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Archive for January, 2008

Illinois Serves Sour Juice at 94th Rose Bowl Game

Illinois’ brand of gridiron Juice went sour in Pasadena today.

After racing to a 21-point lead over Illinois in the first half of the 2008 Rose Bowl Game, USC appeared to have another BCS bowl game in the bag.

It turned out that they did.

But the Fighting Illini managed to make it interesting until the 7:24 mark of the third quarter.

Trailing 21-10 following a 79-yard touchdown run by Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois forced a Trojan punt, and then assembled another solid drive pushing deep into USC territory.

The sold out crowd of 93,923 packed into Rose Bowl Stadium could palpably feel the Illini seizing control of that elusive and all-important element called momentum.

On second and 11 from the USC 24-yard line, quarterback Juice Williams connected with senior wide receiver Jacob Willis inside the Trojan 10-yard line. Willis fought to the five-yard line when one of the three USC defenders hanging on to him knocked the ball loose.

The pigskin rolled into the end zone and was recovered by Trojan linebacker Brian Cushing for a touchback.

What might have been a 21-17 dogfight turned into runaway romp.

USC answered the momentary close call with an 80-yard TD drive, aided by an overthrown lateral toss from John David Booty to Joe McKnight that the Illinois defense mistook for an incomplete pass.

The overthrown ball bounced perfectly off the ground into McKnight’s hands as he continued swinging toward the sidelines on his route.

Illinois defenders relaxed, thinking the play was dead, but McKnight cut up field without hesitation and ripped off a 56-yard gain to the Illinois 26. Five plays later, Booty connected with tight end Fred Davis for six.

The Trojans took a 28-10 lead and never looked back.

Instead, they turned the potential dogfight into a dog pile. Cary Harris intercepted Williams on Illinois’ ensuing drive and it took the Trojans just five more plays to move the ball 68 yards for another score.

Less than two minutes would transpire before the Trojans built a 32-point margin.

Illinois again drove deep inside USC territory only to be thwarted by another turnover. Williams hit Jeff Cumberland on a quick out pass at the Trojan 33-yard line but Cumberland was hit immediately and fumbled.

Harris made the recovery and nine plays later the scoreboard read 42-10 at the 14:20 mark of the fourth quarter. The Illini were minus -4 in the turnover column and their New Year’s Day goose was effectively cooked.

USC would tack on another score eight minutes later when Hershel Dennis punched in from three yards out. The touchdown culminated an 88-yard drive that was punctuated by a Stafon Johnson 64-yard scamper.

Williams was replaced by back-up QB Eddie McGee around the five-minute mark and McGee hooked up with fellow Washington, D.C. high school star Arelious Benn on a 56-yard touchdown pass to complete the scoring at 49-17.

USC’s Booty was named the game’s MVP. He went 25 for 37, 255 yards, and tossed 3 TDs with one interception. Mendenhall led the Illini attack with 155 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, and 59 yards on five receptions.

Illinois closed out their remarkable turnaround season with a 9-4 record and head coach Ron Zook was named Coach of the Year by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).

USC finished 11-2 and is most likely headed for another Top 5 ranking in the season’s final polls.

LSU Claims National Title Over Buckeyes

Ohio State experienced a fatal dose of deja vu Monday night in the Big Easy.

Just as they did in last year’s national title game against another Southeastern Conference opponent, the Buckeyes raced off to a quick 10-0 advantage against LSU.

And just as Florida rebounded quickly in last year’s contest, converting several Ohio State turnovers into an insurmountable lead, so did LSU.

In fact, the Buckeyes’ loss to LSU was their ninth in a row to an SEC opponent in a bowl game. That’s deja vu on the intensity level of what Bill Murray experienced in the movie “Groundhog Day” when he kept waking up to the same circumstances day after day after day after day…You get the picture.

After Chris Wells’ 65-yard touchdown gallop on the fourth play of the game, Ohio State forced the Tigers to punt on their first possession of the night. QB Todd Boeckman connected with Brandon Saine on a 44-yard pass and four plays later, Ryan Pretorius banged in a 25-yard field goal to give the crimson and silver their largest — and only — lead of the game.

Colt David booted a 32-yard three-pointer before the first quarter wound down and then it was all Tiger tracks the remainder of the half as Louisiana State sent its fans into a tizzy with three unanswered touchdowns.

The Tigers began the second half with possession of the ball and aided by 28 yards in penalties against the Buckeyes, it only took six plays to knot the game at 10, thanks to a Matt Flynn to Richard Dickson 13-yard scoring toss.

Wells ripped off a 29-yard gain and Boeckman followed with a 19-yard strike to Brian Robiskie. Suddenly, Ohio State was sitting on the LSU 28 and there was a distinct feeling that the game could end up being a seesaw battle.

Instead, the Buckeye drive stalled, thanks to another 15-yard penalty, and Pretorius’ 37-yard field goal was blocked by Ricky Jean-Francois and recovered by the Bayou Bengals.

Flynn engineered a masterful three-minute, 23-second drive in response, mixing six rushes with two pass completions in four attempts. The second completion was a 10-yard score to Brandon LaFell that gave LSU the lead for good at 17-10 at the 7:30 mark of the second quarter.

Chevis Jackson intercepted Boeckman on the Buckeyes’ ensuing possession and five plays later, Jacob Hester plowed into the end zone from a yard out to put the Tigers up 24-10.

If there was any hope in Buckeye Nation that Jim Tressel’s troops would make a fight of it in the second half, the first LSU possession quickly dispelled that notion.

Aided again by 30 yards in penalties by Ohio State, the Tigers put together a five-plus-minute, 14-play drive that was capped off by Flynn’s third TD pass of the night, this time a 4-yarder to Early Doucet. The scoreboard read 31-10, and LSU’s faithful began partying inside the Dome.

Flynn would find Dickson in the end zone again late in the game for his fourth TD toss of the night, while Boeckman connected with Robiskie and Brian Hartline for the Buckeyes’ two other meaningless scores to reach the final of LSU 38, Ohio State 24.

Flynn (19 of 27 for 174 yards, four TDs and one pick) was selected the offensive player of the game. Chris Wells paced the Buckeyes with 146 yards rushing and a touchdown on 20 carries.

Ohio State actually outgained LSU in total yards, 353 to 326. However, 89 yards in penalties, a minus-2 turnover margin, and a woeful 3 for 13 in third-down conversions weighed heavily in the Buckeyes’ defeat.

Fourth and inches …

University of Georgia president Dr. Michael Adams has nabbed a share of the college football headlines recently, saying he wants a college football playoff in Division 1-A because “it is a matter of fairness and equity.”

Yeah, right.

The Bulldogs didn’t get invited to the Tostitos BCS National Championship game, so now we’ve got another whiner, albeit one with a little clout this time, making some noise and trying to replace a BCS system that works more often than not, with a playoff scenario that simply would not work at all.

Lest you forget, Florida president Bernie Machen began the whine last year before the Gators actually made it into the BCS championship game against Ohio State. To save face after the Gators’ romp over Ohio State, he had to play his move through, and tried to get the rest of the SEC presidents on board with a playoff scenario last May. The idea was abruptly checkmated by his conference colleagues — including Adams.

Now Adams complains that his Bulldogs shouldn’t have been pitted against Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl and Illinois should not have played USC in the Rose Bowl because of the resulting blowouts.

Well, guess what? If the BCS didn’t exist, Ohio State would have been playing USC in the Rose Bowl Game and Georgia might not have even played in a BCS bowl game because it failed to even win its own conference championship.

Then again, Georgia might have been granted the opportunity to play LSU in the Sugar Bowl, considering the two teams didn’t meet in SEC action this past year. Additionally, Oklahoma and Kansas might have clashed in the Fiesta Bowl to determine the true Big 12 champion because they didn’t meet in conference play in 2007, either. Then we could’ve left the final voting of who deserved to be national champion up to the sportswriters, just like in the good old days.

When you look back at the history of the bowl games and the national champions that were crowned by the sportswriters, they got it right most of the time. The regular season and winning a conference championship were all-important if a school wanted to secure the best possible postseason bowl bid.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge fan of the BCS system. However, given the choice between what we currently have and a playoff structure that diminishes the tradition as well as the importance of the bowl games in college football, I’ll take what we have right now over a playoff system any day.

No matter what type of playoff scenario presented, be it four, eight or 16 teams, there would always be a few strong arguments about who should’ve been included and was left out. And that wouldn’t improve on the current state of college football one bit.

Just because there was a rash of upsets over top-ranked teams in the 2007 regular season and a two-loss squad made it into the national championship game is no reason to scrap the current system. So what if USC might have been playing the best football at the end of the season and might have whipped all comers in a playoff?

The Trojans still lost two conference games — one of them a home game defeat to lowly Stanford — and they barely ended up winning the Pac-10 Conference over Arizona State. For that they should be rewarded with a chance to win the national title in a playoff system?

USC still won a ticket to the Rose Bowl with its Pac-10 championship, and by virtue of winning that game soundly, the Trojans ended up finishing second in the USA Today poll and third in the AP poll for the year. That’s a rather accurate reward for their season after starting out No. 1, losing two regular-season games, and then dropping to the 11th ranking as late as the Nov. 18 polls.

The bowl game system has always been a reward for the regular season, and the most prized bowl invites, beginning with the BCS money bowls, go to the most deserving teams, most of the time. There was little argument last year when Florida took the national title trophy home to Gainesville. Ditto for the 2006 season, when Texas and USC traded blows until the last seconds of the epic 2007 Rose Bowl Game.

The current system gets it right more often than not. This year’s LSU-Ohio State matchup only occurred after West Virginia blew its season-ending home game to Pitt and Missouri stumbled a second time against Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship.

If those outcomes had been reversed, we would have witnessed a 12-1 Missouri squad squaring off against 11-1 West Virginia in New Orleans for the BCS national championship, and you can bet your bottom dollar we wouldn’t have heard a peep from hardly any other school — except, perhaps, uh .. Georgia.

Fourth and inches …

We’re just about three weeks removed from the BCS national championship game and the cry for a Division 1 playoff has already begun to subside.

This happens every year.

Next year will be the same. There will be some playoff chatter as the season gets under way, but nothing of consequence. Near the beginning of November — about nine weeks into the college football season — the discussion about a playoff will begin to crescendo on fan boards and sports talk radio.

Most of the playoff talk will come from fans whose teams have lost a couple of games and have been mathematically eliminated from a chance to play for the national championship.

You know how the rest of the story goes…

Once the final BCS rankings are released and the BCS bowls have made their selections, a few deserving teams will have been left out. Their fans and administrators will then lead the next charge in crying for a playoff.

A playoff system wouldn’t eliminate the post-season whining in college football. Regardless of whether a 4, 8 or 16-team playoff scenario was deployed, teams who were ranked just outside the margin would continue the postseason whine.

So, let’s get realistic.

Without getting into a lesson on the history of the major college bowl games and their longstanding relationship with the Division 1 college football postseason, just accept the fact that any sort of playoff system would have to be based on a structure that upheld certain longstanding traditions (such as the Rose Bowl Game being played on New Year’s Day between the Big Ten and Pac-10 conference champions).

The major BCS bowls not only have the expertise of hosting national championship games; the Fiesta and Sugar Bowl folks have also proven in the past two years of the current system that they can host two major bowl games in successive weeks. Most important, is that the major bowl game organizations possess the power to make or break any new postseason scenarios.

Following is a playoff scenario that allows 10 teams to participate and keeps certain bowl game traditions intact:

The Cotton Bowl and the Holiday Bowl would host play-in games to reach the final eight…the four teams playing in these two qualifier bowls would have to be ranked in the Top 15 final BCS poll and be a conference champion from the MAC, WAC, MWC, C-USA, or Sun Belt.

Historically, there usually wouldn’t be more than one team from this pool…the other three slots are filled by the highest ranking teams that are not conference champions…this includes Notre Dame, Navy, or any team, regardless of conference affiliation.

In a season like 2007, the play-in scenario would look like this:

December 25
Holiday Bowl: Kansas versus Hawaii: Winner advances to Fiesta Bowl

Dec 26
Cotton Bowl: Missouri versus Georgia: Winner advances to Sugar Bowl

Your final 8 slots would look like this:

Jan 1
Rose Bowl: Big Ten champion (Ohio State) versus Pac-10 champion (USC)
Orange Bowl: ACC champion (Virginia Tech) versus Big East champion (West Virginia)

Jan 2
Sugar Bowl: SEC champion (LSU) versus Holiday Bowl winner
Fiesta Bowl: Big 12 champion (Oklahoma) versus Cotton Bowl winner

Final 4 slots:

Jan 8
Rose Bowl winner versus Fiesta Bowl winner, with Rose and Fiesta alternating each year as host for the semi-final
Jan 9
Orange Bowl winner versus Sugar Bowl winner, with Orange and Sugar alternating each year as host for the semi-final

The host site for the national championship game would alternate between the four sites each year…this means that each major bowl site would host a final 4 game two of every 4 years, a national title game once every four years, and once every four years only one game…

National Championship game:

Jan 16
Winner of the Jan 8 and Jan 9 games

This only adds a week to the season, and it allows for all the other bowl games to be played…one key addition to this scenario that might add vitality to the other bowl games…Each conference’s previous season bowl game record could add bonus points to their conference champion’s BCS final tally the following year…this gives all the teams playing in minor bowls extra incentive as they could be helping their own cause the following year.

The drawbacks? There are plenty. One glaring problem is that you could end up having a school playing in two major bowls and then the national championship game in three successive weeks. You would have to cap the payout amount they could receive under such a scenario and raise the payouts to all the Division 1 schools.

Another problem is the cost to fans who want to see their team play each week, the distribution of tickets, etc. Any way you look at it, don’t try to equate the current Division 2 and 3 football playoff systems with Division 1 football and think it would be easy to implement.

You have to factor in the major bowl games and that’s not an easy equation to solve. In fact, it might be close to impossible. But, that’s not a bad thing, either.

There’s something very special about college football’s regular season because it’s like a mini-playoff system in its own right. It may not be perfect, but the alternatives are far from perfect, too.