Friday, December 30, 2011

All For Three, Three 4-0

With 1.4 seconds left, and a perfect record at stake, Kevin Durant took matters into his own hands; taking the inbounds and nailing the 3-point buzzer beater to keep Thunder's record intact at 4-0, while condemning the defending champion Dallas Mavericks to a 0-3 start.

It was only seconds earlier that Vince Carter had scored what surely seemed to be the game winner for Dallas.  His joy would only last 48 seconds however, before Durant snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.  Not bad at all, considering Durant's lapse on defense allowed Carter enough room to sink the 3-pointer.

The Mavericks roster may look a little different, but the same fighting spirit that propelled them their first ever league title seems to have stuck around.  They fought till the very end and would have been deserved winners had they managed to pull through.  Alas, it was not meant to be however.

Also returning to the floor after spending sometime on the side of a milk-carton was Russell Westbrook.  He finished with 16 points, some of them at a very crucial time, helping lift the team when it seemed like Dallas was about to run away with the game.

Westbrook suffered through a 0-13 night from the field the previous night against Memphis, and it didn't help matters either when his sideline spat with Durant was blown out of proportion.  All you could hear from all the armchair coaches and certain analysts were calls to trade the point-guard. 

Forgotten in all the hoopla was the fact Westbrook went 4-4 from the charity stripe, with 2 of those points helping seal the game against a Grizzlies' team that is certain to give OKC fits for a few seasons to come.

To hear the crowd chanting Westbrook's name was a much welcome relief, making his recent struggles seem like a thing of the past.

As a parting shot, I'll leave you with the Durant's buzzer beater for your enjoyment; stuff of legend.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Longhorns put the boot to Aggies in series finale.

The 118th meeting Texas and Texas A&M came down to the final seconds, as placekicker Justin Tucker connected on a 40 yard field goal to give the Longhorns a 27-25 victory in the series finale (at least for the foreseeable future).

The Aggies took a 13-0 lead early in the game, but it proved to be too much of a burden, as they imploded; blowing a double digit lead just as they had against Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas State.  Their 4 turnovers helped a Longhorn team depleted by injuries to stay in the game.

There was enough of the injury bug to go around, as the Aggies themselves were without Cyrus Gray, but as long as QB Ryan Tannehill was playing, you liked their chances of winning a little more.  Tannehill however, was responsible for 3 of those turnovers; one of his interceptions was returned for a touchdown by Carrington Byndom, while his other two interceptions were converted for scores on ensuing drives.

He was able to put together what appeared to be a game winning drive, when he found Jeff Fuller on a 16 yard touchdown pass to give the Aggies a 25-24 lead late in the game.  Given that the Longhorns had been unable to sustain a long meaningful drive, all the Aggies needed to do was hold fort, and they would hold the bragging rights until the next time these two adversaries met.

Instead, a "roughing the passer" penalty on Aggies safety Trent Hunter gave Texas free yardage, then Case McCoy - channeling the spirit of his brother, Colt - scrambled for 25 yards, after 3 straight completions, to put the his team in field goal position. 

Given the problems that a number of kickers have had this season, Justin Tucker ought to be considered a "national treasure".  When the moment was at hand, he delivered; just as he did in the 2009 Big 12 title game, when his converted kick from 46 yards out as time expired gave Texas a 13-12 win, punching their tickets to Pasadena to play for the national championship.  He should change his middle name to "Clutch".

Aggies had a case of the McCoys (pun intended)
Along with Tucker, McCoy also has to have his name etched in Longhorn folklore.  Just his older and much more decorated sibling had done during his career, and on that night in Arlington, TX, Case found a way to get it done.  If you're into the "weird coincidence" stuff, then here's something for you to mill about.

Both Case and Colt had their game winning drives aided by a key penalty; in Colt's situation, it was a 15 yard penalty for a "horse collar tackle" that was tacked on to a 19 yard completion to Jordan Shipley.  Both QBs led their team into field goal range of 40 yards or more, and it was Justin Tucker who punctuated both story lines.  So just like his brother, Case only needed to be great when it mattered most.

Along with their imminent move to the SEC, Texas A&M had hoped that the rivalry would continue on an annual basis, but Texas officials cited scheduling conflicts, leaving no room for the showdown in the immediate future.  This rivalry means a lot to the State of Texas (that's an understatement, but you get the point), and officials on both sides should have kept their egos in check, and done the right thing; save the rivalry

If Auburn and Alabama can find a way to "co-exist", then by George, these two schools could certainly do the same thing.  Instead, it is the fans who are now left in the cold, forced to adapt with the ever-rapidly changing landscape of college football.

For so long the "little brother", Aggies officials had grown tired of the moniker and always getting "slighted" by Texas.  This was their chance to "go out with a bang", and stick it to "big brother".  Instead, they leave the scene with both eyes blackened.

To quote the words of "Texas Fight", "... and it's goodbye to A&M".  And good luck too.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Imperfect Storm

Oklahoma State took to the field with heavy hearts Friday night after they, and the rest of the nation, woke up to news of a single-engine airplane crash that had claimed the lives women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, his assistant.  The other two were victims were Olin and Paula Branstetter, a long-time married couple who were known as avid aviators.

A moment of silence was observed to honor both Kurt
Budke and Miranda Serna.
When all was said and done, the Cowboys - favored to win by 28 points - came out on the losing the end instead, falling 37-31 in double overtime to an Iowa State team that was 0-56-2 against teams ranked in the top six.  Jeff Woody's touchdown to clinch an epic victory created a cyclone (pun intended) whose impact not only ruined Oklahoma State's shot at the national title and Brandon Weeden's Heisman campaign, but will have far greater effects when the new BCS standings are released on Sunday evening.

The defense, which has been somewhat maligned for its "bend, but don't break" approach, was the reason that the Cowboys even had a fighting chance.  Shaun Lewis returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown to get the ball rolling, while Alex Elkins recovered a fumble to stop a scoring drive in the 3rd quarter.  Elkins also had an interception late in the game, leading to a field goal attempt by Quinn Sharp, which if successful, would have probably been the game winner.

Iowa State's offense followed a similar blueprint used by Cowboys' previous opponents.  They played "keep away" by holding the ball for 35 minutes, which resulted in them running more plays (101 to OSU's 76).  Even though they committed 3 turnovers, they still succeeded where others had failed, executing when it mattered most.

Quarterback Jared Barnett (pictured right), a redshirt freshman who was just making his third career start, played with the kind poise that is normally displayed by his counterpart on the opposite sideline.  Despite being responsible for all of his team's turnovers, he remained unfazed; throwing for 376 yards and consistently keeping plays alive using his scrambling ability.  He also gained 84 yards on 14 carries to lead the team in rushing.

If you had to judge by the way the Cyclones' defense, you would have never guessed that they statistically ranked among the worst units in the country.  Not only did they throw caution to the wind by committing to stop the run, but they sure made it count, forcing two fumbles off the sure-handed Joseph Randle.  That choice almost came back to bite them, as Weeden threw for 476 yards.

What the Cyclones lacked in a pass rush, they made up for by trying to deflect the ball every time Weeden was ready to throw it.  The resulted in tipped passes that were intercepted 3 times, including the all-important one by Ter'Ran Benton in second overtime.

Even though Justin Blackmon broke free for a 2nd quarter touchdown, defensive back Leonard Johnson managed to keep the All-American receiver in check.  Other receivers stepped up, but on a night when Weeden was misfiring, he would have preferred to have his his "go to" guy.

Oklahoma State have the next weekend off, as they join the rest of Cowboy Nation in grieving the loss of 4 family members.  At the beginning of the season, they Cowboys had set out to win the conference title, so that goal still remains intact. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dallas foots the Bills

It was long overdue, but the Dallas Cowboys were finally able to play a complete game in a 44-7 rout of the Buffalo Bills. The offense scored on their first 4 possessions, and the defense had 4 turnovers, including a "pick 6" by Terence Newman to round up the scoring.

What makes this win even more satisfying is that it came against a credible Buffalo team that looked every bit of a playoff contender as the season began. Three times this season (Jets, Lions & Patriots) Dallas held a considerable lead against good teams, but still ended up on the losing end when all was said and done. The lack of a legit running game, the inability to stop the pass, and woe of woes, the turnovers, are the very reason why the Cowboys are sitting at 5-4, instead of a possible 9-0 or even 8-1.

Murray could be the key to a successful playoff run.
This time however, there would be none of that, as Dallas took the lead and wouldn't relinquish it.  The emergence of DeMarco Murray has given life to a running game that was ineffective when it mattered most.  Felix Jones, the starter prior to a shoulder injury, has previously excelled in the role of a "change of pace" back, using his speed to break big runs.  The success of such plays, however, relies on the kind of run-blocking that can't always be executed on every down. 

A team's ability to run the ball for those "tough yards" does not only close games, but it is critical especially late in the season when race for playoff spots starts to get heated.  And while I'm not questioning Jones' ability as an "every-down" back, it is clear that Murray is more suited to this role. 

The blueprint for Dallas' success in years past has always been a tough defense, and a reliable running game.  There's been some really good running backs that have donned the "star" on their helmets: Duane Thomas, Calvin Hill, Walt Garrison, Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith, just to name a few.  The onus falls on Murray - who already owns the team record for most rushing yards in a single game - to carry on the tradition.

Tony Romo, who has always come under fire for his play during crunch moments, had a lot to smile about.  Other than a really good performance, it was the first time that he was fully healthy since the opening week.  He suffered a rib injury against San Francisco in the following week, but managed to play through the pain to aid a comeback that saw Dallas hand the Niners their only loss to date.

Another revelation has been receiver Laurent Robinson, who has stepped up to fill the shoes of an injured Miles Austin.  Robinson's reliability, and Murray's ability to catch out of the backfield, will only continue to open things up for Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.

Despite a considerable lack in depth, the Cowboys defense has played really well, and is the reason the team has even been able to compete in the tough games.  With the offense finally coming alive, their life should get a lot easier as most of their schedule consists of teams that have struggling offenses.

While there are no "gimme" games in the NFL, Dallas is in a great position to run the table, provided they can follow up this big win with similar complete performances.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Oregon capitalizes on Cardinal's bad Luck

Oregon beat Stanford 53-30 to take control of the Pac-12's North Division, while positioning themselves for a shot at a return trip to the national title game.

The Ducks, who had lost their season opener to LSU in Arlington, TX, stayed "under the radar" while Stanford and QB Andrew Luck - long anointed the #1 overall pick in the 2012 draft - climbed up the ladder.  Given their entertaining matchup last season, and with conference realignment, who ever won this matchup would be highly favored to take Pac-12 crown.

In 2009, Stanford stunned a high-flying Oregon team 51-42 on the strength of performances by Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck, a red-shirt freshman at the time.  The following year, the Cardinal jumped to a 21-3 first quarter lead, but scored only 10 points the rest of the way (none in the second half) as Oregon came out 52-31 winners, en route to the national championship game.

This time, it was Stanford who had more on the line, with a loss all but eliminating them from the national title discussion.  They had been tested on the road against USC a fortnight earlier, winning in triple overtime when the defense recovered a Curtis McNeal fumble that rolled into the endzone.

And just as they had been tested then, the Cardinals defense really had no answer for Oregon's "unconventional" offense.  Last year, LaMichael James burned them for 257 yards rushing and 3 TDs.  This time around, he ran for 146 yards and 3 TDs - bum elbow and all - while QB Darron Thomas looked like a Heisman candidate himself, throwing for 3 TDs on 11-17 passing.

Brandon Hanna's fumble recovery helped Oregon break
the game open in the 3rd quarter.
Oregon's defense doesn't seem to mind taking a back seat while the offense gets all the love.  Their fingerprints were all over this game, collecting 5 Cardinal turnovers, including an interception that Boseko Lokombo returned for a touchdown to seal the game; just in case Stanford was getting ideas of, y'know, a miracle comeback. 

Stanford runs a "conventional" offense, that relies multiple tight-end sets to complement a strong running game.  While the tight ends are reliable receivers, they can only present so much of a threat.  Stanford's legitimate receiving threat, Chris Owusu, had to sit out this game as a result of having suffered multiple concussions, the most recent against Oregon State.

Rub-a-Duck for Luck?
The Cardinal's "ball control" offense could not afford any margin for error if they were to succeed in keeping their counterparts on the sidelines.  And while they were able to stay within striking distance going into the interval, it was in the third quarter that things fell apart, as Oregon put their foot on the pedal and never looked back.

The next biggest casualty of Stanford's loss is QB Andrew Luck's race for the Heisman Trophy.  Luck, who has been unflappable for the most of the season, committed three turnovers - 2 INTs and lost fumble -, each of them resulting in touchdowns for the opposition.

Every player will have that occasional "off day", but given that nowadays, the preferred recipient for the Heisman Trophy is a quarterback or running back who's team is playing for the national championship, it becomes rather interesting to see just how far Luck will drop.

Since a national title is out of discussion (barring a miracle, and even THAT might not be enough), Stanford still remain on course for an "at-large" invite to a BCS bowl which, considering the payout and perks, isn't exactly a bad way to end the season.

For what it's worth, Luck will still probably have the last laugh come next April.