Thursday, August 29, 2013

Miscellaneous Minutiae, 8/29/13

Fouad Egbaria

At 2:30 Chicago time today, we'll be just 48 hours away from Michigan football. Luckily, you won't have to wait until Saturday to watch some college football. Here are some links to hold you over until then:

  • Games tonight, there are many. North Carolina heads to Columbia to face Michigan's last opponent, the No. 6 South Carolina Gamecocks (6:00 ET, ESPN). Poor Bryn Renner. The Tar Heels were a respectable 8-4 last season (no bowl game--it's easy to forget who has been disciplined by the even-handed, rational force of law that is the NCAA), but I don't imagine that they have a shot. This will probably be an ugly game, being the first one and all. As terrifying as Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of that defense are, scoring points could be a major problem for the Gamecocks. 
    • Also, the other USC travels to Hawaii (11:00 ET, CBS Sports Network) if you'd like to stay up really late on a school night. 
    • On the B1G front, Indiana and Minnesota get Indiana State and UNLV at home, respectively. Don't lose, eh?
  • Brian Kelly says Notre Dame will mix in some pistol this season on offense. Well, I guess it couldn't hurt to try it.
  • In case you missed it, college football fans will now get unlimited replays, which is nice. Basically, you'll now have more chances to convince yourself into thinking something was a bad call that probably wasn't, sending yourself into a tizzy of saying things like "WHAT" and "YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME." Refs everywhere shake their heads and walk away like so: 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Fouad Egbaria

No matter how old we get, and how hard we try to convince ourselves that sports are just a game, it just isn't so.

I've spent the last few years disassociating myself from things like recruiting coverage, at first because I found myself increasingly irked by the nature of it all; after all, I'm now older than the oldest Michigan football player on the roster. But, on a more practical level, grad school this past year has cut into my time by a significant amount, so that I almost didn't have a choice to pay attention or not.

With school and the job hunt occupying my mind (and the Chicago Blackhawks' run to another Stanley Cup), this was an oddly detached offseason for me. In years past, an injury to a player like Jake Ryan would have sent me into a frenzy of panic. This time around, not so much. Maybe the "he'll be ready by October" prognosis lessened the blow, but I think a growing acceptance of entropy has more to do with it.

Other than using the occasional one-sentence paragraph (I know, I know), the best thing Medill has taught me over the past year is this: Get to the point.

I haven't been very good at that over the years. For anyone that has read this blog, I have a tendency to, shall we say, expound a bit too much. I mean, this is just football, right? Should I really be writing 2,000 words or more about people I've never met?

I don't know anymore. Maybe that's okay, maybe it isn't. In any case, it's something I think about now that I didn't think about before. I don't know if it can be described as a creeping cynicism about the state of things--the issue of pay-for-play, the NCAA's nonsensical defense of a student-athlete model that is for the most part a serious oddity, the increasingly inescapable sleeper hold of money--but things aren't as they once were in many respects. This is not a bad thing; it is always good to question things. Say what you will about the journalism industry today, but if there is one trait we can all agree upon as the foundation of good journalism (or even good thinking, generally), it is the existential need to question anything and everything.

For the first time in a while, this offseason came and went without much consternation from me. The month of August, as always, is a time warp in and of itself, with days becoming weeks and weeks becoming years...but everything before that

I guess I'm not doing a very good job of getting to the point. Perhaps that is because I don't know what the point really is. I've sat around looking at the schedule, calculating satisfying scenarios in my head: 10-2 would be great, but what if both losses came to Michigan State and Ohio State? What about 9-3, with wins against the aforementioned foes and losses against, say, Notre Dame, Penn State and Northwestern (or Nebraska)? Would that be any better?

I don't know, but thinking about this sort of thing inevitably boomerangs back to one basic thought, one that I've expressed in some form here countless times: college football (and any sport, really), are about people and moments. Years from now, Michigan's 8-5 season will be but a vague memory, a historical footnote. But, Roy Roundtree's catch against Northwestern, Devin Gardner's pyrotechnics against Minnesota and Iowa, Denard Robinson's touchdown run at the Horseshoe...these are moments that will forever live on.

As a 24-year-old pseudo-adult, that's really all I find worth grabbing hold of in this game. The outcome is beyond our control, of course, but the curation of those outcomes is not.

Will Fitzgerald Toussaint bounce back to his 2011 form? I don't know, but I'll enjoy watching him try.

Will Devin Gardner live up to the offseason hype and build upon his 2012 run as the starter? I don't know, but I'll enjoy watching him try.

Will Brady Hoke keep Michigan undefeated at home as Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State roll into Ann Arbor this year? I don't know, but I'll enjoy watching him try, pointing left and right at anything and anyone willing to be pointed in the right direction.

A mere 88 hours remains until the Wolverines run out onto the field again, the 134th iteration of Michigan football. This one will be different than the last, and the next one will not be this one, for better or worse. We have one opportunity to experience this team in its current form. With the constant roster flux of incoming recruits and saddening departures, it's often difficult to separate the macro from the micro.

If you take a step back, the big picture becomes clear, imperfections and all. A clean slate beckons, calling for eyes and ears. Once the old season is over, the slate is cast among the rest, a dusty pile of slowly disintegrating memories.

It's always freshest at the beginning; when the banner is touched on Saturday, so begins a race against time.

Miscellaneous Minutiae, 8/27/13

Fouad Egbaria

I'll probably write something longer before Saturday hits, but, for now, here are a few links from around the world of college football:

  • Wisconsin's depth chart is out, and there appears to have been some shuffling in the secondary. The starter at QB hasn't been officially announced, but, as I've guessed most of the summer, Joel Stave will likely get the nod. Kyle French will hold onto placekicking duties for the Badgers despite what seemed like a legitimate challenge at one point from Jack Russell, who is now injured. Also of note: UW has a linebacker named Conor O'Neill. I miss Ann Arbor. 
  • NC State head coach Dave Doeren covers "Wagon Wheel." Given the level of angst over Darius Rucker's cover of the same song, I'd imagine many might not like this, but...hey. I have nothing snarky to say. I kind of like it. 
  • Myerberg gets to Nebraska at No. 11 in his offseason countdown. The song remains the same in Lincoln: the Huskers will score more points than most teams, but can they stop anyone? More importantly, can they stop the run? Depending on what UCLA (minus Johnathan Franklin) and Southern Miss (62nd in rushing offense last season) bring to the table, that run defense might not get truly tested until November 2 against Northwestern. 
  • Taylor Lewan clocks in at No. 2 in BTN's player ranking. Devin Gardner (No. 8) is the only other Wolverine on the list. You'd think Jeremy Gallon would make it on there, but, you knows, lists. 
  • Speaking of Gardner...he's not a captain, but I think things will be all right. I realize mentioning "Chad Henne wasn't captain" is in the same family as "but Mike Hart was a 3-star," but there you go. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Fourth and Long: The Fight For the Soul of College Football" Excerpt

Fouad Egbaria

A little late on this one, but the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from John U. Bacon's forthcoming book, "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football." Here is an excerpt from the excerpt, focusing on Penn State (the book also covers Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern):
On July 23, 2012, Penn State's football players gathered in their lounge to watch on television as NCAA president Mark Emmert walked to the podium for a news conference.
Eight months earlier, prosecutors had arrested Penn State's former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on 40 criminal counts, including the sexual assault of several boys over a 15-year period, one of them in the showers of Penn State's football building. Within three months of Sandusky's arrest, Penn State trustees released their president, a senior vice president and their Hall of Fame coach, Joe Paterno, who died soon afterward. The athletic director also ultimately lost his job. Then a report commissioned by the university found that those leaders knew enough of what Sandusky had done to report him to the authorities, but cared more about protecting the university's image than his victims.
Most Penn State players didn't know who Sandusky was until they saw his picture on TV. Only then did some recognize him as the "old guy who worked out here once in a while.
Elsewhere, Penn State blog Onward State has a reaction:
Bacon’s Fourth and Long goes on to explain how O’Brien, Mauti, Zordich, and some others worked to keep the team together. Mauti told a former Penn State strength coach who tried recruiting him to “go fuck himself.” The three of them, along with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, ran their own miniature call center, spending multiple days reaching out to re-recruit every player that was considering transferring.
I'm currently taking a class taught by Bacon, and I can safely say the book will be well worth a read. Another thing to look out for this Friday:

As a soon-to-be Northwestern graduate, I will also be looking forward to the section on the Wildcats. The book will be available September 3.

Countdown to Kickoff, Hoke talks Fitz and Myerberg previews Michigan

Fouad Egbaria

A few quick things on this second-to-last Tuesday before college football (!):

  • No embedding available, but here's today's Countdown to Kickoff, featuring linebacker James Ross III. It's the usual, but there is a nice hit there around the 1:00 mark. 
  • From Nick Baumgardner, Brady Hoke says Fitz has "looked like the Fitz of old."
  • I haven't gotten around to reading it just yet, but you know the season is nigh when you're a team with conference title hopes and Paul Myerberg gets to you in his offseason preview series (now at USA Today, in case you missed that development). Michigan checks in at No. 18
    • "In a nutshell: The Wolverines are very close to being the most complete team in the Legends Division, and likely the second-most complete team in the entire Big Ten. Nebraska has a positively superb offense but is long on question marks defensively. Michigan State's defense is superb, as always, but the offense remains a major issue after last season's distressing struggles. Meanwhile, UM has a good-to-strong offense – solid with the potential for more – and a young yet productive defense. Basically, Michigan's offense is not as good as Nebraska's, nor is its defense as good as Michigan State's – but combined, this is the most complete team in the division. The issue is that the Wolverines are extremely young."

Monday, August 19, 2013

One Vote For Wisconsin Basketball Not Being "Boring"

Kohl Center--Feb. 9, 2013 (Fouad Egbaria)

Continuing with this year's theme of "just posting whatever, whenever I want" rather than doing things like building a coherent BRAND, I wanted to drop this Andy Glockner article here before we get to t-minus one week to Michigan football.

As excited as I was for the 2012-13 basketball season--an excitement that rivaled its football counterpart for the first time ever--it's hard not to get excited about this season, too. Yes, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are gone, and I won't get to use the "Trey Burke is not human" and "adventures in THJ's shooting" tags here anymore. Nonetheless, the Wolverines will once again be in the thick of things in the Big Ten; and, as we saw in March, anything can happen in the Big Dance.

I'm also excited for Big Ten basketball in general, in a way that's somewhat more difficult to feel about Big Ten football because of the respective quality of the two leagues. Big Ten football has seen better days, but the basketball league is perhaps as strong as ever.

Anyway, after visiting Madison a couple of times this year (one time for, yes, that game in February) and another just to see the town, I've developed a little thing for that Ann Arbor-esque town situated between two lakes in southern Wisconsin. With that thing has come an increased following of Badger sports. The Glockner article above is worth a read if you're looking for a basketball fix before we plunge into the black hole that is football season.

Glockner attempts to make a case for some vague sort of aesthetic value to be found in UW's Gradgrindian efficiency, which, like he says, is "very much in the eye of the beholder." Whether or not you agree with him is irrelevant (no, UW basketball is not as fun to watch as, say, Louisville, Kentucky, and yes, Michigan at the height of its powers), but there are some interesting bits in there, including this, regarding when UW takes its shots:
Wisconsin is well known for making defenses defend late into the shot clock, but even that reputation isn’t entirely accurate. Two coaches at league rivals said more or less the same thing: The Badgers are the most bimodal team they face, with the vast majority of shots coming either in the first seven seconds of the shot clock — yes, the first — or the last seven. 
Popular opinion of the Badger offense claims that they simply swing it for 30 seconds before Jordan Taylor/some 6'8'' lumberjack/whoever throws up a trey, but that doesn't always seem to be the case. That will definitely be something to keep an eye on this season, as I've generally been of the aforementioned popular opinion.

Also, there's this:
Last season the Badgers struggled with very poor outside shooting from the frontcourt but still won 23 games and earned a 5-seed in the NCAAs (where they lost to Ole Miss in the Round of 64). Ryan believes last year was a bit of a fluke in terms of the shooting, with point guard Josh Gasser missing the season due to injury and forward Jared Berggren, who made over 37 percent of his threes in 2012, connecting on just 25 percent last season.
Remember when UW got thumped at Florida, 74-56, early in the season? And how the Badgers finished 13th in the nation in three-point attempts but 225th in three-point percentage? Not that you didn't know this already, but, like him or not (and for everyone not wearing Badger red, that would probably be "not"), Bo Ryan is a sorcerer. After that Florida game, I figured there was no way the Badgers would finish the way they did, with a first-round Big Ten Tournament bye and a 5-seed in the Big Dance. Of course, they did, and no one was all that surprised.

Ryan does get guard Josh Gasser back, Brust will likely continue to give fans of other Big Ten teams night terrors and Sam Dekker is a rising star. On the other hand, the Badgers have a lot of production to replace, this time in the frontcourt, with the graduation of Mike Brusewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans.

However, as 2012-13 showed once again, the Badgers are institutionally conditioned to weather these sorts of things, and I'd imagine they will be in or near the top third of the Big Ten standings this season.

Fortunately for Michigan, they will get a crack at the Badgers at home this season. That said, a trip to the Kohl Center is also on the docket, and the Wolverines will once again look to come away from that place with a win for the first time since 1999.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

White Sox-Tigers: Miscellaneous Thoughts and Why We Watch

Fouad Egbaria

I'll be heading down to the park today for the first time since April (a win that propelled the White Sox to an early 2-0 record). Now, in mid-August, the Sox sit at 46-72, 7.5 games behind the fourth place Twins and 23 behind the division-leading Tigers. 

The White Sox were last a .500 team on May 26, at 24-24, after a 5-3 win against the similarly hapless Marlins. 

The games mean nothing now, and the few remaining useful parts of this old car have been sold off for money and younger parts. Jake Peavy, Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Alex Rios all play for other teams, now. Additionally, it appears that we are likely watching Paul Konerko's penultimate month as a White Sox, a guy who has been around for so long that a White Sox squad without him is a strange concept. It seems unlikely, but Konerko has been placed on waivers, so we might not even get the month of September to say goodbye. 

Even so, I still find myself tuning in almost every night, or when I'm able to. The sweep of the Yankees last week, complete with the absurdity of a Mariano Rivera blown save, and the first two victories in this current series against Detroit, have served as a reminder that when stakes are non-existent, there's nothing left to do but have fun and, as they said in 2012, "appreciate the game."

I wouldn't be able to find myself saying this about any other sport--college football and basketball, the Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls--but this is allowed to still be fun. And it is. Of course, it hasn't always been that way in 2013; after all, the Sox are 26 games below .500. 

With that said, the aesthetics of sports--not the cold hard facts of winning and losing, but aesthetics--is composed of two elemental parts: people and moments. Many of the people are now gone, wearing the colors of other teams, but there have been moments (especially since the Sox lead the league in extra inning games with 20). 

So, I'll head to the 500 level this afternoon to watch Rick Porcello and John Danks take the mound. The Sox might lose, harmlessly spreading three or four hits over nine innings. But maybe, just maybe, there'll be some moments. In a time like this, with a playoff appearance long since rendered an extreme unlikelihood, that desire to be there when they happen, whether at the park or watching on TV, is more than enough reason to watch, to care. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Bears-Panthers, Preseason Opener: Hey, It's Football

Soldier Field in the summer, when the inevitable 9-7/10-6 season is just an abstract speck on the horizon (Fouad Egbaria)

Bears 17, Panthers 24

I used to care about preseason football very little. None of it matters, and players, coaches and fans are basically hoping and praying to make it through unscathed on the injury front. That would be an especially nice thing for the Bears, who have lost nickel corner Kelvin Hayden for the season, in addition to defensive lineman Turk McBride. 

But, here we are on August 9, and I'm sitting in front of the TV to watch the Bears take on Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers. Perhaps living in the city of Chicago for the last year has augmented that "Bears football is near" ticker in my brain. In any case, this is a good opportunity to keep the football part of the brain working again. So, let's do that. It's been a long time since Dec. 30, when the Bears last took the field against the Lions, and it's always exciting to see what the new guys look like out there on the field. 

Every player and team has something to play for every single season, but for the Bears and their endless list of 1-year contracts and other expiring deals (e.g. Jay Cutler), this one season could determine how the next three or four go in Chicago. Ideally, this wouldn't all be happening during the first year of a new head coach's tenure, but so it goes. 

Anyway, the picture above notwithstanding, the Bears and Panthers took the field in Carolina tonight for the first glorified practice session of the season.

Things started off as you might expect. After giving up a first down, the Bears defense forced a punt on the next set of downs. Naturally, Jay Cutler, operating out of the shotgun, zinged an interception on the first offensive play of the game, intended for Alshon Jeffery. Cutler had time, but there seemed to be some miscommunication there; Cutler expected Jeffery to continue working to the inside. Jeffery stopped, and the throw was thrown well to his right and into the numbers of Panther corner Josh Norman. It's a basic mistake, but better to get these mistakes out now.

With a short field and a defensive pass interference, Cam Newton found Brandon LaFell for a short three-yard touchdown pass, putting the Panthers up 7-0. On the bright side, rookie Khaseem Greene made a nice play on second and goal, cutting through the wash to bring down DeAngelo Williams for a loss of two. On the not so bright side: Henry Melton, currently boasting the Bears' franchise tag, left the game after the first play with a concussion.

On Cutler's second drive, he was able to find Jeffery and Matt Forte for gains of 13 and five yards, respectively, but was forced to throw it away on third and six.

Also as you might expect, the Bears found their first points of the preseason, while, you guessed it, the defense was on the field. Second round pick Jon Bostic snuck in front of a pass intended for our old friend Greg Olsen, returning it 51 yards for a touchdown. Again, preseason caveats, but it's nice to see a high draft pick making plays right away. This has been said over and over again since Brian Urlacher announced his retirement, but the Bears linebacking corps will be a bit more athletic this season with the additions of Bostic (and even D.J. Williams, James Anderson and fellow rookie Khaseem Greene).

Cutler's third drive began auspiciously, with passes of 13 yards on a dump-off to Michael Bush after a nice step up in the pocket and a cool quick slant to Joe Anderson for 11. Unfortunately, J'Marcus Webb got beat to the outside by Charles Johnson on the next play, forcing Cutler to take the sack. The drive fizzled out two plays later. That would be it for Cutler on the night, finishing 6/8 for 58 yards and one interception.

The Bears defense came through once again early in the second quarter. On first and 10 from the Carolina 46, Zack Bowman picked off former Brown/Cardinal Derek Anderson. It was an awful, back-footed throw well short of the intended receiver. However, Isaiah Frey dropped a pick a few plays prior, so you can never take these plays for granted.

The Bears managed just a field goal with the short field, but Josh McCown did link up with Joe Anderson for a gain of 16 in the process.

The two teams then traded fumbles, first by Carolina Kenjon Barner (forced by Sherrick McManis), then from Chicago's Armando Allen. Carolina and Chicago were preseasoning like champions tonight.

Late in the quarter, the Bears defense gave up an 11-play, 81-yard drive, resulting in a Barner touchdown from five yards out. The Bears went into the half down 14-10, with some notable efforts from the rookie linebackers and wide receiver Joe Anderson.

There's not much use discussing the second half, but some miscellaneous points:

  • More Yakety Sax in the second half: Matt Blanchard took a big sack in the first drive of the third quarter, and Jimmy Clausen and Barner failed to execute the hand-off, resulting in yet another fumble on the night (recovered by Chicago's Zach Minter). 
  • On the Bears' next drive, Blanchard tossed an interception, intended for Fendi Onobun, which Josh Norman returned 60 yards for six. Speaking of Onobun, he dropped a sure touchdown in the back corner of the end zone in the second quarter, and Jim Miller indicated that Onobun deserved some blame for this turnover as well. But, at this point who knows what's a miscommunication, what's a bad throw and what's just poor route running. 
  • Blanchard went 4/5 for 32 yards on his next drive, but took a drive-killing sack on third and four. 
  • Early in the fourth, Marquess Wilson turned on the afterburners, taking an intermediate reception and zooming down the left sideline for a 58-yard gain. 
So, there you have it. Pick sixes and fumbles on both sides, mixed in with concentrated flashes of young talent. In other words: welcome to preseason NFL football. Everyone will be talking about Cutler and the offense, but I will look forward to watching Greene and Bostic continue to progress throughout these next three games. 

The Bears hit Soldier Field next Thursday at 7 p.m. CDT for a meeting with the San Diego Chargers. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Spring and Summer Give Way

BTN stage at the July 27, 2013, BTN Big10K in Chicago. (Fouad Egbaria)

It's been a long spring and summer (well, it's all relative), and so I haven't been doing a whole lot here since the basketball season ended. That is regrettable to me, even if this isn't exactly the most widely read thing in existence, but so it goes. 

My year at Medill is almost up, and I'm in the midst of a hunt for a job in the world of journalism, perhaps a funny thing to mention on, you know, a blog of all things. While I never imagined that I would go into journalism when I first started this thing before my senior year at Michigan in the summer of 2010, I've come to realize that my semi-regular ramblings here have cemented the notion that I can, sometimes, write well about sports, and that I might want to do this for a living. Then again, so does everyone else. 

In any case, while one thing comes to an end, another will soon begin. If you don't know what that thing is, then you are probably in the wrong place. 

This offseason was a strange one. With the looming specter of endless school work and the need to secure a job, paired with the Chicago Bulls' short but exciting playoff run and the Blackhawks' run to yet another Stanley Cup, this offseason flew by with startling swiftness. I'm sitting here on August 2, 2013, and Michigan's next football game is no longer an abstract mile marker on the horizon; it is a certainty. On August 31, Michigan will take the field again. The result will matter. People will be keeping score. 

The offseason has been another installment in the "Era of Good Feelings." Other than ongoing recruiting pyrotechnics, very little has happened, minus the injury of Jake Ryan; even he is miraculously predicted to return at some point in October. With the passing of Big Ten Media Days, we've gotten our fill of meticulously curated hype. Darboh, Chesson, Clark; as always, expectations will weigh on some more than others. 

Michigan has holes to fill and questions to answer, just like every other squad in college football. Who will bring the pass rush? Can Michigan run the ball when it needs to (or at all)? What will Fitzgerald Toussaint bring coming off of a fairly brutal injury? How will Michigan's last line of defense perform without mistake-eraser Jordan Kovacs? Can Devin Gardner take the next step as the unquestioned starter (something which has been in the cards for so long it might have been mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh)?

These are all valid questions, and in considering them we've all surely come up with our individual record predictions. What mine happens to be doesn't really matter, but I think it's safe to say that as long as Michigan avoids disaster at certain positions, 2013 will prove more successful than 2012. 

Michigan gets Ohio State, Nebraska and Notre Dame at home but must travel to Michigan State, Penn State, Northwestern (which might not be as much of a "home" game as it has been) and Iowa, who is down but has given Michigan trouble at Kinnick the last two times. Michigan has yet to lose at home under Brady Hoke, and will need to continue that trend in 2013 if it hopes to make its first trip to Indianapolis. 

And so, we enter this season with a formless batch of wholesale uncertainty mixed with quiet confidence. We know Devin Gardner can play, but can the Wolverines run the ball? We know Michigan can win at home, but can they win on the road? We know Michigan has young talent in spots where it didn't exist in recent years, but will it grow up fast enough to make a difference in 2013? 

Nobody has these answers but the Future, which thus far has a perfect record with respect to not disseminating spoilers. On the flip side, we'll have to keep waiting. Then again, four more weeks is but a moment in time.