Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pitarresi: Scarier times ahead for SU

Pretty scary for the Syracuse University football team Saturday night.


And a pretty scary Saturday coming up with undefeated South Florida – a team the Orange have not beaten and really haven’t come very close to in four tries – charging into the Carrier Dome to open the Big East season after knocking off Florida State.


SU had trouble enough with Maine. I originally felt they would, but after the Black Bears lost to Albany, I figured they didn’t have the personnel to stay with a team that had just played pretty competently against three consecutive Big 10 opponents.


Wrong. The Black Bears beat a tune on the Orange in the first half, and not just because of fake punts and on-side kicks. Their defensive line was excellent, and their players talented and competitive overall. SU did what it had to do in the second half, but Maine’s early success boldly underlined several Orange problems, the most achingly obvious being the inability to defend against the pass.


SU is now ranked 117th in pass defense out of 120 Division I teams at 310.5 yards per game. Greg Paulus’ continued development at quarterback – he’s ranked 35th in the nation, is completing 68 percent of his throws, has six touchdowns and four interceptions and a healthy 11.38 yards per completion – is a terrific story. However, Paulus throws for 346 yards, Northwestern’s Mike Kafka throws for 390; Paulus throws for 270, Maine’s Warren Smith throws for 305 and Mike Bruscko 35 more, for a team that passed for 96 yards against Albany and 156 against Northeastern.


That, as Dr. Red Duke used to say, is a recipe for disaster.


I’m not sure if the Orange are not athletic enough in the secondary to cover well, whether they can’t get enough pressure on passers – they’re averaging 2.50 sacks a game, 31st in the nation – a combination of those things, or even if they have the wrong defensive concept. Whatever, the pass defense has to improve considerably, or they are going to have to win their Big East games, like, 45-42, which is not likely.


How about these scores from Saturday:


Iowa 21, No. 5 Penn State 10: There is something about Iowa. Whatever their record, they always seem tough as nails. Joe Paterno knows. Kirk Ferentz has beaten him seven of eight tries, and this was in State College.


Oregon 42, No. 6 California 3: What? Lose, okay, but c’mon. Jahvid Best had been spectacular, but the Ducks loaded up on him – 55 yards in 16 carries – and the Bears apparently didn’t know what to do in response, or couldn’t do it.


South Florida 17, No. 18 Florida State 7: How many great high school football players are there in the state of Florida? Big East all-time yardage leader Matt Grothe goes down for the season, so red-shirt B.J. Daniels comes out an accounts for 341 yards in his first start. He’ll be at the Carrier Dome Saturday.


And that proves that if you bet on college football, you’re probably better off buying an Irish Sweepstakes ticket.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pitarresi: Mushnick makes sense


I’ve always enjoyed reading New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick, although I don’t see this stuff that often anymore.


He gets after things that most other writers ignore, and his point of view usually is pretty interesting. Combative, sometimes, especially when he feels he is righting a wrong.


Today, I was looking for something on-line, and I came across Mushnick’s column of Dec. 21, 2008, in which he chastises ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman and then NBC golf analyst for insensitive remarks regarding Italian-Americans. Yes, it was nine months ago, but it is still relevant.


Mushnick suggested that Italian-Americans are the last ethnic or religious group in America that can be negatively stereotyped without penalty to the stereoptyper. As examples, he submitted Berman’s description of Tampa Bay Buccaneer safety Sabatino Piscitelli’s return of a blocked punt, during which he used a thuggish, B-movie Brooklyn-Italian accent, and Miller’s genuinely dumb references to Rocco Mediate during the 2008 U.S. Open, when he said, among other things, the dark-skinned Mediate “looks like the guy who cleans Tiger’s pool” and more or less made fun of Mediate's first name.


As an Italian-American – or, as I like to say,  Sicilian-American - was I offended? The Berman thing I didn’t hear or see, so I guess not, but the guy ought to know better. Miller’s words? Definitely offensive. Like Mushnick, I don’t think either guy meant anything negative. They were just being thoughtless. But, also like Mushnick, I do believe had either used similar stereotypical language in relation to African-Americans, Blacks, Jews, Hispanics or Asians, they’d have been in big trouble.


Maybe, probably, everyone is too politically correct today, but guess what? If you aren’t going to take it, I’m not going to take it, either.


Another thing Mushnick is known for is corrective history. In that same column, he wrote about the 1958 Colts-Giants NFL championship game, regarded by many as “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and the event that popularized pro football on television, where it has been the greatest show on earth ever since.


As Mushnick wrote, once a notion is repeated often enough, fact has no chance.


The “fact” that the Colts-Giants game was responsible for a huge boom in television viewership for the NFL simply isn’t true, Mushnick wrote. He quoted Steve Sabol, head of NFL Films, as saying that viewership rose only slightly the season after the big game, and not at all in 1960. Sabol’s opinion is that the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, with Vince Lombardi, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, Jerry Kramer and the rest, were the driving force behind what would become the phenomenon of football dominance of the airwaves.


Greatest game ever played? Maybe, but there are other candidates. The reason pro football took off on television? Probably not, because the numbers say it wasn’t. I watched that game with my father, mother and brother, and remember it very well, because I was a big Giants fan. But I also remember watching Otto Graham and the Browns win in 1955, and the Giants win the next year, and the Lions whip the Browns in 1957.


In any case, it is a point of view I haven’t seen elsewhere, so that’s why I still read Mushnick now and then.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pitarresi: SU will miss Grothe


The Syracuse University football team is going to miss Matt Grothe, in a way.


The South Florida quarterback went out for the season Saturday, tearing an ACL in a 59-0 win over Charleston Southern. I’m sure – I know – that the Orange didn’t want see Grothe hurt, but his absence from the lineup when the Bulls visit the Carrier Dome Oct. 3 will significantly increase their chances of winning.


Grothe can run and he can throw, and the last three seasons he’s gone off on the SU defense like a Roman candle – nine touchdown passes, a bale of rushing yards and a couple of rushing touchdowns. He’s been almost uncontrollable. He is the Big East Conference’s all-time yardage leader, having passed Pat White, the former West Virginia dynamo.


SU hasn’t beaten South Florida – a team that most Orange fans just a few years ago knew nothing about other than it is located in the southern part of Florida - in four chances, and none of the games have been close. That should be different this time around, even if replacement B.J. Daniels is supposed to be pretty good. I’m not saying a win, necessarily. I’m saying a close game. Certainly, Saturday’s win over Northwestern proves the Orange are capable of playing well.


Of course, SU has to get past Maine next week. I thought that might be a problem until the Black Bears lost to Albany Saturday. Remember, though, strange things can happen. Back in 2004, Maine defeated Mississippi State 9-7. That was not a good Mississippi State team, but the Bulldogs did win two SEC games that year, over Florida and Kentucky.


Here’s the thing, if SU takes care of business against I-AA (or FCS!) Maine, the Orange will be 2-2 when South Florida comes to town. A win that day, and SU would be over .500 for the first time since 2006, when they won three in a two to go 3-2. Could happen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pitarresi: A landmark game for Paulus, SU

It wasn't so much the numbers.

Greg Paulus had very good numbers - 24 of 35 passing for 346 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

Syracuse needed all of them and a lot more, including Max Suter's last minute interception of the previously impeccable Mike Kafka and Ryan Lichtenstein's 41-yard field goal as time expired, to earn its victory over Northwestern at the Carrier Dome Saturday. It's a win that could mean a great deal in terms of confidence for the Orange, although this remains a team that has considerable shortcomings, including a very leaky pass defense.

But, Paulus? He proved Saturday he can play football in a big time way against a big time team. In his two previous outings, his first two football games in five years after his distinguished basketball career at Duke, he played adequately, with several bad decisions and one egregious one thrown in. This time, he played like a champ, and there was more to him than just those numbers.

Paulus was his most impressive in the last eight minutes of the game. He completed all five of his passes for 69 yards in a 70-yard drive that tied the game at 34-34 with 6:07 to play. Then, after a very unproductive set of plays that ended with SU pushed back to its own 6 yard line, he got a chance to win the game when Suter made his sensational pick and returned the ball 22 yards to the Northwestern 39. He hit Mike Willams for eight yards, Delone Carter ran six yards, and then hit Donte Davis for seven. Then he took a few steps to his left and fell down to position the ball in the middle of the field, and then Lichtenstein, just a freshman, hit the game-winning kick.

That was great leadership, great field generalship. The kid show something there, far beyond the final numbers, which were very good.

Again, it has to be said. Whatever the rest of the season looks like, whatever mistakes he might make, Paulus' almost unprecedented transformation from basketball point guard to starting football quarterback is not a stunt or a ticket-selling gimmick. The kid can play.

My favorite score from Saturday? Washington 16, Southern Cal 13.

I'm not really sure why I can't stand USC or Pete Carroll. Maybe it is the 51 percent graduation rate, one of the worst in college football. Maybe it is that they've just won too much. Maybe I just like Washington better. I'm just glad the Trojans lost.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pitarresi: Sick loss for the Bills

I am very, very sick right now.


Sick to death about the Buffalo Bills losing to the New England Patriots tonight.


Maybe I would have felt better if the Bills had just gotten blown out, instead of having blown a 24-13 lead in the last couple of minutes. No, not really. A one-sided loss would have been pretty depressing, a probable indicator of another long, lost season. I don’t know that a close loss is much more comforting, but at least they were in the ballgame against one of the NFL’s premier teams, piloted again by one of the great quarterbacks of all time.


Which, now that I think on it again, does make it worse. You’ve battled like crazy all game, you score a touchdown that appears to put things on ice, then you give up a long drive for a score, and then you fumble the kickoff. Oh, boy, do I feel badly for Leodis McKelvin, who had the ball stripped from his arms. Get down on the ground? Yeah, sure, but I think he was trying to. The Patriots held him up, that left him vulnerable, and there goes ball.


So now, you give it to Tom Brady 30 yards from victory with two minutes to play. There is no such thing as a lock, but that is as close as you can get. Game over. I’m not sure there ever has been a quarterback better at surgical last ditch drives than Brady. Remember Super Bowl XXXXII? The Giants didn’t beat Brady. He rolled right down the field on the Patriots’ last drive and put them ahead. Then David Tyree came up with the catch of the century, and the rest is history.


  I’m a native Western New Yorker and I love the Bills, but I’ve written here before that I try not to invest a tremendous amount of emotion in the team. It tends to wear me down. Right now, though, I see I was talking – or rather writing – through my hat. I did invest at least a little emotion in the Bills, and now I am, as I say, very, very sick.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pitarresi: SU lacks offensive explosion

I don’t know if even the most dedicated Syracuse University football fans expected the Orange to win at Penn State Saturday. Some might even have expected a one-sided loss against the No. 7 Nittany Lions.


It wasn’t a complete blowout at 28-7, but, gosh, 200 yards in offense? That’s 457 in two games. Greg Paulus had a modest game at quarterback (14 of 20 with two interceptions for 105 yards and a touchdown). Too modest, and this team lacks explosiveness. There is little for opponents to fear, even with Mike Williams at wide receiver, and little threat of a big play. The Orange had only a couple of 15 yards or more against the Lions. The defense hasn’t played too badly – better than I thought it would in terms of total points and total yards – but the offense isn’t doing its part. That has to change or it is going to be a long, long year.


Another thing:


Don’t ever wish for a story in Sports Illustrated on your favorite team. At least not until the season is over.


That jinx is real.


Last week, SI put Oklahama State on the cover and wrote about how the Cowboys, with Oklahoma bowing to Brigham Young, were now the No. 1 team in Oklahoma.


Or, they were. Houston, unranked but very good offensively, defeated the fifth-ranked Cowboys 45-35 Saturday. Not good.


 And another thing:


I was trying to watch Notre Dame-Michigan here at work – and got chastised for it, can you believe it? – and I’m pretty sure the Irish got tagged with an excessive celebration penalty after they went ahead with a few minutes to play. They had to kick off from the 15, which significantly changed field position and helped the Wolverines score the winning touchdowns.


I don’t like excessive celebrations, but I don’t like excessive celebration penalties, either. There is way too much judgment there.


The Irish might have lost anyway, but those 15 yards really helped pave the way.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pitarresi: NFL overtime rule stinks


The NFL’s overtime rule stinks.


The Pittsburgh Steeler’s 13-10 overtime victory over the Tennessee Titans Friday just underlined it again. The Steelers won the toss, and they won the game. That happens over and over and over again. The team that wins the toss wins the game 60 percent of the time. If you don’t think that’s a lot, I’m sorry, it is.


I was listening to Boomer Esiason do the game on the radio as I drove home from work, and he says he’s against changing the overtime rule.


“The guys on defense are getting paid, too,” he said. “Make a play. Stop them. Better yet, get a pick and run in and score a touchdown.”


Yeah, sure. The only way the team that wins the toss loses is by making a major mistake or by being the decidedly inferior team in the first place. If winning the toss wasn’t so important, and going on offense wasn’t so important, why is it that you’ve never heard of a team that elected to kick off in overtime? It has happened, but only a couple of times out of more than 150 in the last 10 seasons.


Some people don’t like the college rule, with both teams getting a renewable series of downs from the opposing 25. I do. It is a bit artificial, but you are playing football under conditions that approximate the game. And if you’ve seen it work in college, you know it is exciting. The NFL version is not exciting. Whoever wins the toss wins, again, 60 percent of the time. That’s baloney.


The NFL’s overtime rule stinks. Change it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pitarresi: Johnson hits it a long, long way

We – meaning the Central New York media - got a chance to talk to Dustin Johnson today by speakerphone.


The 2008 Turning Stone Resort Championship winner is having a great season, and he was fun to talk to.


Johnson won Turning Stone last year by birdying the 613-yard 18th hole, edging Robert Allenby by a stroke. One of the longest hitters on tour – he’s averaging 307 yards right now – Johnson nailed his drive 357 yards.


“That’s as far as I can hit it,” he said.


He followed that with a 2-iron that flew the green - so that was another 256 yards - then chipped back and sank a short putt for a closing 69.


“I think the wind was blowing pretty good,” he said, and he was indeed hitting West to East, with a tailwind. “If I had it to do over again, I think I’d hit a 3-iron instead of a 2.”


Think about that. The guy hit driver, 2-iron on a 613-yard hole and goes over the green!


You can read more about Johnson when our Turning Stone Resort Championship tab comes out Sept. 27.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Pitarresi: College football is a growing game

I’m a football guy, and I have been since, as far back as I can remember.


My father was a player and a coach, and I can remember being on the sidelines with him, staring up at those players who I thought were gods, when I was just four years old. It’s been close to six decades, and the game has been a constant for me as a ballboy, waterboy, player, coach, fan, and sportswriter ever since.


We also played baseball, basketball, pond hockey, volleyball, golf, wrestled and even boxed – did some of those things reasonably well and some very badly – and loved them all, but football always was the biggest deal.


So, it was gratifying to read the National Football Foundation’s report that 17 colleges plan to add football by 2013. Five of those schools will take the field for the first time this season, including two of Utica College’s opponents this season, Anna Maria College of Paxton, Mass. and Castleton State of Vermont. Among the schools that will start next season is Georgia State in Atlanta, which will be led by Bill Curry, the former Green Bay Packers all-pro center who was head coach at Georgia Tech, Kentucky and Alabama.


This is on top of a score of new teams in the last decade, including UC, and frequent Pioneer opponents Becker and Husson.


Why is this happening? Colleges are desperate to attract male students for one thing. And, as the NFF points out, the game also can energize campus life, increase media visibility, and build alumni support. There are a lot of colleges – say, Notre Dame, Boston College, Colgate, Williams, Amherst – that have made hay with their football programs in just those ways for a century or more. It can be good business in a many ways, and it can be a very positive experience for players, students, and the communities the colleges serve.


Archie Manning, chairman of the NFF, pointed out that there are more than 1 million high school football players in the United States, but that only 66,000 are playing at the college level. There obviously is room for growth.


The addition of 17 teams will bring the number of colleges playing the game to 742 – 120 in Division I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision), 126 in Division I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision), 149 in Division II, 238 in Division III, and 92 in the NAIA.