Archives for November 2008

Bears-Vikings NFC North Showdown

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By Rikki Greenberg

As a fan, standing by the Chicago Bears through thick or thin, through a fist-pumping victory or horrid loss, is a joyous experience.

As a writer, spitting out information about the Chicago Bears is a wall-banging, hair-pulling, frustrating roller-coaster ride of an experience.
As the first-place divisional showdown between Da Bears (6-5) and the Vikings (6-5) looms overhead, the only thing I want to do (both as a fan and as a writer) is slink down into the Bear Cave, hook up the two HD TVs (with surround sound) and hibernate until Sunday.
In the meantime, preparation in the form of what this game means to the division and who to look out for on both sides of the ball is key. After hours of studying game tape (watching NFL videos), dissecting players’ performances (checking stats on nfl.com) and munching on some delectable beef jerky, here is what the football nation should be aware of during the feisty Bears-Vikings match-up.

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Divisional Showdown
If the Chicago Bears win against divisional foes the Minnesota Vikings, Lovie and Company will take first-place standings in the NFC North.  Since Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith’s announcement of the new “six-game season,” the Bears are 1-1 with upcoming games against Jacksonville (4-7), New Orleans, Green Bay and Houston (4-7).

The two remaining games that matter most to the Bears are New Orleans (6-5) during Week 15 and Green Bay (5-6) during Week 16. Newly crowned cheese head King Aaron Rodgers didn’t do too well against the mighty Saints defense with three interceptions in the second half, two of them returned for over 30 yards. Opposing quarterback Drew Brees (20-of-26 for 323 yards, 4 TDs and zero interceptions) carved up the Pack. Between the Packers and the Saints, the Bears should worry about the Saints. Brees is unstoppable at this point (157.3 passer rating and 9th consecutive game with a completion over 40 yards against the Packers during Week 12 of the regular season) and the running game gets a boost from second season running back Pierre “I-L-L….I-N-I” Thomas and veteran running back Deuce McAllister.

As far as the division goes, the NFC North is full of hot garbage, so to come out on top doesn’t really announce to the league “We are THE team to beat in the playoffs!”  However, first place is first place so if the Bears can pull out two key victories against Green Bay and New Orleans and two easy victories against Jacksonville and Houston, Lovie and Co. should be in good shape for the playoffs no matter what seed they.

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Chicago Bears

Offense:
Since the Vikings will be looking to shut down the passing game, Orton shouldn’t be afraid to give favored Bears workhorse rookie running back Matt Forte the ball all day. Forte has quickly become the breakout star the Bears predicted he would be. Against a Rams defense incapable of stopping the run, Forte had his best week yet with 21 carries for 139 yards and a 6.6 yards per carry average. It is no secret who the Bears will be handing the ball to on Sunday night, so it’s important for the Bears offensive line to block and open holes in the holes in the running game as well as protect the quarterback from the devastating duo of defensive tackles Pat Williams (8 tackles in last four games) and Kevin Williams (9 tackles in last three games).

Defense: Most likely to exploit the Bears inconsistent defense is second year Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. During Week 7 of the 2008 regular season, Peterson had 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the 41-48 loss to the Bears. Peterson averaged 6.8 yards per carry against the Bears and usually breaks through the Bears front four for big plays. The Bears main job is to contain Peterson as much as they possibly can. Contain Peterson, along with veteran running back Chester Taylor and the Bears 15th ranked defense can look forward to praise in the papers the next day.

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Minnesota Vikings

Offense: The only play Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte (25-of-40 for 298 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INT against the Bears during Week 7 of the regular season) needs to remember is the one where he hands off to Peterson. Give the ball to the second rusher in the league (behind numero uno Redskins running back Clinton Portis) and watch him fly past the Bears front four and into the open field for a touchdown. As far as the passing game is concerned, Berrian should be attended as any top notch receiver. Despite his dip in performance (zero touchdowns last three games), Berrian is still the go-to man in the Vikings receiving corps. Since veteran cornerback Nathan Vasher is out with a hand injury, it’ll be up to second season corner Corey Graham to contain Berrian. If the Bears can provide ample coverage on Berrian, than Frerotte will have no choice but to go to his second (sixth-year tight end Visanthe Shiancoe) and third (former Bears wide receiver Bobby Wade) favorite targets.


Defense:
The main job of the Vikings defense will be to consistently bring the heat to the Bears passing game. Although Orton will be the primary focus for the 9th ranked defense, 10-year veteran tight end Desmond Clark (questionable with knee injury) and second season former rapper turned tight end Greg Olsen are on the Viking’s radar as well. The Vikings defense will also look to shut down the running game by implementing a “Do not Pass Go” policy on Bears rookie running back Forte.

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Most Entertaining Press Conference Ever- Joe McKeown

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By Paul M. Banks
A women’s college basketball piece on the Sports Bank?

Yes, indeed when you’ve heard new Northwestern’s women coach Joe McKeown roc the mic.

Right after Homecoming, NU brought out both the men’s and women’s college coaches after football head coach Pat Fitzgerald to preview their respective seasons. McKeown, who was hired away from George Washington with the 13th highest winning percentage in history, was more entertaining and witty than many stand-up comedy acts I’ve seen. Or maybe I’m exaggerating because most pressers are cliché conventions filled with the usual tautologies while this one was quite funny by contrast.

When asked about his star point guard…

“We pick her up in a limo everyday to make sure she gets to practice on time, we put her up in the coaches’ suite at every hotel and make sure she doesn’t have to lift a finger, just play point guard 40 minutes a game. She’s a tough kid….we didn’t really pick her up in a limo that’s illegal, so we’re on the same page here.”

When asked about one of the twins that plays post for him…

“I’m glad coach Fitz is not at practice cause if he was, he would steal her and make her a linebacker or a running back. She just wants to HIT somebody, she’s a tough kid.”
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On his outlook and focus…

“I have a lot of goals, but I’m not sharing them. My first one was just to get through today and then get through tomorrow without getting hurt.”

His closing statement…

“I really look forward to seeing you all and if you get the chance please speak with some of our young student-athletes, you’ll enjoy the experience. And if you could, please ask them to play defense.”

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Defense Leads Northwestern to 5th Ever Nine-win Season

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By Paul M. Banks 
By demolishing their bitter rival, the University of Illinois, on Saturday the Wildcats earned a No. 20 ranking — their highest of the season — in this week’s USA Today Coaches’ poll.

The Cats concluded the regular season by becoming just the fifth team in school history to win nine games in a season.

 Should they win their bowl game (destination announced on Dec. 7th), it will be their first postseason victory since 1949; and the ten win season would join the 1995 Rose Bowl team as the only squads in program history ever to do so. With no real individual statistical standouts, on offense at least, it speaks volumes about Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s stressing of defense and playing collectively. Two team statistics certainly catch your eye however; NU’s current 127.7 rushing yards allowed per game is the best single-season average in school history and the Cats were first in the Big Ten (10th nationally) in sacks. They were also 24th out of 117 teams nationwide in scoring defense. A big reason for that is defensive end Corey Wootton, whose 9 sacks and 15 tackles for loss helped him earn a first-team All-Big Ten coaches selection.

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“Corey has always been a tremendously talented member of our program, and this honor is well deserved,” head coach (and former two-time National defensive player of the year) Pat Fitzgerald said. “He came to camp this year with the right attitude and he has done a great job in his preparation all season long. He may be our only first-team All-Big Ten guy this year, but I think we have a first-team All-Big Ten football team.” At last week’s press conference Fitz also added, “I have not seen Corey take one play off in practice or in games this year, his efforts on top of his technique and fundamentals have been outstanding.” First year NU defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has also done a tremendous job developing Corey.
 
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Possibly validating Fitzgerald’s All-Big Ten team claim, eight additional players were named honorable mention selections: John Gill, Keegan Kennedy, Sherrick McManis (who also finished among national leaders in pass breakups), Eric Peterman, Brad Phillips, Brendan Smith (who combined with Phillips to give the Cats outstanding play at the safety position this year), Tyrell Sutton and Amado Villarreal. The Wildcats final 2008 contest will be a Bowl game to be determined, with the Outback, Alamo or Insight looking the most likely.

Cuba Libre Sox Exchange

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 By Paul M. Banks and Soxman

(PMB) If Che Guevara were alive today, his favorite Major League infield might very well be the White Sox because it could boast 2 Cuban nationals in 2008 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Alexei Ramirez and recently signed 3B prospect Dayan Viciedo. (And yes I know that Che was originally Argentinian, but history and pop culture has rewritten him as Cuban) The Sox starting second baseman batted .290 with 21 homers and 77 RBI and was considered one of the best bargains in baseball.

Did the Sox just massively overpay in signing Viciedo? Or will he be another bargain like Alexei? Soxman and I are here to tell you whether you should raise your rum glass and celebrate the signing or if we’re about to embark on a Cuban Baseball Crisis. Viva la Revolucion!
 

(PMB) So tell us about the tools that make Viciedo such an excellent young phenom. Hopefully, they will offset all the negative things I’ve heard about his attitude problems and weight issues…
 
(SM) How’s this for hype: “the Cuban Babe Ruth?”  Without ever even seeing a major league at bat, comparing him to one of the greatest hitters to ever wear a major league uniform will surely bring high expectations.
 
The key factor to remember is that this guy is only 19 years old, and that’s not in “El Duque” years either.  He appears to be a legitimate 19, meaning it is very likely he will spend time in the minors before seeing any major league action.
 
Should you be excited?  How about “curbed enthusiasm?”
 
Scouts believe his power is for real.  He slugged over .500 in two of the past three seasons in Cuba.  He was an All-Star in Cuba’s top league at age 16.  But Viciedo comes with as much criticism as he does hype.
 
He has been described as an underachiever with a poor work ethic.

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(PMB) I have read about him as having “light tower power.” Viciedo’s agent is Jaime Torres who also represents left-hander Noel Arguellez and shortstop Jose Iglesias, who defected at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton last summer. What can you tell me about these Cuban prospects? And if you feel the Sox should be looking to close the deal on these guys too?
 
(SM) Well, despite the fact that Iglesias appears to be a talented shortstop, I don’t see the Sox making a play at him unless Alexei has a severe sophomore slump.  Arguellez, I believe is a right-hander, and was the ace of the 2008 Cuban World Junior Team.  I have not heard anything about either player since they defected in July.  You can bet the White Sox would have the inside track to sign them if the scouting reports favor it.  Perhaps we could call The Cell “Little Havana?”
 
 
(PMB) Sure, as long as we get to light up “victory cigars” in October. Josh Fields doesn’t exactly inspire comparisons to Brooks Robinson with his fielding, but I know the Sox expect that to improve given the success of his recent knee surgery. I’ve heard Viciedo might be a Dr. Strangeglove himself. Yet some pundits also say that the Cuban defector has the inside track to start, have they been drinking too many mojitos? 
 
(SM) At this point, I’d say anyone who thinks Viciedo is going to win the starting third base job outright, likely has left their plantains in the fryer too long.  He’s raw and far less refined than Alexei was coming into spring training.
 
Some critics indicate that he fails to exhibit any passion for the game or motivation to reach his potential. Being groomed under Ozzie, a fiery Latin manager who motivated a portly Miguel Cabrera and fellow Cubans Jose Contreras and Ramirez should provide a lot of opportunity for development.

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Viciedo plays third base and shortstop. He’s also an outfielder who had an occasional pitching role with Cuba’s junior national team.  His weight management, conditioning and the success of Josh Fields will ultimately determine where he is groomed to play at the major league level.  He is scouted as having a cannon arm, so it is possible he could be groomed to be Jermaine Dye’s heir in RF.
 
Sox fans can be intrigued, but don’t give Viciedo the Rookie of the Year award or crown him the 2009 HR champ just yet.  As a matter of fact, Ramirez is the only Cuban position player (non-pitchers) in the last 30 years to immediately jump to the majors without minor league seasoning and have success.

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(PMB) Also, last week one TSB commenter asked where Jon Garland might end up. There’s always a market for starting pitching and Garland has the service record to command big market money, so I have a feeling his final destination won’t be with the Kansas Citys and Pittsburghs of the world. The two biggest front-runners I’ve read about are Cleveland and the New York Metropolitans (although with the money that team spends, they should rename themselves the New York Metrosexuals).
 
(SM) I’m ABSOLUTELY LOVING the fact that owners are saying Scott Boras clients are too pricey so they turn their attention elsewhere.
 
The Mets are reported to have renewed their interest in Javier Vazquez, Jon Garland, and Edwin Jackson due to the Boras’ sky-high price tags on Oliver Perez and Derek Lowe.
 
Also, a number of pitcher’s agents are waiting to see whether C.C. Sabathia accepts the Yankees six-year, $140M offer, as they believe it will set the tone for the market.
 
I’ve heard Garland prefers to stay on the west coast, but has been linked to mostly eastern teams thus far.  I’ve heard the Braves have expressed interest.  Also, do not rule out the Houston Astros getting into the mix.  They almost acquired him at the start of the 2006 season along with Brian Anderson for Hunter Pence, Willy Taveras and two pitching prospects.
 

 
 
 
(PMB) Finally, you knew I had to go here, the last time we had two Cubans on the roster it was Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Jose Contreras in 2005, and you of course remember the salsa dance party the city had that fall. Heard any more about what will come of Contreras? Any more rumors and innuendo revolving around Sox or popular ex-Sox you feel we should talk about before we close shop to prepare for our Holiday festivities? 

And please have a safe and wonderful Thanksgiving people of Soxman Nation! 
 
(SM)   In response to your statement, don’t put the Journey record on just yet.  Contreras completely ruptured his Achilles tendon, which is 100 times worse than a tear.  It is pretty much an explosion leaving little to “stitch together.”  It will be the All-Star break at the earliest before he returns.  Also, I’m betting right now Viciedo does not make the team out of spring training. 
 
There have been scattered rumors involving former Sox players returning but nothing significant.  My guess is that if Kenny Williams isn’t the secret GM bidding on Furcal and not actively involved in discussions for Willy Taveras, he will play his vintage waiting game and see what pieces fall his way at a reduced price, like he did with Iguchi, AJ, and El Duque in 2005.
 
There was a rumor involving Aaron Rowand but those seem to arise every off-season since he was traded.
 
I second Paul’s expression on everyone having a safe Thanksgiving holiday.  Mr. Banks will be the guest of Bruce Parker at his Thanksgiving Dinner.  Yes, the man behind the mask cooks.

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Jets Trouncing of Titans makes Statement

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By Rikki Greenberg

As a Jets fan, there are many things I am thankful for this season. Eliminating the possibility of a Tennessee Titans undefeated season is one of them.  The Gang Green (8-3) owned “the best team in football” in a breathtaking 34-13 victory over the Titans at LP Field during Week 12 of the regular season.  The Big Cheese (25-of-32 for 225 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) zipped balls left and right, running back Neon Leon Washington (8 carries for 82 yards) zipped past Titan defenders with two rushing touchdowns and NYJ bested the Titans in almost every important statistical game category (time of possession and total net yards to name a few).

For a team that was supposedly the best in the league, productivity on the field was disappointing to say the least. Rejuvenated Titans quarterback Kerry Collins (21-of-39 for 243 yards, 1 TD) failed to really get anything major going on offense and the Titans defense couldn’t keep up with Favre’s quick release and stifling accuracy.

With five consecutive victories, the Jets climb back on top of their division and finally look like the team to beat in the AFC.  All aspects of Mangini and his merry men in spandex seem to be on equal footing. Worries of “the Gunslinger (I was going to take this phrase out, but I know how much David K. loves it when people refer to Favre as a gunslinger) of the East” being unable to gel with his new offensive teammates no longer exist. The defensive additions of linebacker Calvin Pace and nose tackle Kris Jenkins add power and muscle to unit that has improved to 15th this season.

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Compared to last season’s dismal 4-12 record and third-place finish in the AFC East, New York’s second team is flying high and Mangini’s playoff hopes might become more of a reality than a tantalizing dream.  Now the Jets have something to play for (home-field advantage throughout the play-offs) and something to play with (former drama king and Green Bay Icon quarterback Brett Favre).

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As far as the AFC East division is concerned, the powers have shifted considerably since the beginning of the season. Once treasured Patriots quarterback Tom Brady went down with a knee injury and became sidelined for the season, the team’s future became considerably bleaker. Since surprising quarterback Matt Cassel took over the reins for Brady, the Patriots have exceeded expectations and continue upholding their competitive status in both the AFC East and the conference.

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The New York Jets also had their fair share of uncertainties at the beginning of the 2008 season. The media circus surrounding the newly acquired and rather indecisive Favre was enough to fill all ESPN programming this past summer.  Besides the ugly falling-out with his former team, there were other issues surrounding the fragile Favre.  At 38-years-old, the Big Cheese wasn’t exactly a spring chicken after defining Packers football for the past 16 seasons.  Fast forward to Week 13 of the 2008 season and the future Hall-of-Famer can’t be pictured in anything but a New York Jets uniform. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration and I don’t think people in America’s Dairyland will ever view him as anything else but a Packer, but you get the idea!
The Titans are still the leaders of the AFC South, but there’s nothing like a loss to shake up a once perfect team. The only competition left in the AFC that the Jets have not faced yet is the AFC North’s leading Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3). The Steelers are tied with the Titans for best conference record at (7-1). Since the Jets made hot garbage out of the Titans, the only remaining mystery is the Steelers. With five games left in the season, anything is possible, but as of right now, I see three contending teams coming out of the AFC- New York, Tennessee and Pittsburgh.  May the best New York team win.
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College Hoops 101

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By David K.

Welcome to a new weekly article at thesportsbank.net! Here I’ll give you the 101 on what has happened in the week of college basketball and what’s to come in the days ahead.  We are only really a week into the season and already there have been some exciting games and big time match-ups thanks to early season tournaments.  Trust me when I say it will only get better this week.

Rewind

-Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin is justifying what many mock drafts (including mine) are saying; that he will undoubtedly be the first overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.  Griffin has been ridiculous this year, averaging 26 points, 19.8 rebounds through the Sooners’ first four games.  He will be tested in his next three games taking on UAB, USC and their physical post player Taj Gibson, and Tulsa seven-footer Jerome Jordan.

-Throughout his career at Marquette, Wesley Matthews has played third wheel to fellow senior guards Jerel McNeal and Dominic James.  Not this season.  Matthews has surpassed his career-high scoring mark in all three games this season, scoring 27, 26, and 25 points in the Golden Eagles’ three victories.  He is also averaging 7 boards, 4.3 assists, and 2.7 steals, even though he is playing out of position at times at the four spot due to injuries up front for MU.

-The Pac 10 is proving that it has no where near the talent it did last season.  A young UCLA team was upset by Michigan in the Semifinals of the 2k Sports Classic.  USC has already lost to Seton Hall and Missouri at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.  Arizona fell at home to UAB.  Like I predicted, expect Arizona State to be the cream of the crop in the conference.

-Texas Tech dropped 167 points on East Central Thursday night.  Ten players scored in double figures as the Red Raiders threw up 113 shots.  TTU scored 90 second half points in that game.  Last season, they scored 90 or more points in only two of their 30 games.

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Fast Forward

-I am really excited to watch Tom Crean and his Hoosiers get whooped by Notre Dame Monday night in the opening round of the Maui Invitational.  (4:30 ESPN2)  North Carolina and Texas are also in Hawaii which should set-up a must-see championship game.

-The Old Spice Classic tips off on Thanksgiving with a loaded field of four ranked teams; Michigan State, Gonzaga, Tennessee, and Georgetown.  Hey, they call it “Feast Week” for a reason.

-#2 UConn will meet Wisconsin in the championship game of the Paradise Jam Tournament on Monday night.  The Badgers have not looked that strong early this season, but could pick up some major confidence by knocking off the Huskies.

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The Push to 225

So I have set an over/under for myself.  My goal is watch at least 225 college basketball games this season thanks to the wonder that is DVR.  Here is my weekly update:

Games watched through 11/23:  17

UW-Whitewater at Wisconsin
Houston Baptist at Marquette
Long Beach St. at Wisconsin
Chicago St. at Marquette
UMass at Memphis
Fresno St. at St. Mary’s
SIU-Edwardsville at Wisconsin
Davidson at Oklahoma
UAB at Arizona
Richmond at Syracuse
Kentucky at North Carolina
Duke vs. Southern Illinois
UCLA vs. Michigan
UCLA vs. Southern Illinois
Duke vs. Michigan
UW-Milwaukee at Marquette
Xavier vs. Memphis

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Illini Juice not Fresh Enough

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Paul M. Banks interviews Juice Williams following the end of Illinois’ disastrous season.

The St. Louis-bred social philosopher Nelly once told us, “Can’t nobody stop the juice, so baby tell me what’s the use” in his 2002 hit “Hot in Here.” This maxim was true for opposing defenses all season as Illinois quarterback Juice Williams broke the school record for single season total offense with 3,892 combined passing and rushing yards. On his way to breaking the record of Tony Eason –the New England Patriots starting QB in Super Bowl XX- Juice broke single game total offense records for both Memorial Stadium and Michigan Stadium, the latter of which is especially impressive given the rich history of Michigan Wolverines football.

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Unfortunately, the rest of the Fighting Illini didn’t have juice like Williams did on the field. After 2007’s Rose Bowl Champaign campaign, most people in Illination expected a similar encore in 2008. Instead, Illinois finished just 5-7 after getting walloped by #20 Northwestern 27-10 on Saturday. This “earned” them the dubious distinction of being the first team to go from Rose Bowl one year to no bowl the next since (well, Illinois again in) 1984. However that team was sanctioned by the NCAA and allowed no bowl appearance. The last team to legitimately go from Roses to thorns was over 40 years ago.   Soon after Juice watched the fans of his rival team storm Ryan Field in celebration, I asked him if expectations were too high in Champaign and if that led to collapse: “I don’t think the pressure really got to us, I think it’s more a matter of not coming out every Saturday and performing like we know we can. We can’t have morale victories out there. We can’t have games where we say we should have won that game, that’s not enough. We’re at the point where we can win games, we just got to go out there and do it.”

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Had Illinois won and later secured a bowl berth, it would have been the first time since 1992 that the program procured consecutive bowl game seasons. Juice talked about the pain and disappointment of coming up just short. “It’s like you expect something on Christmas and then you wake up and it’s not there: It’s the type of feeling you have when you realize there’s really nothing more you can do about it…We worked so hard to come out and be successful and to be one game short of being bowl eligible is a feeling that is going to eat at you.”

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The Horseshoe Road trip

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It’s called the greatest rivalry in all of sport: Michigan-Ohio St. When other rivalry games took place this Saturday, they had clever nicknames like Holy War, Civil War, Apple Cup, Iron Bowl or Texas State Championship. This one is simply called “the Game,” and it is so big HBO produced an excellent documentary on its history that includes state militias nearly coming to violence in the Toledo Strip in the 19th century. Because if there is a Holy Land worth squabbling over- it’s Toledo, Ohio. Now I didn’t attend this prestigious rivalry game when I visited Ohio Stadium in 1999, but it had direct consequence on the game that I was in the press box for. My first road assignment for the Daily Illini saw an unranked Illinois team throttle #25 46-20, largely because OSU was looking ahead to their big game with Michigan.

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Accompanying me on this Illini Media Company road trip was a current television reporter for the Fox affiliate in Indianapolis. I ran into him on assignment last winter after the Indiana-Kelvin Sampson debacle, where and he told me that to this day he’s never had an actual date in his life. I’m not making this up, I swear. A grad student photographer from Taiwan who barely spoke any English was also with us, so basically when I went to the on-campus house parties the Friday night before, I had in wingmen what Northwestern has in March Madness success: nothing.

Back then I had a silver Mustang GT, so I of course got pulled over twice (yet let off with little more than a warning both times) despite being passed by plenty of cars on the interstate into Columbus.

The plethora of Waffle Houses in Ohio made me realize that I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line somewhere. In the Yankee territory where I come from, we have IHOPs instead.  Cincinnati really sucks when compared to the capital city of Columbus (pop. 891,000). They have an ‘arena district’ and boast the most beautiful football stadium in the country, OSU’s Ohio Stadium commonly referred to as ‘the horseshoe.’ I guess I just felt at home here, because…in the words of Ohio St. frat rock band O.A.R.

There’s a road outside of Columbus, Ohio.
Feels like I drove along for year.
This Midwest way of ease it surrounds us.
I cannot deny the rhythm here.

–Road Outside Columbus, O.A.R.

Circus Columbus

What strikes you first about Ohio Stadium is the south entrance with a grand cupola and roof that is a dead ringer for the pantheon in Rome. The walls of this secular shrine are decorated with stained glass brandishing a grey and scarlet letter “O” (as opposed to a scarlet letter “A”). The second architectural trait you’ll notice about the horseshoe is the Roman style collonade on the exterior of the East and West main stands. You can truly refer to this place as “neoclassical” without sounding like a condescending Oxford scholar on a History Channel documentary. The amazing architecture combines with the storied history of the program and a riverside setting to make it one of the best places in the nation to see a college football game.

Upon pulling into the horeshoe parking lot, my partner in crime, “Hawleycats” was his nickname, decided to blast the Illini war chant out the car windows. A post middle-aged, but not quite yet elderly man approached us when we parked and threw a bunch of objects into my car. The objects were actual buckeyes (locally grown nuts). I wish he threw Reese’s style peanut butter and chocolate Buckeye candies at us instead because those are my preferred local delicacy. Coincidentally, Hawleycats actually found me on Facebook the night before I typed this; and when I brought this incident up, he wrote that he still has the buckeye on my Facebook wall. The jolly buckeye man was still out there tailgating when we returned after the game and said check out the note I left on your windshield. It read “win your bowl game.” This game took place during the days of Michael Wiley, Jonathan Wells (they seem to be good at recruiting star tailbacks with the last name Wells), Andy Katzenmoyer and wide-outs with super awesome names like Reggie Germany and Kenyon Rambo. And people actually wear their replica jerseys out all over campus the night before games; unlike at Illinois.


I’m a troublemaker, never been a faker.

The old press box was arranged in such a way that my seat put me across the glass from a man with Steve Perry from Journey style mullet although this was not “80s day” at the stadium, and I doubt he was trying to be retro. When Illinois blocked a punt, he extended both middle fingers and pounded backward on the glass in front of me. Hawleycats turned to me and said, “How did he know you were representing the Illini?” Seriously, did this guy know press box seating assignments? And that my spot is reserved for opposing teams’ student media? Or did he just have some sort of asshole reverse radar? He did it again when Ohio St. scored a touchdown. Hey buddy, is flicking me off to taunt good plays by Ohio St? Or to vent frustration over a great play by Illinois? What would have happened on a pedestrian three-yard run? Luckily, he disappeared after the second quarter. Good because he ruined my view of a tradition that defines OSU football and an example of college football pageantry at its finest: the scripting of Ohio. The other tradition synonymous with Buckeye ball is the playing of the McCoys “Hang on Sloopy” throughout the game. There’s a bar called Sloopy’s on campus, and I gave props to it in my Daily Illini postgame write-up “because of their sloppy play on Saturday (5 turnovers) the Buckeyes are barely hanging on to postseason possibilities.” Dope rhymes, I know.


Party like its 1999 (oh, wait it actually was).

Another way in which OSU’s campus was superior to my home was the fact that all house parties were free. They never asked you who you know or for the standard issue $3 (more exclusive parties in Champaign-Urbana charged $5). You could just walk right in. Sometimes I could get into parties during my undergrad days by talking about Kurt Kittner or Brian Cook instead, being a sports campus on a  My other ace-in-the-hole was the fact that I usually went out with two close female friends, one of which had humongous breasts. Having a close female friend with huge breasts is like wearing an all-access media credential or possessing the ultimate backstage pass: you can pretty much go wherever you want.

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The most popular bars are on High Street, and one of them featured a “Booty Shaking Contest” set to Juvenile’s “Back Dat Azz Up,” one of the most popular songs at the time and also the walk-up music of my favorite White Sox player Ray Durham. A couple students at this bar brought their video cameras out for this. Classic stuff. Shake your booty like current Buffalo Bill and former Buckeye CB Ashton Youboty. Other campus favorite spots include that place with fried pickles and Eddie George’s sports bar and restaurant.


Across the Field

The game I attended was the final one prior to the renovation. The Illini tore up the buckeyes on the field, and then the fans ran onto the field to tear it up literally. In this “Sid game” the fullback screen pass combination of Kurt Kittner to Jameel Cook was lethal. How many times do you see a FB for 120 receiving yards? I joined the fans in ripping up end-zone and midfield grass as keepsakes. Other fans ran on to the turf to make “grass angels.”

OSU’s hated rival Michigan was first in average home attendance in 2007 at 110,264; the buckeyes were third at 105,110, Penn State was second with 108,917. That’s right, the Big Ten, NOT the SEC, has the top three. Take that CBS Sports.com columnist and author of Dixieland Delight: A Football Season on the Road in the Southeastern Conference.” Clay Travis.

When I first heard about the Ohio Stadium cake and its gargantuan size, I was like “wow Jabba the Hut could have that for desert. Actually it’s bigger than that; maybe Rush Limbaugh would have it as dessert. Perhaps that leaf in the Buckeyes logo really is a pot leaf after all, because the creators of the Ohio Stadium cake probably had the munchies from being stoned. Truth be told, it’s for a good cause. The first Ohio Stadium Cake was constructed in 1991; and since then, the 200-plus pound cake has been constructed for display at one Ohio State home football game each year. In its third year, the cake’s creators began using the cake to raise funds for Ohio State’s general need-based academic scholarships. In 1999, the creators established the Stadium Cake Scholarship Fund, and it was permanently endowed by Ohio State’s Board of Trustees on November 5, 2004.


Hatred is the path to the Dark Side

Michigan may be the winningest program in college football history, but their series lead against OSU is just 57-41-6. The Buckeyes have one of the most storied programs in history producing 7 national championships, 32 Big Ten conference championships, 345 All-Big Ten selections, 181 All-Americans and 7 Heisman trophy winners. Perhaps the most moving portion of that HBO documentary on the OSU-Michigan rivalry that I alluded to earlier was the final segment highlighting how beneath all the dramatic acrimony between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, was a deep, powerful mutual respect and friendship. They were intense bitter rivals that likely had a bromance underneath it all. Who better to understand your complexities as a person than…yourself, someone who shares your intensity and focus? It’s like when you get to the end of the old Nintendo game Zelda II: the Adventure of Link and the last creature you must fight is your shadow: and it knows exactly where you’re going to place your sword and shield. And I just made the dorkiest analogy ever on TSB.

Being an Illinois undergrad who did his first semester of graduate school at Michigan State, I only speak of Michigan vitriol. And since the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I kind of like the Scarlet and Grey. And yes, OSU is a power in their own right that doesn’t need definition by opposition to the Wolverines. However, they do Wolverine bashing the best because like the song says they “don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan.  The whole state of Michigan.”

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Fantasy Freezing Soxman’s Fantasy Football Weekly

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By Soxman

As Chicago is starting to feel like frozen tundra of sorts, with winds doing a better job of cutting than Chris Johnson did last week, Soxman had another strong week in Fantasy football winning in my money and IDP leagues, yet falling in my neighborhood league to a shocking 6-5.

In the neighborhood league my receiver corps was pretty much non-existent.  Andre Johnson, Colston, and Royal combined to catch…well, Paul M. Banks caught more colds on his recent pilgrimage to Boston than these guys caught anything!

Yet I rejoice in my IDP league as I destroyed the league leader to knock him out of first place.

So as we approach Week 12, here are my thoughts on week 12:

Quarterbacks

Get Them Active!!!

Again, do I really need to tell you to start Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner and Tony Romo?

Jay Cutler

Sure Oakland actually has a pretty awesome defense against the pass (I have two of their DBs in my IDP league) but their offense is horrible and their running game is banged up, meaning Jay Cutler will have plenty of passing opportunities.

Eli Manning

Manning has thrown at least 1 TD pass in 9 straight games and is facing a Cardinals defense that made Shaun Hill look like a young Brett Favre.

Kyle Orton

As long as his ankle keeps healing, the fiery Orton will be looking to come out strong this week and make amends for last week’s embarrassing loss to the Packers.  The Rams are allowing 233.7 passing YPG. I like the match-up.

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Brady Quinn

Let’s hope his fractured phalange does not give your fantasy team the finger this week as it did Mr. Romo.  Otherwise he has an awesome match-up this week as do the RBs and eligible receivers around him.

Jeff Garcia (Sleeper Alert!!)

Garcia is facing Detroit, the second worst defense in the NFL.  Would you like me to draw you a picture?

Tough Calls

Donovan McNabb

McNabb has scuffled lately and is facing one of the toughest pass defenses in the NFL.

Brett Favre

Everyone knows Favre often chooses the interception over the sack. Tennessee has one of the best passing defenses in the NFL.

Run Forrest Run!!!!

These Backs could rack up the Yards in Week 12

Matt Forte

Forte is a true every down back.  The Rams allow 158 rushing YPG.

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Jamal Lewis

See Addai’s numbers last week.

Marshawn Lynch

Lynch proved he’s still a top tier back last week.  Kansas City simply can’t stop the run, allowing 165 YPG.

Ryan Grant

Grant has found new life rushing for 411 yards in his last 4 game.  He rushed for 145 yards last week against the Bears.

Warrick Dunn (Sleeper Alert)

Dunn should be the feature back this week with Cadillac Williams likely another week away from returning.  He’s facing the worst run defense in the NFL.  Any questions?
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Getting the Runs

These guys could stink it up worse than a night of drinking and eating 4 am tamales.

Chris Johnson

The normal regular in your line-up has a tough match-up this week where you might consider exploring other options if you have them

Tim Hightower

The Giants are great in defending the run, and this dazzling rookie has hit a wall in his last couple of games.

Kevin Smith

Tampa has allowed just one one rushing TD this year, which is one more score than Paul M Banks saw while crafting his game at Boston night spots this past week. (Ok, I think we’ve used my name in analogies quite enough this week! Even am I not that egocentric to the point where I think I should be referenced every 100 words!)

Wide Receivers

Throw ’em the damn ball…and into your line-up.

Braylon Edwards

If Brady Quinn plays Edwards should continue to heat things up.  Houston does not have the best pass defense in the world.  I’m likely going to start him over Colton this week.

Terrell Owens

T.O. has Romo slinging his way once again and always looks for revenge against the first NFL team that he talked himself out of.

Plaxico Burress

Had an alleged hamstring issue yesterday so watch if he practices today.  He is due for a huge game.

Well that’s it for this week.  Keep moving the chains and focusing on positive gains.

SM

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Conference Call- More NCAA Breakdowns

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By David K.

My DVR is cleared out.  I will set my over/under at watching 225 college basketball games this year.  Seriously.  As of Thursday evening, I was already at twelve games and it isn’t even Thanksgiving yet.  Call it a sickness or an obsession, and I certainly won’t argue.  College hoops is to me what cigarettes and crack are to Amy Winehouse.

(Note: With Pete, Dave and I all alluding to Amy Winehouse in the past couple weeks, it’s true that AW analogies are to Sports Bank writers what…..pretty much any controlled substance is to Amy Winehouse…allusion #4 ha ha –Paul M. Banks)

I’ve already broke down the Big Ten and Big East in-depth.  Since I have a life (somewhat), I can’t break it down like that for EVERY conference, so consider this my college basketball Cliff’s Notes.

ACC

Champs: North Carolina- obviously
Overrated: Duke- Always my early exit team come tourney time
Sleeper: Wake Forest- yes, they’re unranked but could be the 2nd best team in the ACC

All-Conference:


Tyler Hansbrough, F, UNC
Ty Lawson, PG, UNC
Jack McClinton, G, Miami
Tyrese Rice, PG, Boston College
Greivis Vasquez, PG, Maryland

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POY: Hansbrough- assuming he can stay healthy

Freshman of the year: Al-Farouq Aminu, F, Wake Forest- likely one and done

My favorite player in the conference: Wayne Ellington, UNC- gorgeous jump shot

A-10
Champs: Temple- tough non-conference schedule will get the Owls ready
Overrated: Xavier- lost a lot from last year including their backcourt
Sleeper: Richmond- scrappy team impressed me at loss to Syracuse
All-Conference

Jimmy Baron, SG, Rhode Island
Derrick Brown, F, Xavier
Dionte Christmas, SG, Temple
Rob Diggs, PF, George Washington
Ahmad Nivins, PF, St. Joseph’s

POY: Christmas- college basketball is “the most wonderful time of the year…”

Freshman of the year: Kwamain Mitchell, PG, St. Louis- from Whitefish Bay, WI

My favorite player in the conference: Christmas comes but twice a year in this category

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Big 12

Champs: Texas- all-around complete team… size, shooters, athletes

Overrated: Kansas- just lost too much from last year’s team

Sleeper: Oklahoma St.- best guard play in the conference

All-Conference:

A.J. Abrams, G, Texas
James Anderson, G, Oklahoma St.
Blake Griffin, PF, Oklahoma
Damion James, F, Texas
Curtis Jerrells, PG, Baylor

POY: Griffin- will average 20+ points and 10+ boards a game

Freshman of the year: Willie Warren, G, Oklahoma- a perimeter compliment to Griffin

My favorite player in the conference: James- the definition of versatile
Conference USA

Champs: Memphis- will probably own this conference forever

Overrated: None- Memphis is the only team getting love and deservedly so

Sleeper: Tulsa- seven-footer Jerome Jordan and guard Ben Uzoh could surprise
All Conference:

Robert Dozier, F, Memphis

Tyreke Evans, SG, Memphis

Jermaine Taylor, SG, Central Florida
Robert Vaden, SG, UAB
Jeremy Wise, G, Southern Mississippi

POY: Taylor- one of the best scorers in the country
Freshman of the year: Evans- will be one and done, so don’t get used to him as a Tiger
My favorite player in the conference: Desmond Wade, G, Houston- D-Wade… get it?

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Missouri Valley

Champs: Southern Illinois- defense will carry the Salukis once again
Overrated: Drake- won’t have near the season as last year
Sleeper: Illinois State- Redbirds barely missed the tourney last year

All Conference:

Osiris Eldridge, SG, Illinois State
Shy Ely, SG, Evansville
Carlton Fay, F, Southern Illinois
P’Allen Stinnett, G, Creighton
Josh Young, G, Drake

POY: Stinnett

Freshman of the year: Kevin Dillard, PG, Southern Illinois- reigning Mr. Illinois

My favorite player in the conference: Dillard

Mountain West

Champs: UNLV- Lon Krueger’s team is the most balanced in the conference
Overrated: Utah- lost to Southwest Baptist? Is that even a school?
Sleeper: San Diego St.- only if Lorenzo Wade is re-instated from his suspension

All Conference:
Wink Adams, G, UNLV
Lee Cummard, SG, BYU
Tony Danridge, G/F, New Mexico
Luke Nevill, C, Utah
Marcus Walker, G, Colorado State

POY: Cummard- one of the best scorers out west

Freshman of the year: Afam Muojeke, G/F, Wyoming

My favorite player in the conference: Ryan Amoroso, F, San Diego St.- former MU’er
Pac-10

Champs: Arizona St.- I’m that high on James Harden
Overrated: Arizona- wouldn’t be saying this if Brandon Jennings was a Wildcat
Sleeper: Washington St.- lost a lot, but defense will keep them in games
All-Conference

Jon Brockman, PF, Washington
Darren Collison, PG, UCLA
DeMar DeRozan, SG, USC
James Harden, G/F, Arizona St.
Jordan Hill, PF, Arizona

POY: Harden-absolute stud on the wing
Freshman of the year: DeRozan-fills in for the departed O.J. Mayo
My favorite player in the conference: Lil’ Romeo, G, USC- Make ‘Em Say UGH!!!!


SEC

Champs: Florida- not Billy Donovan’s first rodeo
Overrated: Tennessee- the loss of Chris Lofton will hurt more than expected
Sleeper: Alabama- good nucleus of experience and youth

All Conference:

Nick Calathes, G, Florida
A.J. Ogilvy, C, Vanderbilt
Patrick Patterson, PF, Kentucky
Tyler Smith, SF, Tennessee
Ronald Steele, PG, Alabama

POY: Patterson- double-double machine will be a beast inside
Freshman of the year: JaMychal Green, F, Alabama-
My favorite player in the conference: Wayne Chism, PF, Tennessee- just because of how he wears his headband

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West Coast Conference

Champs: St. Mary’s- Mills carries this squad
Overrated: Gonzaga- I just don’t see them as a top 10 team in the country
Sleeper: San Diego- don’t forget, this team knocked off UConn in the tourney last year

All Conference:

John Bryant, C, Santa Clara
Josh Heytvelt, PF, Gonzaga
Rob Jones, F, San Diego
Dior Lowhorn, F, San Francisco
Patty Mills, PG, St. Mary’s

POY: Mills- aka, the new Stephen Curry

Freshman of the year: Keion Bell, G, Pepperdine

My favorite player in the conference: Mills- may need a restraining order against me

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Illinois vs. Northwestern for Postseason Ramifications

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By Paul M. Banks

At a time when Chicago native and President-Elect Barack Obama speaks of bringing a much needed playoff system to college football, two teams from the Land of Lincoln will square off Saturday with major bowl implications on both sides. Illinois needs a win to become bowl-eligible and give itself an opportunity for a second straight postseason appearance. (This would break a 16 year consecutive bowl seasons drought)  Northwestern, which has secured its first bowl trip since 2005, will try and upgrade their Holiday destination. The Wildcats’ best bowl possibilities are either the Outback or Alamo Bowl. The winner of this “Rivalry Saturday” battle also gains the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy. Since the spoil was awarded to the victor in 1945, Illinois holds a 32-27-2 series lead.

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“It’s our rivalry game, there’s a trophy missing in our trophy case. Last year we went down to Champaign and they took it to us,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said about the Illini beating NU 41-22 last year. This year, Illinois has performed FAR below expectations as they head into the season’s final contest in “play-in game” mode. Win and they’ll likely get a bottom-tier bowl berth, lose and they’ll be home for the holidays. Last week, the Illini lost to #10 Ohio St. in a game that was a perfect microcosm of Illinois’ season. They displayed the top-tier talent they possess in out-gaining the Buckeyes by more than 100 yards, yet lost the game by 10 points due to turnovers, terrible coaching decisions, boneheaded mistakes, horrendous run defense and terrible special teams play that have plagued them all season. The most consistently bright spot this Champaign campaign has been quarterback Juice Williams (the Big Ten leader in total offense 326 ypg) and the unit he leads which is first in conference in passing (274.5 ypg) and total offense (448.3 ypg). “He’s grown exponentially, playing the best football of his career,” Fitz said of Juice. 

The Big Ten Network will televise this game kicking off at 2:30. Good tickets still available (847-491-CATS or NUsports.com)

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Bears-Rams Preview

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By Rikki Greenberg 

Let’s face it folks. The battle between the disgruntled Chicago Bears (5-5) and the disembodied St. Louis Rams (2-8) has major pride implications for both teams.  Both the Bears and Rams are coming off embarrassing losses (37-3 for the Chi, 35-16 for the Lou) and could use a little boost in the self-confidence department. With home-field advantage on my side, all fingers point to the Chicago Bears steamrolling over the Rams. If the Bears win this game, they have a better chance of not completely falling apart against the Minnesota Vikings (5-5) and come out on top in the NFC North.

Offense

Rams -The Rams are hurting offensively with both running back Steven Jackson (quad) and left tackle Orlando Pace (knee sprain) out with injuries. Second-year running back out of  OSU Antonio Pittman (in place of Jackson) averaged 6.8 yards per attempt against the 49ers last Sunday and showed steady offensive production throughout the game. (Although Pittman is listed as probable because of a hamstring injury on NFL.com, he is more than likely to make an appearance against the Bears this Sunday). Pace’s replacement will be tackle Adam Goldberg, (not to be confused with the actor who played the “Hebrew Hammer”) a sixth year veteran out of Wyoming.
 

Bears – The Bears have made a couple changes offensively since the devastating loss to the Packers. Apparently, the 14th overall 2008 draft pick rookie left tackle Chris Williams made his debut late in the game against Green Bay, (I was too busy turning off the television because I couldn’t take the pain anymore), which means 9-year veteran tackle John St. Clair will transition from left tackle to left guard and second-season guard Josh Beekman will be moved to the bench. The division match up against the Vikings is far more important to the Bears playoff hopes than this tilt with the Rams, so it would be advisable to let Captain Neck beard (listed as probable on chicagobears.com) take this Sunday off.  Seeing a wincing Orton struggle to connect with a receiver was more painful than seeing Grossman attempt to dump off a pass and miss the intended target.

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Key Match ups

Bears running back Matt Forte vs. Rams defensive front

Rams cornerback Fakhir Brown vs. wide receiver Rashied Davis or wide receiver Devin Hester (don’t look for number 23 on kick returns anymore, it’s all about D. Manning now)

Bears wide receiver Brandon “Welcome Back” Lloyd vs. Rams corner back Tye Hill

Defense

Rams – The Rams defense is ranked pretty much last or close to it in every defensive category (30th in total defense, 29th in rushing yards allowed per game and 32nd in points allowed per game), so Bears rookie running back Matt Forte (16 carries for 64 yards against the Packers during Week 11) might have a chance to boost his production. The biggest problem (and always has been recently) with the Bears is the quarterback. If the qb is accurate, consistent and protected, plays will be made and points will pop up on the scoreboard. When Orton (24 of 34 for 334 yards, 2 TDs against the Lions) was at his healthiest and best against the Lions during Week 5 of this season, the balls had juice, the receivers were at the right place at the right time and most importantly, touchdowns were scored.

Bears – The Bears defense allowed 200 rushing yards and 227 passing yards against the Green Bay Packers last week. Even free safety Mike Brown agreed the defense was hot garbage. Unfortunately, Head Coach Lovie Smith wasn’t so realistic and decided it was better to move on from the loss and focus on the “six-game season” instead. The optimistic yet emotionless attitude Lovie constantly projects is really getting old. I understand it wouldn’t be very Lovie-like to bash the team and say how utterly embarrassed he is to be the Head Coach, but at least show a little frustration and passion (a la 49er interim coach Mike Singletary), so furious Bears fans like myself can feel like he cares.

Key Match ups:

Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher vs. Rams quarterback Marc Bulger (easy target for Brian in my opinion)

Bears Free Safety Mike Brown vs. any Rams offensive player who gets into secondary territory

Bears quarterback Rex Grossman vs. Rams defensive line (if he can’t shine against the worst defense in the league, oy!)

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