BIG 33 vs. NORTH-SOUTH
Exactly a month has passed since the Big 33 and North-South all-star games were played and although this issue has been addressed 1,000 times, let's make it 1,001.
I credit the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association for trying to make the best of a bad situation. Once the Big 33 moved its game from late July to June 18 (the same day of the North-South game) a decision needed to be made. There were rumblings that Ohio would drop out of the Big 33 game all together, in order to preserve the integrity of the North-South Classic, the longest running high-school all-star game in the country. But the OHSFCA realized that the Big 33 was a special event and tried to please everyone involved.
Therefore, they decided to hold the North-South game as usual – with most of Ohio's top players – and send basically a "C" team (with some stars like Thad Gibson mixed in) to Hershey, Pa., to play the Big 33.
Sounded good enough on the surface. Ohio is a state rich in football talent and there are plenty of players to make up three all-star teams.
But instead of allowing the North and South squad to take most of the best players, they should have held a "snake draft," splitting up the best players on three separate teams. The organizers of the Big 33 were not happy that Ohio did not send its best team, or even anything close. They said during the week of the game that they would look to replace Ohio in 2007 with another state (such as Maryland) if Ohio didn't make a better effort to send its top talent.
But of course after all the hubbub, the boys from Ohio went out there and almost knocked off Pennsylvania's "A" team. Ohio led 28-14 early in the second half, but Pennsylvania came back to stage a 61-42 victory in the highest scoring Big 33 game on record.
Meanwhile, back in Columbus, the North disposed of the South, 34-13 at Crew Stadium. I was there covering it and I managed to stay awake. Barely.
I will admit I am biased here. While I respect the history of the North-South, it just doesn't do it for me. It's a friendly game, while the Big 33 feels like a real football game with emotional attachments.
Why? Because it's a border war between two Big Ten states. The two Big Ten states with by far the most high school football talent. In fact, if you were going to rank the best high school football states in the country, in no particular order, the short list would include Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, California and Georgia.
When Ohio and Pennsylvania face off in the Big 33, it almost feels like an OSU-Penn State game. Probably because it's summer and we haven't tasted football for a while, but the point is that it's a great game to watch, while the North-South is a yawner.
I think Ohio needs to do whatever it takes to maintain its place in the Big 33 event. Whether that means moving the North-South game to early spring, between winter and spring sports seasons (yes, I know there can be some overlap, but they could make it work), or having a snake draft to split up the players evenly, something needs to be done. And if the North-South game was really important to football fans in Ohio, wouldn't more of them show up for the game? The announced attendance at Crew Stadium this year was 5,910, but by the early second half it looked like a ghost town. Also, wouldn't television networks line up to broadcast the game live, rather than the hated "tape delay" method?
No decisions have been made about the 2007 games, but the situation will be interesting to monitor. I think it's best for the kids of Ohio to keep the partnership with the Big 33, while sending a team that has a realistic chance of winning.
KUDOS TO NORTHWESTERN…
… For the way it handled the Randy Walker tragedy. The administrators at Northwestern acted swiftly, while still respecting Walker's legacy.
With the season fast approaching, they didn't have the luxury of conducting a prolonged search for their new coach. At the same time, Walker was one of the best coaches in school history and they didn't want to act too fast and disrespect his family.
The day after Walker's funeral, the Wildcats hired 31-year-old Pat Fitzgerald as their new coach. The former star linebacker at NU was Walker's hand-picked replacement (he served as Walker's recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach) but he wasn't expected to take over for another 6-8 years.
It's hard to say how well Fitzgerald will do, but he sure looks and talks the part. (Did I just break out a John Cooper "he passes the look test" comment?) My thought it that it will take a while, but he will eventually have Northwestern back to the success-level it enjoyed under Walker's leadership.
Despite losing nine starters, including three first-round NFL draft picks, Ohio State's 2006 defense is going to be in better shape than some people might think.
There is a lot of youth and inexperience in the back seven, but there is also a boatload of talent. The back seven will have its ups and downs, but will be solid.
But the main reason the "Silver Bullets" defense will live up to its excellent reputation is because of the defensive line. There is a nice blend of veteran leadership and young talent. There also seems to be good depth, other than maybe at tackle. Let's take a closer look at the D-line.
The conversation must start with senior tackle Quinn Pitcock, one of the most athletic interior linemen in the country. Catlike-quick at 300 pounds, Pitcock is also extremely strong and plays low to the ground. Former OSU center Nick Mangold, a first-round pick by the New York Jets, said Pitcock was the toughest player he ever went up against in college. Pitcock is not going to put up big statistics in OSU's system. His job is to eat up blockers and collapse the line of scrimmage. At the same time, I think we will see his sack numbers increase as a senior as he goes out with a bang.
Pitcock's running mate inside is senior David Patterson. He is another athletic tackle who played a lot on the outside last year with Marcus Green manning the middle. Patterson is a player that just kept getting better and better as the 2005 season went on and might have had his best game against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said during the spring that Pitcock and Patterson have the chance to be one of the best tackle tandems in the country this year.
Another senior, Jay Richardson, will get a chance to start at one of the defensive end spots. A talented player who has underachieved during his first four years in the program, Richardson might have turned the corner late in 2005. The coaches went out of their way to praise him during the spring for his work ethic and he seems determined to step up and be a leader this season. Richardson is a massive defensive end at 6-6, 280 who can rush the passer and stop the run. A big season from him (8-9 sacks) would be huge for the defense.
The only young member of the projected starters is sophomore end Lawrence Wilson. And he has "future star" written all over him. Wilson played around 245 pounds as a true freshman, but is already up to 275. And he says he is faster and quicker than ever. Wilson is still a raw player, but this could be the year he breaks out and collects double-digit sacks.
Richardson and Wilson will have plenty of competition from sophomore end Vernon Gholston, who redshirted last year with a hand injury. Gholston is a very physical player for a rush end, but still has the athletic ability to be a good pass rusher off the edge. He looked good in the spring and will play a lot this year, whether he starts or not.
Another player that could see a lot of time in a reserve role is sophomore DE/DT Alex Barrow. He looked great two summers ago in the all-star circut, but was redshirted in 2004 and then did not play much last year. He is versatile and can fill in anywhere along the line. Also, he has reportedly bulked up to 280 pounds, 25 more than his listed weight on the official roster.
I said the depth at tackle was not very good, but if one of the backup players steps up and produces, the Buckeyes should be just fine. Three players in particular – senior Joel Penton, sophomore Nader Abdallah and freshman Todd Denlinger – all have the chance to be in Heacock's rotation. Denlinger looked very impressive during the spring and could be a good fit. He is now around 300 pounds, 35 more than his listed weight.
Also, defensive ends Ryan Williams and Doug Worthington are each trying to come back from knee surgery. They both redshirted last year, so if they can play this year, they will. Look for both of them to be eased back in with the hopes that one or both can help the team during the Big Ten season. If they are not ready (or even if they are) look for true freshman DE Rob Rose to get a chance to play right away.
Overall, the defensive line looks like it could be one of the best in the Big Ten, and possibly the country. And it will need to be with the amount of youth that will be on the field in the back seven.
ODE TO ESPNEWS
Remember when ESPN's Sportscenter used to be good? Remember when it wasn't corny and it was "just the facts, ma'am"? Remember when the anchors who thought they were funny were actually funny? Well, minus the jokes, that is what we have in the most underrated cable channel ever invented, ESPNews.
ESPNews is great on so many levels. For example, when ESPN is showing golf (the most boring sport to watch on TV other than maybe pairs badminton) or women's basketball when Sportscenter is supposed to be on, ESPNews always comes through in the clutch. Poker is a great game to play, but showing it on ESPN makes little sense. I won't even bring up the National Spelling Bee. (OK, I will.) Enter ESPNews.
And notice I didn't say BEST cable channel. That award goes to HBO in a landslide. But for the true sports diehard, it doesn't get any better than ESPNews.