Saturday, October 30, 2010

What a start for Canes' rookie Skinner


What a great pick Jeff Skinner is turning out to be for the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes had a disastrous season in 2009-10, which netted them the seventh pick in the draft. Over at Capital Sports, you could hear us screaming to keep losing - and get the No. 1 pick and Taylor Hall.

Well, that didn't work out. The Canes played their way down the draft order with some inspired late-season play. They had the seventh pick in the draft, which you figured might get them a promising defenseman like Cam Fowler if they were lucky. And sure enough, Fowler was available at No. 7.

But Carolina played a hunch and took Skinner, who doesn't have huge size but is blessed with offensive skills. He scored two goals Friday in the 4-3 win over the New York Rangers, which is just remarkable stuff for an 18-year-old player. He is now tied for the team lead in points, with nine, and has three goals and four assists. He even had a brilliant shoot-out goal in Helsinki.

Now we all realize it's a long NHL season, and the thrill of the start gives way to the grind of an endless series of games, but it's clear Skinner has NHL-level talent. Franchises can't afford to blow high picks like No. 7, and you have to give Carolina credit for a gutsy choice that could pay off for a long time.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Opening drive of 3rd quarter proved to be pivotal for N.C. State


It's hard to be epic in the era of 24-hour sports. Every moment is magnified, every event hyped, and the colossal glare of the modern media just slides from one  stage to the next as the cycle looks for its next round of fodder.

But Thursday's event at Carter-Finley Stadium was big, perhaps watershed. N.C. State, so stricken with bad luck in Tom O'Brien's era, won a monumental game with Florida State that puts the Wolfpack on track for a berth in the ACC title game. This was only a step - the Pack could easily lose Nov. 6 at Clemson, and you only need to look at the University of South Carolina to see how a good team can flop after a huge win.

There were so many important plays Thursday that there are multiple ways to define State's win. But an important clue to the eventual outcome came at halftime, when O'Brien stopped with the ESPN reporter for a brief interview with the Pack down 21-7. Asked about the second half, O'Brien said State needed to get back to doing what it does best, which is spread the field.

On hearing that, you had to be startled - coaches rarely give away insight into game plans, especially in the heat of the contest. Was O'Brien really saying State would open it up more in the second half, or was he being coy and giving a false response?

The answer, it soon became obvious, was the latter. This game turned on the Wolfpack's opening drive of the second half, and State's approach was to bludgeon the Seminole defense with the hard running of freshman Mustafa Greene. Dean Haynes got the bulk of the carries in the first half, but he suffered an injury and so State turned to Greene.

"One of our running backs went down and I was able to get the opportunity in the second half," Greene said. "We knew we going to have to run the ball down their throat and we took advantage."

Greene had only two carries for nine yards in the first half but carried six times on opening second-half drive. Russell Wilson had three critical rushes, too. Twice on third-and-1s he had quarterback sneaks for 2 yards. And he got the touchdown on a 10-yard run on third-and-6.

Florida State responded with a turnover, and State tied the score at 21 with Wilson's 20-yard run.

While the ending was monumental enough, the Wolfpack put itself in position to win with that critical stretch in the third quarter. N.C. State had to run, to take pressure off Wilson, and did. Greene rushed for 67 yards in the second half, an impressive effort against the Noles, and a State team that rushed for only 67 yards in the first half finished with 189 on the ground.

Much of the media coverage of the game, understandably, focused on the dramatic final moments. But the game really changed at the start of the third quarter, as State found a way to punch through Florida State's outstanding defense. Great teams have great balance, and that made a difference for the Wolfpack Thursday.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Duke is No. 1 ... but how is UNC No. 8?

The fact that reputations play a critical role in preseason polls, especially in basketball, was obvious Thursday when the Associated press released its preseason men’s rankings.

That Duke is No. 1 is no surprise, although the Devils face a distinctly different challenge this time if they want to repeat as champs as they did in 1992. What is a surprise is that North Carolina is ranked No. 8 – a leap of faith in a program that was only 20-17 overall and 5-11 in ACC play in 2010.

Carolina should be toughened by last year’s embarrassing effort and the hard running Roy Williams is feeding the team this preseason. Freshman Harrison Barnes may be one of the ACC’s best players, and the rest of the young roster should grow. But this doesn’t project as a great defensive team, with real stoppers on the wings. Duke didn’t become a great team last year until  Brian Zoubek emerged late in the season and rivals struggled to score.

The second-best team in the ACC should be Virginia Tech, despite Seth Greenberg’s concerns about lack of experienced depth. The Hokies return five starters – almost unheard of in this era – and one of them is sweet scorer Malcolm Delaney. Yet Virginia Tech, despite a 25-9 record, landed at only No. 21 in the AP poll.

Only three ACC teams made the rankings, a surprising snub for a league that annually puts half a dozen into the Top 25. That won’t last, as you’ll see Florida State, Clemson and, yes, N.C. State push into the rankings this season. 

You can get to the rankings by clicking here.

First place on the line tonight - No, not in the ACC, in the UFL

If you don't care about watching N.C. State host Florida State in college football tonight, you have an opportunity to watch a battle for first place in professional football instead. No, really. Omaha is hosting Las Vegas - on HDNet - in Ultimate Football League action.

The Las Vegas Locomotives lead the UFL with a 4-1 record while the Omaha Nighthawks are in second with a 3-1 mark. Each of the five teams in the league play eight games and the season is over by Thanksgiving.

The league, which is in its second season, also consists of the Florida Tuskers, the Sacramento Mountain Lions and the those scary Hartford Colonials.

Big-name players in the league include Daunte Culpepper, Maurice Clarett, Jeff Garcia, Ahman Green, Nick Novak and Todd Sauerbrun. Coaches include Dennis Green, Jay Gruden and Jim Fassel.

The Florida Tuskers have the most players from the Atlantic Coast Conference with eight, including Novak, the former Maryland kicker who was the ACC's all-time leading scorer and who started his career with the Redskins. Safety Nate Salley, who played three seasons with the Carolina Panthers, plays with the Tuskers as does lineman Steve Justice of Wake Forest who was cut by the Panthers in preseason. Maurice Hicks, a runningback out of North Carolina A&T, also plays for the Tuskers, who stand at 2-3.

The Las Vegas Locomotives have seven players who played in the ACC including Bobby Rome, a fullback out of UNC, and Steve Hauschka, the former N.C. State kicker. The Hartford Colonials also have seven players from the ACC including defensive lineman Jonas Seawright from UNC, defensive lineman Vince Oghobaase from Duke and offensive lineman Orrin Thompson from Duke.

The Omaha Nighthawks have four players on their roster who played in the ACC including linebacker Patrick Thomas from N.C. State. Guard Junius Coston of NC A&T also plays for the Nighthawks, who play at Rosenblatt Stadium, which is sold out for tonight's game.

The Sacramento Mountain Lions have no players who played in the ACC.

Games are played on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays and are broadcast on either HDNet or Versus.

A team based in Virginia joins the league next season. The general manager of that team is Doug Williams, the Super Bowl XXII hero for the Washington Redskins. The team president is UVA grad Ed Reynolds, who was team MVP as a linebacker for the New England Patriots in 1989.

For more, read this article on NBCSports.com titled Can the UFL Succeed?

High school football season dwindling down; check out one of these games Friday

Here are 10 football games that are within driving distance in the Triangle area this Friday night. Friday night's weather is expected to be clear and about 50 degrees with no chance of rain. Most games are at 7:30 p.m. You might want to check with local officials as some games start at 7. In bold below are the predicted winners. My record of predicting games was 8-2 last week, making the season total now 80-20, which of course is 80 percent accuracy.

Athens Drive at Apex

East Chapel Hill at Hillside

Garner at East Wake

Green Hope at Holly Springs

Harrells Academy at Ravenscroft

Lee County at Panther Creek

Middle Creek at Fuquay-Varina

Northern Durham at Southern Durham

Orange at Cardinal Gibbons

WF-Rolesville at Millbrook, 7 p.m.

Broughton plays at Wakefield tonight at 7 p.m. while Enloe plays at Sanderson tonight at 7 p.m. Check the scores in our Sports Roundup on the left navigation bar.

What they're saying after the Carolina Hurricanes home opener - a 3-0 loss

Washington Capitals 3, Carolina Hurricanes 0

Carolina Hurricanes Eric Staal
"We thought we were going to break through with one and get this crowd going. But it was unfortunate that it didn't happen."

The Sports Network
"Washington took a 1-0 lead just after the midway point of the first period. A John Erskine left-point shot hit David Steckel at the edge of the crease, causing him to fall into (Cam) Ward. While on the ice, Steckel dished over to Hendricks for a successful backhander, despite protests of illegal contact."

Carolina Hurricanes Coach Paul Maurice
"I didn't feel (the officials') argument that Cam was expanding out into the player—in which case the player has the right to his own ice. For me, he didn't. Cam was focused on the shot and their player came into him. So I didn't agree with the call at all. I didn't agree with the interpretation. I think he was absolutely wrong."

Joe Beninati, Capitals Play-By-Play Announcer
"The Hurricanes were trying to put on a good show for their home crowd in their home opener, but the Capitals would not cooperate. The team discipline in the neutral zone had to be frustrating for the Canes. There wasn't must room and as a result very little skating flow over large pockets of play."

Corey Masisak of CSNwashington.com
"(Capitals' coach) Bruce Boudreau said he felt this was the team’s most complete effort of the season, and the statistics agree. The Capitals thwarted five Carolina power plays, won 58.6 percent of the faceoffs, blocked 16 shots and held the Hurricanes to only 10 attempts on goal in the final period despite a spirited comeback effort."

Luke DeCock, News & Observer sportswriter
"If there’s one area in which this franchise indisputably leads the NHL, it’s the ability to grill and chill before a game. What the Hurricanes may occasionally lack on the ice, their fans make up for on the asphalt."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What they're saying about the Carolina Hurricanes home opener - finally

Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, tonight at 7 p.m.

Carolina Hurricanes Coach Paul Maurice:
"I don't think we're going to fight trying to keep that emotion or that energy down tonight. I think tonight you want to try to use the home crowd. We are ready to get caught up a little bit in the home opener and put a bit of a show on, as long as you don't take it to extremes and don't try to do things with the puck that you shouldn't because you're at home. That's the real danger here against Washington, is if you try to get real fancy on them they'll burn you."

Washington Capitals Defenseman Mike Green:
"I don't know what it is. It's not quite a rivalry ,but our games are always interesting against those guys. They play hard, they've got some great players and I don't know what it is against that team, but it's always a nailbiter, that's for sure. There's not a second where you can take a break with these guys. They work their bags off and we know that and expect that from them."

Associated Press Sportswriter Joedy McCreary
"The young Carolina Hurricanes have proven those skeptics wrong who predicted they might be eliminated from the playoff chase before their home opener. They wound up emerging from a daunting season-opening seven-game road trip with a winning record while showing signs that they could be very much a factor in the Southeast Division."

Carolina Hurricanes Defenseman Jamie McBain
"One of the big things following a big road trip like that is camaraderie between the guys and just being able to gel with them and get to know them, espeically with the young group we have and getting to know the older guys. Obviously having the success on the ice, getting to come back with a winning record, that's huge after a tough trip like that."

Betus.com writer Dave Bond
"The Washington Capitals are sleeping giants ready to awaken but the Hurricanes have Cam Ward who is 7-1-1 with a 1.99 goals against average at home versus the Washington Capitals in his last nine games. The youngsters in Carolina should continue to surprise. If Washington wins it will be a close game guaranteed!"

Short-handed Heels still favored against a top Division 1-AA school

Even though the North Carolina Tar Heels are injury-plagued and short-handed due to suspensions, and even though they didn't look good in losing big to Miami last week, they are favored against a team that is ranked No. 3 in the country - in Division I-AA that is.

William & Mary is coming off a 17-16 victory over No. 2 ranked Delaware. If you don't think those guys can play at the Division I level, just look at the last six games the ACC has played against the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA is 3-3 against the ACC including William & Mary's 26-14 victory at Virginia last year. Remember, that Cavaliers team beat the Tar Heels.

Coming off that Miami loss, UNC probably just wants to get the bad taste out of their mouths.

"Our performance on Saturday is a direct relationship to our expectations about the way we play," UNC coach Butch Davis said today. "It has absolutely nothing to do with our opponent. We want to try to hold ourselves to a performance level and we didn't play well last week. Regardless of our opponent, we have to play better as a football team and continue to improve."

Davis said the coaches and players understand that the Tribe is a well-coached team that doesn't make mistakes. "Our kids recognize that we've got to play well," he said. "Our kids watch the film and they see a team that plays hard and is fundamentally sound."

William & Mary has won seven games in a row and are closing in on a CAA title and Division 1-AA playoff berth.

"I prefer to play most of our non-conference games early because once you get into conference play you’re focusing on that," Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock said. "But we really strive not to look down the line at what’s coming next and what’s coming after this. You just kind of look and say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve got to do this week so let’s put our attention toward it.' "

Laycock said he doesn't remember seeing a group of players as big and fast as Carolina's. "Man! They are good-sized guys that can run and run and run," he said. "It’s very impressive, especially at linebacker."

The Tribe has one of the nation's top defenses as they are ranked eighth in the FCS by allowing just 16 points per game. On offense, runningback Jonathan Grimes ranks first in the CAA with 147 all-purpose yards per game.

Quarterback Mike Paulus, who has seen action off and on this season, is a transfer from Carolina. "Mike's a very good kid, a very good quarterback and he's led them to some significant victories this season," Davis said. "It's bizarre, odd that someone who played for you is on the other team playing against you, I don't think i've ever faced that before."

N.C. State's offense is astonishing, but whew, FSU's defense is tough

N.C. State's offensive production this season is amazing when you consider that it started the season with real questions on the offensive line and huge doubts about its running back situation. 

It's a given that Russell Wilson is one of the ACC's best players, but even with Wilson, you can't help but be impressed by State's output so far. The Wolfpack leads the ACC in total offense at 448.9 yards per game, a number that would ranks second all-time in Pack history. The only team with better production - the Philip Rivers attack of 2003.

Here's a breakdown of N.C. State's best seasons for total offense per game:

1, 453.2 (2003) ... Philip Rivers at quarterback
2, 448.9 (2010) ... Russell Wilson at quarterback
3, 442.8 (1998) ... Torry Holt at receiver
4, 432.5 (1972) ... First year of Lou Holtz and split-back veer
5, 409.9 (1973) ... Second year under Holtz

All this is relevant because the Wolfpack plays its toughest defense of the year Thursday night when the Florida State Seminoles are in Carter-Finley Stadium. FSU leads the league in scoring defense at 16.1 per game, and there's a sense in Tallahassee that a program that once dominated the ACC is on the way back.

State's offense is all the more amazing when you look at what is a relatively mediocre running game. Freshman Mustafa Greene is good but he's not Herschel Walker. So Wilson has shouldered more of the load, sometimes even forcing passes to receivers. Wilson has a national reputation for not throwing interceptions but has thrown nine in the last three games. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, asked about that Wednesday, downplayed the impact of those interceptions.

"You can look at interceptions in different ways. Sometimes you can play too conservative, but sometimes you  be too aggressive and try to make plays and interceptions occur," he said. "Sometimes if you are confident in your abilities, that’s part of the game. But he always comes back an make plays

"You never want them but you can't tell a guy to 'make all these plays but don’t make a mistake.' That’s hard to do."

That's essentially what happened to Wilson against Virginia Tech. The game plan called for State to challenge the Hokies down the field, and Virginia Tech grabbed three interceptions - and a win. It was a bold approach, but State never would have run the ball against Tech and won.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Duke women picked to win ACC title, Carolina second

NEWS RELEASE - The Duke women’s basketball team has been predicted to finish atop of the 2010-11 ACC Women’s Basketball standings for the first time since 2005. The predictions, announced today, were made by a vote of the Blue Ribbon Panel, consisting of national and local media, as well as school representatives.

The Blue Devils, who earned 24 of a possible 33 first-place votes, are coming off a 2009-10 campaign in which they were regular season ACC co-champions and won their sixth league Tournament title. Duke posted an 8-4 record against ranked opponents last season and was listed in the Top 25 of the AP Poll for 206-straight weeks, which marks the longest current streak in the ACC and is third nationally.

Following Duke is North Carolina with six first-place votes, 2009-10 regular season ACC co-champion Florida State, which received two first-place votes, and Maryland. Georgia Tech was picked to finish fifth, followed by NC State in sixth, which received one first-place vote. Boston College, Miami, Wake Forest, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Clemson rounded out the selection order.

The Preseason All-ACC Team is highlighted by Duke guard Jasmine Thomas, who enters her senior season having started 60 consecutive contests. Thomas earned All-America honors as a junior and has been named a preseason candidate for the John R. Wooden Award and has been chosen for the State Farm Wade Trophy Watch List. She has connected on 115 three-pointers and has averaged 2.0 steals per game in her career. Last season, Thomas became just the eighth player in Duke history to register over 1,000 points, 300 rebounds, 300 assists, and 200 steals. She is one of two Blue Devils to notch 100 or more steals in a single season.

Joining Thomas on the Preseason All-ACC team are Boston College senior center Carolyn Swords, Florida State senior guard Courtney Ward, Miami junior guard Shenise Johnson, and North Carolina senior forward Jessica Breland.

UNC's Burney cleared to play Saturday

NEWS RELEASE - University of North Carolina senior cornerback Kendric Burney has been cleared to play and will make his 2010 debut Saturday against William & Mary.

A native of Jacksonville, N.C., Burney missed the previous seven games. He was suspended six games for violations of NCAA agent benefits and preferential treatment rules and was held out of the Miami game while the University worked with the NCAA to determine his eligibility status.

Reporter remembers key moments in Josh Hamilton's life

Raleigh native Josh Hamilton has gone from phenom to junkie to MVP of the American League Championship Series and probably of the American League. At least one reporter has followed Hamilton's entire career and has a unique perspective on the timeline of his life.

In today's News & Observer, Tim Stevens writes, "Writing about the career of Josh Hamilton has been joyous and sad. From baseball phenom derailed by substance abuse to major league star and playoff MVP, his life has been filled with moments of candor and deception."

To read more, please click here.

To check out a photo gallery, please click here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wilson has to be more precise for N.C. State to prevail Thursday

North Carolina State will need a brilliant game from Russell Wilson to win Thursday night, and the Wolfpack leader has not played brilliantly in the past three games.

Wilson loathes throwing interceptions, but he has been more aggressive this season, pitching to experienced receivers, and that has cost him at times. Virginia Tech snatched three balls as Wilson challenged the Hokies deep, and those turnovers led to the Wolfpack loss. Boston College interecepted Wilson twice, although State won, and East Carolina did it three times in a Pirates win.

"We're being aggressive in the passing game which is good for us," Wilson said Monday, according to WRAL.com. "We've had to take a few shots at the end of games and the end of the half. It's going to happen, sometimes you win some sometimes you lose some," Wilson said. "But I'm the type of guy that's going to keep working every week whether it's balance, getting the ball on time. Whatever it is I'm going to find it."

Wilson has to play brilliantly Thursday, and the hunch here is he will. State can not play conservatively against a Seminoles defense that leads the ACC in fewest points allowed at just 16.1 points per game. One interesting note about FSU this season - the Noles have only six picks in seven games.

It's a Thursday night ... so the Seminoles must be in North Carolina

If its Thursday and it's in October, Florida State must be coming to North Carolina for a football game.

This week, the Seminoles are at N.C. State Thursday night in the biggest game of Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack tenure. O'Brien's previous State teams have started 1-5, 2-6 and 3-5, so Carter-Finley hasn't seen an important game this deep into the season in a while.

Throw in the fact that its a nationally televised game, and you have high stakes for the Pack. For FSU, though, this is standard fare. The Seminoles have played a Thursday night game in the state of North Carolina the previous four seasons. And this marks the fourth straight time the FSU game at N.C. State has been on Thursday night.

"It is weird how it always works out," Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder told the Orlando Sentinel on Monday. "It always stinks for us, because Thursday games are always away. But it's something we've got to deal with … I guess whenever we go to North Carolina, it's a Thursday night."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is former Cowboy Aikman unbiased when announcing Redskins games?

For some unknown reason, Fox Sports has had former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman doing color commentary on Washington Redskins games this year... and Redskins fans aren't happy about it.

In Sunday's 17-14 victory over the Bears, Aikman several times lobbied for calls that would help Chicago. For instance, he kept saying that DeAngelo Hall should have been penalized for excessive celebration for going down to both knees after a 92-yard interception return for a TD (which ultimately was the game winner). See the accompanying photo.

A guy makes a one-handed catch and runs 92 yards with it for a score and he wants to talk about his going to his knees. With all the jerk celebrations that go on around the league, he says it would have been ok had he gone down on one knee but not two. "Going to two knees there, I think that should have been a flag," he said.

A couple of years ago, Boomer Esiason called out Aikman for being pro Cowboys. "You would have thought the Arizona Cardinals weren't even in the building," Esiason said. "The bias that was coming from him yesterday was stunning. I couldn't believe some of the things he was saying."

He particularly blasted him for propping up Dallas QB Tony Romo.

One Redskins fan from Greensboro had this to say online. "He is a forever a Cowboy, We are the Redskins. I would hate to think I had to commentate a Cowboys game. I would totally suck. Hate would prevail."

Others say the play-by-play guy Joe Buck is even more anti-Redskin than Aikman and that Daryl Johnston, another former Cowboy who covered a lot of Redskins games in past years, is the worst of the three. I suspect a lot of announcers, even if they aren't ex-Cowboys, don't like the Redskins because of controversial owner Dan Synder.

I actually like Aikman as a person but he does seem to be rooting for the other team sometimes when calling Redskins games. I understand that Buck, Aikman and Pam Oliver are considered the top announcing crew and the Redskins have been in some big games against good opponents. Other than that, I'm not really sure why Fox insists on having ex-Cowboys doing Redskins games. I doubt very seriously that Cowboys fans would put up with Joe Theismann doing their games every week.

Former Panther helps Panthers finally win a game

Quarterback David Carr finally has helped the Panthers - three years after playing with them. Carr came in to relieve San Francisco's Alex Smith, who was injured, and threw an interception late in the game with the score tied. The Carolina Panthers moved in close enough for John Kasay to kick a game-winning 37-yard field goal.

Carolina moves to 1-5 while San Francisco falls to 1-6.

Carr came in at the third quarter and threw a well underthrown pass on third down. He finished with a 58 quarterback rating going 5 of 13. When he was with the Panthers in 2007, he threw five interceptions and three touchdowns.

Richard Marshall intercepted the pass that set up the game-winning field goal by Kasay, who earlier hit a 53 yarder.

The Panthers, trailing 20-13 late in the game, tied the score when rookie David Gettis, who earlier dropped a pass in the end zone, made a diving TD reception with 1:53 left.

Panthers' QB Matt Moore finished 28 of 41 for 308 yards and two touchdowns and an interception.

Things won't be easy for the Panthers as they play only two teams with losing records the rest of the way, including the 3-4 St. Louis Rams next week.

While neither team is happy with its season, 49er fans seem to be particularly distressed as the 49ers were expected to be a contender for the playoffs.

As David Fucillo, a Bay Area contributor for SB Nation, wrote, "Well, just when I was wondering how the 49ers could find a new way to kick us in the junk, they do it. The 49ers dropped another nail-biter 23-20 to the Carolina Panthers thanks to an incredibly soft secondary and the loss of Alex Smith to a sprained shoulder. While I do think the 49ers probably win this game if Alex Smith does't get hurt, I also think the team could have still won the game if the defense, and the secondary in particular, showed a little bit of aggression on those last couple drives."

The Buffalo Bills, overtime losers to the Baltimore Ravens, are now the only winless team left in the NFL.