USF Freshmen Quarterbacks Duel At Spring Game

USF’s annual spring football game was all about first impressions this year, as the split squads of green and white faced off for the first action on the gridiron of 2009. On one hand, the trio of new coaches – offensive coordinator Mike Canales, defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, and co-defensive coordinator David Blackwell – had a lot to prove, as well as the Bulls’ incoming class of talented recruits.

On Saturday, neither group disappointed the fans at Raymond James Stadium.

“That was as exciting a spring game as maybe you will ever see,” USF head coach Jim Leavitt said after the game.

Although true, Leavitt’s words were an understatement in describing the actual events that unfolded during the four quarters on the field. Led by red-shirt freshman quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Evan Landi, the green and white teams battled each other literally until the end. On the final play, with no time remaining on the clock and after Landi connected with Colby Erskin to bring the white squad within one, Landi’s two-point conversion pass attempt sailed just inches over the head of receiver Theo Wilson, allowing the green team to barely escape with a 21-20 win.

As both young arms put on a show, the game did not appear to be about green versus white as much as it was a duel for the backup quarterback role to returning senior Matt Grothe. Come August, Leavitt might have a tough decision to make, as both Daniels and Landi played phenomenally. The pair of quarterbacks scored more points in the first half than the past two spring games combined. Individually, Daniels completed 11 of 19 passes, good for 181 yards and two touchdowns, despite throwing one interception. Landi went 20 for 30 with 189 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.

Daniels put the green team on top in the first quarter, ironically not with his arm, but with his legs instead. He scampered in the end zone for a one-yard run, a score set up by his very own 55-yard completion to receiver Dontavia Bogan on the previous play. Before the green team could end the first quarter with a seven-point lead, Evan Landi tied the score with what was a mirror image of Daniels’ pass earlier in the period: a 55-yard bomb right into the hands of fellow red-shirt freshman Daniel Bryant.

The first quarter proved to be an indication of how the remainder of the game would play out: back and forth scoring that rendered the game a clinic on how to score points.

“This was my third spring game and this definitely was the best one yet,” said USF student Jeremy McLeod. “It was high scoring, exciting, back and forth touchdowns, pretty much what everyone wants to see when they come to a football game.”

After Daniels put the green squad up in the second quarter with a 20-yard touchdown pass, his next throw on the next possession landed into the hands of the white team’s cornerback back Carlton Mitchell, who took it to the house 95 yards to tie the game at 14. Even with an aerial assault of offense from the two freshman quarterbacks, the defense of both the green and white teams stepped up when it mattered most. Senior linebacker Chris Robinson picked off Landi’s pass, which led to the go-ahead winning touchdown capped off by a 46-yard pass from Daniels to Bogan. Robinson’s pick was the last of four total turnovers forced by the defense on the night.

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USF Women’s Basketball Continues Record Season

With the disapproval and utter disbelief of being snubbed out of the Women’s NCAA Tournament, the USF Lady Bulls are proving to the NCAA Selection Committee that they belong. With a 22-10 overall regular season record, the Bulls were hoping to clinch a berth into the Big Dance, but instead were forced to settle for a bid to the NIT.

Regardless of the tournament, USF is taking the field by storm during their sixth consecutive post-season appearance. After receiving a first-round bye, the Lady Bulls defeated Florida Gulf Coast on March 21, although it was no easy task. After Bulls standout Jasmine Wynne put USF up with 15 seconds left to play, Florida Gulf Coast tied the game with two seconds remaining and sent the game into overtime. But in the extra period, USF did what it has done all year long: play hard when it counts. Wynne took control of the added period from its start, scoring the first four points and going 10-for-16 on her way to leading the Bulls to an 88-81 victory.

“I’m really glad to see them doing well,” USF Tampa student Lashawna Jackson said. “I think they deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament, but it didn’t work out. But now they’re showing how good they are by taking one game at a time and knowing what they need to do to keep the season alive.”

USF is taking one game at a time, but it’s also important to look at the whole season to realize just what they’ve accomplished. After all, the second-round win against Florida Gulf Coast was just another accolade in what has been a record-setting season.

According to the official athletics Web site gousfbulls.com, the Lady Bulls have scored 2,649 points during the 2008-09 season. They have also blocked 187 shots this season – second on the schools single season list. They are three blocks shy of equaling, and four from breaking, the current record of 190 blocks that was set during the 2006-07 season. USF set a new school mark for assists, as well, in a single season when it dished out 23 against Cincinnati in USF’s regular season home finale on Feb. 28 in Tampa. In addition, USF currently has 360 steals to its credit, which is the third most recorded in a single season in school history. The Bulls are one theft shy of tying – and two from surpassing – the 2004-05 team that is in second with 361. The single season school record for steals is 365 during the 2001-02 campaign.

Including the third-round 74-57 win against Ole Miss on March 26, the Lady Bulls not only propelled themselves into the NIT’s Elite Eight, but they also clinched their 24th win of the season – the most by any USF basketball team, men’s or women’s, in school history.

USF will attempt to extend their hot streak, and their season, in the NIT quarterfinals against either Wisconsin or St. Bonaventure on March 28.

The Return of Tiger Woods

The outer appearance of the Ritz Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain is vast, beautiful and uninhibited. Last week at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship, it served as an appropriate site for the return of perhaps the world’s greatest athlete, whose swing complements the course’s outdoor landscape.

On his first tee shot from the fairway’s first hole, Tiger Woods brought his club back, swung hard through the ball at the point of contact and watched it sail into the afternoon sky. Just eight months ago, that same motion left Woods bending over at the waist writhing in agony; his facial expressions reduced to a degree of horror rather than awe that usually followed just another clean drive off of the face of his three-wood.

But on this swing, unlike during his epic victory last June at Torrey Pines, Woods stood tall at the finish. He proceeded to process down the green for his second shot with a calm stride and an inelastic focus as if he had not missed the game of golf as desperately as it had missed him. He then took out his iron, sized up his next shot, and did it again.

This was the iconic image that has been missing from the sports world since last summer while Woods has been recuperating from surgery that repaired the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in his left leg. With each and every swing, nothing less than the weight of the game and the future of a long-ago-established brilliant career rests on Woods’ reconstructed knee.

And yet, with the steroid epidemic prevalent in Major League Baseball, the financial troubles of the NBA and the economic recession having a profound impact on professional sports, sports fans seem to be crying out for his presence. The world is already akin to the fact that Woods is a phenomenal athlete with seemingly supernatural ability, but his return to the green in an uncharacteristic and afflicted industry blurs the distinction between golfer and savior.

There is no better time for Woods’ return then now. Golf’s reliance on corporate sponsorship has become more risky considering a decrease in television ratings and spectators’ shallow pockets. Even after football season and prior to college basketball’s post-season – golf’s peak season – the game has had trouble drawing fans. Until now. Tiger’s appearance back on the PGA Tour and on the course in general – even at practice – is sure to bring fans back out to witness the sport’s biggest attraction. Furthermore, the Tour’s network television contract is set to expire in 2012, but worry has suddenly vanished with Tiger’s presence and they are undoubtedly vying for renewal. Woods is also the selling point behind a bid to include golf in the 2016 Olympics. And yet, all of this comes at a time when Woods is on the verge of tying Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major victories.

The time is now. Here he is. A one-act, walking stimulus package that is just what sports needs right now. Last June, Tiger proved what he could do even without one good leg. But with the arrival of spring, and the return of a familiar face, this year’s golf season begins anew. Now let’s see what he can do with two good legs. As a testament to the man’s talent as much as his tenacity, the chances are his performance won’t be much different than what we’ve seen before the injury. And that is just what sets him apart as a larger-than-life athlete in his prime. Even with eight months off, Tiger is still Tiger. And he’s as good as new.

Changes on the Horizon for USF Football

The last two USF football seasons have been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride, both in an emotional and logistical sense. The Bulls and their fans have experienced utter jubilation because of wins over Auburn and West Virginia in 2007 that put the program in the national spotlight for the first time in its short history. They have also have endured the other end, losing five out of their last seven games after posting a flawless 5-0 record in 2008 – a season that was supposed to top the previous year’s early success that characterized not only progress, but promise for the future.

Although the 2009 season is still months away, it already possesses the feel that it might not be so different from the past.  Even now, it has already run the full range of emotions that Bulls fans know so well.

On one hand, National Signing Day two weeks ago brought in the most highly recruited and talented group of high-school prospects set to suit up and take the field donning green and gold. After a pair of disappointing years, USF’s coaching staff, its fans and the players themselves feel optimistic that the added depth will help overcome the team’s recent shortcomings.

The new class of recruits should eliminate most doubt regarding the Bulls’ skill level, but incidents during the past week moved the focus away from players and onto the coaching staff. Due to a series of recent career-advancement opportunities, head-coach Jim Leavitt is now forced to install a new style of recruiting that extends beyond those on the field. In the upcoming months, he will be looking for talent off of it, as associate head-coach and defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, along with offensive coordinator Greg Gregory and defensive backs coach Troy Douglas, departed from campus to seek employment at three other universities.

On Feb. 17, the university announced Burnham had left USF after taking the defensive coordinator position at Iowa State where he will coach alongside his youngest son. Under Burnham’s guidance, USF has ranked in the top-30 in total defense in six of the last seven seasons, including a No. 10 ranking in 2008. Burnham completed his ninth season with USF this past year and spent eight of those as defensive coordinator before being promoted to associate head coach prior to the 2007 season.

Prior to Burnham’s acceptance of the Iowa State coaching vacancy, offensive coordinator Greg Gregory left USF to pursue the same position at South Alabama. According to USF’s official athletics Web site, gousfbulls.com, no considerations have been made just yet, but changes to the offensive coaching staff will come at a later date.

Defensive backs coach Troy Douglas has also followed the lead of his fellow co-workers, as he has taken over the same position at the University of North Carolina. Douglas’ departure after three years with the Bulls was the third USF assistant coach to assume a position at a different school in less than a week.

Amidst the absence of coordinators and coaches roaming the sidelines on Saturdays, current University of Nebraska linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is the front-runner for the defensive coordinator position. Ekeler, who served as a player under Jim Leavitt at Kansas State from 1991-1994, interviewed this past Saturday for the job. Ekeler, prior to his stint with the Cornhuskers, has previously coached some of the nation’s top defenses in the past six years at Oklahoma and LSU. USF is also considering University of Cincinnati defensive coordinator Joe Tresey for the opening.

It is imperative that Leavitt works quickly, as all three of the coaching gaps have yet to be filled just three weeks before spring practices start. Moreover, the newly-hired coaches will be essential pieces to the Bulls’ success this year, as the team’s schedule is one of the most impressive in the program’s history. USF will face traditional conference foes in Louisville, West Virginia and Cincinnati – three teams in which the Bulls have collectively struggled against over the past few years. The non-conference schedule is no piece of cake either, as USF will travel on the road to face Florida State before hosting another in-state rival, the Miami Hurricanes, over the Thanksgiving weekend at Raymond James Stadium.

A-Rod nabbed as baseball’s biggest name in steroid era

It’s ironic how 10 years ago, the one aspect of the game that was supposed to save baseball has been, for the last six years, the same thing that has destroyed it. But even more true, the irony of the situation is sad. Players today live by the homerun and die by it too. Just last week, Alex Rodriguez’s admission into using performance-enhancing drugs from 2001 through 2003 while with the Texas Rangers sent shockwaves throughout baseball and all major professional sports.

Unlike Bonds and Clemens, A-Rod’s reasons for taking steroids were those that we have never heard before. Not to gain an advantage on other players, or to hit his way into the record books. He could do that on pure talent alone. In fact, he was on his way to being a baseball Hall-of-Fame candidate until now.

Rodriguez claimed that he used steroids to deal with the pressure placed upon him by members of the sports media. Pressure from playing for Texas on a ballclub that averaged 72 wins over the three seasons he was there, while finishing in last place in the American League West division in each of those seasons? No, much more like the pressure to live up to what he had become. A young phenomenon on the borderline of superstar. Possibly the greatest player to ever step foot on a Major League diamond. Or just simply, a brand. Alex Rodriguez felt the pressure immediately after he became A-Rod. And now, like Bonds and Clemens, he is the latest – and GREATEST – to fall.

“In his youth, A-Rod was the Natural,” Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated wrote. “What was possible? Hell, what wasn’t possible?”

What’s not possible is now becoming clear. Maintaining his physiological clean reputation, gaining fame as the undisputed record-holder in a multitude of statistical categories, and possibly and most importantly, denial into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

The time period of A-Rod’s usage evokes skepticism. Although he adheres to his claim that he only introduced his body to supplements for his three seasons in Texas, it is likely that he continued to use the drugs during his first few years in New York, and possibly even this past season. It would only make sense. How can you take steroids to deal with the pressure while playing in Texas, but not in New York?

To suit up in pinstripes – given the Yankees’ past tradition and illustrious legacy – and to play in the largest media market in the entire world where sports writers are more like paparazzi and the fans don’t take kindly to having “off-days” is certainly no easy task day in and day out. In fact, being a sports mega-star in the Big Apple is like living under a microscope, where the term athlete is likened to, and often exceeded by, celebrity.

Nothing seems shocking anymore. Rodriguez, Bonds, and Clemens are the biggest names to fall from grace and there are still 104 more players who have been mentioned in dabbling with illegal substances. In an era disgracefully dubbed as the “Steroid Era,” players are all given the same chance to be great. Illegal substances are distributed as widely and freely as players’ baseball cards. Everyone has equal access to them, but because they are so prevalent and the question of who’s using is often a mystery, baseball’s hallowed records are no longer about which players were better than others. Due to last week’s events, and more of the same to come in the future, nobody can say for sure who the best players are because there is no accurate way to assess a player’s talent. Is the talent pure or processed? That is the real question that will ultimately save baseball and provides accurate insight into who the great players truly are. Fans want to know not which players did take steroids, but which ones had the opportunity to take them, and didn’t.

The Cruel Truth About All-Star Games

It’s the day after the Super Bowl, and not much seems to be going on in the world of sports. It’s just the first week of February, nearly one month before Major League Baseball’s Spring Training begins. Two months before a Division I basketball program is crowned champion of the NCAA Tournament. It is not time yet to start looking forward to two of the things that sports fans crave. Sports enthusiasts must wait a little longer, and that requires patience. It’s just the first week of February.

In the meantime, it’s quite obvious that sports find itself in the transition phase between its last greatest event, the Super Bowl, and the next. Because once March rolls around, fans will be entertained non-stop and taken on the annual emotional rollercoaster that defines the remainder of the calendar year. If not baseball, it’s March Madness. Once a team cuts down the nets, it’s on to the NHL playoffs and NBA finals. Then there’s always the start of a new NFL season in September, followed by the Fall Classic in October. By then, college football will have just started, and college basketball is soon to follow.

For now, it is the first week of February. That means that games in the four major professional sports take on a deceiving façade where on the field competition gives is joined by the practice of corporate schmoozing and fancy wine and dine tactics. Brace yourself, for the cruel truths behind All-Star games.

Internet and text-messaging fan-votes have destroyed the true purpose of All-Star games. Rather than voting the best players in who deserve to be there, the games have been reduced to popularity contests where players from a certain team, region, or even continent can be selected purely based on the population of a certain location. Take for example, the NBA All-Star game, where citizens of China – a country with over a billion people – voted online for the New Jersey Nets’ Yi Jianlian, a player averaging just 10.5 points per game and 6.2 rebounds. Meanwhile, two of the league’s best players with stats that trump Jianlian’s – Lebron James and Kevin Garnett – started the game on the bench, reduced to merely a spectator’s role.

Similarly, in the NHL, Washington’s league MVP candidate Alex Ovechkin also started this year’s All-Star Game watching from the bench. Why? Because with multiple clicks of a mouse and multiple text messages, fans from one city could vote an infinite number of times for their favorite player on their home team. In Montreal, where the popularity of hockey blows Washington D.C. out of the water, the Canadiens landed four out of the five starting skaters on the ice.

In addition, these games don’t mean very much, if anything. The NFL’s Pro Bowl is played the week after the Super Bowl. Some of the best players are treated like royalty with an all-expense paid trip to Hawaii in order to make celebrity appearances rather than play a football game. Not to mention, the tremendous risk to an athlete participating in these games, where one play can result in serious injury and jeopardize that player’s upcoming season, or possibly his career. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, probably looks foolish right now. A few years ago, Commissioner Bud Selig instituted a marketing ploy that stated “this time it counts,” awarding the winning league of the game home-field advantage in the World Series. But in fact, it hasn’t counted yet. The World Series has not seen a Game 7 – when home-field advantage truly counts – since the advertisement was put out. It also hasn’t increased viewership by trying to make it “count,” when all other leagues maintain their All-Star Games as solely entertainment exhibitions.

Players opt out of participating because of reasons not related to injuries. Since three of the four major sports’ All-Star Games take place in the middle of their respective seasons, players choose not to play because their teams are in the midst of a playoff run and would rather treat the All-Star break as a week’s vacation to relax.

Others are not in the best physical condition due to the demanding schedule of the games they have already played, and therefore, do not try very hard. Consider that each year the NHL and NBA All-Star games have final scores in double and triple digits. Fourteen goals scored by the Eastern Conference? One hundred and forty-four points scored by the West? The games are a showcase of fancy offensive skills instead of a clinic on how to play defense, which by the way is virtually non-existent in these contests.

This weekend the NBA All-Star Game will be the last of the four major sports for 2009. It’s refreshing to know that sports fans won’t be subjected to such a superficial spectacle for at least one more year. After all, it’s just the first week of February.

Forget Pittsburgh, Tampa Wins Big In Super Bowl

There’s no doubt that fans who traveled to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII put their money to good use, as they were treated with a football game that lived up to its title as being truly “super.” In fact, members of the sports media are calling it possibly the best ever. Throughout the long history of professional sports, there has always been a fitting – not seemingly coincidental – correlation between some of the greatest games being played in some of the greatest venues.

In 1958, Yankee Stadium played host to the NFL Championship Game, commonly referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. More recently, possibly the greatest tennis match ever played occurred this past summer at Wimbledon between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Mark Messier also won the New York Rangers’ first Stanley Cup in 54 years in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. New York has what it takes to create great moments, and Tampa is quickly getting the hang of it.

Perhaps Tampa Bay is on to something. No matter what the official name on the stadium reads, whether it’s Tampa Stadium or Raymond James, the city of Tampa has been home to two of the most exciting Super Bowls in history. Before Ben Roethlisberger stood in front of the Buccaneer pirate ship, Bill Parcells was drenched in Gatorade and lifted off the field on the shoulders of his players. Parcells’ New York Giants had just won Super Bowl XXV at the old Tampa Stadium, thanks to Buffalo Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood who missed the game-winning kick wide right as time expired.

Sports Illustrated, in a recent issue, listed Tampa as the country’s third-best location to host a Super Bowl behind the top two vote-getters San Diego and Miami. Even with a feeble economy – which led to less media coverage, less celebrity appearances, and even cancelled Super Bowl parties – Tampa received sparkling reviews of the week that was. Ideal weather, a beautiful facility and natural gulf beaches paired with animated nightlife was persuasive enough for Mayor Pam Iorio and the Tampa City Council to place a bid for Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014.

NBC’s telecast of the game brought in huge ratings for the local affiliate, WFLA Channel 8. According to the Nielsen Ratings, NBC scored a 42.1 rating and a share of 65 – just two points below last year’s Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots. That game is significant not only for scoring a viewer rating of 44.7 which rendered it the most-watched Super Bowl of all time, but also because it serves as the prime source of head-to-head competition to this year’s game for the title as “greatest Super Bowl ever.”

Law enforcement did a terrific job of maintaining security checkpoints and procedures, as well as cracking down on fraudulent tickets and phony media credentials. The Tampa Police Department reported that 26 arrests were made in just a few hours before kickoff of those selling fake tickets at prices ranging from $2000-$5000 for admission into the stadium.

On Monday morning from a table at Starbucks, I witnessed a handful of tourists identified only by the Super Bowl merchandise adorning their bodies. I asked them to describe their experience from the entire week. Four gave positive responses, claiming they appreciated the cleanliness of the city and the various options for fun and entertainment including Clearwater Beach, International Mall and Busch Gardens. Those views reiterated what I heard the day before, on Super Bowl Sunday just a few hours prior to the game. Patrons outside Raymond James said the citizens and local businesses of Tampa Bay were friendly and welcoming, and that the city was easy to get around. Few were critical about the difficulties in getting not only near the stadium, but getting inside via Dale Mabry Highway and Himes Avenue. They also shared a mutual dislike for the ongoing city projects, primarily highway construction on Interstate 275 and the Veterans Expressway.

This year, Tampa avoided repeating a mistake that earned the city much criticism that last time the Super Bowl was here in 2001. Eight years ago, Super Bowl XXXV was held in succession one day after the traditional Gasparilla Parade in which there was an increase of criminal activity including vandalism, drunk driving and public disorder. This time was different. The allure of Tampa, as experienced from many fans from out of town, is now etched in their memories and classified as a great venue for the largest professional sporting event. Don’t forget, the games played here are pretty good too.