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Maza's Musings

Unsolicited sports opinion and insight

Month

November 2010

NFL lacking a truly marquee team this season

With the absolute bludgeoning the New England Patriots laid on the Pittsburgh Steelers last night, Sunday Night Football illustrated better than any writer, stat sheet or coach could the point that this year’s NFL does not have a single team that can be pegged as a sure-fire playoff team.

This year more than ever the cliche “any given Sunday” has taken on real meaning. Two weeks ago the Patriots were dominated by a 2-5 football team. The Browns had played teams tough, but couldn’t do enough to win most of the time and the general consensus was that they would have to play a perfect football game in order to even have a chance at beating the Patriots. They played nearly perfect and not only won, but dictated the game from start to finish.

The consensus among football circles was pretty much the same. If New England, now further exposed as a flawed team, wanted to beat the Steelers, the perceived league powerhouse, the Patriots would have to play flawlessly. They did. And while it was only a 13-point margin at the end, it was clear to those who watched that the Patriots won the game by more than 13 points.

So is there any team that can be looked at as a favorite to win the Super Bowl this year?

Pittsburgh and New England are both still fine football teams, but both have shown obvious weaknesses, especially in certain 1-on-1 matchup scenarios.

The New York Jets are also 7-2 and they easily could be 4-5. Sure, the point is that they’re not and Mark Sanchez just threw a winning touchdown pass, but before that, he threw a big interception in overtime. Would a better team have turned that against the Jets?

Baltimore’s defense is not the juggernaut of the past, especially in the secondary and there just doesn’t look like there are enough bullets in Joe Flacco’s gun to make up for it.

The Colts now lead the AFC South all by themselves, but the defense in porous and injuries plague them on both sides of the ball.

In the NFC, Matt Ryan and the Falcons sit at 7-2, but they won last week because Roddy White pushed a defensive back to the ground on a blatant offensive pass interference that wasn’t called against the Ravens. White even admitted doing it after the fact. Is that the sign of good hustle, or a team that still thinks it’s desperate for wins?

The New York Giants are turnover machines and you have to think that that will come back to bite them eventually.

New Orleans is getting healthier and have back-to-back wins, including one against Pittsburgh. Could they be primed to make a run coming off the bye? If so, the defense will have to do better than it ha in terms of takeaways. That’s what made them so successful last year.

Can any of these teams be called a clear-cut favorite? No way.

But you know what? That’s alright. And the league should think it’s alright, too. While there is a perception that a marquee team is needed in order for there to be a marketable, recognizable “brand” out there on the football field, the fact that there are so many teams with a chance is a huge positive for the league.

When you look at the standings, there are only a handful of teams that are truly out of the running for the postseason at this point. Along with that comes stronger interest from multiple markets that are filled with fans who want to know if their team could take advantage of the year without Goliath.

It’s good for fans and it’s good for football. While as a fan you hope your team will simply crush every team they face and bring home a championship, as someone who appreciates the game, it’s a very exciting time.

Eyes on the Irish: The rollercoaster ride continues

Lose three in a row. Win three straight. Get blown out by Navy. Lay a beating on Utah.

The up and down ride that has been the Notre Dame season has now gotten interesting. A week ago, fans were talking gloom and doom and taking bets on how long it would take for Brian Kelly would get canned. One win against a wounded team and suddenly that all changed.

Notre Dame played possibly its best, most complete game of the season on Saturday against Utah, who was still licking its wounds after an embarrassing loss to TCU the week before.

It is admirable that the Irish were able to do what they did with so many key members of the team sidelined. Let’s quickly review.

The offense is without its starting quarterback Dayne Crist, starting running back Armando Allen, starting tight end Kyle Rudolph and second wide receiver Theo Riddick.

The answer to those obstacles? Tommy Rees overcame a rough start and completed 13 of 20 passes, including three touchdowns. Notre Dame rushers averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Lost-in-the-shuffle senior Duval Kamara caught two touchdown passes after catching just seven balls and no touchdowns all season.

Defensively, the Irish were without nose guard Ian Williams and linebacker Carlo Calabrese and had given up 837 yards over the last two games.

Their response? Notre Dame blocked a punt and recovered it for its first score of the game, held Utah’s runners to 2.4 yards per carry and forced a pair of turnovers, while holding the Utes scoreless for nearly 54 minutes after giving up a field goal in the first quarter.

Now the once glum Irish faithful have ideas like the Irish salvaging a 7-5 record out of this mess of a season dancing in their heads. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Remember that with the good, there was plenty of bad.

Notre Dame converted on just two of its 10 third down situations. The offense was actually out-gained by the hapless Utes and had just 256 yards on the day. Ben Turk averaged just 36 yards per punt.

The Irish played very conservative on the offensive side of the ball and limited the opportunities for Rees to make mistakes. That worked against a team that not only failed to execute, but also shot itself in the foot with 11 penalties. How will it go against a team that plays well?

Army, who is bowl-eligible for the first time since 1996, proved it can put up points, especially against teams with inconsistent defenses, by putting up 45 points against Kent State on Saturday. They’re not a powerhouse, but they do average 31 points per game offensively. And what about USC and sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, who are averaging 35 points per game? If the Irish find themselves in a shootout in either of those weeks, will Rees and the offense be up to the challenge?

Time will tell. But at this point, with the way the season has gone, nothing can be taken for granted and bowl eligibility is not a guarantee.

Don’t forget to submit your questions for next week’s Maza’s Monday Mailbag to mazasmusings@gmail.com.

Also, don’t forget to follow along on Twitter @Mazasmusings and ‘Like’ Chris Maza’s facebook page.

Boise State still deserves props

Lost in the midst of the Cam Newton scandal at Auburn and the beatdown TCU laid on Utah last weekend is the fact that Hawaii absolutely dominated a pretty good team as well.

Hawaii came to the blue turf with a 7-2 record and a 5-0 league mark, averaging a shade over 39 points per game. What makes that even more impressive is the fact that Jeremiah Masoli was supposed to be their starting quarterback. For those who don’t remember, Masoli was kicked off the team after getting caught stealing, graduated, then moved on to Ole Miss.

The Warriors were smothered by the Broncos and scored just seven points the entire game. They were shut out in the first half for the first time all season and had 196 yards of total offense.

With guys like Kellen Moore, Austin Pettis and Titus Young making the headlines by putting up somewhere around 50 points everytime they hit the field, it’s easy to overlook the defense, but they are second in the nation in scoring defense behind TCU, second in run defense, ninth in pass defense and second in total defense behind the Horned Frogs.

The last big test for the defense and a chance to make a final statement for the BCS comes two weeks from now against No. 25 Nevada. Hawaii did hold them to 21 in the Wolfpack’s only loss of the season, but  Nevada is fourth in the nation in scoring with 42 points per contest. Will shutting down that team be enough to vault the Broncos over at least two other teams in the BCS standings? Most likely they’ll still need some help.

Don’t forget to submit your questions for next week’s Maza’s Monday Mailbag to mazasmusings@gmail.com.

Also, don’t forget to follow along on Twitter @Mazasmusings and ‘Like’ Chris Maza’s facebook page.

Maza’s Monday Mailbag: What happens to Auburn?

A lot has gone on the past week in the world of sports, but the controversies always create the biggest buzz.

Springfield, MA wants to know: Will Auburn lose their shot at the national championship because of Cam Newton?
I really don’t think so. I’m reserving judgment because this is simply a case of he said, he said at this point. But whether these allegations prove accurate or not, the fact of the matter is the NCAA is going to have to do its due diligence and, in all likelihood, any decision of his guilt or innocence will come long after this season is over. It’s unfortunate that this question will hover over everything, but it’s the most likely scenario. It would be a tragic thing if a team ends up being denied a chance at the championship because Auburn stands in its way, only to find out later that the Tigers’ wins are vacated because the allegations prove to be sound. Then again, it would be just as tragic if the NCAA makes a snap decision and denies Auburn their shot if Newton did no wrong.

Holyoke, MA asks: With David Krejci out, do you think Tyler Seguin gets his chance to shine?
No. I do think that Krejci is the most talented centerman on the Bruins and I still think that’s true. And I do think it hurts them even more because Marc Savard is still on IR. It is a scary notion having Blake Wheeler as your second-line center, but I think it’s the right thing to do. Seguin is still a developing player and the third line for most shifts is the best place for him to learn to play the game at the speed and level of physicality it’s played in the NHL. He was benched in the game against the Blues on Saturday night, so moving him up to a line that requires more minutes when he’s playing a position he hasn’t proven to have the most aptitude at just yet just doesn’t make sense.

Framingham, MA says: Trading Randy Moss was a huge mistake. This team couldn’t do anything against the Browns so how can we expect them to do anything against a good team?
You can expect them to do good things because a man named Tom Brady is quarterbacking the team. I’ll not defend him for his play on Sunday because that was just awful. But then again, other than Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead, you would be hard pressed to find a defensive player that had a good game. What you should be worried about more than the offense, which we all knew would be worse without Moss, is the fact that the defense got totally run over. Peyton Hillis has been a pretty good back this year (He also had 144 yards against Baltimore in Week 3) and largely overlooked because of who he plays for. He’s a hard runner who looks to blow up defenders at the line. But what is concerning is the fact that the Patriots’ defensive line was getting blown off the ball and no one was contacting Hillis until he was headed for the secondary. Bad news for an already mediocre Patriots defense.

Concord, NH asks: Is Boston College really overrated this season or is UNH that good?
Referring to the UNH victory on Friday night, I’m sure, your question is very prematurely asked. Boston College has lost three games this season, two of them by one goal and two of them on the road. You are not going to play in Hockey East and be undefeated for long. As for the UNH/BC game, I did not have the opportunity to see it and only have the benefit of a stat sheet. However, from the looks of things, it appeared to be a pretty even, clean game. BC outshot UNH, 32-30. Only one penalty (UNH) between the two sides. UNH just got one more by the keeper. It’s a long season, but I will say this for UNH, They have one loss over its first seven games and are on a six-game unbeaten streak. In those seven games, the Wildcats have played two games a Miami (then No. 3), one against Michigan (then No. 3), one at Northeastern, one at Cornell (then No. 14), one at Boston College (then No. 4) and one at UMass-Lowell. That’s as tough a streak of games as any team will play at any point this season. To come out of that 4-1-2 says a lot about the Wildcats.

Albany, NY ponders: Is is possible the Yankees will land both Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford?
The answer to that one is a resounding yes. The Yankees are one of the few teams that have the need and the payroll flexibility to do something like that. Cliff Lee is a no-brainer in terms of filling needs for the Yankees, who were middle-of-the-road at best as a pitching staff. Besides C.C. Sabathia, no starter had an ERA even close to being under 4.00. Crawford would be an upgrade to the outfield, but he’s not quite as essential. That said, Curtis Granderson’s first season in New York was as underwhelming as his last in Detroit, so picking up Crawford, moving Brett Gardner to center and planting Granderson on the bench would make sense if the Yankees were willing to look past the fact that they’re paying him $8.25 million next season. Surely they won’t be able to trade him, seeing as he’s getting that healthy paycheck this year, $10 million next year.

Don’t forget to submit your questions for next week’s Maza’s Monday Mailbag to mazasmusings@gmail.com.

Also, don’t forget to follow along on Twitter @Mazasmusings and ‘Like’ Chris Maza’s facebook page.

Last year’s Hockey East regular season and tournament teams clash Friday

UNH’s tough early-season schedule continues this Friday night with a big game against defending Hockey East and National Tournament champion Boston College.

UNH got off to a terrible start last year against a tough non-conference schedule, but got hot before Christmas in the heart of the Hockey East schedule, then, with a come-from-behind 3-3 tie in the second to last game of the season, the Wildcats clinched the regular-season crown.

This season, UNH has gotten off to a better start against an arguably tougher slate of games in the early-going. First, the Wildcats split two games at then No.3 Miami then tied another team ranked No. 3 at the time in Michigan at home. They followed that up with a 2-2 tie at Northeastern, then blew out then No. 14 Cornell at its barn, 7-4.

2-1-2 is actually an identical record through five games as the Wildcats had last season, but the results against marquis opponents have been much better this year.

Boston College playing UNH at the Conte Forum

In Boston College, however, the Wildcats face maybe their most formidable opponent yet. The Eagles return almost their entire roster from their championship-winning team. While the Whitney brothers, Joe and Steve, get most of the attention, has been one of the best in the nation with nine points (six goals, three assists, plus-5 plus-minus rating) and quietly will put together a convincing Hobey Baker resume.

Between the pipes, the Eagles have maybe the best goaltending tandem in the nation in John Muse and Parker Milner. Combined, the two have a 1.71 goals against average (GAA) and a .940 save percentage.

The Eagles will need that on Friday when they face a UNH squad that is second in the conference and eighth in the nation in offense. Unlike last year where Bobby Butler was the clear goal scorer on the team, this year’s Wildcats feature balance attack that has served well a UNH squad that has been around the block a few time, too.

Junior Stevie Moses leads the team with four goals, followed by senior captain Mike Sislo and fellow senior  Paul Thompson with three apiece. Senior Phil DeSimone and junior Mike Borisnok are tied for the UNH lead in points with six apiece (two goals, four assists).

The X factor is junior goaltender Matt DiGirolamo, a small, quick butterfly-style goaltender who follows in the footsteps of larger stand-up style keepers, such as Kevin Regan and Brian Foster. DiGirolamo is still trying to find his way after playing just under 93 minutes last season. So far the results have been mixed.

One other thing to look out for is the power play. While not outstanding, the UNH power play is second in the conference at just a shade above 19 percent and no team in Hockey East is spending more time in the penalty box this season than Boston College, who is averaging 18.4 minutes in the box per game. Of course, it needs to be noted that the Eagles are killing over 90 percent of those penalties.

BC has lost two of its last four, but they are undefeated in their own building and dating back to 2005, UNH has only beaten the Eagles at the Conte Forum three times (3-4-3). In a game that could prove crucial down the stretch, it could go either way when the puck drops.

Weekly poll: Best one-loss team?

Five undefeated teams left, but things could get interesting as more will fall off. Which team is the best one-loss team with a chance to get back into the race for the BCS title game?

Oregon, Auburn both deserving of a shot at the title.

Hey, I know everyone wants the BCS to go up in smoke. I subscribe to the same notion.

But at the same time, I’m not going to say that another team should get screwed in order for it to happen. People seem to have gotten so caught up in their desire to see Boise State and TCU in the BCS title game that they’ve forgotten that a couple of good teams in front of them just might be championship caliber, too.

Oregon now sits at No. 1 after beating USC by three touchdowns. That’s two convincing wins over ranked teams within their own conference this season that have helped them achieve an 8-0 record. Sure, they’ve got New Mexico and Portland State on their schedule, too, but they outscored those two by a count of 141-0. Isn’t that the argument that fans are always making about Boise? They don’t play the strongest schedule, but they throttle the teams they do play, then beat the ranked opponents that fall on their schedule?You can’t have it one way and not the other.

Throw on top of that the fact that the Ducks have the most prolific offense in football, averaging a touchdown more a game than Boise with a tougher schedule, and you have to at least consider them one of the top teams in college football.

Auburn at No. 2 isn’t quite as flashy, but is still as dangerous. The Tigers have beaten three ranked teams this season and have a very diverse offense led by a quarterback that just might be this year’s Heisman winner. Not that winning trophies has anything to do with winning football games, but is illustrates the amount of talent Cam Newton has. People can say the SEC is overrated and in a lot of years they would be correct. This year is not one of those years, especially in the West division, where four of the five teams are ranked. Auburn has beaten two of them and also has beaten the best team in the East. They also beat Ole Miss at home, which anyone can tell you is not an easy feat.

So, yes, in the grand scheme of things, I would like to see the BCS die just like everyone else. However, if these two teams stay perfect, I don’t see how you can deny them. They’re just too good.

This is Chris Maza’s weekly contribution to Fan Fanatic Sports, a blog owned byMassachusetts sports writer Chad Garner. Follow Chad on Twitter @CGARNER23.

Follow me on twitter @Mazasmusings and check out my Facebook page.

Also, don’t forget to email me your questions for Maza’s Monday Mailbag at mazasmusings@gmail.com

Eyes on the Irish: Kelly’s first season turning into a nightmare

Halloween weekend was truly frightening for Notre Dame fans.

What should have been a gift win turned into a gut-wrenching loss that now has Notre Dame just hoping to become bowl eligible.

Dayne Crist was lost, maybe for the season, because of what may be  a torn patella tendon in his knee after taking a hit on a scramble for a first down. The worst part about that is it could have been avoided. Crist already had the first down and when the defender closed in, he could have ducked out of bounds and avoided contact altogether. But instead, he allowed himself to get his clock cleaned.

So let’s just take a quick head count. Dayne Crist, the team’s No. 1 quarterback, No. 1 running back Armando Allen, No. 2 receiver Theo Riddick, No, 1 tight end Kyle Rudloph, No. 1 nose guard Ian Williams are all out at least for an extended period of time. Crist, Williams and Rudolph are gone for the season.

Injuries happen and are not the fault of the coach the majority of the time. It’s the nature of the game. But the game was not lost in the first quarter when Crist went down. It was lost with a half a minute remaining in the fourth.

Tommy Rees came out and looked like a pretty competent quarterback. Despite not starting the game, he threw 54 passes, completing 33 of them for 334 yards and four touchdowns. But he also threw three interceptions, the last of which doomed Notre Dame.

Down by one point with the ball on Tulsa’s 22 yard line and 43 seconds remaining in the game, all Notre Dame had to do was run the ball, kill some clock and put the game in the hands of its field goal kicker, who hasn’t missed in 18-straight attempts. It’s true he had a PAT try blocked, which was returned for two points the other way earlier in the game, but the fact of the matter is more often than not,  David Ruffer converts kicks into points.

Instead, Brian Kelly decided to have his freshman quarterback throw a jump ball into the end zone for Floyd. Rees underthrew the pass, negating Floyd’s size advantage and Tulsa picked it off. Game over.

Kelly said he’d do it again, too. According to the Chicago Sun Times’ Mark Potash, he told the fans they’d “better get used to it, because that’s the way we’re playing.”

How are you playing, coach? Unapologetically stupid? I am all for being aggressive. You want to go for the win instead of a tie in some game sometime, you’ll get no complaint from me. But the fact of the matter is in this game, in this scenario, a touchdown was no more of an advantage than a field goal. Three points is enough to win the game. There is no need to go for six.

On top of everything else, Notre Dame’s nosedive, which included Saturday’s debacle has taken Notre Dame from one of the top-5 recruiting classes of 2011 to No. 11 according to Rivals with the mass decommitment of recruited talent. That includes defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Clay Burton, as well as offensive tackle Jordan Prestwood.

Again, Kelly is stubborn, saying ““I don’t really beg any of them to come to Notre Dame if they don’t understand what we’re trying to do here,” according to the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen.

Can you blame them for not understanding what you’re doing at Notre Dame? Let’s face it, at this point, no one does.

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