Iron Bowl

Finally home to watch the second half of the 2013 Iron Bowl. Was in a critique session for my first draft of a short story, bank deposit, quick shopping trip with daughter.

I’m feeling pretty good about my prediction of an Auburn upset at halftime. Alabama misses a field goal. I’m feeling confident in my pick. Auburn Tigers are the team of destiny.

Auburn punts to the Bama 1-yard line. Looking even better for Tigers now.

Wow, McCarron to Cooper for a 99-yard touchdown. Auburn turns it over on downs. Bama on top. Looks as hopeless for Auburn as last week against Georgia.

Still, Auburn defense holds twice. A third time. Blocked field goal! Tack on another Alabama penalty. Bama late substitution made Saban use a time out. I think Auburn will actually drive 60 yards for the tying touchdown.

Auburn in Crimson Tide territory. Run for a first down. Run for a first down. Play action pass for touchdown. 28-28. Omigod. Bama gets the ball with 25 seconds inside its own 30-yard line. McCarron drops back, but coverage blankets receivers. McCarron throws it out of bounds. Draw play close to first down, but short, so Bama calls time out. Third and one with seven seconds in regulation. Clever, they run the ball fifteen yards and almost get out of bounds to stop the clock and get one more play for a Hail Mary attempt.

Wait, official review of the clock. Might get the Hail Mary chance after all. Yes, one second put back on the clock.

Wait again – a 57-yard field goal attempt?

Looks really good, but fading. Short. Caught by a skill player, probably a safety, who goes toward the sideline, turns the corner, and he’s gone. Chris Davis, cornerback, from deep in his own end zone, for official 100-yard return. Auburn wins on the final play of regulation two games in a row. (Two weeks ago Auburn scored a touchdown on a tipped pass with no time left.)

I’m happy I got a prediction right, but I’m more happy anticipating the debate – how will the rankings shake out?


Bowl Victory Belongs to the Excited Team – Jan 2, 2013

We see this every bowl season – teams that are excited to be in a particular bowl play up to their capability while other teams play as if their venue is beneath them.

Stanford and Wisconsin were both pleased to be part of a traditional Big Ten versus Pac-12 matchup in The Granddaddy Of Them All, the Rose Bowl. For the first quarter and half of the second Florida seemed bored being in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, playing as if a non-championship BCS game against a Big East team would be a walk-through.

The result: a Rose Bowl classic and a Sugar Bowl first half that Florida would rather forget. Which is consistent, because the Gators certainly forgot to bring their “A” game for the kickoff.

A full and enthusiastic full house in Pasadena rooted on an old-school example of power football. Two teams that run behind tight ends and a fullback lead on offense, mixing in some play-action to keep the defense honest. Both defenses physical and aggressive, true to their character, played the run and read pass to pressure the quarterback and cover well.

Stanford executed flawlessly on the opening drive, running scripted plays all the way to the end zone. The Cardinal ran almost half the first quarter clock on that drive.

Stanford’s defense made a quick stop and got off the field. The offense marched down again, 14-0. Two touchdowns on two possessions to dominate the first quarter.

Wisconsin answered in the second quarter with balanced play calling and a tweaked defense. Stanford prevailed, but Wisconsin was in it until the end.

Thousands of Sugar Bowl seats went unpurchased by Florida fans. Louisville fans showed up in force. The teams reflect the unbalanced enthusiasm. Louisville DB in good coverage on the opening play of the game. Driskel’s pass off target, receiver gets fingertips on it, DB does the tip drill – pick six. Louisville gets a defensive stop, long march to second touchdown – 14-0.

This, however, is a different two-touchdown lead from the Rose Bowl. Florida is not being true to character. The Gators are getting stuffed on the run. They don’t convert on third downs. They don’t protect the pocket. Their defense gets burned.

The Gators get on the board with a field goal at the start of second quarter. They finally wake up at the end of the half to score a touchdown.

The Cardinals score on their first four possessions and hold a 24-10 halftime lead.

The only way Florida acts like the team that only lost one game all season? The Gators, most penalized team in the SEC, pick up eight penalties in the first half.

Second half I’m watching the same Sugar Bowl. Florida plays out of character from the kickoff, going for their first onside kick attempt of the entire season. I think ESPN’s Chris Spielman is right, it’s a sign of desperation.

Credit Louisville Head Coach Charlie Strong for having his “hands team” on the field. A receiver collected the onside kick and wrapped his body around it.

A Gator on the kickoff team commits two personal fouls and gets ejected from the game. Both fouls are enforced, putting the ball on the Gator 19-yardline. Terry Bridgewater immediately throws into the end zone – Louisville 30, Florida 10.

The entire third quarter Louisville moves the ball, Florida does not. Louisville squanders additional scoring opportunities, missing an extra point, two field goals, and gets no points after a goal-to-go opportunity. Louisville maintains a twenty-point lead by pressuring Driskel and sacking him. Florida does not have the receivers to stretch the field and when they are open Driskel holds the ball too long.

Finally, with 1:46 remaining in the third quarter, Florida makes a play. A D-lineman tips a Bridgewater pass and the defensive back alertly pushes the receiver out of the way – permitted after the tip, Spielman points out – and secures the interception. Starting this drive in Louisville territory, Florida runs the ball like Florida as the third quarter ends.

Switching to the other end of the field, Florida takes advantage of Lousville’s excellent pursuit with a reverse for a first down. The Gators follow up with a nicely developing screen pass. Two nice calls in a row – but Driskel fails again to get the ball out again, hit and almost sacked as he throws incomplete.

A couple runs get stuffed. Driskel passes again, too high – Louisville DB Andrew Johnson intercepts in the end zone and returns it to the 20-yardline.

12:48 left in the game, Bridgewater milking the clock. Another running play keeps the defense honest. Bridgewater completes a pass for a first down.

A couple plays later Bridgewater passes for another first down, then he hands off and for the first time in the game Louisville gains serious yardage on the ground. Nine yards on one carry, twenty-five on another – this last the longest run from scrimmage the Gators have allowed all season. Louisville marches deep enough for their kicker to make a thirty-yard field goal. Louisville up 33-10 with just 7:54 left on the clock.

Louisville native Muhammad Ali participated in the pregame coin toss. A Cardinals fan holds up a sign with a photo of Ali in the ring standing over Sonny Liston with the caption, “We shocked the world!”

Under eight minutes to go, wrapped up, right? Except Louisville has the worst Big East kickoff coverage. Florida runs back the kick for a touchdown. 33-17.

Florida head coach Will Muschamp gambles again with an onside kick because Florida hasn’t stopped Louisville yet. Kick goes out of bounds, plus five yards for another Florida penalty (off sides).

Gators finally get a stop, but Louisville downs their first punt of the night (!) on the Florida 3-yardline. DE Preston Brown almost sacks Driskel again, almost intercepted.

Gillesley rushes to the 20-yardline, a 17-yard gain. Driskel hits a pass for another first down, another short pass, 4:30 left and counting. Driskel scrambles but gets tackled short. On third down he converts on another pass. Time stops for an injury, but there’s only 3:46 left and Florida is sixteen points down.

A couple incompletions, a big gain to the Louisville 2-yardline, a loss to the 5-yardline and time run off the clock, then a nice tight end delay for a touchdown pass. Florida is still alive.

Until Louisville sacks Driskel on the 2-point conversion attempt. Louisville grabs the onside kick with a minute and a half left and a ten-point lead. Louisville actually makes yardage and gets a first down, takes a couple knees, and celebrates a 33-23 win – Sugar Bowl champions.

Louisville head coach Charlie Strong turned down offers from Tennessee and other programs that were hiring. Teddy Bridgewater says after the game, “I thought Coach Strong was gone, him staying shows the loyalty he has to these players.” After the championship trophy goes to Charlie Strong, Bridgewater receives the Sugar Bowl Most Outstanding Player trophy.

Louisville has spent a lot in facilities upgrades and will move the ACC. In Coach Strong’s third year the future looks bright.

Florida, two-touchdown favorites, will hurt for a while, but with a top recruiting class the Gators might actually be better next year.

My Pet Peeve In Sports Reporting

My pet peeve in sports reporting cropped up most often several years ago at the Los Angeles Times, formerly one of my favorite sports news sources. I suspect it had something to do with the Tribune Corporation acquisition, but then I wasn’t on the inside. I was a customer, a subscriber. Anyway, I saw a trend – which I saw as an epidemic – of a bad story format.

Even casual readers of newspapers, eZines, and blogs know – at least subconsciously – to expect a hook, a headline, the why-should-I-read-this opening that gives us the punch line, the climax, the point. If it were fiction or TV drama it would be a spoiler. We want to know the result up front and then settle in and read the rest of the article – or as much as we have time for – to get the rest of the story.

So several years ago I read a lot of game summaries that irritated me to no end. The first paragraph summarized the climax and the next several paragraphs unfolded the full drama and denouement. So far so good, but the next section would jump back a bit, play out the previous part of the game, jump back again and play out another bit, jump again, and again, and so on.

The baseball summaries done in this fashion were the worst. If the drama was in the ninth inning, for instance, after the nice climax story came the setup in the seventh and eighth innings, then the fifth and sixth innings, then the third and fourth, and finally the first and second. Talk about anticlimactic. Just like a movie with too many flashbacks, a game summary like this takes the reader out of the story.

The reason we watch sports is to watch the development of the game. What happens early influences what coaches and players do late. A pitcher uses more breaking balls the second and third times through the order. A manager intentionally walks a guy who’s three-for-three in the game. An offensive coordinator abandons the run behind by two touchdowns. It’s the story of the game that should be the story of the article.

If the early stages didn’t factor in the victory, don’t bother going back and detailing every indecisive inning or possession. (That’s covered by box scores and drive charts.) Just leave it out, or better yet, summarize how it all brought the game to the climax. And please take us there from the beginning, even if you zoom through it.

Football’s Purpose

In real life I avoid conflict and competition. Yet I have competed in many sports, and as a spectator I watch all sorts of games and matches, even boxing and mixed martial arts. Football too is a violent and brutal sport.
I’m not a football player like most of my cousins. I am a huge fan. This Saturday I spent most of the day and night flipping channels between various college games, looking for the most competitive.
I did not play football on my high school’s team. Not even the Lightweight Team, because my asthma cleared up the first month of my senior year, too late to go out for the team. Through the autumn on Friday nights I spotted for a fellow student who announced home games over the PA system. I joined the wrestling team in the winter season.
I played touch football games in the park with friends. We didn’t block very hard – mostly it was a strategic passing game of cleverly designed plays and occasional completed passes. We were our own clumsy chess pieces.
I once played an informal game of touch on the senior lawn with friends. My best friend, Steve Ruttschow, at 5’7” 160 pounds an undersized but fierce two-way player (guard and nose tackle) on our high school team, apparently could only play all-out, so he bulled through the other kids of both genders. We let him. On defense he eagerly tackled whoever carried the ball, all the way to the ground. We had no choice in that, except to end the game somewhat early.
I played in an eleven-on-eleven tackle pickup game in the summer after graduation, with no equipment. (Not even a mouthpiece or a cup.) Midgame I pursued a ball carrier downfield. An opponent threw his body into a low block. Instinctively I bumped my hands on his shoulders to prevent his forearms from taking out my knees. I went home with a sprained wrist.
I got a phone call inviting me to the next game, but I quit while I was ahead – ahead of further injury.
I did play organized football as a junior in college: flag football at the club level. The heaviest I weighed in my twenties was about 135 pounds.
I avidly followed football at all levels as a spectator. My mom was the football fan in our family. She really understood the game, commenting while we watched on TV. She rooted for the 49ers into her nineties.
My wife never understood my mom’s interest in sports. I just took it for granted. Mom played field hockey in high school in the 1930s. (Mom was a verbal disciplinarian, never spanked me or my brother; yet I remember finding my mental image of her running around a field swinging a stick a bit frightening.) I’m sure Mom’s love of sports was a factor in my becoming a fan of women’s sports.
I’m a big fan of Title IX. I welcomed passage of the law at the time as a victory for fairness. Over the decades since I felt Title IX powerfully empowered women in the workplace with lessons imparted by sports.
Competitive athletes learn personal responsibility, social responsibility (to their team, school, and community), cooperation (teamwork and mutual support), perseverance, overcoming adversity (coping with and learning from failure), and leadership.
Leadership is not just being the captain. Leadership is being a teammate: both a good leader and a good follower, sometimes at the same time, working together. Powering the pack rather than leading or trailing a flock.
My dad played and was a fan of baseball, bowling, and golf. I played catch with him a few precious times (he worked a lot). For some reason Dad always played with a first baseman’s mitt. I sort of remember one time throwing a football with him.
So I grew up without the paternal expectations James Wright references in his poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” I didn’t have the golden hero experience of running out of the tunnel onto a green gridiron to a small cheering crowd. My parents never saw me wrestle, so I didn’t get it there either.
Now that I think about it, I wonder why I never thought to invite them to a home meet; maybe because my teammates didn’t invite anyone either. We wrestled in obscurity at schools not known for the sport. We enjoyed the one-on-one challenge; we didn’t need an audience.
Back to football. For several decades I have watched on television as oversized young men hurl their lightly armored bodies at each other. Until I got married I watched with other men and cheered and hooted vociferously. Now I watch almost silently, as any loud sound I make upsets the women in my family. They only cheer at gymnastics meets. Although my daughter is an athlete, she is not a fan.
Watching silently has become such a habit that I don’t even cheer when I’m the only one in the house. Well, the only human anyway. The cats and the dog don’t object to any of my sounds. They make enough of their own. Come to think of it, their sounds also upset the women in my family.
Football doesn’t really do much for our pets, and it certainly doesn’t entertain my wife and daughter. Annoys them, actually. Just the sound of it. (They don’t like crowds, so a roaring crowd they really don’t like.)
For me though, it fulfills some physical, emotional need. Perhaps even a primal need. Maybe in the limbic system, that reptilian core of my brain that handles raw emotion, the most basic endocrine chemistry and physical awareness of my being.
I enjoy being part of an excited, focused, involved crowd. We sway and stomp and gasp and scream in unison, or more precisely in waves. We begin to rise up before the crest reaches us, and begin to sit down before the trough.
And no, I’m not talking about The Wave, that fan-initiated and fan-generated audience participation stunt that has as little to do with the game as a beach ball tossed onto the field that interrupts play. Neither am I talking about the physical waves of sound traveling through the air, the ground, the walkways and the seats of the stadium.
I’m talking about a metaphorical wave: a wave traveling through time rather than space, a sort of music not charted on staves with notes and measures. I’m talking about a crescendo of sound, physicality, and emotion. I’m talking about the group experience of enthusiasm, excitement, exhilaration, disappointment, dejection, relief, and elation. I’m talking about self and group encouragement, exhortation, naysaying and booing, affirmation and cheering.
Maybe it’s not so silly to identify with one team over the other, to wear its colors and chant its cheers. Maybe there is value in joining a pack and running and jumping and baying in a chorus. It helps my body, mind, and spirit come alive. It helps me be more of who I am.