Monday, January 18, 2021
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Avs Blast Blues After Season Opening Loss

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Photo Courtesy: NHL.com

The Colorado Avalanche failed to convert on their first power play but scored on the next six in an 8-0 demolition of the St. Louis Blues, who beat them Wednesday in the teams’ opener.

No one in the Avalanche locker room had a kind word about the first game at Ball Arena, where foolish mistakes ended up in their net. The rematch couldn’t have sent a clearer message.

“It sucked losing the first game, but I think we learned a lot and I think we needed that,” goaltender Philipp Grubauer said.

“So total opposite. I don’t even know when the Blues controlled the game. We were firing on all cylinders here and that’s a standard we need to keep.”

Friday’s date will be noted in several places. The six power-play goals were a franchise record. Gabriel Landeskog’s second goal of the night was the 200th of his career, and the next goal was Mikko Rantanen’s 100th.

Grubauer (21 saves) defended his shutout late by stopping two shorthanded breakouts. He also earned an assist on the second goal.

Hard to believe, but the first period was scoreless. Then the reunited top line of Landeskog, Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon, who are occasionally split up for balance or due to injury but always find their way back, got the team going in the second.

“We know that it works when they’re together,” coach Jared Bednar said.

“When you kind of have a game like we had, or when we need to dig out of a rut … I like to give our team a chance to respond. Those three guys … are the leaders of our hockey club. If we’re going to challenge guys on our team, it’s going to be those guys because of their status on our team.

“We felt like we could put them together and give them the best opportunity to succeed and lead our hockey club, and that’s exactly what they did.”

MacKinnon set Landeskog up for a one-timer, which he sent beneath Jordan Binnington’s glove.

Andre Burakovsky’s power-play snipe kicked off a run of three goals in five minutes. Rantanen took the puck out of the corner and fed Landeskog, who stuffed it inside the goalpost. Then Rantanen got his turn as he went to one knee and slammed in a pass from Cale Makar.

“The power play got clicking,” MacKinnon said. “It was great to see a lot of different guys start feeling it and chip in.”

The goals-allowed were split between Binnington and Ville Husso, who came in for the third period.

Nazem Kadri scored off a MacKinnon rebound in the third period. Then Makar did a lap in the neutral zone before sending MacKinnon tearing up the middle of the ice, making it 6-0.

Joonas Donskoi added a redirection and Devon Toews his first goal with Colorado.

You can read this article at its original location here.

ECHL Announces Schedule Through April 4

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Graphic Courtesy: ECHL.com

Media release from the ECHL:

PRINCETON, N.J. — The ECHL announced on Friday the schedule for games running from February 12-April 4, 2021.

View the complete Feb. 12-April 4 schedule (PDF download)

With the Fort Wayne Komets joining the 2020-21 Season as part of this schedule, the Board of Governors has approved the following Conference alignment for this season:

Eastern Conference – Florida Everblades, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Indy Fuel, Jacksonville Icemen, Orlando Solar Bears, South Carolina Stingrays and Wheeling Nailers

Western Conference – Allen Americans, Fort Wayne Komets, Kansas City Mavericks, Rapid City Rush, Tulsa Oilers, Utah Grizzlies and Wichita Thunder

A schedule for games through the completion of the regular season on June 6, 2021, as well as the format for the 2021 Kelly Cup Playoffs, will be announced at a later date. Standings for the 2020-21 Season will be determined by winning percentage.

About the ECHL

Began in 1988-89 with five teams in four states, the ECHL has grown into a coast-to-coast league with 26 teams in 19 states and two Canadian provinces for its 33rd season in 2020-21. There have been 680 players who have gone on to play in the National Hockey League after starting their careers in the ECHL, including two who have made their NHL debuts in the 2020-21 season. The ECHL has affiliations with 25 of the 31 NHL teams in 2020-21, marking the 24th consecutive season that the league had affiliations with at least 20 teams in the NHL. Further information on the ECHL is available on its website at ECHL.com as well as on Twitter and Facebook.

Blues Top Avs to Begin 2021 Season

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As hard as it is to believe a regular season game happened tonight between two division rivals — old and new — as the St. Louis Blues visited the Colorado Avalanche for the first in a two-game set to open the 2021 season. However it wasn’t the start the Avalanche had hoped for in a sluggish 4-1 loss.

The Game

Right out of the gate it was clear the home team wasn’t firing on all cylinders but they got on the board first as they converted on their second power play in the first period. With Devon Toews in the quiet room after receiving an elbow to the head the Avalanche made the Blues pay when Andre Burakovsky blistered a shot into the net at just 4:55 into the contest. Another bit of good news — Toews returned late in the first period and played the rest of the game.

However that was all that went right for the Avalanche for the rest of the period — and eventually game — as the new look second line got caught deep a rush attack for a score against by Oskar Sundqvist at 9:29 and then again at 13:15 on a defensive zone turnover which was converted on by Jordan Kyrou.

The Avalanche has crawled back into the game in the second period outshooting St. Louis 15-6 but yet no goal was produced. Then in the third period after some lax defensive zone play the Blues found the dagger when Kyle Clifford beat Philipp Grubauer at 6:46. Sundqvist added another goal for good measure on a Grubauer turnover at 14:22 to truly put the game away for a 4-1 final score.

Takeaways

Sloppiness was evident in the first games around the league and expected especially without any preseason but a failure to execute bit the Avalanche early in this game and they never recovered. Special teams wasn’t a major factor but only the second power play unit cashing in on four chances with the man advantage needs improvement as well.

The tabbed second line with Nazem Kadri and Brandon Saad were on the ice for three and four goals against respectively which was no accident. Both looked slow in transition and to contact all game long plus a lack of poise when they did have an offensive chance with the puck. Three even strength shot attempts between them will need to improve as well.

Another work in progress was the defense and it did not help the defensive core as a whole when Toews missed a good portion of the first period. Samuel Girard and Cale Makar led the team with six even strength shot attempts each but little was done by the forwards for second chance efforts. Conor Timmins played 15:44 in a mixed-bag type of effort. His breakout passes were on point but was also caught in some of the defensive zone missed coverages. As a whole something for the team to assess mistakes and build on before the next game.

Upcoming

Game two of the season and series against St. Louis is back at Ball Arena on Friday, January 15th at 7pm MT.

You can read this article at its original location here.

[PHOTOS] Rush vs Americans (01/06/21 — 01/09/21)

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Graphic Courtesy: Free Sports Press | @freesportspress

RAPID CITY, SD — The Rapid City Rush returned to the friendly confines of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center for a three-game series against the division-leading Allen Americans.

Amid the current pandemic, crowd levels have not seemed to suffer much in Rapid City.  Wednesday’s contest saw 1,892 in attendance while Friday’s and Saturday’s games each saw significant jumps: 3,182 and 4,213 respectively.

Fans in attendance for this series were treated to numerous brawls, including the Saturday finale that saw 23 total infractions for 77 total penalty minutes between each club.  The middle frame saw the most action as 20 of those penalties occurred in the 2nd period, with 14 of those penalties taking place in the first ten minutes.

It was a close series as the Rush took the mid-week game by a score of 3-2 but fell 4-2 in the each of the remaining two games.  The final goals for the Americans in both contests was an empty-netter.

Up Next

Rapid City Rush: Three game series at home against the Tulsa Oilers, starting January 15th

Allen Americans: Three game series at home against the Wichita Thunder, starting January 1th

Here are our highlights from this three-game tilt:

ECHL Approves Two Expansion Memberships

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Graphic Courtesy: ECHL.com

From an ECHL Press Release:

PRINCETON, N.J. – The ECHL announced on Tuesday that the League’s Board of Governors has approved expansion applications for Coralville, Iowa and Trois-Rivières, Quebec to begin play for the 2021-22 Season.

Coralville and Trois-Rivières are both owned by Dean MacDonald through Deacon Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the Newfoundland Growlers in the league. Coralville will play out of Xtreme Arena, a 5,100 seat venue which was completed in September 2020, while Trois-Rivières will play out of Le Nouveau Colisée, a new construction that will host 4,390 fans.

“This is an extremely exciting day for the ECHL and the future of our League, welcoming these two great markets and beautiful state-of-the-art facilities,” said ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin. “We have a great history of working with Dean’s ownership group and leadership team and look forward to bringing ECHL hockey to Trois-Rivieres and Coralville, making an impact as an asset to these communities.”

“We are thrilled to help bring professional hockey to Coralville and Trois-Rivières,” said Dean MacDonald Chair of Deacon Sports and Entertainment. “Residents in both markets have responded with incredible enthusiasm for the ECHL product and now that our membership is official, we are one step closer to dropping the puck in the fall. This announcement is a credit to our strong partnerships with both municipalities, led by Mayor John Lundell of Coraville, Iowa and Mayor Jean Lamarche of Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and their significant efforts in helping this initiative happen.”

About the ECHL

Began in 1988-89 with five teams in four states, the ECHL has grown into a coast-to-coast league with 26 teams in 19 states and two Canadian provinces for its 33rd season in 2020-21. There have been 678 players who have gone on to play in the National Hockey League after starting their careers in the ECHL, including 16 who made their NHL debuts in the 2019-20 season. The ECHL has affiliations with 25 of the 31 NHL teams in 2020-21, marking the 24th consecutive season that the league had affiliations with at least 20 teams in the NHL. Further information on the ECHL is available on its website at ECHL.com as well as on Twitter and Facebook.

Tide Roll to 18th National Championship

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Photo Courtesy: The Bleacher Report

No. 1 Alabama has returned to the top of the college football mountain, rolling to the 18th national title in program history with a dominant 52-24 win over No. 3 Ohio State in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship. Undefeated at 13-0 and unchallenged through much of the season, the Crimson Tide put themselves in a special light even among the program’s six national championship-winning teams to play for Nick Saban.

The departures of multiple stars put the spotlight on an offense that had plenty to replace, but quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and especially Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith more than answered the call as they led one of the best offenses in Alabama history and showed out for the biggest game of the year with 621 yards of total offense. Their 52 points are the most ever scored by Alabama in a national title game and the most in a Crimson Tide bowl game since 1953.

Smith was nearly unstoppable, pulling in 12 catches on his first 13 targets for 215 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game with a hand injury. Jones got banged up a little bit as well but still finished with 464 yards and five touchdowns on 36-of-45 passing.

Harris, who like Smith was one of the few current Alabama players to be on the team during its last national title run, was an all-purpose machine with 178 yards from scrimmage (79 rushing, 79 receiving) and three total touchdowns.

Ohio State entered the game with a chip on its shoulder fermented through weeks of doubt regarding its status as one of the best teams in the country. Playing less games than those in the ACC and SEC brought out plenty of criticism and nitpicking from the Buckeyes’ body of work, but most of those questions were silenced in a dominant win against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal to book a spot in Monday night’s title game. There were notable setbacks, like starting running back Trey Sermon leaving the game after one drive with an injury and having numerous players unavailable (some a result of COVID-19 protocol), but the lopsided result was more a reflection of Alabama’s distance from the rest of the sport in this 2020 season.

Ohio State’s absences were notable, not game-changing

Even prior to Sermon’s injury, the Buckeyes had starting nose tackle Tommy Togiai, starting defensive end Tyreke Smith and starting kicker Blake Haubeil among the 13 players listed as out on their availability report. Having two starting defensive linemen wouldn’t have helped the mismatches Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian drew up for Smith in the first half, but those are key pieces to what has been an elite run defense and important bodies in a rotation that was needed as Alabama’s play count continued to tick up in the second half.

Sermon, who had set a school record with more than 500 rushing yards across two outings in the Big Ten Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl, suffering an injury in the first quarter and was unable to reenter the game. His replacement, Master Teague, was strong enough though, scoring two touchdowns.

The final total may not reflect it, but this was a two-score game midway through the third quarter and could have been a terrific comeback if the Buckeyes could get some stops. A couple Tide touchdowns later, the rout was back on and the result was not in doubt.

The 2020 Tide join the debate for best team ever

One year after Joe Burrow and LSU made all of college football wonder where the Tigers ranked among the best offenses and best teams in college football history, Alabama has immediately added an entry into that debate. The season totals won’t match the Tigers with three less games, but the averages and accolades are comparable.

Smith has been unique in ways that may exceed a team-wide comparison, but so was Burrow during his similarly transcendent season. The two teams will be debated and compared for years to come, but what follows will be a tiebreaker for fans in the SEC West. Alabama may see an NFL Draft exodus on par with LSU’s a year ago — it is similarly losing a top offensive coach with Sarkisian off to Texas — but it would be out of character to see a significant step back following this return to the top of the sport. Saban has embraced modern offense and winning by overwhelming your opponent with skill position talent. When the greatest coach in college football history has gone all in on innovation, that’s a wrap for pretty much everyone else in the sport for a few years.

Ohio State leaving points on the board may have cost it

Of the many “what-ifs” for Ohio State fans will be a few situational decisions by the Buckeyes during the Alabama onslaught that was the first half. Ohio State punted from the Alabama 44-yard line down 14-7 early in the second quarter, but it was bailed out by Jones’ subsequent fumble, giving the Buckeyes an opportunity to score anyway. Later, they settled for a field goal from the 6-yard line at the end of a nine-play drive instead of going for a game-tying touchdown. Following that, Ohio State had back-to-back three-and-outs before finishing the half by running out the clock.

The lack of stops by the Buckeyes defense combined with Smith’s incredible first-half stat line dominated the conversation, but there were points where it seemed like Ohio State could have taken a few more risks offensively and been in a better position when it mounted a comeback effort in the third quarter.

A record-setting evening

Alabama finished out the season averaging 48.5 points per game, the most in SEC history, and Smith rounded out SEC records for the most receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in a single season along with the SEC career receiving yards record. Jones not only holds several Alabama records already but after the game he solidified a new FBS record for completion percentage (77.4%) and his 464 passing yards are the most in a championship game in the BCS/CFP era. Adding to the ridiculous records to either be extended or fall tonight was Najee Harris tying the SEC record for most career touchdowns (57) and setting the new single-season touchdowns mark (30).

Perhaps even more impressive is that Nick Saban now holds the solo record for most national championships in the poll era, and the fact that of those seven title-winning teams only two were undefeated at the end of the year. The first was 2009, his first title with the Tide, and the other is the 2020 team that re-claimed the crown Monday night. This was a special team and its mark will be left on Alabama, and college football, forever.

You can read this article at its original location here.

USA Stuns Canada, Captures World Junior Championship

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Photo Courtesy: USCHO.com

The United States upset heavily favored and undefeated Canada 2-0 in Edmonton, Alberta, on Tuesday to win the gold medal in the first world junior ice hockey championship played in a bubble.

In a defensive special, Boston College goaltender and Florida Panthers prospect Spencer Knight stopped all 34 shots he faced to secure Team USA’s first gold since 2017.

Knight recorded his third shutout of the event, the most for an American goaltender in the tournament. Forward and Anaheim Ducks draft pick Trevor Zegras led the tournament in scoring with 18 points and was named most valuable player of the tournament. The 18 points were the second most by an American player in tournament history. Zegras also tied the record for most points by an American in his world junior career with 27 over the past two tournaments.

The U.S. took the lead in the first period off a redirection at the front of the net from Los Angeles Kings prospect Alex Turcotte. That goal was the first 5-on-5 goal Canada had allowed in the World Junior Championship and the first time it had trailed at any point in the tournament.

“That was by far the biggest goal I’ve ever scored in my life,” said Turcotte, who was the No. 5 overall draft choice of Los Angeles in 2019 and was part of last year’s U.S. squad that was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

The U.S. overwhelmed Canada for stretches of the first period and held a 13-9 shots-on-goal advantage in addition to the 1-0 lead.

Zegras extended the Americans’ lead 32 seconds into the second period when he collected the puck and slipped it past Canadian goalie Devon Levi, who was leaning the wrong way.

That goal gave Zegras a tie with former NHL player Jordan Schroeder for USA Hockey’s all-time scoring lead at the World Junior Championship with his 27th point collected over the past two tournaments. He ranks fifth among players who have appeared in multiple World Junior Championships with 2.25 points per game, a list that is led by Hockey Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg.

Zegras also picked up second place on the Americans’ single-tournament scoring list, compiling 18 points to lead all players in the 2021 tournament. He moved past Jeremy Roenick and fell one shy of Doug Weight‘s record of 19, set in 1991. He was the only U.S. player to be named to the tournament all-star team, joining Canada’s Levi, Dylan Cozens and Bowen Byram, Finland’s Ville Heinola and Germany’s Tim Stuetzle.

Canada had outscored opponents 41-4 before Tuesday night’s final in its bid to repeat as world junior champion.

“This is the first team that really pushed back in the first period. We were not used to it and it took a little bit of time to get back at it. After we adjusted, we were really good, but we didn’t score,” Canada coach Andre Tourigny said.

The U.S. found itself defending for much of the second half of the game. Canada outshot Team USA 25-8 over the final two periods, including a 15-1 shots-on-goal advantage in the final frame.

“We had our looks, but Knight played great. We didn’t get the bounces,” said Cozens, who led Canada and finished second among all players with 16 points in the tournament.

Knight, who was selected 13th overall by the Panthers in the 2019 NHL draft, made several big saves in his third and final trip to the World Junior Championship. After collecting shutouts in games against the Czech Republic and Sweden in the preliminary round, he became the only U.S. goalie to record three shutouts in a single tournament and the only American to collect three shutouts in his world junior career. He was named U.S. player of the game.

In addition to records set by U.S. players, Team USA video coach Theresa Feaster became the first woman to serve as an assistant coach for a gold medal-winning team at the tournament. Feaster has been on head coach Nate Leaman’s staff at Providence College for the past seven seasons, including the past four as coordinator of men’s hockey operations, breaking down video and statistics for the coaching staff.

“I told the guys after the game, I was going to be proud whether we won or lost this game,” said Leaman, who won the NCAA men’s hockey championship with Providence in 2015. “This was a group that cared about each other. They had good character. The team came together and they cared more about a team than anything individually.”

The win gave USA Hockey its fourth consecutive victory over Canada in a World Junior Championship final, having earned wins in 2004, 2010, 2017 and 2021. USA is 4-1 in gold-medal games against Canada, which owns 18 golds in the tournament’s history.

You can read this article at its original location here.

Crimson Tide WR DeVonta Smith Wins Heisman

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Photo Courtesy: Tom Pennington | Getty Images

For nearly three decades, wide receivers failed to win the Heisman Trophy. That ended on Tuesday night when Alabama senior DeVonta Smith was presented the award during a virtual ceremony.

Smith became the third Alabama player to claim college football’s most prestigious award, and the first receiver to win it since Michigan‘s Desmond Howard in 1991. Smith beat out three other finalists, all of whom were quarterbacks: Alabama’s Mac JonesClemson‘s Trevor Lawrence and Florida‘s Kyle Trask.

Smith won the award with 1,856 points. Lawrence was second (1,187), Jones was third (1,130) and Trask was fourth (737).

Smith called the award a blessing, thanking his parents, coaches and teammates during a short speech at Alabama’s football facility. Wearing a sharp, burgundy blazer and bow tie, he spoke about the power of self-belief, reflecting on coming from the small town of Amite, Louisiana, and how he was doubted because of his size.

Despite standing a slight 6-foot-1 and weighing 175 pounds, Smith became the best wide receiver and the most accomplished player in college football. He leads the FBS in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641) and receiving touchdowns (20). He has dropped only two passes all season.

And like the previous receiver to win the Heisman, Smith is more than just a pass-catcher. He rushed for one touchdown and returned a punt for another score this season. Along the way, he set an SEC record for career touchdowns and an Alabama record for career receiving yards.

Last week, Smith was named The Associated Press Player of the Year, becoming the first receiver to win the award.

Not bad for a skinny kid from Tangipahoa Parish who in high school would drop to the floor and do pushups whenever he saw his reflection because he thought he was too small to play college football.

“Tay-Tay,” as he’s known back home, got stronger but remained a relative featherweight compared to other big-bodied receivers. Because of his slight build, strong hands and skill as a route runner, he would draw comparisons to former Indianapolis Colts great Marvin Harrison.

At Alabama, coaches and players would call him simply “Smitty.” But he also picked up the nickname of the “Slim Reaper” along the way.

During his Heisman acceptance speech, Smith took a moment to address kids like him.

“To all the young kids out there that’s not the biggest, not the strongest, just keep pushing, because I’m not the biggest,” he said. “I’ve been doubted a lot just because of my size. Really, it just comes down to you put your mind to it, you can do it. No job is too big.”

As a freshman, Smith achieved national recognition when he caught the game-winning pass in overtime of the 2018 College Football Playoff title game against Georgia. The iconic play — known forever as “2nd-and-26” — could have defined his career, but the reserved Smith shied away from reliving it whenever it was brought up. As he would say later, “I don’t too much care about the catch no more. It’s a new year. We’re moving on.”

However, as a sophomore, injuries would hamper his development, and he was largely overshadowed by the emergence of teammates and fellow star receivers Jerry JeudyHenry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle. Even after scoring 14 touchdowns as a junior, Smith managed to fly under the radar.

But this season changed all that. Jeudy and Ruggs departed for the NFL, and Waddle, who was one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football, was lost to an ankle injury four games into the season.

Smith wasn’t even on the Heisman odds board at Caesars Sportsbook until after Waddle was injured in late October, where he was posted at 60-1. But with Waddle sidelined, Smith became the focal point of the passing game, and excelled in the spotlight.

A week after Waddle’s injury, Smith scored four touchdowns in a win over Mississippi State. He would score a pair of touchdowns in each of the next two games against Kentucky and Auburn, before returning home to Louisiana and scoring three times against LSU.

Smith has excelled in postseason play, finding the end zone twice against Florida in the SEC championship game and three more times against Notre Dame during the CFP semifinal at The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One.

After the top-ranked Crimson Tide beating the Fighting Irish to advance to the CFP title game, Alabama coach Nick Saban called Smith a “talented guy” and a “hard worker.”

“He does everything exactly right,” Saban said. “He has a great understanding of what he needs to do to make plays, and he makes them every chance he gets. So we’re very fortunate to have him.”

Saban, who is not prone to making comparisons, said that Smith has done “as much this year for our team as any player that we’ve ever had.”

Jones, who threw for 4,036 yards and 36 touchdowns this season, called Smith “the most electric player in college football.”

ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. lists Smith as the fourth-best player on his Big Board, and the No. 1-rated wide receiver.

“He means the most to us here at Alabama,” Jones said. “You can watch the games and see that, what type of person he is with how he plays. I’ve been real excited just to be able to get him the ball this year. He came back to try and win a national championship and improve his draft [stock], and I feel like he’s done exactly that because he’s just gotten open and made explosive plays.”

A reserved and often shy speaker, Smith said he never imagined he would win the Heisman. Friends and teammates would bring it up and he’d brush it off as a possibility. If anything, he said, he felt relieved it was over.

Smith’s acceptance speech was just under two minutes, and he spent much of it thanking others, whether it was his parents; mentor Vince Sanders; Saban; his position coach, Holmon Wiggins; or athletic trainer Jeff Allen. He even thanked athletic director Greg Byrne and Alabama president Stuart Bell.

“Thank my teammates,” Smith said. “With team success comes individual success. So without y’all, I wouldn’t be where I am today, winning this award.”

Heisman Trophy in hand, the only thing left to do now is for Smith to end his career the way it began: by competing for a national championship.

Smith is 1-1 in championship games in his career, and on Monday, he’ll look to break that tie with a victory against Ohio State in the CFP title game.

“The two main reasons I came back was to get my degree and win a national championship,” he said. “I checked one box, and I’m trying to check the other now.”

You can read this article at its original location here.

Rollercoaster Game Ends in Defeat for Denver

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Photo Courtesy: David Zalubowski | AP Photo

DENVER — A year ago, Shelby Harris batted down Derek Carr‘s last-second two-point conversion attempt to seal a one-point win for the Broncos.

This time around, with Harris on injured reserve, there was no jubilation to cap a game and a season.

Carr and the Raiders capped a last-minute comeback with a touchdown and two-point conversion to earn a 32-31 win on Sunday and sweep the Broncos for the first time since 2010.

The Raiders’ late comeback in part overshadowed a performance in which the Broncos played some of their best football of the season.

The Denver defense forced four turnovers, while Drew Lock and Jerry Jeudy combined for one of their most productive games as a duo.

Late-game struggles, though, doomed the Broncos’ chances to send the Raiders to a 10th-consecutive season-closing loss.

As the Broncos head into the offseason with a 5-11 record, here are our key takeaways from a Week 17 division showdown.

Lock, Jeudy Finish Strong

With the Broncos facing third-and-10 from the own 8-yard line, the offense faced a critical moment in the game. The Raiders had just capped a 9-play, 90-yard drive to tie the game at 24, and the Broncos were on the verge of a three-and-out after a Melvin Gordon run for no gain and an incompletion to Jerry Jeudy. After the timeout, though, Lock and Jeudy made their highest-profile connection of their young partnership.

Lined up out wide in a trips formation, Jeudy found a soft spot in the Raiders’ defense 20 yards downfield and hauled in his fourth pass of the game. From there, he used his speed to get to the edge and sprinted up the sideline for a 92-yard go-ahead score. The play was the longest reception of any NFL player this season and is the Broncos’ longest scoring play since 2008.

“The way I’m wired, I knew last game was going to be one of the last bad games I have my whole life,” Jeudy said. “I learned a lot from that game. Coming into this game I was just a lot more focused, a lot more focused on the details and just catching the ball.”

Jeudy later caught a 25-yard pass to open the Broncos’ last-gasp attempt at a win, which gave him five catches for 140 yards and a touchdown on the day. He also caught a two-point conversion attempt. He finishes his rookie season with 856 yards, second only to Eddie Royal in Broncos rookie history.

“I’m very happy for Jerry that he bounced back the way he did,” Fangio said. “I knew he would. I thought last week’s game could have been a defining moment for him that he needed to come back from and he obviously did. I’m happy for him.”

Lock’s performance was also encouraging, as he threw for more than 300 yards for the third time in his career and posted a quarterback rating of over 100 for just the second time this season.

“Drew, I thought, played well,” Fangio said. “He was [25-of-41], we had over 300 yards, no picks. We didn’t turn the ball over. I thought overall, Drew played good football.”

The Broncos reached the 30-point mark for the second time in the last four weeks and scored 21 second-half points.

Lock also avoided turning the ball over for just the second time this season.

“That’s critical every game,” Lock said. “That was big for us to do, but it was all about winning and we didn’t do it.”

Broncos Dominate Turnover Battle

Lock and the offense did their part by not giving the Raiders free possessions, and the defense did its job, as well.

The Broncos forced four turnovers on Sunday against the Raiders and held a plus-4 turnover margin for the first time since Week 12 in 2018.

Three of Denver’s takeaways came in the second half, as the Broncos picked off Derek Carr twice and forced a fumble to set up a go-ahead score. Carr had not thrown an interception in his last nine games against Denver, a streak that dated back to early in the 2015 season.

Justin Simmons ended that streak in the third quarter, and Kareem Jackson snagged another in the fourth quarter.

Michael Ojemudia also forced a pair of fumbles, his third and fourth takeaways of the season.

“We definitely make an emphasis to getting the ball back to the offense and we do a lot of work with punching the ball off, getting your head on the ball, so we work on that type of stuff,” Ojemudia said. “During the game, when you’re in those moments, you just have to execute.”

If the Broncos had a fault on Sunday, though, it was their inability to capitalize on those turnovers. Denver scored just 14 points off the four turnovers, including just one touchdown. After Jackson’s interception, the Broncos had the ball in field-goal range and could have taken a 10-point lead with under 12 minutes to play, but Lock took an 11-yard sack that forced Denver to punt.

“We had some big hits that jarred the ball out twice, which was great to see,” Fangio said. “We had a couple picks, one from each of our safeties, that were good to see. It’s rare that you lose a game when you are plus-four; I’m not sure what the stats are but it’s really, really high.”

Denver Struggles Late

After the Jeudy touchdown, the Broncos forced a Las Vegas punt with 2:46 to play and a chance to ice the game, but the final three minutes weren’t kind to the Broncos.

Taking over at their own 10-yard line, Melvin Gordon III took his first carry for seven yards and forced the Raiders to burn their first timeout. On the next play, though, Gordon ended his 15-yard carry by stepping out of bounds and stopping the clock. On the next play, a holding call on Noah Fant wiped out a 19-yard Gordon gain.

Backed up in a first-and-20 situation, the Broncos were unable to gain another first down. They did force the Raiders to burn their final two timeouts, but Gordon’s decision to go out of bounds allowed the Raiders to regain possession with 1:47 to play, rather than just north of a minute.

Big plays by Zay Jones (37 yards) and Darren Waller (10 yards and 21 yards) pushed the Raiders into the red zone quickly, but the Broncos buckled down inside the 10-yard line. With the Raiders facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Broncos called a timeout to save time for the next drive, although nearly 10 seconds came off the clock between the end of the third-down play and the timeout. Then, after a Josh Jacobs touchdown, the Broncos burned their final timeout before the two-point conversion.

“We just wanted to make sure that we knew exactly who they had in there and how we wanted to play it,” Fangio said. “I thought it was more valuable at that time to use that timeout. I would have liked to save it obviously but the game at that point was coming down to that two points or not.”

The Broncos had just 24 seconds to get into field-goal range, and Lock found Jeudy to give Brandon McManus a chance at a 63-yard field goal. For the second time in the game, though, McManus’ long field goal attempt was blocked.

“We haven’t been able to finish games when we have the lead the right way,” Fangio said. “We’ve protected the lead in four of our five wins. [In some], we had to go out there and preserve the win and we did. We had others when we didn’t. We needed to do better when we had the ball on our last drive. We went out of bounds. We had a penalty, which hurt us. Those are the things we have to improve on.”

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Aggies Run Over Tar Heels in Orange Bowl

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Photo Courtesy: USA Today.com

No. 5 Texas A&M capped off its best season of the Jimbo Fisher era with a 41-27 win against No. 13 North Carolina in the Orange Bowl on Saturday night. It was the first New Year’s Six bowl appearance for the Aggies and their biggest bowl game since the 1998 season, so to end up on the winning side puts an exclamation point on their argument as one of the best teams in the country in 2020.

Texas A&M was outstanding in the fourth quarter, storming back from on a 27-20 deficit with three quick touchdowns to close the game, the final two coming from Devon Achane. Isaiah Spiller, who had 50 yards and two touchdowns of his own in the win, was out of the game and that opened up the door for Achane, who broke the game open with his 76-yard, go-ahead score.

Achane finished the game with 140 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 12 attempts, with another 24 yards on two catches through the passing game.

Texas A&M’s defense also deserves a ton of credit for the way the Aggies closed the game, turning a back-and-forth affair into a double-digit win. Buddy Johnson, DeMarvin Leal and the rest of the defensive front were relentless in applying pressure to Sam Howell and stopping the rushing attack that was missing two 1,000-yard rushers in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Texas A&M finished game with four sacks and nine tackles for loss, providing the stops needed to seal the win against a Tar Heels offense that, while depleted, was moving the ball effectively through the first two and a half quarters of the game.

North Carolina’s success early was the most notable highlight from the first half, punctuated by an absurd throw and catch from Howell to Dazz Newsome to give the Tar Heels a 13-10 lead late in the second quarter.

But Kellen Mond, who tied Johnny Manziel‘s school record of 93 total touchdowns with a rushing score in the fourth quarter, guided the Aggies offense right down the field for a fantastic answer to that score to take a 17-13 lead into halftime. North Carolina scored the only touchdown of the third quarter to retake the lead, forced a field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter and then scored a go-ahead touchdown on a 75-yard bomb from Howell to Josh Downs.

Texas A&M now gets to point out that it not only finished the year with just one loss, but it beat North Carolina by the same margin as Notre Dame, the team that finished one spot ahead of it in the College Football Playoff. This might be an Aggies team that felt snubbed on Selection Day, but it is set up for a top-four ranking in the final polls thanks to this performance against an entertaining Tar Heels team on the rise in the ACC.

You can read this article at its original location here.

Denver Broncos Hall of Fame RB Floyd Little Dies at 78

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Graphic Courtesy: The Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little, known as “The Franchise” in his career with the Denver Broncos, died on New Year’s Day. He was 78.

Little had been diagnosed with cancer, which became public this past May, and was moved to hospice care in November.

“Floyd Little was a true hero of the game. He was a man of great integrity, passion and courage,” Pro Football Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said in a statement. “His contributions off the field were even greater than his amazing accomplishments he did on it. Floyd’s smile, heart and character epitomized what it meant to have a Hall of Fame life.

Little’s family said in a statement: “The family extends their gratitude to all who have supported Floyd Little and his family during this time with prayers, calls and your heartfelt expressions of love.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said those around Little were proud to have known him.

“I was so fortunate to know Floyd and witnessed first-hand the impact he had on others,” Goodell said in a statement. “Whenever he represented the Broncos at the annual NFL Draft, others immediately sought to greet him and his genuine excitement of being with his fellow Legends and his pride and passion for the Broncos was unmistakable. “Football, the Broncos and the NFL were a large part of his life, but nothing could surpass his love and affection for his wife DeBorah and his children, Marc, Christy and Kyra. To them and the entire Little family we extend our deepest sympathy.”

For many fans, Little was the team’s first star. Always a vibrant presence at team functions, Little had also become a regular at ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Little was enshrined in the Hall’s Class of 2010. A three-time All American at Syracuse, Little is in the College Football Hall of Fame as well.

“I feel so blessed in everything, and as long as I can I will always come back [to Canton], and I always hope to see many more Broncos here with me as the years go by,” is how Little put it in 2019 when both Champ Bailey and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen were enshrined. “Football has given me so much, and I will always try to give back in every way to young people who need our help.

“I’ve always been blessed around the game and through all the aches and pains will always feel that way.”

After the Broncos’ Nov. 22 win over the Miami Dolphins, when the team rushed for 189 yards as Denver South High School’s Phillip Lindsay finished with 89 yards on 16 carries, the team sent a game ball to Little. Little’s wife, DeBorah, posted photos on social media of the ball in Little’s room in hospice.

Little, who was the sixth pick of the 1967 AFL-NFL draft by the Broncos, played nine seasons with Denver and rushed for 6,323 yards with 43 touchdowns. Those early years of the Broncos’ franchise — one of the original AFL teams in 1960 — were usually a struggle on the field as Little starred for teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

The Broncos finished with a winning record just twice in Little’s career — in 1973 and 1974. But he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and led the AFL in combined yards in both 1967 and 1968.

He also became the first player to lead the NFL in rushing while playing for a last-place team (1971 with 1,133 yards). The Broncos didn’t reach the postseason until the 1977 season, two years after Little’s retirement.

Earlier this year former Syracuse teammate Pat Killorin made Little’s cancer diagnosis public as he created a GoFundMe page called “Friends of Floyd.” Little had Stage 2 neuroendocrine tumor cancer, and more than $100,000 was raised to help the Littles with medical costs.

From 2011 to 2016, Little worked in the Syracuse athletic department, and in 2016, he was given an honorary doctorate degree from the school.

“Floyd Little embodied what it means to be Orange,” Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud said in a statement. “He was an all-American student-athlete. He set records in the NFL. He achieved success in the business world. Floyd mentored countless student-athletes, and dedicated his time, energy and resources to improving the lives of others. He was a great friend, to me and to his beloved Syracuse University.”

Syracuse men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim honored Little in a tweet, calling him a “great friend” and one of the school’s “greatest ambassadors.”

Little had his No. 44 retired by both Syracuse and the Broncos.

Little was called “The Franchise” because his signing, when players could choose between the NFL and AFL, was credited with keeping the team from relocating in the 1960s and with helping to convince local voters to approve funds to build Mile High Stadium.

You can read this article at its original location here.

Kentucky Escapes Gator Bowl with Win

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Photo Courtesy: Florida Times-Union

Despite its best efforts to give the game away down the stretch, Kentucky held on for its third straight postseason victory of the Mark Stoops era. UK withstood a series of self-inflicted errors to overcome N.C. State 23-21 in the 2020 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

Senior A.J. Rose rushed for a career-high 148 yards on just 12 carries, but 10 penalties for a total of 103 yards — including a trio of them in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter with UK clinging to a 16-14 advantage — kept the Wolfpack within striking distance throughout the second half after the Cats built a 13-0 lead before the break.

An interception off a deflected pass by Jamin Davis — his third of the season — gave way to a 26-yard touchdown run by Chris Rodriguez with 2:55 left. His second score more or less put the game out of reach for N.C. State, which was able to answer that touchdown with 1:10 remaining but couldn’t recover an onside kick.

“We just wanted to refuse to lose the game, honestly,” Davis said of the moments leading up to his interception. “We just wanted to keep our backs against the wall and let nobody take it from us. That’s the same thing that we’ve been preached to do all year, if the ball is in the air then it’s our ball. That was my mindset, to keep playing and ice the game.”

Terry Wilson, likely starting his final game as UK’s quarterback, finished 12 of 20 for 99 yards. He rushed for 14 yards on six carries.

Kentucky finished its season 5-6, and won a third bowl game in as many seasons for just the second time in school history (2006-2008 was the other time). This was its first postseason victory amid a pandemic, of course.

“It’s unfortunate that the season is over, but it felt good to end on that win like we did,” said Rose, who was named Kentucky’s MVP for the game. “… It’s been a long year, a tough year, due to these COVID restrictions and everything that’s going around, but I feel like we managed and did a great job of keeping players safe and keeping those around us safe.”

HOW IT HAPPENED

Kentucky’s first drive ended in three points after it converted a fourth-and-1 on a Rodriguez rush to N.C. State’s 14-yard line. Wilson started 4-for-4 passing before missing short on a throw to Josh Ali in the end zone for a would-be touchdown right after that conversion, and the Cats eventually settled for a Matt Ruffolo field goal.

Brandin Echols quickly gave Kentucky the ball back after recording his first interception of the season and returning it to midfield. The Cats were unable to convert on fourth-and-1 this time, though, and turned the ball over to the Wolfpack at their own 29.

N.C. State followed with a short, fruitless drive of its own before each team had slightly longer possessions that ended without points. Kentucky broke the streak with a six-play, 79-yard streak down the field capped by a 4-yard touchdown run from Rodriguez.

The Wolfpack marched 52 yards on 14 plays but were forced to settle for a field-goal try from Kentucky’s 23; safety Ty Ajian got a finger on the ball as it went up and it fell a couple yards short as a result. A couple of big gains — a 31-yard burst from Rose and a 23-yard connection from Wilson to Keaton Upshaw — set Kentucky up in the red zone but it was only able to tack on a second field goal right before halftime.

A 30-yard kickoff return by Zonovan Knight put N.C. State at its own 32, from where it traveled to 23 before an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty forced a third-and-23 try. The Wolfpack got 13 yards back but Christopher Dunn was wide right on a 43-yard kick, leaving them scoreless. Kentucky didn’t travel far on its ensuing series before punting.

UK lost Echols for the game midway through the third quarter after he and teammate Vito Tisdale collided with one another while trying to tackle an N.C. State receiver. His exit left UK without a single cornerback who started a game during the regular season; Carrington Valentine started in place of Cedrick Dort, who was “medically unavailable” on Saturday. N.C. State finally got on the board on the drive where UK lost Echols, as Bailey Hockman hit C.J. Riley for a touchdown on a fourth-and-6 pass from UK’s 9-yard line.

Kentucky stalled out at the Wolfpack’s 44 but pinned them inside the 5-yard line on Max Duffy’s next punt. They didn’t get much further before punting to Ali, who caught it at UK’s 38. UK moved into N.C. State turf on its next trip but elected to punt on fourth-and-2 from State’s 40, and it was downed at the 13.

The Cats’ offense got back to action immediately after Yusuf Corker intercepted Hockman at N.C. State’s 42. A 27-yard rush by Rose set Kentucky up at the Wolfpack’s 3-yard line but the Cats couldn’t punch it in. Ruffolo went 3-for-3 on field-goal tries with a 20-yard kick to extend the lead to 16-7 with 5:45 left.

Two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and a late-hit penalty put N.C. State at UK’s 8, and Knight capitalized with a touchdown run to bring the Wolfpack within two at 16-14 less than a minute later. They halted Kentucky again but would never get closer than that margin.

You can read this article at its original location here.

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