Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Cheers and Jeers

Cheer - USC and Texas - Both teams put together impressive undefeated seasons, ensuring that a true national champion will be selected this year. Midway through the first quarter, the game has not disappointed. Both coaches have been foiled early, aggressively going for it on fourth down.

Jeer - The Michigan Wolverines - After winning a second straight Big Ten Championship, a fairly strong showing in last year's Rose Bowl, losing a heartbreaker to Texas, 38-37 with a last second Texas field goal as time expired, and very promising freshman seasons by Hart and Henne, the Wolverines started out the season ranked third in the nation, behind USC and Texas. Things began to unravel early, with an early season loss to Notre Dame. The Wolverines suffered an injury plagued season, including injuries to several key players on the offensive line, and a disappointing sophomore season from running back Michael Hart. The 7-5 record of the Wolverines was the worst record since the mid-eighties.

Cheer - Joe Paterno and the Penn State Nittany Lions - Penn State finished one play away from a perfect undefeated season. The aforementioned Michigan Wolverines caused the only blemish on Penn State's season, when Henne completed a pass to Mario Manningham with no time remaining on the clock.

Penn State finished out the season with an exciting triple-overtime win over Florida State in the Orange Bowl to ensure a top-three ranking in the final national polls.

Jeer - Fox Broadcasting Company - This fall, Fox introduced an intriguing new television series called Reunion. The show wasn't exceptionally well written or executed, but it was an interesting concept and a show that me and my wife followed for the past couple months.

What made this show special was that it was a 20-episode murder mystery, covering one year per season. Now, basically at the half-way point of the season, Fox just announced that they are canceling the show and will not broadcast the remaining episodes.

Sure, it wasn't a great show. Sure, it didn't have great ratings, but you can't do that with a murder mystery series! Shame on you, Fox Corporation, for putting once again demonstrating where your true loyalties lie, once again putting corporate profits above fan loyalty.

Cheer - Toronto Maple Leafs - Around this time the last time the NHL had a regular season, fighting a number of injuries to key players, the Leafs reeled off a sixteen-game undefeated streak, on route to a 103 point season, temporarily taking over first place overall in the NHL.

The Leafs appear to once again be starting to catch on fire, with a six-game winning streak, while several key players, including Jason Allison and Eric Lindros, remain injured. Two weeks ago, the Leafs were on the brink of being pushed temporarily into a non-playoff position. After the six game winning streak, they are now in a fight for fifth in the conference with the New York Rangers. The Leafs are still a long way from contending for the conference lead, way behind the Ottawa Senators, but they definitely look better than earlier this season. One of the keys has been the play of veteran goalie Ed Belfour, who finally appears to be playing to the level he is capable of. The upcoming week should be an interesting challenge for the Leafs, with a three-game road sweep through Western Canada, playing in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

Jeer - USA Hockey, Fox Sports Net, and the US Media - For failing to promote the World Junior Hockey Tournament at all during the five years I have resided in the United States. See my previous rant for all you ever want to hear on the topic. If you want to watch the gold medal game this year, or ever want to watch a WJHC game in the future, please contact USA Hockey and Fox Sports Net to voice your displeasure.

Cheer - The State of Wisconsin - For signing legislature earlier today that will require open source software to be used in touchscreen voting machines. This is a huge victory for democracy. Here's to hoping this trend spreads to more states throughout the country.

Cheer - Tuukka Rask - Future Toronto Maple Leaf prospect Tuukka Rask put together one of the greatest individual goaltending performances in years, with a 53-save overtime shutout over Sweden in the quaterfinals of the World Junior Hockey Tournament, allowing team Finland to squeak by with a 1-0 victory. Honorable mention goes to Justin Pogge of Team Canada, another Leafs prospect, who has two shutouts for himself in the tournament, and is one win away from a gold medal.

Jeer - Congress, Lobbyists and Corruption - Jack Abramoff's guilty plea is an abysmal indictment of the state of US political corruption. Here's to hoping this is a turning point to the political climate of the United States. Lobbyist money cannot continue to be the chief force in American politics.


Let the Game Begin :)

My money is on Texas. I'm hoping for a huge offensive battle. USC has the more explosive offense, but both teams have numbers that are out of this world. Texas dodged a bullet early this season, managing to walk out of Ohio State with a 25-22 win, while USC barely squeaked by Notre Dame earlier this season. Other than those two games, these teams have been dominating. USC has won 34 straight, while Texas has won seventeen in a row. Both teams have scored fifty or more points seven times this season. Wow!

The best two games in the past two years have been the Texas-Michigan Rose Bowl last year, and the Texas-Ohio State matchup early this year.

The Vegas line has USC listed as 7 1/2 point favorites. Some more numbers:

USC is averaging 50 points a game; Texas is averaging 50.9. USC's lowest output is 34; Texas scored fewer than 40 once, at Ohio State.

I'll pick Texas as six point favorites, with a final score of 43-37.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

And you Wonder Why Hockey Never Seems to Take Off in the States

Yesterday, I complained about about poor reffing in the NCAA College Bowl Games. Today, I complain about the complete lack of coverage of the World Junior Hockey Tournament in the United States. For those of you who may not be aware, the World Junior Hockey Tournament is the best two weeks of hockey you can find anywhere outside of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A couple of years ago, Canada and the United States met in the championship game, and I was appalled to find out that the US media was ignoring the game completely, instead deciding to air some Ali-Frasier bout that took place twenty-five years ago. The US Junior Team went on to win their first ever World Junior Hockey Championship that year, and I could not find a mention of it on the news or in the newspaper headlines the next day.

Contrast this with Canada. Growing up, I looked forward to Christmas break each year, when I was treated to two straight weeks of continuous WJHC coverage on TSN. What a disappointment it has been for me since moving here to the United States.

I wrote Fox Sports Net about the possibility of broadcasting Saturday's New Years Eve matchup between the USA - Canada, but did not receive any response at all.

Fox Sports Net owns the rights to televising the US games in this tournament. For some reason, they have decided to only televise the games on Fox Sports Net North, available in Wisconsin and Minnesota, I believe. Here in Ann Arbor, I am stuck watching Fox Sports Net Detroit, featuring an (exciting, I gather) early season Oklahoma State-Pepperdine College Basketball matchup.

To make matters worse, USAHockey previously announced that they would provide a live radio feed on their website. I pulled up the site, and was very disappointed to listen to twenty consecutive minutes of the worst elevator music you could ever imagine before turning it off in disgust. Finally, after a little digging, I found an alternative live feed of the game on Team 1040, a Vancouver-based radio station. Leave it to a Canadian website to bail me out.

What I'm getting at is this -- time and time again, I here about how Hockey ranks like tenth among sports popularity in the United States of America, below the likes of Figure Skating, Synchronized Swimming and World Series Poker. What do you expect when you fail to promote the one of the most exciting tournaments around. Put the game on TV, and give fans a chance to appreciate the quality of hockey available in this tournament. Last years tournament featured Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, two emerging stars in the NHL, along with Dion Phaneuf, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Patrice Bergeron. This year, the Russian team features Evgeny Malkin, a player that could one day challenge Crosby and Ovechkin for the NHL Scoring lead. Other emerging stars in this years tournament include Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask, who managed to put together a 53-shot shutout over Sweden in the Quarterfinals, Phil Kessel, a potential number one draft pick on the Americans, Jack Johnson, a dominating defense force from the University of Michigan, and Robbie Shremph, also on the US squad.

Going into the tournament, the US squad was favored to win the tournament, given the number of quality players on this squad. They are in tough tonight against Russia here in the Semi-finals, which is going to be a close battle. If you're interested, Russia is currently up 1-0 after the first period.

Oklahoma State-Pepperdine - give me a break! If you're going to insult hockey by skipping a semi-final matchup involving the US Junior Team, at least have the decency to feature a ranked team, instead of showing a completely meaningless regular season matchup between two mediocre basketball clubs.


Monday, January 02, 2006

The Call that Completely Ruined the Outback Bowl

Absolutely Awful

The Outback bowl, featuring Iowa and Florida was shaping up to be a classic. Down 31-7 going into the fourth quarter, Drew Tate started a late game charge, throwing two touchdowns to Hinkel, one with 13:51 remaining, and the second with 6:59 to go. Starting the quarter down by 24 points, the game looked out of hand, but suddenly, it looked like Drew Tate migh be able to perform some late game magic. If you'll remember, last season Tate threw a huge game-winning touchdown from mid-field last year in the Capitol One Bowl versus LSU.

After scoring the second touchdown, the Iowa Hawkeyes were down by 10. They punted to Florida, and looked to have all the momentum in the world, stopping Florida on third down a yard short. Florida pulled out a dangerous fake punt close to their own end zone, and managed to secure a first down. The gators then proceeded to wear off four minutes off the clock and force Iowa to use its three timeouts. The Gators eventually lost the ball with a little over two minutes remaining trying to go for it on another fourth down.

Iowa proceeded to drive the field and kick a fieldgoal, making it a one possession game with 1:11 remaining. They set up for the on-side kick, got a perfectly executed hop, and recovered the football, setting up a story book ending, giving Tate a chance to pull out another game winning touchdown in the final minute of a bowl game.

But wait - a flag on the field - "Offside" declares the Conference USA ref. They replayed the kickoff five or six times, and the player in question was definately onside. Horribly bad call. Instead of a storybook ending, Iowa is forced to rekick another low percentage onside kick attempt, which Florida recovers, and promptly takes a knee to win the game. The play was close, but the Iowa player was definately on-side. With instant replay, there is no excuse to have a referee blow a call on the most important play of the game, essentially awarding the Outback Bowl to the Florida Gators on a silver platter.

This is not the only bowl game that was decided by poor refing. Ultimately, the Michigan Wolverines lost the Alamo bowl to the Nebraska Cornhuskers due to poor execution in the fourth quarter. They had a chance to put the game away, up 28-17 and deep into Nebraska territory late in the fourth quarter. Three turnovers in the second half of the fourth quarter was the ultimate difference. But the referees did their best to help out Nebraska. Ultimately, the Wolverines lost because they did not have time to complete a final drive to win the game.

Bad calls by the Refs:

  • Forcing Michigan to use two of their timeouts to dispute plays that definatley should have been under review. The supposed touchdown called by the refs was an obviously hit the ground, and it is a travesty that the Wolverines had to use a timeout to get the call reversed.

  • I still think the supposed fumble by Henne was simply an imcomplete pass. This was the second time this season the Wolverines were burned by a similar looking play. A similar play deep in Michigan State Spartans led to a Spartans touchdown which almost cost the Wolverines the game. Calling that a fumble was a huge break for Nebraska. What was worse was that the refs failed to act promptly to declare the play "under review" when it was an obvious questionable call. Forcing the Wolverines to use yet another timeout late in the game was unconsinable.

  • Next up was late in the game, when Michigan forced Nebraska to a fourth down with a minute and change left in the game. With no timeouts remaining thanks to the refs, the Wolverines were at the mercy of the clock. Rather than spot the ball immediately, the refs waited for a seemingly insane amount of time before spotting the ball. The Wolverines should have got the ball back with about forty-five to fifty seconds remaining, which is just enough time to put together a drive in college football. Instead, the refs let the clock run out, and the Wolverines got the ball back with 26 seconds. At this point, I almost feel like the refs calling these games have money riding on them.
  • Finally, we come to the infamous final play of the game. With no time remaining on the clock, the Wolverines resorted to a gimmick hook and ladder, end up lateralling the ball nine times, and end up with a streaking Ecker and Breaston running down the sideline. Suddenly, a bunch of Nebraska coaches and players start running all over the field - there were literally about a hundred players on the field while the game was still going. Ecker and Breaston should have had room to operate to make it into the endzone, but we'll never know whether all those coaches standing in the way influenced Ecker's decision to hold on to the ball and try to make it into the endzone, rather than trying to look for Breaston who was right behind him. With all the coaches and players in the way, it certainly appeared that the only option Ecker had was to run down the sideline and try to will his way into the endzone. Ecker made it to the Nebraska thirteen yard line before being tackled. How was a penalty not called when there were 100 Nebraska players occupying space on the field? How did the refs make so many questionable and bad decisions in this game.

This is the end of my rant on College Football refs. There have been a lot of exciting college football games, and a lot of great endings. I'm going to take some time to discuss the positives of the Michigan/Nebraska game a little later, but for now I still have four or five great bowl games to watch.