SEC Dominance? Yeah, Right

Enough is enough … for me anyway. If I have to hear one more time about how LSU “dominated” slow-footed Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game, I may throw up. Or I may start throwing rocks at the next person who utters such a notion.

I was there. I was in New Orleans on that January night when LSU scored 31 unanswered points on its way to a 38-24 victory. Yes, scoring that many points in a row could lead one to believe that the game was a blowout – if you didn’t watch the damn game. If you did, and can be even the tiniest bit objective, it should be obvious that the outcome of that game hinged on three plays. Three plays out of 150 in the entire game. Three plays, each of which went against Ohio State.

The first two came back-to-back early in the second quarter when the game was tied at 10. The Buckeyes were in position to regain the lead and the game’s momentum by pushing the ball to the LSU 21. On third-and-3 from there, quarterback Todd Boeckman threw what could have been his best pass of the evening, a seemingly perfect floater to receiver Brian Robiskie.

Robiskie had gotten a glimmer of separation from LSU defender Chevis Jackson and appeared to cradle the football as he fell to the Superdome turf. Robiskie had made countless similar catches all season long but not this time. He lost control of the football and the Buckeyes missed the chance for a go-ahead touchdown.

On the next play, OSU lined up for what would have been a 38-yard field goal to retake the lead, but the attempt was blocked. Blame kicker Ryan Pretorius, blame his protection, blame whomever you want – it was the fourth blocked field goal for OSU on the season, something that must keep the special teams-minded Jim Tressel awake at night.

So, instead of the Buckeyes holding a 17-10 lead (or 13-10 at the very least) and kicking off, LSU dodged the bullet and went the other way for a 10-play, 66-yard touchdown drive. It was a crushing momentum swing of 10 to 14 points, and the Tigers went from being on the ropes to enjoying a 17-10 advantage with 7:25 left until halftime.

The third crucial play came early in the third quarter. LSU had increased its lead to 24-10 by the break but 14 points was far from an insurmountable advantage. And when the Buckeyes forced the Tigers to punt on their opening possession of the second half, anything was possible. But rather than sit back and wait for the momentum to change, Tressel rolled the dice and called for a punt block.

No one ever calls football a game of inches but in this particular case it was. OSU sophomore linebacker Austin Spitler blew through the LSU protection and was on punter Patrick Fisher in plenty of time to block the kick. But somehow the ball sailed an inch or two out of Spitler’s reach, his momentum carried him into Fisher and the subsequent roughing penalty wiped out a fourth-and-23 with an automatic first down for the Tigers. Four plays later, LSU scored another touchdown for a 31-10 lead and the Buckeyes never seriously threatened again.

First of all, let’s get something straight. To blame Robiskie, Pretorius or Spitler for the loss is ridiculous. It is, after all, a team game. Take those three players off the OSU roster and perhaps the Buckeyes aren’t even in New Orleans. But the game turned on the three crucial plays in which those players were involved and that is the unvarnished truth of the matter.

Look, the game the Buckeyes played the previous year against Florida? That was a blowout. Plain and simple. Nothing else to say. But last year’s game between OSU and LSU was nothing even resembling a blowout. Speed had nothing to do with it and the SEC’s supposed dominance over the Big Ten had nothing to do with it either.

Most SEC bubbas have forgotten that their big, bad conference was punked by the Big Ten two years ago when Penn State beat Tennessee and Wisconsin beat Arkansas. You can even cite last year’s Citrus Bowl when a depleted Michigan team rolled over Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and the defending national champion Gators.

In this decade, the SEC and Big Ten have played 16 times in the postseason and have split those games right down the middle. Someone is going to have to explain to me how an 8-8 record equals dominance.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

The longer this season Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones keeps his batting average above the .400 mark, the more reporters and sportscasters talk about whether he can keep up the pace for the entire season.

It’s not likely.

No one has hit .400 for an entire season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Jones was at .419 through Wednesday’s games and is as locked in as any major league hitter can be. But the Atlanta slugger has a lifetime batting average of .310, and while that is very good, it ain’t 400. Not even close. Jones’ best season was last year when he hit .337.

The most recent players to flirt with .400 were Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn and George Brett, Hall of Fame players who amassed a total of 18 league batting championships between them.

Carew was hitting .401 as late as July 10 during the 1977 but went 1 for 5 in a 6-5 loss to California and dipped below the .400 mark. He never got above it again before finishing at .388.

In 1997, Gwynn was at .402 on July 14 but fell to .398 after a 1-for-3 performance during a 16-2 loss to San Francisco. He finished at .372.

Finally, in 1980, Brett was still sitting at .400 as late as Sept. 19. But he went 4 for his next 23 and had to settle for a .390 finish.

The highest batting average over the course of a single season since Williams hit .406 in 1941 was the .394 turned in by Gwynn in 1994. But as close to .400 as he was at the finish line, the San Diego outfielder’s average was never above that mark after May 16 of that season.

If Jones is still hitting above .400 after the All-Star Break, then we can have the discussion. Remember, no one in the National League has hit better than .400 since Bill Terry hit .401 for the New York Giants in 1930.

BEST OFFENSIVE CATCHER EVER?

Upon the recent retirement of Mike Piazza, the question was raised: Was he the greatest offensive catcher in the history of Major League Baseball? Several so-called experts weighed in and decided that Roy Campanella, not Piazza, was the best offensive catcher ever.

Really? First of all, I wondered why Johnny Bench was not mentioned in the discussion. So I scoured the old Baseball Encyclopedia and here are the players’ career stats:

Johnny Bench 389 HR, 1,376 RBI, .269 BA, .342 OBP, .476 SLG

Roy Campanella 242 HR, 856 RBI, .276 BA, .360 OBP, .500 SLG

Mike Piazza 427 HR, 1,335 RBI, .308 BA, .377 OBP, .545 SLG

The career total numbers could be skewed somewhat because Campanella played only 9½ seasons with Brooklyn because of a career cut short on the front end by the color barrier and on the back end by the automobile accident that left him paralyzed. But even when you average out these players’ career numbers to a 162-game schedule, here is what you get:

Bench 29 HR, 103 RBI, .267 BA

Campanella 32 HR, 114 RBI, .276 BA

Piazza 36 HR, 113 RBI, .308 BA

Campanella has a slight edge in RBI, Piazza owns the margins in homers and batting average, and (much to my chagrin) Bench finishes third in all three major categories. Then when you consider that Piazza accomplished his averages over a longer period of time, it seems the case could be made for him being the best offensive catcher in history.

Not that there weren’t plenty of other terrific offensive catchers in major league history. Their 162-game career averages, including Mickey Cochrane (13 HR, 91 RBI, .320 average); Yogi Berra (27, 109, .285); Bill Dickey (18, 109, .313); and Carlton Fisk (24, 86, .269).

All very good numbers but not quite as good as Piazza.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Those celebrating birthdays today include actor Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”); former NFL defensive tackle Sam Adams; Jackass jackass Steve-O; actresses/entrepreneurs/party girls Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen; actor Tim Allen (“Home Improvement”); and John-Boy Walton himself, actor Richard Thomas.

One of football’s all-time greats was also born on this day. Harold “Red” Grange was born June 13, 1905, in the tiny town of Forksville, Pa., and grew up to be one of the football’s earliest stars. He was a three-time All-American at Illinois and picked up the nickname “The Galloping Ghost.” Grange went on to become one of the first stars in the fledgling National Football League, helping the Chicago Bears to league titles in 1932 and ’33. He died Jan. 28, 1991, in Florida at the age of 85.

SEVENTY-THREE YEARS AGO TODAY

If you are a fan of the movie “Cinderella Man” like me, you might want to know that today is the 73rd anniversary of the heavyweight boxing match when James J. Braddock upset champion Max Baer. Braddock was a 10-to-1 underdog to the previously unbeaten Baer and took a 15-round decision to win the title.

I think the movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger and Paul Giamatti, is vastly underrated. If you like a classic underdog story with excellent writing and crisp acting, rent it. You won’t be sorry. Check out the movie trailer at this link: Cinderella Man Trailer.

AND FINALLY

** You hear about walk-off home runs all the time, but how about a walk-off hit batsman? It happened yesterday in Chicago’s 3-2 win in 11 innings over Atlanta when Braves reliever Jeff Ridgway hit Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson with a pitch, forcing in the winning run.

** That game also produced another head-scratcher courtesy of Cubs manager Lou Piniella. Veteran outfielder Jim Edmonds hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning for Chicago to send the game into extra innings. But in the 11th, with the bases loaded and no one out, Piniella decided to play the percentages pinch hit for the left-handed hitting Edmonds. He sent right-handed hitter Johnson to the plate against Ridgway (a lefty) and the reliever plunked Johnson with his first pitch. Not much wonder why the Cubbies have the best record in baseball right now at 43-24.

** Most NFL fans assume that John Madden was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders when they lost Super Bowl II to the Green Bay Packers in January 1968. He wasn’t. The coach of the Raiders that season was John Rauch, who died Tuesday in Florida at the age of 80. Rauch was AFL coach of the year in 1967 and guided the Raiders to a 12-2 record the following year. But the constant meddling of Oakland owner Al Davis caused Rauch to resign and move on to the head coaching job with Buffalo. One of the first things he did when he got to the Bills was draft O.J. Simpson with the No. 1 pick of the 1969 draft. Rauch, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame because of a stellar playing career as a quarterback at Georgia, later coached in the Canadian Football League and had brief stints as an assistant with Atlanta and Philadelphia before leaving coaching in the mid-1970s and settling into semi-retirement in Florida.

** Today is Friday the 13th, the only such occurrence we will have during this calendar year. In case you do have some fear about days like these, you have something called paraskavedekatriaphobia. The next time you have to worry about Friday the 13th will be Feb. 13, 2009. That also happens to be the day the remake of the horror film “Friday the 13th” is scheduled to open.

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2 Comments

  1. First of all you are right regarding the LSU game. I would even say just the
    “punt-play” alone may have determined the game. That was easily a 14 point differential. But, sadly our defense -played one of their worst games.

    Concerning catchers, when you consider that catching isn’t only offense,
    but defense means so much in that position, Bench is clearly the winner.
    Who would you rather have on your team, Bench of Piazza?

  2. There is no doubt I would rather have Bench. He was the best all-around catcher in history. There is absolutely no argument there. I was trying to determine the best offensive catcher only.


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