Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pass defense lets N.C. State down in tough loss at Maryland

Well, let’s be honest – there’s no way Maryland really gained that critical first down with 48 seconds left in its 38-31 win over N.C. State in College Park, Md.

But State was lucky the game even got to that. After all, the Wolfpack’s inability to defend the pass finally crushed it Saturday in a bitter loss at Byrd Stadium.

The Wolfpack came into this season with a young secondary, but a creative defense that featured different blitzes masked that much of the season. That wasn’t the case Saturday as Maryland receiver Torrey Smith destroyed State throughout the contest.

State deserved credit for getting so much out of this team. Tom O’Brien and his coaching staff coaxed maximum effort from this team. Russell Wilson is the ACC’s best quarterback, and the offensive line and receivers are two units that a first-rate. The defense has a superb set of linebackers, but is otherwise unremarkable.

The  secondary just wasn’t up to snuff Saturday, which perhaps was no surprise. State came into the game tied for last in the ACC in interceptions (eight) and ninth in touchdown passes allowed (16). The Pack was also in the bottom of the league in completion percentage allowed, total passing yards allowed … well, you get the drift.

Basically, State’s pass defense just hasn’t been great.

And it was terrible Saturday. Maryland quarterback Dan O’Brien made some great throws, especially on the one where he rolled left and threaded a touchdown past two defenders. His target – Smith, of course. Smith had 14 catches for 224 yards and four scores, about as amazing a performance as any receiver has had against the Wolfpack.

"They just ran 'take-offs,'" coach Tom O'Brien said in his postgame interview. "It was one on one. He ran by us."

State now drops to 8-4 overall and 5-3 and is still in line for a nice bowl. Atlanta’s Chick-Fil-A has the No. 2 pick among ACC teams, and the Champs Sports is No. 3. Not bad, but not the Orange – and after a tough day at Maryland, State’s dreams of a big season are over.

No wonder coach Tom O'Brien said of the mood in the locker room, "They're really crushed. I don't think they fully comprehend what a great year they've really had, when you look at eight wins, the history of our school and how many times it's been done."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Football is the king of television

In the weekly broadcast TV ratings, three of the top 10 shows, including the No. 1 show for the week, were National Football League related. In the weekly cable TV ratings, ESPN, on the strength of pro and college football, was the top-ranked network.

Glee, at No. 3, is the top-ranked broadcast show not related to sports. The top five cable networks for the week, in order, are ESPN, USA, Disney, TBS and FoxNews. The NFL Network, which is not available in all markets, was still the 24th highest rated network. FoxNews was the only news channel represented in the top 25. Hey, football is the news this time of year.

Clearing but cold for tonight's high school football games

Should be clearing but cold for tonight's high school football playoffs. I went 5-1 in predictions for last week's games and 12-1 the week before for a 17-2 mark which is close to 90 percent. In bold below are the predicted winners for tonight's games. Games tonight are at 7:30 p.m. My record of predicting games in the regular season was 97-23, which is an 81 percent accuracy.

Panther Creek at Seventy-First

East Bladen at Carrboro

Cedar Ridge at Northwood

Northern Guilford at Cardinal Gibbons

Lee County at Hillside

Southeast Raleigh at New Bern

Garner at Wake Forest-Rolesville

Check the scores in our Sports Roundup on the left navigation bar. Good luck to Cardinal Gibbons - I hope I'm wrong... again.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hamilton's talent finally realized with MVP award

"On Tuesday, Josh Hamilton realized the talent projected for him when he was made the first overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft: He was named the American League's MVP."

That's how sportswriter Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News starts his article which examines how the Raleigh native won the award and what might be next.

Check it out here.

Devils look to revitalize the football rivalry with Heels in their "bowl game"

North Carolina is fighting for a berth in the Music City Bowl while Duke is considering the finale at home against the Heels as their bowl game.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe said that the last game a team plays leaves "a little taste in your mouth that lasts." He said through recruiting and into Spring practice it stays fresh in your mind.

"It certainly kicks off the offseason the way you would like it to be kicked off," he said, especially if the last victory comes against chief rival North Carolina.

"I think it's a great tradition, one of the better traditions in college football," Cutcliffe said of the rivalry and the winning team getting the Victory Bell. "We just need to recreate a rivalry by playing well at Duke and winning a few of these ball games."

Carolina has won 19 of the last 20 meetings, losing 30-22 in 2003 in Chapel Hill. Duke hasn't beaten the Tar Heels at home since 1988.

UNC coach Butch Davis said that Cutcliffe has improved the Blue Devils team every year. "Statistically they're better, athletically they're better, and fundamentally and schematically they're a better football team," he said.

On top of the challenge from Duke, Davis said that losing two games in a row has been disappointing. "Emotionally and psychologically this will put our football team very much to the test of just bouncing back and playing to the very best of our ability this week," he said.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Zeller's career high holds off Asheville

North Carolina, behind Tyler Zeller who hit his first seven baskets and ended with a career-high 23 points, got out to a commanding 22 point-lead but saw UNC-Asheville pull within six late before wrapping up an 80-69 win at home.

The Tar Heels had their best free throw shooting game of the year (74 percent) and it was needed. Carolina hit eight of its last 10 free throws over the last three minutes to keep the Bulldogs at bay.

The 7-foot Zeller looked like a man among boys against UNC-Asheville as did John Henson, who led the team in rebounding and recorded his third double-double of the young season. Coach Williams said Henson, who many had figured to go pro early, needs to focus more on being a Dennis Rodman-type player than a Magic Johnson-type player. If so, maybe the sophomore will stay around at least through his junior year.

For a game story, please click here.

Wolfpack well aware of long ACC title drought

Tom O’Brien knows all about the fact that N.C. State hasn’t won the ACC football championship since 1979, the longest streak without a share of the title by any conference school.

Every other school (except newcomers Boston College and Miami) have won or shared the league title over that stretch, even Duke in 1989 and Wake Forest in 2006.

“Every year we have our alumni reunion. The guys from ‘79 team always remind us that it’s been that long,” O’Brien said Wednesday. “It’s a source of pride to them, but also an irritant.

“We’re trying to change all that.”

State can earn a berth in the ACC title game in Charlotte with a victory Saturday at Maryland. The Terps were picked for last in the Atlantic Division, and got fewer votes than anybody but Duke, in the media preseason voting, but the resurgent Terps are now 8-3.

“We have experience,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said Wednesday. “Last year we played 24 freshmen. This year we are still a young team. We have only 12 seniors. They are getting better every game and they are getting a little more confidence every game. We are playing pretty good right now.”

Maryland is not statistically impressive, ranking just 10th in the ACC in total offense and sixth in total defense. Friedgen attributes the improvement on defense to better speed and to the fact that the team has adjusted to coordinator Don Brown’s attacking style in his second season as coordinator. Brown had been the head coach at Massachusetts before coming to College Park.

But where the Terps have been tremendous is in turnovers. Maryland is second in the ACC in turnover margin at plus-11 – only Virginia Tech, at plus-15, ranks higher. N.C. State, by comparison, is plus-5 in turnovers.

So O’Brien is well aware that State can’t spend too much time reflecting on the past, or daydreaming about playing in Charlotte.

“The mission is not finished,” O’Brien said. “There’s a big, big game coming up on Saturday.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Long punt return earns State's Graham ACC Specialist of the Week award

T.J. Graham, the junior N.C. State wide receiver, has been honored as the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Specialist of the week.

Graham had a milestone afternoon for the Wolfpack. He gave State its first lead of the game with an 87-yard punt return a minute into the fourth quarter. That return tied for the third-longest punt return in school history.

Graham also returned five kickoffs for 100 yards, giving him a new school record for career kickoff-return yards with 2,073. He finished the game with 188 yards in total return yardage.

Hoyas' loss doesn't diminish positives for N.C. State

The only negative from N.C. State's run in Charleston was the injury to Tracy Smith, which could sideline the Wolfpack star for several weeks. Other than that, Wolfpack fans have to be encouraged by how its young team performed.

Many recent State teams have had excessively weak schedules, but that's not the case this year. The Wolfpack has already beaten ECU and George Mason and faced a stout Big East team in Georgetown. Ahead at games at Wisconsin (Dec. 1), Syracuse (Dec. 4) and home to Arizona (Dec. 19).

What State learned against the Hoyas will only help. Georgetown was picked for fourth in the 16-team Big East, and the Hoyas used their talent and muscle to flatten State in the second. But the young Wolfpack got to learn those lessons early, which will help with tougher games ahead. Running Pfeiffer out of Reynolds Coliseum can only teach you so much - at some point, you've got to play with the big kids.

There are some cupcakes ahead - Fairleigh Dickinson is next, with USC-Upstate, Youngstown State, Delaware State and Alabama A&M also ahead. But at least the Wolfpack is mixing in some strong opponents with weaker ones, a schedule that should prepare this team for ACC play.

You can often tell what coaches think of their teams by the schedule they set. If coaches expect to be done, they schedule weak rivals to pad their wins. If they think they have a chance for success, they ratchet up the schedule to prepare for league play and hike their RPI. This schedule looks like a smart one for State, which anticipated a chance to move up in the ACC and set a schedule to do that.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shockingly, UNC women's soccer loses in NCAAs while men win

Most experts and casual observers would expect the UNC women's team to have a better chance in the NCAA tournament than the men's team. But the men are still playing while the women lost at home to Notre Dame, 4-1, Saturday in Chapel Hill.

It was one of the most decisive, if not the most decisive defeat in UNC history. Carolina hadn't given up four goals in a game since 1980 and haven't lost by more than a goal since 1985.

"I thought they completely outfought us in the first half and they deserved to be in a dominant position going into the second half," UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. "I thought we tried to come back in the second half, but they counterattacked well and we just couldn't seem to get anything past their defense and their goalkeeper."

UNC, the two-time defending champion, saw its season end at 19-3-2.

The fourth-seeded men's team North Carolina battled Georgetown to a scoreless tie through 110 minutes today but won a 5-4 penalty shootout to advance to the third round of the NCAA tourney.

With the shootout tied at 2-2, UNC goalie Scott Goodwin stopped Seth C'deBaca's low shot to the right to put Carolina in control.

UNC's Jalil Anibaba and Enzo Martinez scored before Alex Walters popped the winning goal inside the left post.

Carolina advances to take on Michigan State in the third round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday at Fetzer Field.

Field Hockey: North Carolina's 2010 field hockey season ended today at Maryland's Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex in the NCAA Championship game. But the Tar Heels stretched the campaign out just about as long as possible, playing through the better part of two overtime periods before the top-ranked Terrapins scored the game winner to claim the program's seventh NCAA title on their home field.

Sophomore Megan Frazer's goal with 2:10 remaining in the second overtime gave Maryland a 3-2 win, reversing the score by which UNC claimed the 2009 title over the Terps.

"Congratulations to the University of Maryland on winning the national championship," said UNC coach Karen Shelton, whose team finished the season 22-3. "I think both teams fought extremely hard. It was two good teams going at it, as you would hope in a national championship."

Maybe Tar Heel hoopsters just aren't that good

After losing to Minnesota in the Puerto Rico Tipoff tournament, North Carolina perhaps could point to a flukish poor shooting night but what's the excuse for turning right around and losing 72-65 to Vanderbilt?

The Tar Heels expended a lot of energy coming from 14 points down in the first half to take a one-point lead midway through the second half. But with the score tied at 51, Vanderbilt reeled off eight straight points while the Heels went scoreless over more than three minutes.

Carolina never could catch up again. Once again UNC had shooting woes hitting just 40.7 percent from the field (including just three of 11 from the arc). Both teams were sloppy as the Heels committed 22 turnovers while the Commodores committed 21.

But Vanderbilt scored 12 more points than the Heels from the three-point line and three more points from the free throw line. That's 15 points UNC had to make up from the field and the Heels didn't shoot well enough to do that.

Tyler Zeller led Carolina with 20 points while Harrison Barnes scored 11 and Reggie Bullock got 10. Carolina, which falls to 2-2, hosts UNC-Asheville Tuesday night.

Two overlooked plays by Wilson were why N.C. State deserved to win


N.C. State deserved to win Saturday at North Carolina, and the reason was it made two critical plays that went largely overlooked in a game filled with emotional turns.

You can point to Owen Spencer’s crazy catch and T.J. Graham’s dramatic punt return as the two plays that sparked State to victory. Certainly, as Tony Haynes wisely pointed out on the Wolfpack Sports Network, those two plays energized a confident Wolfpack bench and deflated UNC.

But there were two vital plays before that which set up what happened in the end. And those plays were essentially where the game turned.

Carolina led 19-10 after a field goal with 4:38 left in the third quarter. State had done little in the game offensively and faced a third-and-1 at the Carolina 38-yard line. Russell Wilson faked a handoff and ran left, gaining four yards the Pack had to have.

An even bigger third-down conversion soon followed. UNC’s Dante Paige-Moss sacked Wilson on first down for an 8-yard loss. Wilson threw incomplete on second down, bringing up third and 18 from the UNC 42-yard line.

All Carolina needed was a stop to force a Wolfpack punt and maintain the momentum in the game. And if you’ve watched State football at all this year, you knew one of two plays was coming – Wilson would either put the ball up in the air and hope one of his receivers came down with it, or take off and run.

And take off and run he did. He rolled right, got pressured, cut left and ran 34 yards for a first down. Three Tar Heels had clean shots at him, and UNC compounded its mistakes with a late hit. That put State first-and-goal at the Carolina 8, and set up the crazy fourth-down play to Spencer.

There were so many big plays, and that touchdown to Spencer was so dramatic, that Wilson’s third-down was overlooked in the media. The Associated Press story on the game did not mention it, The News & Observer did not reference the play in its coverage at all, and must TV highlights overlooked it, although WTVD did have it in its coverage of the game.

But that play spun the momentum in this game, and put State position to win. There are, of course, two perspectives. One is that Wilson is a marvelous athlete who continues to make big plays, especially when the opponent is wearing light blue.

The other is that UNC’s defense, for all its talent, has to close out foes at critical times. Third and 18 in Chapel Hill? That just should not get converted against a defense of that caliber. All the groaning about Spencer’s catch and whether Wilson’s out of bounds throws should have been called intentional grounding overlook the harsh truth for UNC that it had a chance to impose its will on N.C. State – and did not.

Wilson’s plays did not win the game, but they put State in position to win – and as Jim Valvano pointed out, sometimes that’s all you need.