if you miss the goalposts. It was only one kick, but his track record indicates that there could be a whole lot of “only one kicks” in his future

Monday, October 19, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 8

No polls from Falco and Windsor this week, so prepare to see the magnitude of my poll when left on its own. Early in the season this had some odd and often contentious results between the three of us, but lately it is fallen closer to the norm as the resumes of these teams have gotten a bit broader. The biggest change? I had to put Alabama ahead of Florida after Florida turned in another lackluster win while Alabama thumped a superior team. Teams 20-25 are, as always, tough to rank, so please let me know if I omitted anyone. There’s plenty of time for edits before the final ballots are submitted to the blogpoll on Wednesday morning

1) Alabama- They were dominating yet again, and I couldn’t hold back anymore, letting the Tide jump to #1 on my ballot.
2) Florida- Still undefeated, still defending champs, but looked sloppy against Arkansas. They should put teams like that away easy.
3) Texas- The defenses came to play this weekend, and I will attribute the close score to the strength of the rivalry… but Colt McCoy wasn’t playing anything like a Heisman QB. They will have to be more impressive to stay at #3.
4) Boise State- As long as they keep winning I will try to avoid dropping them just because of their conference. It looked dicey against Tulsa, but that was a long trip for Boise in a hostile crowd, and Tulsa is no pushover at home.
5) Cincinnati- Took out South Florida with their backup quarterback. Even if Tony Pike can’t go for a couple weeks, they shouldn’t have any problems against Louisville and Syracuse.
6) Iowa- The Hawkeyes are the best in the Big Ten, but I worry that this team could just as easily give one (or two) away before the season is out.
7) Miami (FL)- Miami is back on track, and their win over Georgia Tech gives them the edge in the Coastal Division. There aren’t many more challenges left on the schedule, but they had their fair share of competition in the first 4 weeks.
8) LSU- No shame in losing to Florida, but they need to get this offense on track to have a chance of winning the SEC.
9) Oregon- They would be smart not to overlook Washington this week as they prepare for USC.
10) USC- This Trojans team is not as good as in years past, but they were better against Notre Dame than the score indicated. If they overcome Oregon State and Oregon in the next two weeks, their National Title hopes could be reignited.
11) TCU- The Horned Frogs haven’t played any talented teams yet this season, and even struggled against Clemson. If they beat BYU this weekend, it could put them in the top 10 for me.
12) Georgia Tech- This team can score a lot of points, and I thought the disciplined Hokies defense would stifle them. I was proved wrong,
13) Virginia Tech- Tyrod Taylor just fell back to Earth, and it wasn’t just because of the Yellow Jackets defense. If the Hokies don’t win the ACC, they can look at their quarterback; it’s the only glaring weakness on this team.
14) Penn State- Does Minnesota count as a good opponent? They get some respect back if they can beat Michigan this weekend in Ann Arbor.
15) Ohio State- If Tyrod Taylor fell back to Earth, Terrelle Pryor fell down a well. So how’s that pro-style offense working out for you, Terrelle?
16) Oklahoma State- Creeping back up the rankings, but they have the meat of the Big 12 schedule still left in front of them. If Dez Bryant isn’t reinstated, the Cowboys can forget their already slim chances of winning the South.
17) BYU- TCU awaits, where BYU could burst the BCS bubble that was popped for them by Florida State earlier this season.
18) Pittsburgh- Quietly working their way through the Big East, but the schedule gets a lot tougher after this.
19) Central Michigan- Putting together great performances in an admittedly weak conference, and Dan LeFevour is playing like a top tier quarterback.
20) West Virginia- Suddenly showing up at #20 is West Virginia, a team that I wanted to leave for dead a long time ago. But with a lone loss at Auburn, the Mountaineers could make noise in the Big East.
21) Utah- The 7 point loss to Oregon looks pretty good now; and they are 5-1. They could give BYU and TCU fits later on this season.
22) Houston- I want this mid-major to drop out, and I kept them off my ballot last week. This feels high for them, and it probably is, but they have resumed their winning ways.
23) South Carolina- Yea, they got snuffed out by Alabama, but no one expected anything else. I won’t hold it against them
24) Texas Tech- They have a few blemishes on the record, but overall this is a classic Mike Leach Texas Tech squad, which belongs in the 20-25 range.
25) South Florida- I guess? Kansas, Notre Dame, Oregon State, Cal, and any number of other teams could have gone here.

No others receiving votes, as it’s just my poll this time around.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pregame: Maryland vs. Virginia

As Expatriate said, we all are busy this week, so this preview will be shorter than normal.

After last week's loss to Wake Forest, Maryland returns to College Park for homecoming as they take on the Virginia Cavaliers. Both Maryland (2-4) and Virginia (2-3) have had rough starts plus both coaching staffs are on the hot seat, but UVA has won its last two against UNC and Indiana and will be favored to win the game.

In scouting Virginia, they are led by Jameel Sewell, a senior quarterback from Richmond, a player who runs as much as he passes. Their main rusher, Mikell Simpson, is likely out with a neck injury, which will will hurt as he is a solid rusher and good pass catcher. The Cavs have not been able to develop a second tailback, so it may be a running back by committee to see who gets the ball on the ground. With the field very wet and more rain on the way, someone will need to be able to run the ball.

On defense they are led by redshirt freshman linebacker Steve Greer, who has 37 tackles and five for loss. Senior nose tackle Nate Collins could give the Terps trouble, with two sacks on the year.

Key to the game:
It has been raining heavily in the past three days in the state. The field will be soaked and the conditions will be favorable to running the ball constantly. Both sides have issues with running as the starting tailback for each side is out with injury. For Virginia, they will need Sewell to lead the charge from the QB decision, and Maryland will need to figure out their tailback position and get control on the ground.

If Maryland can get a steady gameplan that does not involve constantly throwing the ball in the rain, then I believe their strength at tailback should give them the slight edge. But this game could easily go either way.

Maryland 13, Virginia 10

Friday, October 16, 2009

Free Kicks: Making up for Light Blogging Edition

Alright, so this week has been a bit light on the blogging angle, but hopefully we will be able to rebound next week. Work called for Windsor, Falco and I, so this Free Kicks will try to make up for it. Let’s line up for the kick…

No Preview this Week…
But I will at least take a stab at predicting the game this weekend. Believe it or not, I think that the prime weakness for this team is the defense, just when the offense has come around. This offense has the ability to score, and will tweak things here and there to get the production that the squad did over the first 3 games. The defense has not looked great in any of the 5 games so far this season, and after a certain point one has to look at production of the unit so far. I am terrified of what Brett Favre could do against this secondary, but one also has to wait for Brett to “Favre” a game away at some point this season. With Adrian Peterson running the ball, Favre’s best efforts to lose the game might be a moot point. Offensively, the Ravens could struggle against the Minnesota front 4, especially if Gaither isn’t at full strength. Anytime you have to shuffle the line around to replace a single player there is a big change in chemistry and it is not preferable against a talented group like the Vikings. This may go to Joe Flacco’s arm to win it… and if Aaron Rodgers can’t win it with his arm, I don’t think Joe can. If this was at home for the Ravens, I might look at it differently, but I think the Ravens will find ways to score, but not quite enough. Favre will either make this close or blow this one out; I go for the former.

The nod goes to the Vikings, 23-21.

The Phillies take Game 1 from the Dodgers
Boy, did I ever miss that Dodgers-Cardinals series! Either way, the defending champions are quietly showing the rest of major league baseball that they shouldn’t be overlooked- I have never seen a defending champ so undercovered when they have performed so well this season. While I still worry about the back end of the Phillies bullpen, Brad Lidge is 3 for 3 in save opportunities in the postseason. I still think the Dodgers will come back and make this series interesting (6 games), but I feel like the Phillies are the better team. They have been more consistent throughout the season, they have a deeper pitching staff (which doesn’t count for as much as it should with all these off-days), and have a lineup that one has to respect 1-8. Today’s game will be worth watching if you can get it at its 3:30 start time (Who does that for an MLB playoff game?) when Pedro Martinez takes the mound. Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that Pedro would get the ball for Game 2 of the NLCS. He wanted to play for a contender, and he has helped keep them one. We will see if the veteran has enough in the tank for a strong postseason performance. My bet is he does.

Cincinnati Takes Down South Florida, Boise State Escapes Against Tulsa
The unusual suspects keep marching toward the BCS headquarters, though Boise State has a significantly easier path there. Cincy defeated a very talented South Florida team, though one has to wonder whether Matt Grothe would have been able to put up a better fight against the Bearcats. Having seen both these games, I think Boise State was a bit off their game against the Golden Hurricane, and I think that a malaise could start to form for a team that is expected to win out. For Cincinnati, the Big East is not what it used to be (or ever was), but there are some very good teams in the conference. Pollsters are already criticizing Cincy for their schedule, citing the lack of many ranked teams. However, Pitt and West Virginia could easily be ranked by the time the play Cincinnati. Regardless, neither team has “Oklahoma” or “Ohio State” or “Notre Dame” on their jerseys, so let’s not get too excited. That Rutgers evisceration in Week 1 is looking better and better as the Scarlet Knights have been undefeated since. I don’t like Brian Kelly in the slightest, but I dislike the BCS even more.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Midweek Ravens News and Notes

Coming off of another heartbreaking loss, the Ravens feel a long way off from that "Number One" team everyone was talking about a few weeks ago. With the loss to Cincinnati, the Ravens lost their post as the leader in the AFC North, and Joe Flacco finally looked average. So now standing at 3-2, the Ravens are in a precarious position-- do they win and regain positive momentum? Or do they move to 3-3, and start to look like an average team that just got off to a hot start? Here are some thoughts on some things that might have an impact on just which direction the team takes.

The Tyree signing was fantastic, and not because he's famous. David Tyree was made famous by his legendary catch in the Giants' Super Bowl win, but he's made his living on ace special teams play. Signing Tyree gives the Ravens an immediate upgrade at gunner for special teams coverage, neatly taking the place of Brendon Ayanbandejo who was lost for the season. And certainly this week, against the electric Percy Harvin, the Ravens need that kind of performer.

Derrick Mason takes responsibility for his catchless Sunday. It might've been Joe Flacco, it might've been the play calling, but Derrick Mason finally did the right thing in taking responsibility for his catchless game on Sunday. While the Ravens can't afford for Mason to not show up in the passing game, they even more cannot afford for him to start grumbling as he has in past seasons. Mason is the leader for this receiving corps on and off the field, and this unit needs his fighting attitude to be effective. He rallied the receivers around the negativity coming from the national media early in the season, and he needs to rally again.

Ladarius Webb needs more playing time. I know that he's very unpolished, but the Ravens' soft cornerbacks are getting beaten up consistently and other offenses are taking advantage. Don't put him into complex zone coverage, but every now and again, he could be used very effectively in tight man coverage and jam receivers at the line. Maybe it's change for the sake of change, but this secondary needs it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 7

No poll from Windsor this week, so Falco and I just tallied our totals, and oddly enough we had the same top 5. We had some disagreement towards the bottom, but honestly it could have been anyone from 20-25. There seem to be about 6 or 7 teams that I think could go undefeated, and probably 3 or 4 will. How great would that be in throwing a wrench in the BCS? Just keep peppering it and eventually it will have to give in. Right? We can dream. Anyways, here is the poll for this week.

1) Florida (2)- They are undefeated, have finally beaten a marquee opponent, and have the best player in college football. Alabama fans will have to hold on a minute before they take the top spot.
2) Alabama- Also undefeated, but Ole Miss was not a good team to begin with. Jevan Snead has about as much poise and confidence as a 14 year old kid asking out the homecoming queen. They beat themselves as much as Alabama beat them.
3) Texas- Fell behind early but wound up crushing Colorado. They are now stuck behind Alabama and Florida, but could jump them with a convincing win over Oklahoma.
4) Boise State- They keep winning, but are Tulsa and Idaho really the toughest games left on the schedule? That, if nothing else, will keep them out of the title game.
5) Virginia Tech- The Alabama loss looks like ages ago for this team. If Tyrod Taylor learns how to run this offense smoothly they could be back at the National Championship doorstep.
6) USC- Even with Barkley back and healthy under center, the Trojans will still have their share of challenges in a suddenly strong PAC 10.
7) Cincinnati- They could prove that they are a contender with a win at South Florida. The Big East isn’t great, but the Bearcats will get their opportunities to prove themselves.
8) Iowa- Tied with LSU for points, but gave it to Iowa by virtue of being undefeated. This team doesn’t win pretty, but they keep winning.
9) LSU- Still a great team, and can win the SEC if they get their offense back on track.
10) TCU- This feels high for an untested mid-major, but they will get to battle Utah and BYU before the season is out.
11) Ohio State- Winning on offense, winning on defense, winning on special teams. Since losing to USC the Buckeyes have been scary. Terrelle Pryor still looks like he just doesn’t belong in that offense.
12) Miami (FL)- They’ve rebounded nicely from their whooping at the hands of the Hokies, and I don’t see another loss on the schedule if they keep playing like they have.
13) Penn State- 5 wins, but against Akron, Temple, Eastern Illinois, Syracuse, and Illinois. That is pathetic for a major program like the Nittany Lions. There are a lot of teams in Div 1-A that could be 5-1 with that slate of opponents.
14) Oregon- And we all left them for dead after Boise State. That loss isn’t looking so bad anymore, and this team could keep USC’s hands full on Halloween night.
15) Kansas- Tied with Oklahoma State, but gave it to Kansas due to the tie and because the Cowboys didn’t look that impressive in their win over A&M.
16) Oklahoma State- But then again, neither did Kansas over Iowa State.
17) BYU- I am skeptical of this team, but they do just have one loss. Still, if Florida State was a fluky loss then it was one gigantic fluke.
18) Nebraska- Is Nebraska back? Not yet, not until they beat a great team. But they are starting by beating the okay teams, which is all you can do.
19) South Florida- Tied with South Carolina, blah blah undefeated. I want to see how this team handles Cincinnati on Thursday night.
20) South Carolina- The loss to Georgia isn’t quite as excusable anymore, but they are still 2-1 in the SEC and have won 4 straight. Sadly, that will almost certainly end this weekend against Alabama.
21) Oklahoma- Does their resume say they belong here? No. But this is unfortunately where pedigree comes in. Look on the field with Sam Bradford, and you know this team is better than its record. They have a good shot against Texas.
22) Georgia Tech- This team could easily be out of the rankings altogether. But if they beat Va. Tech this weekend, they could be back in the teens.
23) Utah- How did they wind up back here? It’s #23, and that is down at one-loss mid-major territory. This may also be a memory of last year that won’t quite go away.
24) Central Michigan- Tied with Houston, but Central’s loss came against a major conference team 2 time zones away in the first week of the season...
25) Houston- ...and Houston’s came to 2-4 UTEP a couple weeks ago. Y’all come to your own conclusions.

Others receiving votes: West Virginia, Auburn

Monday, October 12, 2009

What We Learned: Bengals 17, Ravens 14

It was not a goo day for the state of Maryland. No matter where you went, the pain of football was evident, the Ravens lost, the Redskins lost, the Terps lost. In Baltimore this loss was very painful and now many people are in panic-mode. Obviously we are only five weeks in, but with the strength and depth of the AFC, things could be problematic for the Ravens soon, especially with Minnesota coming up.

Things We Learned:
The Reason the Ravens Lost: The Bengals Played Better
It was not the referees or anything like that; the referees were fine. Give all the credit in the world to the Cincinnati Bengals. Their defense stuffed the Ravens offense and allowed next to nothing except one somewhat-fluke Ray Rice touchdown pass. Joe Flacco was constantly being pressured and the running game was not enough to win. Then on the flip side, the Bengals offense was constantly on the attack and led an 80-yard drive to win it all. Had the defense been off the field a little more, then everything for the Ravens might have been fine, but Carson Palmer is too good to be kept down. The Bengals played a great game and legitimately beat the Ravens, no two ways about it.

Conservative Offense? With no McGahee?
Cam Cameron chose a strange time and way to put a conservative offense on the field. Ray Rice did fine, but Willis McGahee saw almost no time on the field, and the Ravens kept running at strange times. Before this, Joe Flacco kept airing the ball, and although the complaint was that he was throwing too much, at least that offense was effective. The offense was terrible, and the reason why the Ravens were in bad shape all game. We hope that Cameron didn't lost confidence in Flacco for the game.

Next Draft: Ravens Need a Cornerback
There is no two ways about it. The current cornerbacks cannot handle the air attacks on the top teams. So far Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Carson Palmer all ripped apart Dominique Foxworth and Co., and next Brett Favre may have the chance. Although the unit is not bad, it is clear the Ravens need a top-tier, tall cornerback to cover the most dangerous receiver.

Ravens Need to be Ready for Minnesota
The Ravens have a problem, they are 3-2 and a number of AFC teams look solid, including two others from the AFC North. 11-5 might not be enough to secure a wild card berth. Minnesota is a perfect 5-0 with a solid passing attack led by you know who. Plus, Adrian Peterson is one of the best backs in the game. The defense will need to be ready plus Joe Flacco will need to get out of the funk; the Vikings will not be generous.

Harbaugh's Ravens are Disciplined
Obviously we are disappointed with the field play plus some of the hits. But after the game, the Ravens were not complaining about the refs or anything like that. They focused on what they did wrong. They know they have to improve, which is a good quality for this team to have.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Postgame Report Card: Wake Forest 42, Maryland 32

Maryland's short reign atop the Atlantic Division is over with the loss to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. The Deacs had the type of team that could beat Maryland, a strong passing team against a weakened secondary, and they exploited this advantage over and over again.

It is hard to place blame in correct places. Wake Forest is just a better team, could the secondary have really stopped Riley Skinner? Could the Terps running game be effective with the "running back by committee?" But some things clearly went wrong, and Maryland's season could be finished soon. In this report card, the fourth quarter will not be discussed much, because the game was out of hand by then, and Wake clearly let up some. The first half was a complete disaster, being down 35-10, and the Terps had pretty much no hope of coming back after that.

This report card will be mainly based on the first half and right to the point, as the result of the first half tells the whole story.

Offense - Total Grade: C-
Quarterbacks: C-

Chris Turner did well in the second half, when the game was over. During the first half he could not keep drives going and was only marginally decent on throws.
Running Backs: D
Davin Meggett had two decent runs, including one for a touchdown. As a unit, 13 runs for 27 yards.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: C-
Just like Turner, effective when it no longer mattered. They could not get open enough in the first half.
Offensive Line: C-
Without Bruce Campbell, the line could not get much penetration against the experienced Wake defensive front.

Defense - Overall Grade: D
Defensive Line: D
Was constantly blitzing for Riley Skinner, and almost never succeeded.
Linebackers: C
Alex Wujciak seemed to be the only player on defense that got big plays. The rest of the unit was not effective.
Secondary: F-
Torched all day by Riley Skinner and his receivers.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: A-
Kicker/Punter: A
Every time he plays, Nick Ferrera continues to impress. Converted a 50-yard field goal, punted for average of 40 yards and converted all three extra points.
Coverage and Returners: B+
Torrey Smith had a huge return to set up Maryland's first drive which ended in a touchdown, and the coverage on all other players was fine.

Coaching - Overall Grade: D+
Offensive: D
James Franklin did not have a good gameplan and clearly does not trust the running game at all. Worse, he burned Caleb Porzel's redshirt with two rushes, and he clearly does not look ready. Obviously with the injuries to Campbell and Scott things are bad, but Franklin's gameplan continues to trouble Maryland.
Defensive: C
It is hard to blame the coaching, because what was Don Brown to do? Maryland can't risk dropping seven each time because of Skinner's skill plus Maryland's weak secondary, so Brown tried to blitz the heck out of Wake which is the better idea than dropping everyone back. The problem was the blitzes were never much different than the others, and they were all picked up.

MVP: Alex Wujciak
The only defensive player that was a legitimate threat to the Wake Forest offense.
LVP: Cameron Chism
I have to choose one; Chism was constantly getting beat on coverage, but many players on the secondary could be put here.

Maryland returns next week for their homecoming game against Virginia.

(Photo credit: AP)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pregame: Maryland at Wake Forest

Maryland got a nice win last week, upsetting Clemson 24-21 and (somehow) sitting atop the Atlantic Division with a 1-0 conference record, but still has a long way to go for bowl contention at a 2-3 overall record. But, as Chris Turner said, win through the ACC and they can go to the Orange Bowl; at least they took the first step. But Maryland hits the road for the first time in a month as they head down to Winston-Salem to take on Wake Forest.

The Maryland Terrapins (2-3, 1-0 ACC) take on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (3-2, 1-1 ACC) in a divisional matchup. This contest is also Wake Forest's homecoming game. In their two ACC contests, Wake fell to Boston College but defeated NC State. The highlight of their season came when defeating Stanford. Maryland leads the series 41-15-1, but even though the Terps won last year, the Deacs won the previous two meetings.

Scouting the Competition: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Any talk about Wake Forest begins with their senior quarterback Riley Skinner (pictured), who is one of the most efficient in the conference. He has completed over 68% of his passes, but does have seven interceptions with his 11 touchdowns. This is a very pass-heavy offense, giving Skinner a number of targets. In just five games, four receivers have over 20 catches, lead by redshirt-junior Marshall Williams with over 400 yards and four scores. The Deacs have a very reliable offensive line; all five starters are redshirt-junior status or higher.

On the ground Wake has a pro-style; playing a few tailbacks and relying on a fullback in goal situations. Josh Adams, Brandon Pendergrass, and Kevin Harris all split carries, averaging less than 35 yards per carry. Redshirt-senior fullback Mike Rinfrette has three scores despite just 35 yards rushing.

The defense though average will probably start 11 players that have used a redshirt year. They can contain, but they likely will not win by forcing turnovers. Some of the key players of the 4-3 defense include redshirt sophomore end Tristan Dorty with four tackles for loss, and redshirt junior linebacker Hunter Haynes with 23 tackles. One problem for Wake is the secondary, as two members of the unit are one and two in tackles.

Things to look out for:
1. Will the Maryland rushing attack work?
Normally Maryland relies on the rushing attack, but two things will hinder its progress. First is Wake's decent rushing defense. But the more important reason is Da'Rel Scott's broken wrist. Maryland will employ a running back by committee with at least three players: Jeff Barker of the Baltimore Sun says Davin Meggett, Gary Douglas, freshmen D.J. Adams and Caleb Porzel could all see time on the ground. Morgan Green is not included, as the coaching staff has said he has not progressed well. I find it doubtful that the Terps would risk Porzel considering his injuries, but even with Scott out, none of the running backs have been good, so Maryland will need someone to step up and get some production. Maryland will have an added problem: Bruce Campbell is out of today's game.

2. Can Chris Turner lead Maryland to another win?
Wake's defensive weakness is in the secondary, and with a problematic running game, Turner will need to have a good day in the air for the Terps to win. He had a great game against Clemson and seemed to be leading the charge into conference play, and Maryland could get a huge morale boost with a win against Wake Forest. The air attack is key, and Chris Turner can make it happen.

3. Can the Maryland secondary handle Riley Skinner and the Wake passing game?
Last year Maryland shut down Skinner and Co., giving up no points all game. The secondary has changed much since then and has been hurt by injuries. Jamari McCollough returning has been helpful and Kenny Tate continues to improve, but the key may be on cornerback Cameron Chism, going into his third start, and Anthony Wiseman. They will deal with two of the key threats the Deacs have, and their success is key to stopping the Wake Forest offense.

Maryland certainly has the capability to win, but I feel they have too many problems that Wake can exploit. The secondary is hurt and is going against Riley Skinner, plus the running game is in dire straits. The Terps will keep it close, but will fall in Winston-Salem.

Wake Forest 24, Maryland 16

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun (Maryland), (Skinner)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ravens-Bengals Preview: Cincy Threatens to Turn Division on its Head

Okay, so I am a little nervous in writing this preview. So far I have been ridiculously off in many of my predictions on this blog, but as far as the previews go I have been pretty solid. I am 4-0 this season up front, and my margins of victory were conservative, even in predicting that the Pats would win by 4. However, the team the Ravens are going up against this weekend is a wildcard. The 3-1 Bengals lost an embarrassing game against the Broncos but aside from that are undefeated, including a last minute drive to upend the defending champions. Baltimore will be charged with cutting down this early-season surprise and realign the top of the AFC North. After losing a game they could have won after last week’s errors, they won’t have room for many more in this division.

What I’m Wondering:

Will these cornerbacks improve?
Man do I ever hope so. They are looking pretty terrible right now, and won’t get much of a respite against a Bengals team that boasts Laveranues Coles and Chad Ochocinco with Chris Henry waiting to take on Frank Walker. If Joe Flacco had that group of receivers, the Ravens could start printing home playoff tickets right now. Instead, Baltimore’s quick but undersized cornerbacks will have their hands full. Ed Reed is so occupied by cleaning up for blown coverages that he can’t make the plays he is accustomed to. Forcing the quarterback to throw is great… If you can stop the pass. The Ravens can’t do that right now.

Will the Ravens return to the run?
They would be very wise to. I believe that Cam Cameron needs to readjust his look back to what the Ravens are more built for- pounding the football. When you average 7.1 yards on the ground, that should be an indication of what the defense is giving you. I understand that the offense has grown to include more things, but it should not exclude what got them here. I have already talked about this before, but for this game, against this team, I will be pulling my hair out if Joe Flacco is dropping back anywhere near 40 times.

Are the Bengals a contender?
To make life difficult on the Ravens and Steelers? Yes. To win the division? No. This team is good, but the defense is too young and lacks true playmakers for Flacco to be afraid of. Yes, they boast the NFL’s sacks leader in Antwan Odom, but we have seen one-season wonders before, and Odom lacks the history to make me think that he will keep up his torrid pace. If Ray Rice is scuttling by him, it won’t make a difference what jump Odom has on the quarterback. Carson Palmer has been solid, but he isn’t yet back to Pro Bowl form. Even if he does return to form this weekend, he doesn’t have the supporting cast to beat the elite teams in the AFC week after week.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Ravens Defense vs. Bengals Offense

Cedric Benson has revived his career in Cincinnati after flaming out in Chicago, but he is not playing like the #4 overall pick by any stretch. He has been a serviceable back, but I would put him in the Chester Taylor category of running back- capable of starting, but in a perfect world I don’t have him start. The Ravens defensive line will swallow up Benson at the line of scrimmage, and while his tough running style will keep him from getting knocked backwards, he won’t pick up his 4.4 yards per carry. I will put him down for 50 or 60 yards at most on Sunday.

The Ravens defense will have to rely on its secondary to win this one on that side of the ball. Chad Ochocinco is out to prove that he is still an elite wide receiver and can back up his comedic behavior with solid play on the field. He leads the team with 17 receptions and 238 yards. He will beat whichever Ravens corner is assigned to him, as noted above. He’ll get his catches and probably a touchdown, which he has promised to follow up with a Ricky Bobby celebration. Baltimore will not be able to double Ochocinco or risk being burned by speedster Laveranues Coles. However, Coles isn’t known for being a very tough receiver, and if you can keep up with him down the field (which either Foxworth or Washington can do), you can cover him. I am more concerned with Chris Henry at the slot position against Frank Walker. If Carson Palmer can get into a rhythm and avoid Baltimore’s pressure, this could be a shootout.

Ravens Offense vs. Bengals Defense

Speaking of which, this is not a good defense the Ravens will have to face this weekend, regardless of the sacks that Antwan Odom has managed to rack up. The only major challenge I foresee comes from cornerback Leon Hall against Derrick Mason. Not because I necessarily think that Hall will shut him down, but only that he will cover him well enough to limit his production and force Joe Flacco to look at his other receivers. Johnathan Joseph is a solid corner as well and could give Mark Clayton some problems on the other side. The matchup I am looking at is Morgan Trent against Kelley Washington. I watched Trent victimized countless times on the sidelines of Michigan games, and Washington could have the size and speed to take on Trent’s only marginal quickness. Todd Heap should have opportunities as well, but keep an eye on the Bengals top two cornerbacks- they are the real deal.

Cam, run the football. Please. The Bengals are about average in the league, allowing 103 yards per game, but the Ravens should be able to pound the ball against a front 4 that features pass-rushing Antwan Odom and Tank Johnson, who hasn’t done much of anything in several years, having been cut by the Cowboys after last season. The Bengals have two athletic but inexperienced linebackers in Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga, but this part of the game can’t be broken down just by personnel. The Ravens identity as a team is to pound the opponent into the ground by running the football and breaking them down by the second half. The Bengals are off to a hot start and if they feel like they are in an air battle with the Ravens they will stay confident, knowing they have Carson Palmer on their side. Teams like this need their bubble burst early, and a heavy dose of the ground game goes a long way towards asserting one’s will over an opponent.

The Rundown

This game will depend on how crisp Carson Palmer is. If he plays like he did several years ago and Chad Ochocinco follows through on his promise to victimize the Ravens cornerbacks, the Bengals have a good shot to win this game. However, given the performances of the Ravens and Bengals against their common opponent, the Browns, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Baltimore has done a great job this season of converting long drives into points in ways that fans haven’t seen before. They keep it up this weekend and turn possessions into touchdowns.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 31-17.

Free Kicks: No Particular Edition (Edition)

Ravens preview to come later today, but I wanted to get back to Free Kicks this week as well. With a new football league kicking off, basketball and hockey getting warmed up, and the MLB playoffs going, it actually looks like the NFL might get unseated from its perch atop the sports consciousness for at least a couple days. Come Sunday I make no guarantees. Did y’all see Graham Gano in the UFL last night? Good for him. Let’s line up for the kick…

United Football League Great for Fans and the NFL
Call me an idiot (go ahead, you know you want to), but I will go ahead and buy into the UFL. Not, as some have suggested, because it will necessarily compete with the NFL, but because it can complement the NFL. Arena League Football was rather successful for most of its decade of existence, and came relatively close to breaking through as a long-term sustainable sport. The AFL competed with and was absorbed into the NFL to create the modern era of professional football. The USFL tried the same tactic and failed because they pushed too hard, too fast to put teams together and expand the league that their fan base couldn’t support it. And the XFL was WWE with pads. The UFL is following closer to the tactic of the USFL in drawing in marginal NFL talents and trying for real football, not gimmicky sub-sports or raw entertainment.

Unlike the USFL, the UFL isn’t moving too fast, either. With four teams spread across the country, low salaries, and with the clear goal to move players from their league to the NFL, the UFL is following the path of least resistance. They have designed the league to work with the NFL in allocating players’ rights to the AFC and NFC North, South, East, and West, depending on what team they play for. And don’t worry about the quality of play. These players have at least been in training camp before, and many were stars in college (Las Vegas quarterback J.P. Losman is better than at least half of the backup QBs in the NFL), so the product on the field should be solid. The UFL is being cautious and trying not to anger the beast that is the NFL, and it should pay dividends for the league and for fans. If this league can develop into a minor league or a feeder system for players to go to the NFL, it will be worth embracing.

MLS Would be a Boon for Baltimore
Our fair city is one of the few in the country to embrace lacrosse and soccer so completely- not of course to a level on par with football or baseball, but they are not so far down as they are in other parts of the country. People here get excited for how their soccer and lacrosse teams are doing in high school and in college. My friends at Maryland always brag about their soccer team, and I can’t usually remember how Michigan’s team is doing (apparently the men’s & women’s teams are ranked #6 and #8 in the country right now). The point is, if DC United fails to find a stadium agreement with a location close to Washington, Baltimore would be a prime location. I am not saying that the team would draw 30,000 fans a night to the stadium, but it would beat the 15K average for MLS teams (which is also about what DC United is getting right now). If this city has been able to support the Blast for 17 years, they should be able to accommodate an outdoor team.

Could Matt Holliday Be the Next Playoff Scapegoat?
The Dodgers, to my surprise, have outplayed the Cardinals in the first two games of this series, games that I thought the Cardinals would take. However, with Matt Holliday losing the ball in the lights as the Dodgers began a furious comeback, this could be another classic moment for St. Louis fans, frozen in time should they lose this series. It was one of those moments where you pause and wonder whether you have witnessed something that that fan base will be talking about for decades. ESPN would run it alongside Jeffrey Maier and Bartman, with Buckner and Don Denkinger, and profile it every time the Cards went to the playoffs. But it wouldn’t be fair and it wouldn’t be right. After Holliday’s miscue, St. Louis still had just one more out to get with a one run lead. James Loney could have just as easily gotten a double on his own; it was only chance that sent that ball straight at Matt Holliday.

Moreover, without Matt Holliday one can wonder whether this team would even be in the playoffs. He hit .353 in protection of Albert Puhols and provided the Cards with a bar when they needed it the most- and most nights he is far from a defensive liability. St. Louis was in a fight for the division when they got Matt Holliday. Since then, they buried the NL Central. Don’t blame Holliday if St. Louis is watching the playoffs from home on Sunday without giving him credit for the team being able to play yesterday.

Weekend Prediction:
I have been going out on a limb week after week, and it hasn’t treated me well. I am 1-2 so far with my lone correct prediction being about baseball. So let me try that one again. Give me St. Louis on Saturday; they will turn things around and keep this series alive.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

MLB Division Series Playoff Preview

Not everything in the baseball world is dark and miserable, hoping against hope that there is light at the end of this 12 year losing tunnel. However, if you ask most of my friends and neighbors in Michigan, they would probably disagree with that sentiment. The Tigers fell in 12 innings to the surging Twins, who will truck their physically and emotionally exhausted team to New York to take on the best team in baseball. Not to ignore the climax of the baseball season for the sake of the first half of football season, I thought it might be nice to give some thoughts on the four opening round playoff matchups, and give myself another opportunity to make some bad predictions (however, I have predicted the winner of all the Ravens games so far, with pretty close margins of victory/loss compared to the final result).

Yankees – Twins
The Yankees have it all- solid starting pitchers (though they complain that they want to add more starting pitching, every team says that and the Yankees are in better position than most), a lock-down closer in Mariano Rivera, and a team of position player All-Stars. The Twins come in with almost no advantage save for Joe Mauer and the guts they used to catch up with the Tigers down the stretch. The Rangers, Marlins, and Giants all had records good enough to win the AL Central. That tells me that the Twins will need a little bit more of that 17-4 finish to the season in order to ride this series to a win. Their run will bring back recollections of the 2007 Rockies who rode a 21-1 end of September, including a playoff game against the Padres to take the Wild Card. However, this is not the 2007 Rockies. The Twins were not unbeatable in September and the 2009 AL is a heck of a lot tougher than the 2007 NL. Minnesota will take a game at home, but nothing more.

Yankees advance to ALCS, 3-1.

Dodgers – Cardinals
Does Los Angeles really have a better record than St. Louis? It certainly hasn’t looked like a better team over the second half of the season. There are plenty of teams that missed out on the playoffs entirely that are looking better than the Dodgers have. They did well to put away the Rockies and keep them from the division lead, but this team had the division wrapped up in May, they should not have had to hold anyone off to win this one. Meanwhile, the Cardinals emerged from a crowded NL Central and thumped any other contenders to the curb as they took over mid-season. They have the best pitching duo left in the playoffs in Carpenter and Wainwright, and they are going up against one of the better hitting lineups in the majors. However, so are the Dodgers, but Randy Wolf and Chad Billingsley aren’t exactly earth-shattering pitchers. L.A. flamed out last year, and they give a repeat performance. A few homers from Manny might give L.A. a game, but I am betting that the bats of Matt Holiday and Albert Puhols will keep the Cards on top.

Cardinals advance to the NLCS, 3-0.

Phillies – Rockies
“In the playoffs it is all about pitching.” “In the playoffs you have to be able to win in the clutch.” Take these two (cliché) sayings together and you have why people are worried about the Phillies. In a word, it’s the closer. Brad Lidge is a shell of last season’s perfect self, but everything else about the Phils is either static or slightly improved from last year from a personnel standpoint. Then again, if you are leading by 4 runs in the 9th, who closes it out isn’t all that important. What does worry me is that Philadelphia hasn’t played a meaningful game in a while; this team had the NL East all but wrapped up by August, some ephemeral Marlins and Braves runs notwithstanding. The Rockies haven’t exactly been gangbusters lately, but they were forced to take control of the Wild Card chase and hold off the loaded Giants head to head. This team knows how to win in the playoffs, but the rested and talented Phils have too much starting pitching. J.A. Happ, Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez, and Cole Hamels make this team too deep for the Rockies to beat… but they will make it tough on the defending champs.

Phillies advance to the NLCS, 3-2.

Angels – Red Sox

The Angels in the playoffs are like the Texans in the regular season. Every year you look at their roster and want to predict success, and every year those hopes are dashed by the perennial powerhouse teams. However, the Angels don’t usually play against a team that has had as many questions as the Red Sox have this last month. Josh Beckett hasn’t been his old self, and Jon Lester is the only Sox starter who I trust to pitch a lights-out game. Tonight he goes up against John Lackey, with Jered Weaver waiting in the wings. If Lester goes down, Boston will have to hope that their postseason pitching finds its familiar magic. The Red Sox will make this one difficult due to their success against the Angels in the past, but the Angels have plenty of bulletin board ammunition after they were robbed by the umpires at Fenway Park earlier in the season. Scott Kazmir is a wild card here. If he gets the ball against his former division foe, it could be feast or famine. If he plays like he has in 6 starts with the L.A./Anaheim/California/Golden State/Greater Western U.S. Angels, the Red Sox could let this one slip. This could be determined on the basepaths, where the Angels steal crazy while the Red Sox catchers couldn’t throw out Magglio Ordonez. This one is by far the toughest one to pick.

Angels advance to ALCS, 3-2.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Can We Learn from the Ravens Loss to the Patriots?

After Michigan lost to Michigan State and the Ravens lost to the Pats, I wanted to keep as far away from sports news as possible. Today, as I am laid up sick and feeling oddly guilty for not being at work, I find myself capitulating to the boredom and reading the reaction to Baltimore’s loss. I expected to write here about how the Ravens are still a step below the big players in the conference- Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and New England, but this might be the most hopeful 27-21 loss I have seen in recent Ravens memory. Why?

The Ravens are capable of throwing the ball against a solid defense.
I won’t back up Coach Harbaugh and Cam Cameron on this one- 47 times is about 15 times too many for Joe Flacco to be throwing the football. When your running game is working (and breaking long runs) against a defense, you keep pounding the football until they force you to pass it. There is no reason, with Tom Brady on the sideline, to do anything to let him get back on the field again. However, the Ravens were sharp and efficient despite the balance of run-pass and nearly won it were it not for Mark Clayton’s drop (more on that later). I think Cam Cameron is getting a bit too infatuated with Joe Flacco’s arm and has been chucking the ball much more than he has to in every game so far this season. This team is not good enough to do this on a regular basis, but this game proves that if the running game stalls there is another option. However…

The Ravens still need another great receiver.
Baltimore has done a great job with Derrick Mason and a slew of substandard receivers, but Mark Clayton’s drop reminded this team that aside from Mason there is no wideout who can be trusted when the game is on the line. They can all make great plays when they have to (and when Flacco is on target), but without a strong secondary option to Mason this team will struggle to keep passing drives alive. Without Mason, this team would be like the Eagles of the past few years- a great quarterback with poor receivers. The Ravens are unlikely to take this team to the next level without another receiver stepping up, and they may have to just find the money somewhere to pay at least one receiver big money in the offseason.

The defense is still there, even if the refs don’t like it.
Ever since last season’s loss to the Titans following the ticky-tack roughing the passer call against Terrell Suggs, I have been on the lookout for refs who assume that the Ravens will make dirty hits. Well, the flags were out in full force on Sunday and it could become an issue when this team plays more premier quarterbacks. As Terrell Suggs said after the game, the NFL likes to protect some “quarterbacks more than others” and I believe that’s the case with Brady after his season-ending injury last season. I am holding my breath for when Ray Lewis is called for a roughing penalty on Ben Roethlisberger that leads to the Steelers winning the AFC North. Perhaps I am too much of a homer, but the NFL too often interprets an aggressive defense as a dirty one. The league needs to realign things or teams will be hesitant to rush the passer in key situations.

Some random NFL thoughts:

-So… when is that great Chargers team we’ve been hearing about for the last 4 years going to show up?
-There might be a reason for Cincinnati’s confidence this offseason. They may not be great, but they will be an obstacle in the AFC North.
-Brett Favre still has it, and that should scare the hell out of the NFC.
-Is it possible that after 4 games, the Broncos still haven’t played any really good teams?
-Don’t let the score fool you, this Lions team doesn’t give up. They may not win many games this season but there is a change in attitude in Detroit.
-I have no idea what’s wrong with Tennessee, but it won’t cost Jeff Fisher his job. He is still one of the best coaches in the league.

Monday, October 5, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 6

Okay, so I saw no college football this weekend, so I am in no position to post about the week's action. If only the coaches felt this way and we might have gotten rid of the Coaches poll by now! Anyway, here is Falco and Windsor's take on this weekend's action:

1) Florida (1)
2) Alabama (1)
3) Texas
4) Boise State
5) LSU
6) USC
7) Cincinnati
8) Ohio State
9) Virginia Tech
10) TCU
11) Miami
12) Iowa
13) Penn State
14) Oklahoma
15) Oklahoma State
16) BYU
17) Mississippi
18) Kansas
19) Oregon
20) South Carolina
21) Georgia
22) Auburn
23) Georgia Tech
24) Nebraska
25) South Florida

Others receiving votes: Cal, Missouri, Houston, Stanford

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Postgame Report Card: Maryland 24, Clemson 21

The word of the game is…..redemption. Maryland was in major trouble after very bad non-conference play. But the Terps showed they are not out yet. Thanks to some tremendous defensive and special teams play, Maryland pulled out a huge victory and started their ACC schedule off right. There were obvious problems during the game, and Clemson had opportunities. But Maryland was causing the Tigers trouble everywhere they went.

With the victory, Maryland improves to 2-3 overall and 1-0 in the ACC. They will hit the road next week to take on Wake Forest. The win did have a price: Da’Rel Scott broke his wrist and is likely done for the season.

Offense – Overall Grade: C+

Quarterbacks: A-

Chris Turner did everything you could ask of him today, throwing very solid passes and not making a major mistake. 19/26 with 211 yards including two scores and no picks. He also had a few decent runs. Only thing I question is his run to the left on 4th and inches in the fourth quarter, but otherwise he got the job done when Maryland needed it most.

Running Backs: D-

The name on the jersey was irrelevant. Da’Rel Scott, Davin Meggett, and Gary Douglas all were ineffective against the Clemson defense. Meggett took the bulk of the carries and nearly cost Maryland the game with his fumble in the 4th quarter. Those three combined: 21 rushes for 44 yards. Meggett did get a one-yard touchdown at least.

Wide Receivers: B

The depth of wide receiver is finally starting to show, as Maryland had three effective targets today. Torrey Smith continued to be the real threat but Adrian Cannon and Ronnie Tyler got into it as well. Tyler had some issues though holding onto the ball, including dropping a catch that would have been a first down easily, but the unit did well against a solid Clemson secondary.

Tight Ends: B-

Tommy Galt had a couple of nice catches and was a helpful short passing target for Turner. However, a holding penalty on Lansford Watson was very costly on a run.

Offensive Line: D-

There was nearly no containment on the harsh blitz attack by the Clemson defense, and subsequently no running game could be established. Worse, Bruce Campbell might be hurt again, which would be a serious problem for Maryland.

Defense – Overall Grade: A-

Defensive Line: B+

The fact is it is difficult to contain C.J. Spiller, and the line did enough to do just that. Plus when the heat was on for the defense to hold the lead, the line got good penetration to pressure Kyle Parker and cuase him problems. Not a perfect day, but a solid one.

Linebackers: A-

A couple of forced fumbles and effective running on the blitz was a sight for sore eyes for Don Brown. Clemson was trying to throw tricks at Maryland and mostly they did not work. The unit had to deal with Spiller and Jacoby Ford, and although both had their opportunities, neither got a lot done against the unit.

Secondary: A-

Jamari McCollough’s return to the Maryland secondary is huge, as he was making sure Clemson had no deep threats at all. The Tigers had to adjust to put Jacoby Ford in the short field to give him the ball. They had an interception late in the second quarter, but the great play came from coverage all day. Kenny Tate was all around the field today, sacking the quarterback and having good coverage.

Special Teams – Overall Grade: B-

Kicker/Punter: A

Nick Ferrera must have injected some of Travis Baltz’s DNA. He converted his only field goal attempt, a 43-yarder, all three extra points, and had four punts downed inside the 20. He even had a punt where he faked to throw off a would-be tackler and got the punt off a second later. This kid is just a freshman and it is already looking like he could have NFL Draft potential.

Returners: B

A mixed grade, especially on the punt returns. Anthony Wiseman’s lost fumble in the first quarter completely reversed the momentum of the game to Clemson, and he will likely not get his job back. Tony Logan took over and had an excellent punt return to near the goal line in the fourth quarter. Torrey Smith was fine on kickoff returns.

Coverage: D

Most of the time the unit was helped by either Ferrera’s excellent punting skills or the fact that kickoffs were mostly away from Spiller. But after Maryland went up by 11 and kicked the ball to Spiller, he broke a couple of tackles when the Terps clearly should have had him and let him break loose for a score. Spiller is great, but when you have him wrapped up, you need to make the tackle.

Coaching – Overall Grade: B

Offensive: C-

The playcalling looked better this week and drives were sometimes finished off, but the fact is once again the offense did not look great and nearly cost Maryland the game at times. Playcalling is often not judged by the good but often by the bad. When Maryland had chances to finish the Tigers in the second half, strange plays were called. Having a possible pass by LaQuan Williams, a 4th and inches run to the left that failed, etc. Turner’s good day spared James Franklin today some problems, but Franklin nearly cost Maryland the game at certain times doe to bad playcalling.

Defensive: A

The players look like they were finally catching on to the Don’s defense. The defense did not allow any touchdowns in the second half and showed some great blitzes, especially when Maryland needed big plays. The team kept Spiller and Ford in check during the game, and despite some very tough situations in the fourth quarter, the defense delivered by holding their ground. For the first time this year, Don Brown had a great day all game.

MVP: Nick Ferrera

This game was about special teams and defense, and Ferrera’s play was invaluable, especially downing the Tigers inside the 20 four times plus converting his extra points and his only field goal. Pretty good for a freshman.

LVP: Anthony Wiseman

His fumble on the punt in the first quarter completely changed the momentum from Maryland to Clemson. All he had to do was catch the ball and Maryland would have been inside Clemson territory on offense, instead the Tigers got the ball back and got a field goal.

(Photo credit: AP)