A Little Help Here
October 20, 2007

October 7 is a notable date in history - Joe Kennedy married Rose Fitzgerald, thus beginning the Kennedy political dynasty.  KLM airline was founded, Jack Chesbro won his 41st game of the season, Spain abolished slavery in Cuba, the first infrared photograph was taken, Tibet was annexed by China, Amercian Bandstand debuted, and ironically (or not) both Vladmir Putin was born and Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on this date.  It's also the date on which Georgia Tech defeated Cumberland 222-0, the most lopsided victory in college football history.  

It wasn't a lopsided victory but LSU's win against Florida was statistically more one-sided than the score indicates, or how it felt watching it.  Florida came into the game as the most penalized team in the SEC.  They were penalized once during the first three quarters, twice overall, meaning they either learned extremely quickly (after having been penalized 7 times just the week before) or they played just about as perfect a game as they could possibly play.  They also came into the game allowing the opposition to run for just 28.8 yards per game, yet LSU ran for 247 yards against them.  LSU on the other hand, played their worst game to date and still came out on top.  That's a testament to the talent they have on this team, but also a signal that there is more work to be done.

Kentucky also played their best game of the season and came away with a surprising upset against the Bayou Bengals.  I was disappointed in the outcome but I wouldn't exactly call it a let-down.  Kentucky was the 4th top ten team that LSU had faced this season; compare that to new #1 Ohio State who has yet to face anyone in the top 20.  However, I was disappointed that coach Les Miles did not point the finger at himself or his coaching staff for the loss.  Instead he pointed to a lack of execution.  I guess that is a safe way to look at things.  I mean one could blame the hitter for a lack of execution if he fails to hit a home run in every at bat.  Or blame a pitcher for a lack of execution if he fails to get a swinging strike on every pitch.  Or blame the goalie for every goal scored in soccer or hockey.  Those are all very safe explanations.  But they couldn't be more wrong.

The fact of the matter is that the blame - all of the blame - belongs squarely on the shoulders of Miles, offensive coordinator Gary Croton and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini.  The Tigers failed to put any pressure on Kentucky QB Andre Woodson, but they also didn't blitz very often.  When they did, it was usually in a situation where the reward for the risk was minimal and the risk was greatest.  They didn't blitz on 2nd or 3rd and long plays where the Wildcats would need time for their plays to develop.  Instead they blitzed - as was the case on Kentucky's winning touchdown - on short yardage like 3rd and 4.  Situations like that call for quick plays where a blitz will have little chance for success.  Strange calls from a guy who has been very good at his job.

However, Pelini wasn't the biggest offender.  LSU got the ball with 8 minutes left and their running game had been unstoppable with over 200 yards on the ground by that point.  Any sensible coach would have spread the field and let their running backs pick the openings in the line, chewing up yardage and valuable time off the clock.  And it's not as if LSU didn't have an excellent option QB in Ryan Perriloux (who by the way did not see any action in any of the overtime periods).  Instead, Croton called a dipsy-doodle, wing-ding trick pass play to throw the ball 30 or 40 yards down the field.  Exactly what about football strategy doesn't he understand?  Kentucky has a great offense led by a quarterback who had authored six last quarter comebacks in his last 12 games.  What has every football analyst for the last 30 years said about the best way to beat a great offense?  That's right, keep them off the field.  Rule number one is use up as much of the clock as possible by depending on your ground game.  Even if that long pass is successful, the play increases the chance that the Wildcats will get the ball back with plenty of time to work.  Besides, the LSU defense was coming off one of the hardest-hitting games in recent memory against Florida.  Why not give them a rest, or at least force Kentucky into a hurry up situation by using up the clock.  Instead, Kentucky intercepted the ball on the foolish play call in good field position and drove to tie the game with a field goal thanks to the excellent position from the turnover.  It was an awful call even had it worked and a game-losing call with the way it worked out.  

I admire Les Miles for his courage in going for it on fourth down so many times against Florida and going for the win.  I also admire his willingness to use an occasional trick play to great effect.  But just as Phil Mickelson only needed a par to win the US Open a couple years ago, sometimes it's best to simply play it safe and smart.  You don't always have to ride the white charger down the stretch to celebrate victory.  Hopefully, he and his staff learned a valuable lesson because they have two more tough opponents this week at home against Auburn and the following game at Alabama.  Playing in the SEC is as tough as playing an NFL schedule and it would be a shame to squander talent and an opportunity like the one LSU has with arrogant and foolish game plans.

One footnote to add: in 2003, LSU had the #1 defense in the country but lost to the #17 team (Florida) midseason.  USC lost to an unranked PAC-10 team (Cal) that year and thus missed out on a chance to face the LSU defense for the BCS title in the Sugar Bowl.  Fast forward to this year... LSU has the #1 defense, lost the the #17 team (Kentucky) and USC lost to an unranked Pac-10 team (Stanford).  And the BCS title game will again be in the Sugar Bowl.

Speaking of BCS, I'd like to comment about the BCS polling.  Not that South Florida and Boston College are in the top 5.  No, those teams definitely deserve that recognition, even after South Florida's loss at Rutgers.  I don't think they are the number two or three team in the country but they have definitely proved worthy of the top 10 and maybe the top 5.  What I don't get is why there is so much caterwauling from the sports media about it, yet nothing about Ohio State at #1.  Didn't we see this movie last year only to see the Big Ten unmasked as the biggest fraud in sports?  What exactly has changed since then?  If anything there is a mountain of evidence to indicate that no Big Ten team should be in the top 20, much less in the top 10.  At best, Ohio State should be given a new designation in the rankings - not enough data.  Look at their opponents - Youngstown State, Kent State, Akron, Northwestern, and a Minnesota team that hasn't won more than 5 games in what, a decade?  How can anyone tell if the Buckeyes are any good or not?  They beat Purdue but Purdue's schedule is just as weak as Ohio State's.  Instead of #1, Ohio State should get a "N/A" until they actually play a team that has a football program.

I have an amendment to an old maxim: those who can't do, teach.  Those who can't teach, teach gym.  And those who can't teach gym become voting sportswriters.

I was disappointed but not altogether surprised that Marion Jones came clean about her PED use.  Unfortunately, the sports media missed the important point (no surprise).  It's not that a great athlete used performance enhancing drugs; it's that the most comprehensive testing in sports was ineffective at catching the cheats.  Here is an example of a person that was tested at least 200 times and never failed a test yet was admittedly doping the whole time.  This lays to rest the excuse that an athlete is clean as long as he or she passes the drug tests.  This means you, Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, etc.

It also means that the press is too chicken to say what they think.  A reporter's job is to report the news and a columnist's job is to give their opinion.  Over the past 10 years the print and TV media have failed miserably in that responsibility.  It's time they start doing their job, even if it means jeopardizing their precious "access".  Imagine what would happen if they started writing about reality?  Owners would get mad and ban them?  So what!  Let them.  No access, means no coverage and no coverage means fewer fans and that means less money into their coffers.  Even the dumbest league commissioner would see this and force them to open their doors to the inquiring press again.  Players would stop talking to them?  So what!  Look how well players who snub the media are treated and how the ones who are open to the media are.  Barry Bonds snubs the media and now he's one of the most hated men in sports.  Pete Rose always talked to the media guys and there are still some of his sportswriting buddies trying to get him into the Hall of Fame or at least back into baseball despite the fact that he committed the only sin for which you can be permanently banned.  The media's job is to tell the stories - good and bad - not be the public relations arm for the leagues.  The teams already have people covering that responsibility.   

The rumor is that Alex Rodriguez will opt out of his contract with the Yankees to pursue greener pastures.  Good for him!  He deserves better than the New York media hounding him daily as to why he's not a better player.  And I know the perfect place for him to play - in Washington DC with the Nationals.  The Nats need offense.  The new ballpark is much more of a hitters' park than RFK but that still won't make Austin Kearns an All-Star.  They already have three very good young players settling into full-time roles - Ryan Zimmerman, Justin Maxwell and Jesus Flores.  Maxwell reminds me a little of a young Jermaine Dye.  In a year or so Chris Marrero will be ready.  

ARod needs to move back to short to fortify the perception of what he already is: the greatest shortstop to ever play the game.  The Nats need a long term solution there.  Felipe Lopez will be moving on and even though I like Cristian Guzman and think he is a good everyday shortstop, I'm not convinced he'll ever provide the kind of power the Nationals need.  ARod obviously would without any drop-off on defense.

But the biggest reason he should come to Washington is that he will finally get the thing he desires most: appreciation.  Frank Howard toiled for years in DC, mashing monster homers season after season without the reward of a playoff appearance.  Still, he never has to buy a meal in this town and the love fans show him is palpable and unswerving.  Alfonso Soriano was only here for one season and he even got off on the wrong foot in spring training with his contention against playing the outfield.  Yet by season's end, he was so beloved that the majority of fans heartbroken the team didn't do more to keep him after his exhilarating 40/40/40 season.  ARod brings the same kind of excitement that Howard and Soriano did.  And unlike New York, there are no stupid stigmas or unfounded beliefs (like Jeter playing shortstop was the reason the Yankees won 4 championships) to overcome.  He would be out from the shadow of ridiculous expectation and free to just be ARod.  Plus, he would be rubbing elbows with the most powerful people in the country, setting himself up for a nice career after baseball.  A player as image-conscious as Rodriguez would be a natural in DC.  So by all means, let him go, Yankees.  Without Torre and ARod to carry them through the regular season, I'd say the Yankees are far from a sure bet to even make the playoffs next year.

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