Thursday, December 24, 2009

Well, Bowl Season Kind of Sucks...

Okay, so bowl season doesn't "suck," per se. But the rather underwhelming slate of meager rations dished out in the first week or so of holiday pigskin action has done nothing besides induce sleep and winter doldrums. I busily masticate my teeth against the bevy of Christmas treats that I so happily shove down my throat without fear of being bloated or the future impact on my heart instead of salivating over the mid-major talent show on my television screen. What is a football fan to do?

However, there is nothing quite like coming home to a mother eager to spoil you after a long semester of blase dorm food, though. My stomach is still adjusting to real taste, apparently, but that's a digestive issue I'd rather not get into on a blog. Much too personal. Let's just say I have newfound sympathy for Grandpa Fries and his natural aversion to spicy foods. You spend enough time munching on food that doesn't shift beyond the colors white or yellow, and your stomach takes a beating when cilantro gets thrown into the mixture. Or somebody named "Donnie Bravo." On a lighter note, the wonderful Texas weather is quite the pleasant change from the incessant ice and snow storms plaguing the Midwest, so with weather, food, friends, and family, life is pretty good.

Except for the bowl games.

Not only are the games pitting no-name scrubs against their equally bland brethren, the games themselves are defying earlier projections and proving to be horribly unpredictable. These teams have no business playing in bowl games. I mean, who has really watched enough of Middle Tennessee State to know they are on a 7-game win streak and were likely to beat Southern Mississippi? Hell, I doubt I'm alone in saying that the dreadfully manipulative little green bars on ESPN's Pick 'Em game, signifying how the "nation" voted on each contest, influenced my decision more often than not with these early games.

I currently stand 3-3, which is a luxurious status when observed next to some of my less fortunate fellow competitors (cough Jared Kalmus cough), but still fairly distressing so early in the battle. But the score cannot measure my apathy, nor the fans' in most of these cases. Glorified high school stadiums filled with more empty bleachers then functioning hearts are the stars of the show, battling for attention alongside such obscure, laughable sponsors as Beef O'Brady's and an obnoxious battering of New Mexico tourism pimping. We get it, you live in a desert. Native American people used to live there. Can I gamble? That's all I need to know.

But the season got off on a twisted ankle with Fresno State's baffling performance against Wyoming and their proud band of toothless ranch-hands known as "Poke Nation" (I'm not even kidding). Despite the pitfalls of their kicker, who "wasn't recruited by anybody," Wyoming, bearers of the vaunted "poop and mustard" uniforms, ended up stifling the supposedly more talented Bulldogs 35-28 in double overtime. Fresno, fielding the best statistical running back in the country, had given some good teams close calls this year, including Boise State, and beat Illinois in the final game of the season with an incredibly flukey 2-point conversion attempt that was tipped at the line of scrimmage before falling into the hands of a confused o-lineman for the win. I had 32 confidence points on this game, so it was slightly crippling, but almost nobody picked Wyoming, a 6-6 Mountain West outfit (Mountain West > your conference), so the loss did not bludgeon my chances.

Next, I nabbed my first victory as Rutgers strutted into Orlando, Florida, home of their opponent UCF Golden Knights, and marched all over them 45-24 with an explosive offense and a chip on their shoulder that their sunshine enemies seemed to be lacking from the outset. Maybe it was the jovial poking fun at the perceived vast disparity in fan attendance from both schools, but Piscataway's finest showed up in full red glory and Rutgers stomped on Disney World's college football team. Unfortunately, I just thrashed and I sweated all afternoon, thinking that I picked UCF for home field reasons, before casually checking my computer that night and finding that, some how, I'd picked Rutgers. Must have followed the people's choice.

I didn't pick Middle Tennessee over Southern Miss, just because perpetual 1,000 yard rusher Damion Fletcher, Southern Miss' running back for the past 17 years, was likely to want to exit his college football career with a bang. But the Blue Raiders answered every score and every drive, and looked like the much better TEAM. BYU took a defeated Oregon State squad to the woodshed, which I somehow didn't pick, forgetting that the Beavers' hearts were absolutely torn out in the close loss to Oregon, playing for a Pac-10 title and a slot in the Rose Bowl. When you lose that much in such heartbreaking fashion, it's difficult to rebound and get motivated to play the Las Vegas Bowl against the Cougars and their hearty band of married Mormons

Finally, Utah polished up that sterling 3-0 Mountain West resume with a hard fought victory over a California team still lacking their best and most exciting player, tailback Jahvid Best, after a frightening concussion more than a month ago, when he was propelled a couple of feet into the air diving for a touchdown. That's too bad, cause he changes how Cal plays the game offensively. And SMU provided fans (fans?) with a long-deserved glimmer of light, winning (and playing in) their first bowl since before the NCAA gave them the "death penalty," in Hawaii no less. I figured June Jones would be comfortable in the ol' dump of Aloha Stadium, and have SMU perfecting the run-and-shoot offense. Plus, his freshman QB is a phenom, quite the stud. All this game basically imparts upon its viewers is that June Jones is a gifted coach with a knack for turning programs around, something that's more valuable in college than in the pros, and the WAC conference is probably the weakest in the country, evident by Nevada's treasure trove of 1,000 yard rushers and the fact that they almost knocked off Boise State. SMU ran roughshod in this one, exposing the West Coast as undisciplined, undersized, and, quite frankly, untalented.

I'm not impressed so far, but I hope good fortune awaits those who are patient.

So happy holidays, and let's hope I get back on track!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

From Little Cease' to Citrus Squeeze, I Got 'Em All...

Bowl season is either a source of unbridled frustration or holiday cheer for your team, but I think there's one thing we can all celebrate: we won't be seeing any of Notre Dame and the Fightin' Clausens in this year's pigskin pandemonium. Because Jesus has no mercy for the rich, or the grossly subpar. Though youthful hot shot Brian Kelly looks to bring his dreadfully overdone tough guy coaching tactics to turn South Bend's drear into Christmas cheer, the only sideline improvement we'll be seeing from the Golden Domers next year will be a coach with a semi-recognizable chin. But before I venture unnecessarily off-topic, it's time for the J-Freezy bowl pick special, with a few comments justifying my seemingly scatter-brained selections. This is no time to get into BCS talking-head jargon; merely an occasion to enjoy (or suffer through) the ever-inflating slate of bowl games, where every one is a winner (except the poor losers stuck in Detroit) and mediocrity is accepted, just like in real life. So get ready for a 6-6 bonanza and awkward introductions to previously unknown universities that begin with "East" or "Middle," because the eyes of a nation (or at least a trailer park in West Virginia) will be focused in on at least one of the upcoming 34 (good lord, that's too many) bowl games this holiday season. We'll start here with Mr. Irrelevant himself, the Little Caesar's Bowl in the hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape known as Detroit, Michigan, a setting so bleak and so barren that Cormac McCarthy would have difficulty crafting a nastier locale.

Little Caesar's Bowl: Marshall Thundering Herd (6-6) vs. Ohio Bobcats (9-4) -- The Big Ten's embarassing ass-cheek of a tie-in game thankfully had no qualifiers from their major conference brethren this season, but don't think for one second that the smaller programs take any semblance of joy in having to spend their winter break in Detroit: Marshall's head coach resigned from his post after the season, apparently choosing to return to beautiful West Virginia instead. Prestige fail, much? The seemingly despairing Thundering Herd will be pitted against the Frank Solich-lead Bobcats, who have quietly been one of the more successful mid-major outfits in the country since Nebraska's dirty laundry of a head coach took the main mantle. Ohio will likely never be a "BCS-buster," but nobody is complaining about consistent 9 win seasons at a place that is notoriously difficult to be successful at. This isn't Lincoln, folks. Ohio University gets to 10-wins against a middling Conference USA squad that's lucky to have been invited to a bowl game.

(I'll continue these in typically sporadic order, based on my confidence level on ESPN's pick 'em. In all fairness, this is finals week, and I was unfairly forced to churn out three stories for The Daily Iowan today, so blog time equals unwind time)

Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma State (9-3) vs. Mississippi Rebels (8-4) -- This contest should be dubbed the Battle of the Underachievers. Both squads entered the season with darkhorse championship aspirations, and both conclude the year in solid, if unspectacular, fashion at the historic Dallas stadium. Oklahoma State can place some of the blame on a painfully unfair suspension of their best player, the Michael Crabtree-esque wideout Dez Bryant, along with an untimely concussion to quarterback Zac Robinson towards the end of the year. Ole' Miss expected a Heisman-worthy season from much ballyhooed QB Jevan Snead, yet ended up receiving something much worse. Inconsistency will be the buzzword here as each team maniacally searches for that elusive performance where it all "comes together." Expect a healthy mustering of Dexter McCluster from the Rebels' end, but the Cowpokes have too many offensive weapons, and they will strike vengeance for the Big 12 after Texas Tech's Cotton Bowl spanking at the hands of Manning U last season. Bowl (these names just keep getting better and better): South Carolina Gamecocks (7-5) vs. Connecticut Huskies (7-5): The Huskies became America's team after the sudden and tragic death of cornerback Jasper Howard to a mid-season stabbing at a campus party, and then quickly became God's team as well following a thrilling "upset" over Notre Dame that essentially plunged the dagger firmly into Charlie Weis' deep-fried heart. UConn rode that surge of emotion to a successful late-season campaign that landed them in a bowl game against the Ol' Ball Coach and his perpetually inconsistent band of Southern misfits. Once again, the flimsy 'Cocks, not known for finishing hard, look to plunge deep into the belly of the opposition. Okay, enough of that. The "other" USC began the year in a blaze of success before gradually fading into mediocre obscurity, and one has to question how long Spurrier is going to hang around to watch this team reach its peak at 7 or 8 wins. Stephen Garcia just isn't developing like he's supposed to, and there's far too many "me-first" athletes on both sides of the ball, as evidenced by their sloppy performance against the Iowa Hawkeyes in last season's Outback Bowl. Nothing has changed here. South Carolina shows up lackluster and turnover prone, while UConn comes motivated with something big, and something profound, to play for. Never underestimate the impact of tragedy, and losing a teammate, on a team's mindset. Huskies win.

International Bowl: South Florida Bulls (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (7-5): The infamous "this game's in Canada, I thought this was supposed to be a vacation" bowl. Though the much-maligned country isn't nearly as bad as it may sound, it's still only a notch or two below the "Detroit Bowl" in it's popularity with coaches and players, not to mention the relatively cruddy matchups that it usually produces. South Florida showed flashes of greatness without their stud QB Matt Grothe, who was lost for much of the season with a blown ACL. Athletic backup B.J. Daniels looked like the real deal in a big win over Florida State, but that's before we found out Florida State sucked and was playing for a blow-up doll caricature of a head coach. As a reward for their second-half slide, the Jim Leavitt-led Bulls get the honor of playing Northern Illinois, a team that always seems to find itself creeping onto the bowl scene despite the lack of any recognizable figure or presence on their team. Dekalb's finest try to muster up their heaping helping of average to take down the athletic swamp creatures of South Florida, but Leavitt gets his team charged up and ready to play. Plus, the third-best team in Florida still beats the second-best team in Illinois (yea, you figure that one out).

Rose Bowl: Ohio State Buckeyes (10-2) vs. Oregon Ducks (10-2):
A little early in my list for the "Granddaddy Of 'Em All," eh? This tradition-laden contest and the root of all money-grubbing BCS evil pits the "borrring, we just won another Big Ten title" Buckeyes against the Oregon Ducks, who finally de-throned the Trojans for Pac-10 supremacy and proved they are more then just a fancy uniform configuration (or 300). Ohio State won their conference in typically unspectacular fashion, with stifling defense, a hydra-headed running game, and sweater-vest sporting coach with a gameplan so conservative, Glen Beck masturbates to highlight reels of Terrell Pryor handing off on 3rd and 8. Oregon, meanwhile, has the Polynesian Tim Tebow in fiesty skull-cracking QB Jeremiah Masoli, and their own elemental running back duo in the "thunder" of LeGarrette Blount (back from suspension for being a raging animal) and "lightning" of miniature speedster LaMichael James. As much as I'd love to see OSU win for the Big Ten's ever-dwindling national rep, Oregon has an athletic, explosive team, and, quite frankly, the Buckeyes almost lost to my Vandenberg-led Hawkeyes in Columbus. That's all the evidence I need. Ducks win, sadly.

Independence Bowl: Texas A&M Aggies (6-6) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (7-5): See what happens when you don't play defense, kids? You end up in Shreveport, Louisiana for Christmas. This actually figures to be a highly entertaining game, if only because a guaranteed shootout is ready and roaring to take place. Both teams finished disappointing campaigns with thrilling climaxes to the season, with the Aggies putting on a show and almost cooling the Texas Longhorns in College Station and the Bulldogs capping off the worst season of the Mark Richt era with an upset of bitter rival Georgia Tech. If Texas A&M could learn to play effectively on that "other side of the ball," then they would be markedly better than their 6-6 record indicates. With a stable of talented young running backs, the quietest superstar QB in the nation, and an athletic cast of wide receivers, this offense has the potential to be one of the best in the country. For now, Aggie fans are happy to be back bowling under Mike Sherman, but it's going to take a "Junction Boys" type of effort for rusty ol' Joe Kines to improve the defensive consistency and reward the long-suffering fightin' farmers with a slot in that Big 12 title game. Georgia has been spoiled with 10+ win seasons, and most fans probably expected the same even with the departures of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno to the NFL, both as lottery picks no less. With stud wide receiver AJ Green at his disposal, newcomer QB Joe Cox improved throughout the season, and the Bulldogs ended up fielding a scintillating quick-strike offense of their own. Look for this game to be one of the more entertaining contests on the docket. My heart says Aggies, but I've seen enough of the maroon marauders over my years in the deep South to know never to put your confidence in their abilities. Just when you think they've turned the corner, they let you down. Plus, Richt is proven. He's been in much bigger settings before, and will have his Dawgs ready to play. Not yet Aggies. Bulldogs win 45-42.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Tentative Fiesta

The melancholy winter months ahead are looming largely over the wayward flock of Hawkeye nation this December, but snow plows and -20 degree windchill are not the primary factors that make up the black cloud hanging ever-so menacingly in the Midwest sky; I'm talking about Iowa's utterly unjust behind-the-scenes battle with Penn State for at-large BCS supremacy. As many of you may already know, both Iowa and Penn State finished the 2009 college football regular season with a record of 10-2, tied for 2nd in the Big Ten conference. Iowa, however, owns the head-to-head matchup, beating Penn State in Happy Valley back on Sept. 26, 21-10, in one of the most thrilling Hawkeye victories of the past decade.

Ignoring common sense and the contrite values of on-field competition, the money-grubbing, attention-starved BCS head honchos are actually deliberating which of these two Big Ten schools to select for an at-large birth in their end of season fashion show that annually crowns the best team in the country. It's a system based entirely on historical prestige, name value, butts in seats, eyes glued to television screens, and the false premise of "tradition." It's never been a system that has inspired me to leap from my comfortable perch and riot, as the end of year bowl bonanza has always been "the way it is" since I started really paying attention to the sport at the beginning of the decade.

But Iowa's last BCS berth came in 2002, after an 8-0 conference run and Big Ten championship, so there was no controversy surrounding the prize that awaited the black and gold that season. This year, with uncertainty clouding the glorious goal at stake, I've been nervously chomping my finger nails and sweating buckets since Iowa's 12-0 defensive plastering of Minnesota on Nov. 21st, hoping and praying that my Hawks are one of the elite few chosen at the end of the year to receive the hefty monetary reward, flood of blue-chip recruits, television exposure, and last, but certainly not least, the fantastic competition that comes with a BCS bowl game. Maybe now that Jim Delaney, Big Ten commissioner and proponent of the BCS due to the stubborn, backwards-thinking greed of the Rose Bowl, might re-think his unabashed support for the system now that one of the teams from his own conference is attempting to crash the at-large party.

Both teams assuredly have their respective arguments. Iowa, of course, beat the Nittany Lions at their home stadium, and played on national TV almost every week this season. The Hawks has a notoriously large fanbase in Arizona, a sort of haven for the retired (folks undoubtedly worn down by a lifetime of winter) and the location of the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, the probable destination of the Big Ten at-large selection. Iowa fans always travel well and fill up the bowl stadiums (jumping Northwestern for an Outback bowl bid last year), and they've never been to the Fiesta, adding intrigue and new blood to the system. Penn State, on the other hand, is an undisputed national program, with fans scattered across the country and a wide-spanning history of undefeated tradition and national championships. Their coach, the venerated Joe Paterno, has been the head man for the Nittany Lions since the late '50s, and is perhaps the face of college football with his recognizably curmudgeon-ish disposition, ancient tenure, and famous horn rimmed glasses. Penn State has finished the 2009 season in scintillating fashion, thumping Michigan State in the season finale, while Iowa stumbled towards the climax in winning only one of its last three games after starting 9-0, due mainly to QB Ricky Stanzi's devastating ankle injury. But Stanzi, along with a host of other walking wounded, will return for the bowl game, wherever that may be.

In conclusion, it really all comes down to the fact that Iowa beat Penn State in a football game. Football games are played to win, and never should anything BUT winning decide the outcome or a team's success. Grouchy pragmatists may point to Kansas jumping Missouri for an Orange Bowl berth in 2007 as a sign of things to come for disillusioned Hawks. Missouri beat Kansas in the regular season, and the Tigers were Big 12 North champs. But two losses to Oklahoma, one in the regular season and the other in the Big 12 championship, left a corrosive stain on Mizzou's record, and 1-loss Kansas jumped the Tigers for a BCS berth. The Iowa-Penn State situation is different, however, because both teams have the same record, so that example is flawed. BCS, do the right thing, and put the Hawks in your bowl game, wherever that might be. The general consensus is that bowl game will be the Fiesta, against everybody's favorite blue and oranges barons of the trick play, the upset-minded Boise State Broncos, still riding the wave of momentum from their Fiesta bowl upset of Adrian Peterson's Oklahoma Sooners on an overtime Statue of Liberty play. Both of ESPN's resident bowl projection experts, Bruce Feldman and Mark Schlabach, have finally reached a consensus, placing Iowa in the Fiesta, but it's going to take an official announcement to assuage my raging fears. Other options include Miami's Orange Bowl, against the ACC champ (pulverizing Georgia Tech or up-and-down Clemson), or, if we do make the dreaded plunge into the ranks of "regular" New Year's Day bowls, the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Florida, site of perhaps the most memorable Hawkeye play of all time. The sweet taste of a 10-2 season, with the possibility of 11 wins, is still digesting, but it would go down the pipes a whole lot smoother with the sterling stamp of a BCS bowl game emblazoned on the resume. After a season such as this one, anything less just wouldn't do justice to all of the good fortune and craziness.

Next, I'll do a mini-season wrap up, with my own take on the best players, games, and moments of an incredible season.

Best Offensive Player: WR Marvin McNutt (RS-Sophomore) -- Whether due to inconsistency on the offensive line, injuries to their top 3 running backs, or Ricky Stanzi's patented pick-sixes, the 2009 Iowa Hawkeyes fielded an offense that was far from stable. They showed flashes of their potential, like the 28-point outburst in the 4th quarter of the Indiana game or consecutive long-ball touchdowns against Arkansas State, but achieving a steady rhythm was an elusive task for such an injury-plagued unit. Iowa fans never really knew what they were going to see on the field offensively any given Saturday, adding not only to the excitement of close, defensive-minded games, but the heart attack risk for overweight bearers of the black and gold. I'm giving this award to one of my new favorite players of the season, he of the endlessly manipulated last moniker, flypaper hands, and big play potential: former third-string QB and St. Louis native Marvin McNutt. Coming into the season, most fans saw McNutt's placement as number 1 on the depth chart as a fluke, a motivational ploy to get Derrell Johnson-Koulianous, the teams' established star at wideout, to put forth a bit more effort in practice. After all, the guy was a converted QB still learning the ins-and-outs of running routes, and could not have been ready for such a big role.

But McNutt quickly showed that he deserved a lasting spot in the starting lineup, becoming our most consistent threat for the first half of the season as DJK "got with the program," and then settling into the role of the Hawks' most incendiary deep threat. While DJK garnered more receptions and yards, McNutt still managed to put up 653 yards with a stunning 21.3 average yards per reception, nabbing 9 TDs to DJK's 2. His highlights included two touchdowns against Arkansas State, the 92-yard touchdown that ignited Kinnick Stadium against Indiana, his 2 stellar TD grabs against Ohio State at the Horseshoe, and finally, the iconic last-play touchdown catch to beat Michigan State in East Lansing and go 8-0 for the first time in program history. What's even more impressive about that play is that a fade route was originally called in the huddle, but McNutt, seeing that he could beat his man to the inside, persuaded Ken O'Keefe to change the call. The rest is history. McNutt's emergence is one of the best stories of the season, and the fact that he didn't make ANY of the All-Big Ten lists is incredibly stupid and inane. Honorable mention for this award could go to Stanzi, who ignored the haters and calmly won ball games with clutch savvy and nonchalant resiliency. Also, Adam Robinson was a fearsome sparkplug at running back until a stifling ankle injury ended his run at Michigan State, while offensive lineman Dace Richardson was a rock at right guard until yet ANOTHER ankle injury sidelined him for the season.

More awards to follow in the coming days...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Granddaddy of Them All

Imagine waking up from a dream, as vivid and realistic as dreams can be. Every aspect of the dream is going in your favor, and you are in utter shock. This kind of happiness does not occur in reality, and you are blissfully lost in the ignorant joys of the present, never thinking one action in advance of the next.

Then, the dream abruptly ends, your head bashes against the bed board, you realize class starts in 15 minutes, and all of the pleasures granted by that slumbering fantasy suddenly disappear, a night's worth of riches sapped away in one crushing counter-punch.

This is how Hawkeye Nation felt after last Saturday's 17-10 demoralization at the hands of the Northwestern Wildcats on a beautiful, 72-degree day inside the swollen red brick confines of Kinnick Stadium, stacked with sweltering hoards of black and gold faithful oozing into stadium aisles and desperately cheering for this destiny-fueled season to continue riding the train of disbelief, leaving fans' mouths agape week after week with stunning comebacks, stifling defense, and Stanzi's savvy in the clutch.

Throughout Iowa's dreadfully prehistoric 2nd half performance, when 3-and-outs became as common as Dominique Douglas arrest warrants, the fans still managed to keep their dream alive without ever batting an eyelid. They had been through this routine before. Trailing in their 9th game out of 10 on the season? No problem. This is the same Hawkeye outfit that needed to block two field goals in the final 7 seconds to beat Northern Iowa, recover an onside kick to wax Arkansas State off the board, return a punt block for a touchdown in the pouring rain to squelch Penn State in Happy Valley, score an improbable touchdown as time expired to beat Michigan State on the road for the first time since 1995, pile on 28 4th quarter points to bury Indiana, and -- I think you get the picture by now.

This team embodies resiliency, and nobody is a greater beacon for resiliency then QB Ricky Stanzi, whose Jekyll and Hyde performances have drawn both ire and quasi-worship from deranged Hawk fans all season long. Stanzi has thrown more pick-sixes this year then most QBs would care to remember, and nearly as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (15). Yet, when the 4th quarter begins, and the sky starts to dim, Stanzi straps his gloves on and goes to work. No game typifies that kind of nonchalant swagger and unprecedented poise more so then the Indiana contest on Halloween day. Stanzi played the most miserable 3 quarters of his life, tossing 4 picks in the 3rd quarter and 5 in all, repeatedly chucking the pigskin right into a ferocious gust of wind. Iowa fans, being the fickle farmers that they are, began calling for Stanzi's head, demanding that backup James Vandenberg be thrust in the game right this very moment.

Good thing Coach Kirk Ferentz kept his lid screwed on tight. Stanzi responded to the incessant chorus of jeers and boos with a scintillating 4th quarter, throwing for 177 yards and completing all of his passes, including two orgasmic touchdowns to fan favorites Marvin McNutt (the puns are endless) and DJK, he of the cursed Sports Illustrated cover that I will no longer mention again even though it's really cool and it's pinned up in my dorm room.

So, how does this all connect to Northwestern, and Iowa's impending date with "The" Ohio State university this weekend in a de facto Big Ten championship game for a berth in the Rose Bowl? Well, imagine that dream not only transitioning to reality, but dying right there on the Kinnick turf, something unholy and unforseen tainting the Saturday morning purity and silencing the rabid throng of Iowa supporters who had been generating deafening noise just minutes before. After an unabashedly boneheaded naked bootleg call by Ken O'Keefe with the ball on the 5, Stanzi was sacked by Northwestern's Corey Wooton, fumbling the ball and leading to NW's first TD of the day. But the image that followed was much more gruesome. Stanzi lying there in the endzone, an awkward, crumpled heap. His ankle was a twisted mess, a high sprain they'd call it, sidelining our hero for the rest of the regular season. Once the shock subsided, and the fans recovered from the sight of this season's most polarizing figure limping pathetically into the locker room, one question remained --and it was not "Where did Ashton Kutcher go?" Could James Vandenberg live up to his high school glory, and somehow get the Hawkeyes to 10-0?

The immediate answer to that question was a resounding no, as Vandenberg's first pass attempt was intercepted and the rest of them rarely successful, as the grossly underprepared RS-freshman bumbled his way through a nervous 9-27, 86 yard performance, only once venturing past the 50 yard line through almost three quarters of play. The loss could not be placed solely on Vandenberg's play, though most fans would confidently state that had Stanzi not been knocked out of the game, the Hawkeyes would have won. Vandenberg came into the NW game with 3 career passing attempts, and could not have known that he would be tossled headfirst into such a desperate situation, with "undefeated" and "national title" ringing in his youthful ears. Needless to say, the Iowa offense died with Stanzi's ankle that day, and the Wildcats' scrappy outfit of overachievers (hey, that's supposed to be us) made enough plays on both offense and defense to steal another heart-wrenching game from the Iowa Hawkeyes.

It took more then the standard 24-hours for Hawkeye fans to flush this disappointing turd of a game down the toilet, and the reasons mounted like Hawkeye bodies in the training room. It was devastating to lose Stanzi. It has been a season where the injuries have piled up in sickening numbers, with running backs, offensive linemen, and wide receivers dropping from the ranks with everything from torn tendons to confounding concussions, but Stanzi was the one player the Hawkeyes could not afford to lose, could not overcome. He's the rare talent that always gives your team a chance to win, despite his penchant for throwing the patented "Stanzi-ball" directly into the chest of the opposing team. Can we win another game without number 12? Number 2 on the list of disappointments was the fact that it was frickin' Northwestern, the pretentious, intellectual, purple-clad, 10,000 people per home game skid mark of the Big Ten conference. Now, realize I am being overly harsh for comedic purposes, as the Wildcats have brandished a respectable program since 1995 and severely own the Kirk Ferentz-lead Hawkeyes, but come on, really? Northwestern? Yes, Northwestern, the same Northwestern that has beaten Iowa 3 out of the last 4 trips to Kinnick and whose fanbase has taken to calling our glorious stadium "Ryan Field West." Oh really, is that why every time Iowa plays you guys we have like 10 times the fucking fans you do at your own stadium?

Sorry, but you can envision how this affects me. It's just hard to register that Jake Christensen is the last Iowa QB to beat the Wildcats (coincidence that he was in attendance? I think not). But most Hawkeye fans would acknowledge that were our admittedly narrow national championship dreams to die, it would have been much easier to swallow at Ohio State. But not Northwestern. Not Northwestern.

Lastly, the disappointment culminated in the sharp reality that what has been a historic dream season, reaching 8-0 and then 9-0 for the first time in the wide arc of our storied program, may end in something other then a Big Ten title or BCS berth. From McNutt's last second grab in East Lansing to Tyler Sash's laughable pinball interception return against Indiana, this has been a season that embraces the bizarre, glorifies the lucky, and most importantly, offers a tantalizing peak at destiny. Before the season, 9-0 seemed like quite the stretch with such a daunting road schedule, but as the leaves morphed to orange and the year grew older, fans began to imagine a world where the words "Iowa Hawkeyes-National Champions" didn't sound so far-fetched. With a brutal road trip to Ohio State looming, this was not the time to lose a home game to Northwestern.

Which segways into this weekend's pristine contest at The 'Shoe, one of America's storied venues and arguably the toughest place to play at in the Big Ten. 100,000 scarlet and grey clad Buckeye fans, like bloodthirsty spectators at a gladiator match, will be shouting in unison for their beloved defense to jettison our new baby-faced gunslinger to the brisk turf, pasted into another Buckeye Big Ten title montage along with the countless others that have come before. Young James Vandenberg will be getting his first start on the road in Columbus, and nobody will be giving him a shot. Though we are ranked one spot ahead of Ohio State at number 10 in the BCS, the talking heads and loudmouth ESPN pundits will be giving us less of a shot to win then John Wooden to beat Lance Armstrong in a bicycle race. The nation will be against us. But adversity is this Iowa team's best friend, and I don't see any reason why this special Hawkeye team has to stop embracing it. Matter of fact, I'm going to close this post with three reasons why Iowa will win right here.

Reason #1) Terrelle Pryor. The much-ballyhooed Buckeye signal caller may have emerged from high school with Vince Young-level hype and attention, but the talented sophomore's passing skills this season have left much to be desired. Though he's shown flashes of star potential, what with such a deadly mix of size and athleticism, don't confuse OSU wins with Pryor success. This Ohio State defense is what has made this team 8-2. Here are Pryor's 2009 passing statistics, courtesy of ESPN. You be the judge.

9/5 Navy W 31-27 14 21 174 66.7 38 1 1 142.46 6 30 5.0 11 1
9/12 USC L 18-15 11 25 177 44.0 56 0 1 95.47 10 36 3.6 17 0
9/19 @Toledo W 38-0 17 28 262 60.7 76 3 2 160.38 12 110 9.2 43 1
9/26 Illinois W 30-0 8 13 82 61.5 19 1 0 139.91 11 59 5.4 23 0
10/3 @Indiana W 33-14 17 28 166 60.7 23 3 1 138.73 16 63 3.9 18 1
10/10 Wisconsin W 31-13 5 13 87 38.5 32 1 1 104.68 10 35 3.5 27 0
10/17 @Purdue L 26-18 17 31 221 54.8 40 1 2 112.46 21 34 1.6 35 1
10/24 Minnesota W 38-7 13 25 239 52.0 62 2 1 150.70 15 104 6.9 19 1
10/31 New Mexico State W 45-0 11 23 135 47.8 43 1 0 111.48 9 83 9.2 27 1
11/7 @Penn State W 24-7 8 17 125 47.1 62 2 0 147.65 5 50 10.0 24 1

Reason #2) James Vandenberg. One's first reaction, a very understandable one at that, would be confusion and perhaps disgust. But I'm talking about Vandenberg the high school QB. I realize that Kirk Ferentz once proclaimed the everlasting truth that "what a kid does in high school amounts to what the kid did in high school," Vandenberg's crazy good statistics should be enough to get Hawkeye fans salivating over what he can do. Don't be fooled by the skittish young colt we all witnessed on Saturday. Vandenberg (the Mandenberg) holds 12 state of Iowa passing records, including career passing yards (7,709), career TD passes (93), and single-season passing yards from his senior year at Keokuk (3,729). The fact that he is capable of putting up these numbers shouldn't assuage Hawk fans' fears, but it gives us hope, and proves that the QB we saw last Saturday will not be the QB we see for the next 3 years here in Iowa City. Enough said.

Reason #3) The Hawkeye defense. This one is kind of a given folks, and it goes hand-in-hand with numero uno. Our conservative Cover-2 schemes are begging for opposing QB's to get overly comfortable with the short stuff and make mistakes. Pryor's nonchalant throwing, if you can even call it that, of the pigskin should lead to a few easy INTs for the boys in the secondary, most notably pickmeister Tyler Sash, who has 6 on the year. Look for Adrian Clayborn to disrupt the pocket and force Pryor to make plays with his legs, which he is capable of, but after a few staunch shots from our dreadlocked monster up front, I don't think he will be feeling too comfortable. Also watch out for Pat Angerer in the MLB spot. He's coming in, for lack of better word, juiced up. Playing for a Big Ten title, Angerer, the emotional leader of this defense, will have this unit's intensity exploding through the walls of Ohio Stadium. Look for him to make plays from sideline-to-sideline, shutting down "Boom" Herron and the OSU running attack while keeping a sterling eye on Pryor's every movement as well. The Hawks also need the defense to force a multitude of turnovers, something they've been relying on all season. Unfortunately, that aspect of Iowa's game has faded in recent weeks, but Vandenberg needs some good field position if Iowa is to put up enough points to win.

Final Score: Iowa-17 Ohio State-3.

So Hawkeye fans, don't stop believing in this magical season, because we've been living on a prayer since Day 1, and all we really want is for tonight to be a good night, right?

This one is for you, Hawkeye Nation. On Iowa, and Go Hawks!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Walking to Class...

"Hey, did you come here for that crazy preacher guy?"

"Whaa..?" I muttered, nearly unintelligibly, back to him. The day's barrage of classes had worn me down, to say the least.

"Yea, he said feminists are going to hell because they want more freedom then they deserve or something! This dude totally owns his wife! He said earlier that dirty dancing is a sin, so some girl started grinding up right next to him. So awesome!"

"I'll have to check it out," I stated unenthusiastically as I walked to class. Sure enough, right outside the building where I was about to take an Anthropology exam, the man was there. He wore a well-trimmed black beard, with a 1920s paper boy beret atop his head and dated attire that appeared as if the mothballs had only recently left its premises. I noticed his sign, a laundry list of sins as common on this campus as Saturday night public intoxication charges and 2 a.m. Pancheros runs. Bubbly girls practically bursting with mockery rushed up to the pillar he was standing upon merely to take pictures, sent off to curious friends in class, while testosterone fueled machos challenged his views with blunt profanities and base insults as creative and insightful as an episode of the "O'Reily Factor." The worst was when the man received a call from his supposedly subservient "missus" back home at God-knows-where, only to become swarmed with crude remarks about "your husband cheating on you" or "why don't you pay taxes you "f*****g idiot," or when he quietly whispered about his father's alcoholism, largely to an empty crowd who had finished participating in their demeaning another person for the day, made much easier when that person seems so artificial and distant from what we see as humanity. Granted, this man was spouting absurdities, not grounded in reality, condemning the immoral masses to hell whilst preaching a literal interpretation of the Bible and professing to be a virtual saint himself. To take that, for lack of better word, bull seriously would be a gross ignorance and silly fodder for playful harassment from your friends. But something about the whole scenario just left me feeling uneasy, uncomfortable, not right. No matter the man, to treat another person as something sub-human, worthy of being treated like a dog, just isn't right. Yes, some culpability is on his part for coming to one of the most liberal universities in the Midwest and preaching of hellfire and brimstone, but this curb side preacher is just a voice, a voice like many other voices, who can be ignored, but never stomped and spat upon. People were so venomous and mean-spirited in their comments, malicious in their stares, that I was exposed to a dark, unrelenting side of humanity that nobody should want to see. When a human being is free from consequence, from nosy parents, church obligations, overbearing professors, or what have you, one is capable of grave, blackened evils. When a human being is unrestrained, capable of reducing another human being to a lowly status where it feels appropiate to belittle and attack like a boyhood bully, then there is obviously something inherently wrong in all of us. I understand that nobody, including myself, respects the self-righteous, you're going to hell type of condemnation, and rightfully so, but I just don't see the benefit or satisfaction in lowering a person to that level in order to feel more comfortable about one's own immoral lives. This was mob mentality at it's finest, and even when justified, as it might have been today, it's a scary thing to witness. Who's with me??

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Grave Injustice, Some Stifling Defense, And A Little Donahue Worship

One team stands 2-1, renewed with a vigorous hope pouring forth from the collective heart of a fanbase still reeling from the horrors of a 0-12 2008 season. They have just toppled the number 3 team in the country by a field goal, standing ranked in the top 25 only one measly season after being at the lowest nadir of college football loserdom. The other team, perched atop a plateau of 3-0, is fresh off a stifling non-conference victory over Arizona, an admittedly lesser Pac-10 school than the former number 3 team in the nation, and started the year ranked number 22nd. That team is currently riding a 7 game winning streak dating back to a shocking upset victory of Penn State the previous season, yet currently sits unranked and disregarded by the national media at large. The former team is, of course, Washington, a horribly overrated West Coast team riding the coattails of ONE win, while the latter, unfortunate squad is Iowa, still being perpetually punished for a miracle win over Northern Iowa in week 1 and continuing a disgusting plummet in the national rankings despite not losing a game yet. Let's take Michigan as another example of how the AP poll voters are biased quacks who base their opinions off of 10-second Sportscenter snips and namebrand recognition of regal college football "powerhouses" by "name" only. The hallowed Wolverines, unproven and fresh from a 3-9 season a year ago, remain the most winningest college football program in history (due in large part to the fact that they've been playing football since the American Revolution), so naturally after a hyperbolized victory over the grossly overrated and overranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish, irrelevant on the national scale (quality-wise) for at least the last decade, they move up from not even "receiving votes" in the previous week's AP poll to being ranked number 18. Because, of course, beating Notre Dame is always a national accomplishment on par with saving a child's life.

It is a gross and repulsive injustice that Iowa has fallen from the top 25...there is no doubt in my mind that had we beaten a Notre Dame or a Michigan this past weekend, teams on par with Arizona talentwise, then we would be back in the rankings and groveling at the top 20. I'm all for the underdog mantra of "staying under the radar," as I realize a lot of Hawkeye fans take a sense of pride in sneaking up on self-righteous opponents from that role, but rankings make a different in national exposure, recruiting, and how one is viewed in the all-important BCS rankings. If I said that I'd rather be unranked than ranked so that we could "sneak up on people," I'd be a liar. So while the double standard associated with big-name programs in college football is tiresome, I'm overly numb to it at this stage, and there is still no logical reason why the Hawkeyes are not ranked at this point. The pollsters obviously want us to prove ourselves on the grandest of national scales, beating the 5th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions to land our quiet name back in the prestigious rankings, but we shouldn't have to beat the number 5 team in the country just to sniff the top 25 again. It's just unfortunate that we could have thumped an unranked Notre Dame, and we would have been back in the national rank and file. That's all I'll say on that subject. On to Saturday's 27-17 defensive demolition of former Hawkeye Mike Stoops and his Arizona Wildcats on a brutally hot Blackout, perhaps the worst day of the year for it in Iowa!

The story of this past Saturday's rugged, hard-earned victory over a sleek, athletic Arizona team was far and away the defensive performance. The offense was, at times, sluggish and disjointed, especially with the continuation of Ricky Stanzi's first half passing woes, but the one constant was the defensive front's penchant for disruption at the line of scrimmage, as well as generally clogging the running lanes and holding Nic Grigsby, the nation's 2nd-leading rusher heading into the game, to only 75 yards, including 55 on one play. Adrian Clayborn exuded a freak athleticism that doesn't come around too often, racking up at least 6 solo tackles while constantly harassing Arizona's beautifully flustered QB, nabbing a sack and a late forced fumble on QB #1's unfortunate replacement. Even with all these flashy statistics, Clayborn's most impressive play came on a seemingly routine tackle of Grigsby after a one-yard gain, when both players got an even start from the jump and Clayborn ran across the entire line, chasing Grigsby down before he could even get started. Seeing a player so large chase down a much smaller, quicker player was a surreal experience, and a quintessential example of Clayborn's dastardly athleticism. Another wonderful testament to the stellar play of the Hawkeye defense would be the opposing QB play. Arnaud's performance last week was originally thought to be a nerves-induced rivalry choking, but after the duds put forth by Arizona's signal-callers, many Hawk fans are starting to re-think that sentiment. By the 3rd quarter, when he was mercifully pulled, Arizona's starting QB, Matt Scott, was 4-12 (?) for 50 yards. That's it. Though his strength was thought to be in his mobility, he only managed to pull off one halfway decent scramble. Everything else was squelched by the bad boys in black up front. His backup, more of a pocket passer, did lead the Wildcats to a garbage time touchdown, but he also threw the inevitable pick to Tyler Sash, a.k.a. The Velociraptor back there. Once again, it was like fielding a punt! All in all, Iowa tussled and tattered the Arizona offense all day, stifling the overmatched young quarterbacks, strong-arming the offensive line, and reigning poor Grigsby in like a a rambunctious toddler. On his 55-yard run, Amari Spievey made perhaps the best hustle play of this young season, chasing him down the entire field, not giving up on the play, developing a solid angle, and finally bringing him down at the one yard line. David Cato nabbed a ferocious tackle for loss on the next play, and Iowa held on to force Arizona to take a goal line field goal. Huge play. Though Iowa dominated the time of possession with an effective running game and some savvy plays by wideouts Colin Sandeman and Marvin McNutt, the score was still 7-7 early due to a nasty pick-six by Stanzi, and Arizona hung around up until a thoroughly dominate Iowa 3rd quarter, when two drives that ended in Daniel Murray field goals stalled what could have been a much more lopsided final score. Stanzi once again flushed a so-so first half with a sharp, precise showing after halftime, finishing with 205 yards and his lone pick. Adam Robinson continued his successful running, nabbing about 110 yards and 2 TDs, though a lot of his yards came on a 43 yard scamper on 3rd and 23, when KOK decided to play up to his conservative namesake and run a draw, only the line opened up a massive chasm and Robinson took full advantage. Brandon Wegher got in on the action himself once again, landing 43 yards and another impressive, leaping touchdown.

Another major story of this game, especially in the context of next week's big game, was the injuries. A lingering ankle injury kept the Glass Man himself, Tony Moeaki, out of this contest, but luckily his backup, the very capable and Brandon Myers-esque Allen Reisner, subbed in with flying colors, racking up about 40 receiving yards while showing off his wonderfully soft super-glue hands. Though Reisner doesn't have Moeaki's jaw-dropping athleticism or dominate run blocking capabilities, it's nice to know the injury prone superstar once again has a reliable backup. DJK also sat this one out with a hamstring injury, but luckily wideout is the Hawks' deepest position, and a vast array of characters filled in admirably, though I would like to see more of Keenan Davis out there. Perhaps the biggest, most figuratively and literally, hole to make up for was the conspicuous absence of left tackle Bryan Bulaga, apparently with intestinal issues due either to a thyroid problem or an infection from a tattoo, depending on who you listen to. No one seems to know when he will be cleared by the doctor, but in the meantime his admitedly undersized backup, redshirt frosh Riley Reiff, has done a fantastic, even dominate job, in his absence. He limited an All-Pac 10 defensive end to only one tackle, an essentially worthless game. But Penn State is another deal. One more player I should talk about is Heisman Candidate and Iowa punter Ryan Donahue, who has been having as dominate and entertaining a seasons as a punter could possibly have. He gives the Hawks fantastic field position everytime out, consistently pins the opponent inside their own 10/5 yard line, and contributed mightily to our narrow victory over UNI. If Donahue was a safety, only the gods could comprehend his potency. Donahue would possess a tenacity rivaling that of Bob Sanders, with a penchant for sternum-snapping hits and unyielding intensity, leading to the occasional "foaming at the mouth" whenever his rabid intensity exposes itself to the shockingly pleased Kinnick faithful, clad in midnight black while playing the role of bloodthirsty Romans clamoring for their ketchup-topped gladiator to slay the lion. His coverage skills would rival that of the fleece blanket wrapped around grandma's knees at Christmas time, or at least that of Champ Bailey. On a good day. Donahue would rise from his crippled feast, a mound of battered enemies, running backs searching for shoulder blades, wideouts missing toes, tight ends cross-eyed and stumbling from the severe spinal wreckage that Bomb-a-Hue proudly claims responsibility for. He raises his fist, bleached white, yet speckled with fresh grass and Nittany Lion cartilage, points to the lonely red-headed Hawk fan sitting in row 15, easily distinguishable among the Beaver Stadium White-Out, and shouts "I AM GINGER!" And you thought Donahue could only punt...

The epic revenge match against the Nittany Lions, which will be aired on ABC Primetime while welcoming in the College Gameday crew, should be the toughest test of our entire season. Penn State will bring new meaning to the words "motivation" and "hatred," looking to embarrass the Hawks on a national stage after Murray's field goal kept them out of the national championship last year. Not only does Ferentz's 6-2 record against JoePa suggest that PSU is our bitch, but even in basketball, a sport where the Hawks have barely been competent in recent years, Iowa knocked off the Nittany Lions in a late season thriller and kept them out of the NCAA tournament. DJK and Moeaki are expected back, but nobody seems to know if Bulaga will play or not, so look for Reiff to throw his 280-pound body into the biggest fire of his life. ISU and Arizona are one thing, but Penn State is an entirely different burn. We'll see. The raucous, much-ballyhooed White Out crowd will be a frightening experience, and new starters should be prepared to shiver in their cleats, but Penn State has played three straight cupcake opponents to start the season, and Iowa is their first challenge, a major one at that. It will be a competitive, physical, emotional game, with the factors stretched against us, but if Stanzi can limit the turnovers, the defense can continue to play at an elite level, and the youngest players can tune out the distractions of crowd noise, then we should make it a College Gameday to remember.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Kegger for Wegher, and other tidbits from the Cy-Hawk game

The run defense could use some work. Stanzi still hasn't played well in the first half. The offensive line can't seem to stay healthy and form a consistent unit. And, worst of all, it seems like Iowa's dominate 35-3 victory over Iowa State in Ames was more a product of Austen Arnaud's sheer incompetence than stifling coverage by an Iowa secondary that was more than questionable last week. Yet, the only two questions I had on my mind after this thoroughly satisfying thumping of our in-state little brother was "Who the heck cares?" and "Where's the victory celebration at?" That air of satisfaction embodied the attitude of most every Iowa fan, optimist and pragmatist, last Saturday as the Hawkeyes ventured on the road, to a place they had only been victorious at ONE time this entire decade (not since 2003 with the venerable Nathan Chandler at QB), and smashed their rivals in the biggest college football game played every year in the tiny state of Iowa, handing Paul Rhoads a humbling first loss as Cyclones' coach and relegating the Ames faithful to the middling stature of 3rd-best team in the Hawkeye state. Anyone who watched Iowa's first two games should be able to bellow with confidence that UNI is a much better team, both defensively and offensively, than the Division-1 Cyclones, so is it finally time that they realize the Big 12 is much too competitive for them to ever be successful, and become resigned to joining the MAC? We'll see. Right now, Hawkeyes infesting the rowdy streets of Iowa City on this Saturday night should be content to chant "In Heaven There is No Beer" at the local bars, kick back on Sunday, procrastinate on the inevitable piles of homework, and close those eyelids, just for a short while, with the satisfaction that your football team is unquestionably the best one in the state, and, right now at least, one of the best in the Big Ten.

It was a beautiful day in Ames, and the jam-packed crowd was as juiced as ever for what they had hoped would be a mirror of Iowa's last trip to State in 2007, when Jake Christensen and the heavily favored Hawks muddled their way through a dud of an offensive stinker, scoring only 13 points while the embattled 'Clones kicked 5 field goals to give Coach Chizik one-fifth of his career victories at Iowa State. The major concerns heading into this year's contest included the seemingly perpetual shuffling of the offensive-line, thought to finally be a full unit again with the return of left guard Julian Vandervelde and, more importantly, right tackle Kyle Calloway, but left tackle Bryan Bulaga was hospitalized late in the week with some phantom illness supposedly ranging from deadly heart failure to swine flu, and would be making the trip, but not playing. Kirk pacified any mortal fears with a reassurance that Bulaga would again play this season, sooner rather than later, but would not elaborate on the mystery illness or when he would be cleared by a doctor. Next, how would the gameplan differ with the obvious strength of the team being its passing? Would the coaches stubbornly stick to "balance" and predictability, or exhibit the confidence to let Stanzi air the ball out more? Also, the anemic running game gave fans reason to doubt the productivity of the offense against UNI the previous week. Would Adam Robinson be able to shoulder the majority of the load? Would we see more Wegher (hint, hint) or Jeff Brinson? Finally, with Shaun Prater not returning to the lineup until next week's game against Arizona, the secondary bore a major hole on the left side, likely to be filled once again by the shaky William Lowe/Greg Castillo combination. Would they be able to stave off a red-hot Arnaud? Well, you guys all watched the game, so here are the main points I could glean from it.

-Brandon Wegher is a young mustang. Wow, what a savior at the running back position! It's very easy to get lost in empty platitudes and absurd hyperbole for my fellow U of Iowa freshman from Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, but with the sparkling, explosive performance that he put on against the Cyclones, it became stunningly apparent that we have a more than capable running back for the future here at Iowa. Wegher made a bevy of eye-opening plays, included a leaping one-handed catch on a dump-off from Stanzi that would have been impressive had he just reigned it in and fell over, but was made even more incredible by the fact he maintained his balance while cutting and spinning his way forward for the first down. On one of the game's final, most punishing drives, Wegher nabbed almost ten yards a carry, darting his way through an obviously comfortable line's massive holes, charging his undersized body into the Cyclone secondary with reckless abandon. He finished with 15 carries for 101 yards and a diving touchdown from the 1 yard line, showing off his springy hops in the process of scoring his first collegiate touchdown after a senior year at Sioux City Heelan when he scored over 50 of them. Wegher is exciting because he can make plays athletically that nobody else on this roster can, and you can expect the undersized gem of the 2008 recruiting class to keep making them for the next four years. Oh yea, Adam Robinson had a pretty good game as well! He continues to run hard, and with fiery burst, rushing for almost 70 yards on just under 20 carries, setting up Iowa's first touchdown and providing a consistent option all game long. Look for Robinson and Wegher to get about even carries against Arizona next week. Paki and Brinson each nabbed a carry apiece, but both appear to be out of the rotation for the forseeable future.
-Ken O'Keefe came in with an excellent gameplan, and though it wasn't always executed to perfection, it showed a willingness to change and deviate towards common sense instead of what is expected all of the time. Seeing that the strength of this team was in its stacked wide receiver depth and gunslinging quarterback, the Hawks came out throwing, sometimes on all three downs, with 5-wideout sets! Never has Iowa run 5-wideout sets, or passed the ball to set up the run on first down. It was a bold, fresh decision by KOK, and a very fun, loose style of play that opposing defenses aren't used to seeing Iowa encourage. This may have been an abberration, as Iowa seems to have established their previously ambiguous running game, and ISU's Charmin-soft defense was just begging to give up yardage through the air, but whatever the reasoning, it was entertaining and refreshing to see KOK open up his playbook and let Stanzi dictate the game with the pass. Fantastic gameplan, and a huge reason the Hawks won.

-The offensive line did a very serviceable job against an admittedly overmatched Iowa State defensive front, even without Bulaga on the left side. Redshirt freshman Riley Reiff, known more for naked, drunken Pancheros runs than his play on the field, still needs to add some bulk, but appears much larger than when he was a freshman (yeahhh Chris Doyle yeahhh). He filled in quite nicely for Bulaga at left tackle, brandishing a mean streak and tenacity that are instrumental qualities to being an Iowa porker up front. Calloway's return made a huge difference, as well as Vandervelde's temporary effort, while Dace Richardson's return to prominence continues to be one of the best stories of the season. This line is deep, talented, with an apt blend of youth and experience, but we won't know the full extent of its dominance until we can have a week when they all are fully healthy. That is what defines a consistent, dominate offensive line, like our 2002 outfit. Hopefully against Penn State, the Hawks can acheive that.

-Ricky Stanzi continued his Jekyll and Hyde act with a 2-INT first half performance, then followed that up with a near-flawless 2 touchdown second half en route to the first 4-TD game of his career. He continues to prove that mistakes do nothing to influence his chuck-first, ask questions later mindset, and he is the king of "bounce-back" drives and performances after making a poor throw, but it's impossible to ignore all the points left on the board with Stanzi's shaky first half, when he consistently overthrew open wideouts and looked shockingly Christensen-esque at times. Luckily, his beautiful pass to DJK for the touchdown that put Iowa up 14-3 reaffirmed the people's belief that Stanzi can make all the capable throws, and his pair of second half endzone darts to Allen Resiner and Keenan Davis, respectively, identified him strongly as a clutch, 4th-quarter nightmare dating back to the iconic Penn State drive last year. If Stanzi's second-half passer rating were used strictly as a judge of his quarterbacking ability, he would be trumping Colt McCoy, not only in swagger but in the Heisman race. Just sayin'.

-Finally, I'll end with the undisputed stars of the game...safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood, responsible for 6 Iowa State turnovers, including 4 interceptions by Arnaud in a paltry 79 yard effort, and 1 for his backup, Jerome Tiller. Black and gold pessimists will likely point to average defensive line play, allowing Cyclone back Alexander Robinson to gain 100 yards, as a potential pitfall for this team, and don't get me wrong, they will have to play better, but this is a talented group that can collapse the pocket and dominate the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, on this day, those interception were on Arnaud, not frenzied pressure from Adrian Clayborn or Broderick Binns. Instead of methodically attacking our soft Cover 2 with underneath slant routes and the like, always open with our secondary playing nearly 10 yards back, Arnaud, adrenaline flowing like a geyser, attempted to go for the homerun on numerous occasions, not anticipating turnover machine Sash would be playing centerfield and plucking Arnaud's duds from the sky like a low punt. Sash picked off three of Arnaud's passes, none of them requiring him to overly stretch his body to reach, adding some spice to the nabs with some fancy moves on his juke-heavy returns. He also forced a fumble on Robinson, a crucial turnover, finishing off his successful day with four forced turnovers, an unprecedented feat for a single player. If Sash keeps this up, he will break most every statistical record at Iowa, potentially going down as ONE of our best safeties of all time. Don't laugh. Just hope I didn't jinx him. Also can't forget about Greenwood, who fielded two major interceptions himself where he potentially could have called for fair catch. It was a satisfyingly productive day for a player who generates a fairly decent amount of blogosphere mockery. Amari Spievey had a relatively quiet day, which means that he was doing his job, while Willie Lowe played admirably at the other corner spot. Prater back next week, folks, so it's valuable that we've developed some depth in his absence. The Iowa run defense will be tested by the number 2 rusher in the nation, Arizona's Nic Grigsby, while Ricky Stanzi is pitted up against the fastest secondary he's had to face all season! Go Hawks, Blackout Saturday!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Stanzi is one lucky Manzi...

Saturday's near-disaster performance by the 21st-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes against in-state "FCS" (1-AA dammit!) powerhouse Northern Iowa will either go down as a legendary "wake-up call" for the ages, unveiling the quintessential next-man in, blue collar attitude that so binds the fabric of the Hawks, or a flimsy, luck-fueled abberation, a la Syracuse in 2006, when a passionate goal-line stand led to a 6-7 season. Iowa's offense sputtered and slumped their way through an uninspiring 17 points in 4 quarters, including only 3 at halftime, in this insanely odd, unconventional 17-16 victory over the scrappy UNI Panthers. My Hawkeyes were thoroughly thumped and trounced, out-played and smacked around by UNI's bigger O-Line, left clawing at the brand new synthetic turf as Panther QB Pat Grace sharpened the surgical tools and methodically dissected the shaky Iowa secondary, already hurting with inexperience and injuries, fooling them with fakes and finding receivers so open you'd think the Hawkeyes were trying to catch up on riding lawnmowers. UNI was the better team on Saturday, yet they did not win. Coach Farley did an amazing job inciting his troops and instilling them with the attitude that they are the best team in the state, that they could come into a golden rush of over 70,000 Hawk fans and silence every single one of them. They did. Yet in a shockingly un-karmic middle finger to the values of hard work and perseverance, as well as simply better play, the football gods thankfully rained on UNI's supposedly impending parade (Farley said it's not a matter of "if" UNI will beat Iowa, but "when") and gave us the unnaturally good fortune of two blocked kicks in a row, in 7 seconds, to somehow pull this ball game out of our magic hats. I'm not sure what that kicker could have done to deserve such misfortune (besides live in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and kicking field goals with as much arch as a Shaquille O'Neal free throw), but whatever he did, thank you. Because the tears were already welling up in my eyes, the anguish ready to explode from my chest, as I frantically thought of ways I would cope with watching MY Iowa Hawkeyes, the hot preseason sleeper pick in the Big Ten (at least before Hampton's injury that is), at my first collegiate football game as a student at my dream school, lose the opening game of the season to a school not even classified as Division 1. That, my friends, is called misery. Thankfully, I didn't have to skip my post-game ritual of calling Dad and discussing the game, on account of sobbing, as the Hawkeyes miraculously found a way to block those two kicks, even after a heartwrenching rulebook nuance allowed UNI to kick again with one second remaining after the first block failed to cross the line of scrimmage, when just about every Hawkeye fan across the nation was ready to unload a shotgun shell into his/her battered brains. Farley can talk all he wants about "woulda, coulda, shoudas" (forgive the cheesy colloquialism), but at the end of the day, my favorite cliche remains true: a win is a win, and the scoreboard says the story.

The question now is, however, where do we go from here? Next week is the big (well, in Iowa I guess) rivalry week, ISU-Iowa, and while this game usually has zero bearing on how the rest of the season plays out, and making predictions is about as wise as sticking your hand in Pat Angerer's drink during dinner, I actually believe this contest will go a long way towards determining if UNI was the spurring catalyst to success that we needed, or a blinding light exposing our every weakness and plethora of gaping holes. Iowa State beat some Dakota directional high school program something on Thursday night, winning in semi-impressive fashion and moving the ball fairly well through the air with Austen Arnaud humming along at QB. That's what worries me, as our secondary was exposed as faulty on Saturday, and I still contend that had Phillip Bates not played last year, Arnaud would have led ISU to a victory at a sloppy Kinnick field. I'm not worried about their running game, because quite frankly, nobody runs on us, and their defense looked lackluster at best against competition that wasn't even close to UNI's quality, so if Ken O'Queef decides to hand Stanzi the reigns, as he should, instead of manically striving for a "balance" that isn't there, I think we can move the ball with relative ease and make this thing a surprise shootout. We all know Iowa has struggled mightily in the corn-y confines of Lames, Iowa this past decade, as something about a shoddy high school stadium and ugly women cheering for flabby farmboys and scrawny Jucos just gets our boys nervous. Yes, Iowa will play tight, and Iowa State will play like General Patton just gave the pre-game address, but even with an unproven running game, we have the better team, and that is undeniable. Before I make a final prediction, I'll go over some positives and negatives from Saturday's game, with thoughts centered specifically on any lineup changes, injuries, or demotions.

Stanzi, for being sacked and faced with pressure on so many occasions, had a more-than-solid game, passing for about 250 yard and a touchdown. Protection was inconsistent, and the running game didn't give him much of a security blanket, but Ricky had the play-action working to perfection in the 2nd half, and developed a beautiful, easy rapport with Tony Moeaki. He also had a few nice passes to Trey Stross, Allen Reisner, a conspicuously absent DJK, and Marvin McNutt. Stanzi will be fine, so Kirk/KOK, let's make it become known that this is his team, Stanzi-ball or not, because with his arm and bravado, he gives us our best chance to win every week (as well as our best chance to lose). Adam Robinson will be the back, no questions asked, against the Clones. He has burst and runs hard, with something to prove. Paki runs hard as well, but that's about it. His one shining chance in the sun was an epic fail, to say the least, as he showed none of the burst or vision required of a D1 back. I'm a huge Paki fan, and I love his energy, but there is just no way in hell he can be our running back with his physical defects and inability to pick the open holes and go. I'd love to see Brinson factor in there somehow, as he appears to be the most physically imposing of the three, with the best chance at being an everydown back, but he has missed a lot of practice, and if you haven't played before, Kirk won't cut you much slack in that department. A lot of that will depend on this week's practice. Wegher appears to be an emergency situational option at this point. Our O-Line was solid, but with injuries and inconsistent shuffling abound, they were not the dominant, monogamous unit that they were last year, and not even close to matching the preseason hype. In pass protection they appeared to miscommunicate/get beat numerous times, but in the run game they opened up plenty of holes that just weren't always hit. We all took Shonn Greene for granted, that's for sure! They will be aided by the return of potential All-Big Ten Kyle Calloway from a one game suspension, as well as the gradual return of two-year starter Julian Vandervelde. The other major concern is our defensive secondary, which is young and overly dependent on one player, future NFLer Amari Spievey, for production, especially until Shaun Prater's return from OWI suspension just in time for the Arizona game. Greg Castillo was attacked on numerous occasions by the savvy Grace, while William Lowe appears a bit undersized to be a lockdown option at that position. UNI picked us apart in the two minute offense, and we have to get more pressure on the QB, conservative schemes be damned. We can analyze defensive match-ups and offensive line play all week long, but everything goes out the window against ISU, so I'm predicting a rare, close 24-21 thriller, with Daniel Murray coming through again!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Joe Pug-Nation of Heat


Every so often, an artist slips quietly onto a dimly lit stage, silencing the restless audience and stunning the open-mouthed music world with a message so touching, it transcends words, and penetrates human feeling. It blankets the spectrum, appealing to the anxious introvert, the confident lover, the struggling mother, the euphoric child, the bare-bones soul present in all of us. Joe Pug is that artist. Though Pug possesses the somber, time-weary voice of a battered, wizened man, surviving a life of tumult and heartache bearing nothing but the guitar on his back and phlegm in his throat, this folksy maestro from Chicago, Illinois happens to be a mere 20 years old, the first amazing feat by this incredibly promising, captivating young artist. Pug, who studied playwrighting at North Carolina before moving to Chicago and performed his first show just TWO months ago, isn't necessarily oozing with musical innovation here, as the inevitable Bob Dylan comparisons will be rushing through the floodgates as soon as more critics get their grubby hands on his material (his rapid ascension to this past summer's Lollapalooza sums up that meteoric rise), but music hasn't been this lyrically refreshing or this painfully visceral in quite some time. It certainly hasn't been produced this quickly, with such explosive lyrics and contrite emotion, by someone so young.

On Pug's succint 7-song EP, Nation of Heat (only a prelude to his upcoming 2009 album), he solidifies himself as one of the most scintillating young artists in the country, bringing the soulful yearning of the harmonica to the forefront of his music and using the acoustic guitar as a gentle complement to the real stars of the show, Pug's lyrics. Pug preaches of human yearning, politcal unrest, the dualing quests for autonomy and happiness, and social change, occasionally mocking an apathetic American culture behind a harmonica drenched folk tune and a drawling, enthralling voice that sounds strained, reflective, and confident in the potent ambiguity present in each precious syllable. His swooping metaphors, social vendettas, and nearly naked musical accompaniment will evoke comparisons with everyone from Dylan himself to Josh Ritter and Pug's occasional tour-mate, Justin Townes Earle. His music, tragic while blatantly fiery and proud at the same time, contains a bevy of country influences to go along with the obvious aura of folk, and Pug's unabashed plunge into the lost pursuit of basic, acoustic artistry, highlighting the lyrics and the meaning behind them instead of the artificial flash and dash that are so popular in mainstream music.

Pug's lyrical and complex metaphors leave the listener with a lingering sense of discontentment, the ultimate compliment to an artist, and his minimalist approach to the music, using only his acoustic guitar and a harmonica to accompany the words, places focus on the poetry and emphasizes the stark lyrical beauty contained in every deceptively simple gem that he produces. One could even say that his bare-bones approach is a blatant disregard for cultural standards. The listener is transplanted into Pug's restless psyche, searching for that last grasp of peace, that slice of nostalgic love and fulfillment that defines the never-ending spiritual journey of man. The brilliance of this EP is that each song can stand on its own, as a condensed, singular story focused on some feeling, character, or theme. Rarely can an artist fit each piece together with such flowing, cooperative cadence, yet still take it apart and scatter each song as a separate jewel, standing strong on its own accord.

The EP begins with the impossibly epic "Hymn #101," a poetic masterpiece spoken like a winding, heart-wrenching narrative, as if Pug is stumbling through an introspective journey filled with soaring highs and steep lows, and the listener can't help but stare and become swallowed up in Pug's quasi-mournful, passionate quest for the human spirit. When Pug says that he "comes to test the timber of my heart," nobody is disputing its rigid strength or brilliant sincerity. Next up is "Call it What You Will," a gravelly country piece, and perhaps the most empathetic song on the EP. Using sharp imagery and methodical, somber storytelling techniques, Pug appeals to the despairing lover, a universal theme, filled with the bitter pessimism that "words are just words" and can do nothing to mend his broken heart. "Nobody's Man" is an explosive cry for leaving a mark, becoming something other than a nameless face at the "bottom of the pile." The listener can feel the life pulsating from Pug's veins, and the desire to be alive, more than just a drone on default settings, rages throughout his every being. "Hymn #35" is a hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic portrait of a man, a paradoxical man who doesn't need to know where he is going, but just the fact that he is traveling somewhere, however aimless, is enough to keep the inner light burning. Impeccable stretches of harmonica break up the snippets of contradictory verse, and the listener feels one with Pug on his foggy journey yet again in this isolated chapter of his story.

"I Do my Father's Drugs" is a caustic, subtly biting piece about the shackles and constraints of those who came before us, and a cry for defining one's own individuality instead of following in a long line of idiocy and blind succession, hacking one's own path out of society's mess of wilderness. The veiled shot at "Dubya" is sure to incite the wanna-be activist in all of us, but this song is about much more than politics and Bush, as Pug addresses everything from the commercialization of patriotism and the cheapening of American values to the empty causes of war. "Speak Plainly Diana" is a sublime piece about the blurred ambiguity of relationships, and learning to accept and understand life's cruel, ever-changing journey. The unique, thumping guitar and soulful harmonica underlie Pug's quiet struggle, all contributing to this being my favorite song on the whole she-bang. Finally, the culmination of this EP materializes in the title track, "Nation of Heat." A gritty, brutally honest portrait of American life, one can just imagine rolling down the plains of the heartland, the flashes of suffering faces and run-down buildings acting as a symbol of the people's desperation, of hope, of the struggle to survive and thrive another day in this dog-eat-dog land of competition and greed. It is a fitting end to this EP, leaving a hardened, lasting impression on an emotionally exhausted listener. The 7-tracks turn out to be just barely enough for us to handle. Please, check this out, and you will be blessed with a rare lyrical experience that only comes around every so often. This isn't a man who will convert to radio luxuries, but with this once-in-a-generation talent, catch Pug at your college town bar joint before his loyal following skyrockets past cult status. Pug is "mainstream" only in that nobody who hears his music can deny his rare talent. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not your average Joe.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Grabbin Balls and Stuff....

With my football student tickets prepared to rest firmly in my palm by July 6, the itch for Iowa Hawkeye football has evolved into a raging rash that needs to be scratched. Soon. The nation's sports pundits seem to think that Iowa has a decent chance at a Big Ten title (, but my faith in the poor Hawks has been battered over the years like any woman involved with Brandon Marshall. I wouldn't say I'm a Bill Mahr-level atheist, but I'm no Pope Benedict. I think Iowa's offensive success will depend on quarterback Ricky (Swinging Dick) Stanzi's ability to keep defenses from loading up to stop the run and to avoid turnovers, two things that he succeeded at towards the end of 2008 with flying colors. Besides having shagalicious locks and ridiculously Tom Brady-esque features, Stanzi won the QB battle with incumbent Jake Christensen last year, but instead of being a good Hawkeye and staying with the team as a backup like he should, Jake is taking his Dick Cheney-accurate arm and quicksand-like elusiveness to Eastern Illinois, where is sure to be a scrub. Stanzi is indeed the Manzi from now on, and there are no worries about job security, but if the wispy 6 foot 4 Ohio-bred stud goes down for extended time, the backups are both inexperienced (but talented) redshirt freshmen. Eeek. Not an ideal scenario, especially with Stanzi not necessarily possessing that dirt on your overalls, pork tenderloin mama's lard-soaked cooking body that all Iowa boys seem to grow up having. If Stanzi can stay healthy, and Jewel Hampton/Jeff Brinson can provide a running game semi-appoaching what Shonn Green gave us last year, than Stanzi should be free to play-action all day and keep defenses on their toes.

1) Photobucket
Ricky Stanzi (JR)-Stanzi came into his own down the stretch last year, orchestrating the big game winning drive to beat Penn State while leading Iowa to wins over Purdue, Minnesota, and South Carolina in the last three games. He showed an ability to stand tall in the pocket and make all the necessary throws, even those dreaded touch passes and sideline throws that seemed so difficult for Jake. He also showed some mobility and ability to throw on the run, all while fending off requests from blonde haired females to father their children. Unfortunately, Stanzi also cost Iowa a few games with his boneheaded interceptions and nonchalant carrying of the ball (Northwestern and Illinois come to mind), but again, he put a stop to that at the end of last season. The guy has never had to carry an offense, but he sure got me excited with the snippets of talent and beautiful throws he made last year. Hell, I thought he was the next coming of Chuck Long after the Florida International game! Quite frankly, Iowa hasn't had a QB this talented or poised since Drew Tate, and we all know how that went. Let's hope for less "Stanzi-balls" and more TDs.

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James Vandenberg (RS-FR)-A highschool standout from smalltown Keokuk, Iowa, this guy shattered all sorts of state passing records and seems to be the prototypical strong armed pocket passer, and Iowa's clear number 2 QB right now. Apparently wowing in practice, and pacifying the coaches' fears for the future so much that we didn't even land a scholarship QB from the '09 recruiting class. Should be a stud eventually.

3) Photobucket
John Wienke (RS-FR)-Originally committed to Michigan (argggghhh), he switched to the Hawkeyes when Rich Rodriguez became the head coach since his spread offense didn't fit with Wienke's drop-back abilities. Wienke is another small town kid, only from Illinois, and seems almost to be a carbon copy of Vandenberg. Wienke is the son of a coach, and possesses a strong arm and stout athletic body rarely seen on Hawkeye QBs. He also happens to be left-handed, which sucks. Hawk fans salivating for another mobile QB like Brad Banks will be disappointed for the next few years, however, as Wienke is another steady pocket passer who won't move around alot. Will be interesting to see how this QB battle plays out between him and Vandenberg, as one of these guys is likely to transfer if he doesn't get the starting spot...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Splotch of Hodge Podge

If that doesn't soak your denim cornfed britches even a little bit, than I would rather not check your vegetative pulse. Haters may dub that cheesy Hawkeye propaganda, but true-blue Iowans will feel more than a twinge of pride and a waterfall of tears just watching the first two minutes of that. Big props go to Scothawk there. As you can tell, Iowa football can't come soon enough of me. Long nights of aimless boredom inevitably lead to me watching a treasure chest full of nostalgic Hawkeye successes, and my daily bouts of "living the dream" usually just consist of me imagining myself planted among a sea of gold next fall. Though my loyal readers may be wavering in their interest, and the summertime has just begin, I think some Hawkeye football chatter is in definite order.

Besides Hawkeye football being on the cusp of possessing my brain, it is the NBA offseason for my Houston Rockets, and there are 5 main concerns that immediately spring to my mind for Daryl Morey and his brainiac crew to tackle.

1) Keep T-Mac on board (for now)- He likely won't be healthy and ready to play until January, so it's not like he'll screw up team chemistry for the 1st half of the season, when the Rockets will be defining their team and style of play. The ideal scenario would be for Houston to get off to a solid start to next year, developing a core and a foundation, so that McGrady's return would be a seamless one and the Rockets would gain that closing time scorer that they so desperately lack at this point. Next year is the final year of Tracy's massive bust of a contract, and with only half of a year in his creaky knees I don't see the benefit in trading him unless the other players absolutely abhor him. I realize my ideal scenario is highly unlikely, as anyone who watched a hobbled T-Mac limp around, hogging the ball and stalling any semblance of offensive movement or consistency, last season can attest that McGrady wasn't good for team chemistry. But saying that Houston is better without him is absurd. When healthy, he brings the explosive offensive force from the perimeter that could have pushed Houston over L.A. in the playoffs this year. I just don't see the big risk in giving him one last chance to prove himself in the last half of a contract year, when he'll likely be much more motivated than he was to start this season.

2) Keep Yao Ming- Yes, his foot injuries have been as routine as massive dumps after eating at a Chinese buffet, but the guy is Houston's rock and cornerstone. Houston is the only American home he has ever known, so besides being rash and illogical, getting rid of Yao because of his injury woes would also be unethical! I can't picture Mr. Ming getting around so easy in a place like New York. The value of a true, dominate big man cannot be stressed enough, and though there are many Rockets fans who argue that Houston is a better offensive team without Yao because they can push the ball and run the fastbreak, that is utter bullshit. Just watch the L.A. series when the shots weren't falling from three, and tell me that with a straight face. Just look at Dwight Howard and the Magic. It's such a rarity to have a large guy who you can just throw the ball into and expect a layup or free throws everytime, and Yao can be that guy when healthy. His size, his greatest asset, is also his biggest problem, however, as a man of his stature and weight (360 pounds) cannot support those quick feet of his. He only has one year left anyway, so I say Houston keeps the plan to build around the Great Wall unless another foot injury decimates next season. Then it's time to seriously look at getting rid of him, or find the Yao Ming voodoo doll sitting in Greg Popovich's office.

3) Keep Aaron Brooks!! At all costs- There have been minor rumblings of Houston looking at Steve Nash. I have one word for that-NO. Brooks is Houston's most exciting young player, and the future at the point guard position. He may be the lightest player in the league, but his scintallating range and 1st step are both rare in this league and traits that the Rockets need to embrace. Getting a washed up veteran like Nash would keep Houston competitive and competing for a spot in the Western finals, but it would heavily stunt their growth for the future and leave Houston in a similar position as Dallas is now with Kidd, stuck in an expensive rutt going nowhere. Who knows what effect it would have on Brooks, if he was still on the
team at all, and the chemistry of this team. I think they showed their heart and unity in the playoffs this year, pushing the much better Lakers to the brink and playing with reckless intensity every night. There are those who would argue that a stoic, pinpoint passer like Nash would be an instant energy boost for Houston and supercharge the other players, but either way, Houston needs Brooks!

4)Get another big man...ASAP- Houston's lack of any post depth was horrifically exposed in this year's playoffs, when 40something year old backup center Dikembe Mutombo went down with a career-ending knee injury and Yao was forced to be overworked, lacking any legitimately tall backup, and play the majority of the game. Not good for a guy his size. When Yao went down, it became like some surreal nightmare, with 6 foot 6 Chuck Hayes starting at center. I love Houston's guys at power forward (Luis Scola, Carl Landry, and Hayes), but a backup for Yao is a necessity, and I don't know how they will get one without trading some of their valuable assets. I would love a Jason Maxiell from Detroit, but I don't know how much of a center he is or what it would take to get him, as he appears to be an integral part of their future. I would even take an effective, skilled stiff like Brad Miller, though his price might be too hefty. I'll leave that up to Morey and Rick Adelman, but it's stunningly apparent that Yao needs a big man. With T-Mac not coming back 'til January, I don't see too many tradeable folks. I would consider Shane Battier an untradeable player because of his defense and value to team chemistry, as well as Aaron Brooks and Ming (obviously), maybe even Lowry because he's the only point guard backup, but other than that everyone should be looked at as a trade option for a good backup.

5) Ron Artest? Von Wafer?- Artest was only signed to a one-year deal, as Houston was hoping for a "all cards on the table" moment with the Big Three healthy and a title in the future, but with all the injuries and problems with defining chemistry and a consistent playing style, that plan obviously didn't work out. Artest was a leader all season, and a fantastic, hard-nosed defensive player who gave Houston a physical presence they had lacked before, but his offensive game and shooting were horribly inconsistent. In the playoffs, he would go from 25 points one game to 8 the next, usually with a 4-16 shooting percentage. Every player goes through cold spells and brickfests, but Artest's problem was that he didn't know when to quit shooting and just take it the basket. There were none of those infamous attitude problems or mental breakdowns he had been known for, but is it worth it to re-sign him again? I think it's a must to nab him again for another couple years, at least for next year because Houston will really lack offensive weapons until T-Mac comes back. I would beopen to not re-signing him if they could get a better offensive player, as Shane Battier can occupy the defender's role, but I haven't heard of any players yet. Stay tuned. As for Von Wafer, he may become expendable with McGrady back, but his offense off the bench was a surprising spark for the Rockets. His venomous athleticism and deadeye three point shooting were invaluable for stretches during the regular season when Houston was undermanned, and he provided a force off the bench, but he often found himself in verbal sparring matches with Adelman over playing time and his reckless, shoot-first pass-later playing style. He's a fringe player and I could easily see him leaving or getting traded, but he may have earned a spot with his instant offense. I see him being used as trade bait, but in all honesty I'd rather see him stay. I love watching him play. Stay tuned, guys...

My next blog posts will all be centered around my upcoming trip to Europe, stocked with pictures, comments, observations, and hopefully witty, entertaining stories. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Game 7


Ignoring the big red elephants in the room (keep T-Mac? Yao Ming's contract?) for the time being, it's time to all convince ourselves that Houston has a chance today, right? With the game's top closer, Kobe Bryant, in his legendary, celeb-stocked home arena, with two 7-footers in the post and a 6 ft. 10 guy waiting in the wings, undermanned and offensively challenged Houston shouldn't stand a chance against L.A. But this series has flashed a blazing middle finger to all convention and predictability, as Houston has scratched and clawed, playing stifling defense and hustling with a reckless energy juxtaposing heaviliy with L.A.'s rather lackadaiscal, arrogant sense of entitlement that they come out and play with. The Lakers are the most talented team in this league, at least in my opinion, and they've looked like it at times in this series, such as Game 5's 40 point blowout, but then there have been the double digit 1st quarter leads for Houston in games 3 and 6 that lead to blowouts on Houston's side. Starting a 6 ft. 6 offensive non-entity at center in Chuck Hayes and relying on great drive and kick passing and three point shooting to score points, Houston is playing with a fire that could go out at anytime. It's a testament to the work ethic and attitude of the Houston role players that they are even taking this thing to a Game 7; Aaron Brooks has emerged as one of the quickest, most explosive scoring points in the league, while Artest and Shane Battier are stellar perimeter defenders who will be asked to score plenty as well. Shane needs to hit his open threes, while Artest needs to play within the offense and take it the hoop instead of shooting one-foot fadeaways and jacking up a plethora of threes that slowly chip away the paint off the rim. Hayes and Scola MUST stay out of foul trouble because of lack of post depth and height in the paint. Hayes plays the best defense on Gasol because of his stout base and strength, while Scola was a major factor in Houston's Game 6 victory with his scoring and rebounding. He's the only guy on the team right now who can score down low. Carl Landry, Von Wafer, and Kyle Lowry will need to provide scoring sparks and some up-tempo energy off the pine as well, and the big thing will be getting off to a good start. Every time Houston has won since Yao Ming went down, they have exploded to crazy fast starts in the 1st quarter, developing a cushion firm enough to withstand LA's inevitable scoring runs. Since that has been the trend of the series, I would assume a fast start is essential, but we all know in Game 7 rulebooks are torn to shreds when nerves and adrenaline are running rampant. I sure wish Houston would have the chance to close out at home, but what more could you ask for than a Game 7 against the arrogant, Charmin-soft Lakers at the Staples Center? Houston should prolly get smashed today, but with the "heart of a champion" and the way we never know which Lakers team will show up or how much energy they will come out with, anything truly is possible. Just ask Kevin Garnett