Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Weekend Recap

I wrote about half of what follows on the way back from the city of Queens...err the Queen City, Cincinnati, this morning following a wildly disappointing Saturday night performance from my beloved Pitt Panthers football squad. The remainder was pieced together in the waning minutes before the Sunday night return of the one and only Jack Bauer and on Monday afternoon.

It was a very erratic weekend in sports for us Pittsburghers. We reached a nice little peak Thursday, and it had the makings of a spectacular weekend if some things broke right Saturday, but that wasn't in the cards. What follows are the usual impressions from the weekend that was in Pittsburgh sports, with this particular weekend recap spanning a fourth day in Thursday.

-As I said, we hit a nice and easy high Thursday night with a pair of wins by our pro teams as the Steelers dispatched the Bengals in a pretty comfortable win. Though it wasn't the sexiest or most impressive win I've ever seen, they made few mistakes and the defense looks downright terrifying right now. The Pens were going at it with the Thrashers at the same time, and they put together a nice 3-2 win, with Sid the Kid piling up 3 points (1 goal 2 assists) and Dany Sabourin continued his solid, steady play of late. Friday night continued the upward trend, as the Pitt basketball team coasted past Akron in an 86-67 romp. Sure, the score was a little close for a game against a MAC team, but from the first-hand accounts I've received and the info on the stat sheets, it wasn't anywhere near 19 points type close. Sam Young had a solid 26 point effort and DeJuan Blair added the first of two weekend double-doubles. All day Saturday saw the traditional annual WPIAL Championship games at Heinz Field that bring with them a second tradition, the destroying of the already crappy Heinz Field surface. Saturday afternoon brought the Pittsburgh weekend to a crescendo with a very predictable walloping of IUP by the Pitt basketball team. From there, though, it was all downhill. The Penguins dropped a tough game against the frisky Vancouver Canucks, 3-1. And then of course, Saturday night saw the Cincinnati Bearcats take control of the Big East Championship race in a 28-21 win over our Pitt Panthers in one of the biggest games in recent school history. The final result did not give a good enough indication of the game, though, as Cincy was clearly the better team on that field, as the Panthers were outplayed, outcoached and outmaneuvered in a disappointing finish to the Pittsburgh games for the weekend.

-I predicted in this space last week that the Steelers would crush the Bengals, and while the score certainly wasn't close, the Steelers didn't put together quite the performance that I was expecting. Sure, the defense looked pretty darn good, but even though everyone is laying accolades all over them for winning that game, I personally wasn't satisfied. They clamped down on the Bengals' ability to move the ball, but one sack is pretty weak considering they were going against one of the worst offensive lines in football. But the D isn't what worries me.

-Nope, it's the O that is really vexing me these days. Big Ben was reasonably efficient, and Mewelde and Willie combined for nearly 100 yards, but this group is nowhere near in sync right now. Parker and Moore both broke off a couple of longer runs that boosted their numbers, but neither one was nearly effective enough running the ball, and while Gary Russell looks like an okay short-yardage back, he looks incapable of going any further then about 3-4 yards on a carry. Meanwhile, Ben still looked like he was having issues with getting the ball downfield and stretching the defense. The short yardage passing game was mildly effective though, and I think that we will see more of the underneath stuff to Mewelde Moore, as he was most dangerous in these types of plays.

-It was encouraging to see Santonio start making a difference out there. It was one of the best games he has had all season, and refreshses the hope I have in him becoming a legit offensive focal point. Of course, he did come down with a concussion from a ridiculously vicious hit by Chris Crocker to potentially further damage what has been something of a disappointing season from our young wideout.

-A few weeks ago in my live blog of the Steelers-Redskins game, I called for a new punter to replace Mitch Berger because of the two bad hamstrings that were causing him to shank far too many punts. This was not quite what I had in mind, though. I don't think I have ever seen a punter with such a bad performance at any level of football. I've seen numerous high school punters who can routinely boot it at least 35 or so yards, so I find it awfully difficult to accept that Paul Ermster is really the best that the Steelers can do. I mean that guy is indescribably bad. If he is still on the active roster for this Sunday's game in New England, I'm calling for an immediate coup d'etat against Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert (sorry, I added this reference after watching 24: Redemption and just couldn't help myself). I mean I love what those guys have done here and think they are both among the best around, but at some point, you've just got to cut your losses and move on.

-I like Marvin Lewis, he seems like a pretty nice guy, he has a solid (but overrated thanks to Ray Lewis' greatness) defensive mind, and could be one of the better defensive coordinators in football, but he is no head coach in this league. That ridiculous decision to kick a field goal when down 20-7 was one of the most boneheaded decisions you will ever see a coach make. After their first possession, it took them all game to get back to that point, and Lewis' decision meant that they were going to have to do it two more times after the field goal to get into the game. If the Bengals are going to get their organization going in the right direction again, they are going to have to get rid of Lewis and soon.

-Much has been made of the different style the offense has taken the past few games, and almost all of it has been criticism, and most of that has fallen on the broad shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger. I think that is mostly unfair. Certainly, he has not been the force he once was due to injury, but on Thursday night I thought he demonstrated a new kind of efficiency and effectiveness that we had not really seen previously in the mastery of the underneath stuff. Really, the big issue facing the Steelers now is not that Roethlisberger's shoulder is keeping them from playing their usual style of offense. The problem as I see it is that while the passing game can adapt, the running game cannot. The two most talented players at the running back position are both juking, jiving speedsters who work well in space and at making people miss 1 on 1, yet the Steelers continue to plunge both forward into the line hoping that the maulers on the O-Line can open a hole for them to scurry through. Moore and Parker are never going to be consistently effective runners right at opposing defenses, and yet this is the strategy that is continually employed.

Pitt Football
-Well, Saturday night was about as crappy as it gets for me. Sitting in the icy cold at that dump that the University of Cincinnati calls a stadium watching my team get outplayed all over the field while 30,000 idiot Cincinnatians (is that the right word? Ehh I don't really care enough to look it up) scream in excitement. And then, having to trudge back to your car through the frigid temperatures while people all around you taunt you for wearing Pitt clothing. It's a miracle I'm not writing this from the computers at an Ohio prison right now.

-Bill Stull is just totally and completely underwhelming, isn't he? He does just enough to make you say, "Yeah okay I guess he's better than Bostick" but he might be throw the worst deep ball that I have ever seen. It's not even consistently bad. By that I mean that sometimes he'll under throw Jonathan Baldwin by 10 yards, causing him to slow up and get hacked like Shaquille O'Neal as he tries to make a Larry Fitzgerald-esque catch, and then sometimes he'll throw it 20 yards over poor Baldwin's head, and sometimes he'll even throw it to a guy along the sidelines but throw it to far to the outside and it will be uncatchable out of bounds. You know the old addage applied to fast receivers about how you can't overthrow them? I think Bill Stull could find a way, and his arm isn't even that strong!

-It also remains a mystery to me as to why the Panthers don't utilize Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson more underneath and why they don't send Derek Kinder and Oderick Turner and whoever else more underneath as well. They throw WAAAAAAAAAAAY too many deep balls (for the obvious reason given directly above any number of deep balls is probably too many) and Byham was open on a number of plays 5-8 yards from the line of scrimmage in front of Stull and they just didn't want to look his way. It's completely insane. And Derek Kinder should not be trying to out-run one-legged people at this point he's lost so much speed from his ACL surgery, but he has very good hands and would make for an excellent option going across the middle, but he seldom does.

-I have become convinced this season that Dave Wannstedt can definitely be a success on the college level, but I remain very much unconvinced by Matt Cavanaugh. He had a very good game plan against Notre Dame when they had to throw Bostick out there and he has done a decent job in some other games as well, but he was a mess early in the season, and just when I thought maybe he was figuring it out, he goes and calls a game like he did last night. I mean, look at the way the Bearcats attacked Pitt's defense with the quick screen type stuff early on in the game because they knew Pitt's D-Line would rush upfield. In his four years here, has Cavanaugh ever come up with that kind of creative game plan? Hell no. He doesn't play to his strengths enough, and seldom seems to tailor a game plan according to a defense's weaknesses, and while those are common things to see at the NFL level, it's next to impossible to have a consistently dangerous offense when you operate that way in college football. I'm not calling for Cavanaugh's head (yet) as many folks have over the past few seasons, but I think the one thing standing between the Wanny era and consistent success is the lack of an imaginative offensive coordinator.

Pitt Basketball

-DeJuan Blair continued his declaration of war on all small schools, as his monster season continued to march onward with back to back dominating performances Friday and Saturday. A friend of mine who went to the IUP game said it was one of the most dominating 21 minutes he had ever seen a college player put together. As he put it "The IUP guys looked like they were going to (soil) themselves every time DeJuan crashed the boards." Only he didn't use the word soil. You figure it out.

-Sam Young's play at the small forward continues to be, as I put it last week, a work in progress. He is still downright lethal when he gets around the paint, and he is obliterating everything in sight defensively, but he is doing an awful lot of lurking out on the perimeter right now. His three point shot looks like it is slowly coming around, but give me the ticked-off, driving to the hoop, crashing the boards Sam Young any day of the week, even if it means we are basically playing three power forwards at the same time.

-Jermaine Dixon spent most of the weekend cooling off as he had just 9 points in 2 games after pouring in 20 in the first two. I think this puts his starting job very much in doubt for whenever Gil Brown gets back to 100%, but Dixon figures to have at least a few more games to prove himself before that happens.

-I am very much looking forward to that Pitt game on Friday, and no I am not referring to the Backyard Brawl (though of course I am looking forward to that one as well), but instead I'm talking about the Pitt-Texas Tech basketball game Friday night in the finale of the Legends Classic. The Red Raiders run a run and gun style of offense, and were involved in a ridiculous 167-115 win over some school called East Central that set back defense in the game of basketball by about 15 years.

-It was also just announced that the Panthers cracked the top 5, slipping past Duke and UCLA and into the number 4 spot in this week's poll. That gives the Big East the numbers 2,3,and 4 ranked teams in the country. Care to debate that ACC?

-It's a little hard to believe that the Pens are already at the quarter pole of their 2008/09 season isn't it? I think that's because it feels so much like this team is still trying to find a definite identity and still trying to round itself into shape with so many new pieces.

-Your NHL Goals against Average Leader right now? Mr. Dany Sabourin!
Of course by the time someone clicks on this, that could easily change, but there's no denying Sabo has been a very nice surprise this season, and yet again Ray Shero is justified in a highly questioned move by trusting in Sabo to be the backup this season.

-I know it's not Friday yet for links, but I just wanted to post another link to update you on the NHL All-Star Balloting race. At last check about a week ago, Sidney Crosby was in 4th place and Geno in 5th place for the forward spot behind those three Canadiens who are completely undeserving. Sid was trailing 3rd place by about 111,000 votes and Geno was trailing 3rd by about 140,000 votes. The latest results show some progress though. Sid is trailing 3rd by about 80,000 votes and Geno is trailing by 122,000. Still, though we can do better Pens fans. Sid and Geno both deserve this All-Star game start, and let's show these Montreal losers what real fans are. I'm not asking for much just a few votes a day here.

-It's looking like Ryan Whitney may be getting back into the lineup sooner than most people expected, as he has begun practicing with the Pens. It will be VERRRRRRRRY interesting to see what Ray Shero and company decide to do with the suddenly overcrowded blue line that we have known was coming for months. Originally the conventional wisdom was the Goligoski would be up here only until he didn't have to be anymore, but he has been very, very good, and I think it would be a huge surprise to see him sent down at this point in the season. Still, Shero has known this day was on the horizon for some time now, and I'm sure he has an idea crafted in his head. I expect Whitters to be brought along slowly though even when he does return to the ice, as a foot injury can be a tough one for a skater to overcome, especially a Pens defenseman, with all the shot blocking that they do. I expect he will need some nights off early in his return.

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