Sunday, January 16, 2005

I was two Doug Brien field goal shanks from maybe the greatest sporting day in my life. Even with that, the manner of which the middle game of little trio ended was saddening and hurtful, but not completely without redeem. The bookends of my Saturday provided quite a bit of entertainment and so much lovely information for me to digest and reproduce for you here.

Notre Dame basketball game

At 2:00, the Irish tipped off in front of a nearly sold-out crowd against the St. Johns Red Storm. The Red Storm were only 6-6 coming into the game, with some embarrassing losses to Niagara, Illinois State and Hofstra, but they had defeated supposed ACC powerhouse NC State (how can analysts predict the Wolfpack to do anything with a straight face?) and played hard against Syracuse and West Virginia in losing efforts. St. Johns also started three freshmen and two sophomores, so those early season losses to cupcakes can easily be chalked up to inexperience.

The crowd was not even at half the level of the Syracuse game for the majority of the contest, with our patented “pass the ball around the perimeter” offense being executed to perfection. To make things more interesting, not a player on the court could begin to stop St. Johns point guard Darryl Hill, who had thirty on the night, and Chris Thomas suffered a concussion and missed the first part of the second half.

But after some seemingly bad calls, a shot by Colin Falls going halfway down and coming out, the Joyce Center crowd actually getting involved for the last two minutes and the Red Storm missing some free throws down the stretch (the Leprechaun Legion will proudly take credit for that) and the Irish had it, down two, with twenty seconds to play. You could tell Thomas wanted to take the shot, woozy or not, and after some screens and dribbling resulted in his defended being knocked/falling to the ground, Thomas drained a three with 5.7 seconds left to give us a one-point lead. A last gasp lay-up attempt by Hill – I don’t know how in the world he got right to the rim again – was knocked away and the Irish survived a Red Scare to move to 3-1 in the conference as they start a three game road trip against Georgetown, West Virginia and Villanova. You’d expect them to come back 5-2 at worse from that trip, but we will see.

The only big problem with the Irish going far in the tournament is the play of Torin Francis, who looks like he has absolutely on idea what’s going on a lot of the time. He gets offensive rebounds right at the rim, is holding the ball above his head and only needs to jump and lay it in to score us points….and he takes a dribble first. He always takes a dribble first, and it’s killed us in two straight games. You’d think something little like this wouldn’t be important, but if you watch the game tapes, that same instinct to dribble started Syracuse’s 14-0 run and cost us at least six points in the St. Johns game.

When Francis went out last year with a back injury and the Irish started winning, people credited it to that there wasn’t a center in the lane clogging it, so Thomas and Chris Quinn could small-ball teams to death. That was a blatant lie. The Irish are better with Torin Francis out of the game because he’s inconsistent and has really bad hands. Terrible hands. Hands that make me proud of my granitey digits. I can deal with Jordan Cornette gunning threes, because he’s a Jaron Brown-type defensive player, and I can deal with Omari Israel’s airballs, because he’s darting around deflecting every ball near him. I can’t handle bad hands and I can’t handle too much dribbling.

Your courtside reports from the Joyce Center will resume on January 30th, when the defending national champion UConn Huskies come to town. Should be a god one.

The Steelers Game: Lucky or Good?

The Steelers went 15-1 in the regular season, the first AFC team to ever achieve such a feat. In order to do this, they came from behind against the Cowboys, fought through a nailbiter against the Raiders to open the season, survived a shootout against Eli Manning and used some trickery to knock off the Jets. Every game I watched, and remember, I was working during the Eagle and Patriot routs, the Steelers looked like the same team of yesteryear but with a quarterback who was more mobile, more intelligent and less likely to throw the “awkward interception return for a touchdown”, patented by Tommy Maddox.

After the game yesterday, you have to ask yourself if the Steelers are really as good as the now 16-1 record makes them out to be, or if they were just lucky?

Were they just lucky that their entire offensive line was healthy, that Randle El got stronger hands and James Harrison was a perfect substitution for Kendrell Bell? Or were they good because they made the plays they needed to win in all but one game?

Yesterday they were lucky. They were lucky Doug Brien missed two field goals and they were lucky Santana Moss dropped that easy third down conversion. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not good.

The two teams that were first thought to be very lucky before people realized they were very good were the 2002 and 2003 Ohio State teams and the current Patriots team, which started their run in 2001. The 2002 Ohio State football team survived every possible nailbiter, didn’t dominate a single quality opponent and went into the national championship game against Miami as a huge underdog. That’s when they proved that their style of play – keeping it close and winning it in the end – wasn’t as much about luck as it was about having playmakers that knew when to step up when it counted. The next year they only had two losses, in games at Wisconsin and at Michigan, and ended the season by beating Big XII Champion Kansas State.

They were not lucky. They were good.

In 2001, the Patriots had to use overtime, a blizzard and a tuck rule to survive the Raiders, then needed an MVP-quality performance by Troy Brown and a cameo by the 1997 Drew Bledsoe to knock off the Steelers. In the Super Bowl, as two touchdown underdogs, they executed the perfect plan and won it. The next year, they missed the playoffs after finishing 9-7 and not being able to overcome an extremely difficult schedule. Last year, they went 17-2 and won their second title in two years.

They were not lucky. They were good.

So next week, with 70,000 towel-waving, slightly-nervous fans cheering them on against either the defending Super Bowl Champions or the Greatest Quarterback To Never Even Play In A Championship At The College or Pro Level, the Steelers will have to take one more step to proving that they were just lucky against the Jets, but truly are really good.

With Bill Cowher on the sidelines, I’m suggesting Steeler fans may want to pick up some rabbit feet and horseshoes.

The Falcons Game: The One-Man Team That Apparently Nobody Watched All Season

I said it three weeks ago and I said it at the beginning of the season:

Michael Vick is a spectacular player, and the Falcons would not be very good without him, but they are more than just a one-man show.

With Alex Gibbs coaching the line and two stud running backs, they have the most prolific running attack in the NFL. With Alge Crumpler at tight end, they have one of the top three tight ends in the NFL and as athletic as a big man as you will find east of San Diego. With Rod Coleman, Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith up front on the d-line, you have the number one team in sacks in the league. And with Allen Rossum returning punts and kicks, you have a potential big play threat on every special teams play.

You got to see all of that last night. Mike Be Nimble sprinted left and Mike Be Nimble sprinted right, and some of his throws were off – except the two that found their way for touchdowns when they got into the redzone – and he made the Rams look downright silly at times. But Allen Rossum set the NFL postseason record for return yardage (Oh, and was anybody else not at all surprised to see a Mike Martz-coached team finishing north of 30th in all the important special team rankings?) and the defense shut out the Greatest Show On Turf, and recorded a safety, in the second half, and oh yeah, Warrick Dunn was averaging 17.7 yards a carry when the first quarter ended.

But they’re just a one-man team with no chance of winning the Super Bowl.

When Marc Bulger gets out of the emergency room after the beating he took last night, why don’t you tell him that. Or when the Rams defenders, bludgeoned by the Dirty Bird offensive line and still spinning in circles from the show Michael put on, wake up and realize their season is over today, let them know the Falcons are a one-trick pony with no chance of a championship.

Since they just lost by thirty points last night, I’m sure they’ll agree.

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