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BLOG: This Week In Sports

File Photo. Head coach Bill O'Brien of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates after defeating the Navy Midshipmen 34-7 at Beaver Stadium on September 15, 2012 in State College, Pennsylvania. (credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

File Photo. Head coach Bill O’Brien of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates after defeating the Navy Midshipmen 34-7 at Beaver Stadium on September 15, 2012 in State College, Pennsylvania. (credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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Bill Campbell, known to all Philadelphiasports fans as “The Dean,”...
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By Bill Campbell

Penn State

Last week, former Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine), the Independent Athletics Integrity Monitor for Penn State, recommended that the NCAA hold out post-season eligibility to the university to “create an incentive to stay the course”. He was referring to the road Penn State has been on since penalties were imposed upon the school before the start of the 2012 season. In response, the NCAA Executive Committee did not grant post-season play but did modify the scholarship limitations which Penn State had consented to as part of the penalty package. This provided immediate relief from both the initial scholarship restrictions and overall team limit restrictions which the University’s football program had been living under since the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal was revealed.

Upon hearing this positive news, head football coach Bill O’Brien said, “We have to keep doing what we’re doing, which is working extremely hard to do what’s right for the football program here, for our players, our student-athletes and, most important, for the university.”  Penn State President Rodney Erickson said, “This news is certainly welcome to our university community, student athletes who may want to attend here and will now have the means to do so. As we promised throughout this process, we are committed to continue to improve all of our policies, procedures and actions.”

Underlying Mitchell’s recommendations is the fact that, once the dust settled from the Sandusky scandal, the breadth of the penalties laid on Penn State was widely viewed as an over-reach. Over the last 14 months it has become clear to many that the Freeh report was deeply flawed and the actions by the NCAA were precipitous and unjust. Freeh’s investigation, which formed the basis for the NCCA’s imposition of punishment, charged that Penn State attempted to cover up the early child abuse allegations against Sandusky, leaving him free to roam the campus for more victims. At the core of this was the assertion that former head football coach, Joe Paterno, participated in that cover-up along with other football and administrative personnel because they feared the allegations’ impact upon the university’s lucrative football program.  Sandusky received a 30 to 60 year prison sentence for his offenses. Three university officials, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, are scheduled to stand trial next spring in Dauphin County on conspiracy charges. But some of the weight has been lifted off the back of Penn State’s football program thanks to Sen. Mitchell.

At last week’s Big Ten coaches gathering Coach O’Brien remarked that, with the penalties in place, the most challenging part of recruiting was the low number of available scholarships he could offer to prized recruits. Now things have changed. Instead of being limited to 15 scholarships for the classes of 2014, 2015 and 2016, O’Brien can sign 20 players for next year and a full roster for 2015. In addition, the school’s overall scholarship numbers will rise from 75 next year to 85 in 2016. Under the sanctions, Penn State would have had no more than 65 scholarship players every year from 2014 through 2017. This increased total is a big development for O’Brien, providing incentive for him to stay in Happy Valley long enough to build a national power and pass on inevitable overtures from NFL teams. Penn State will continue to be banned from post-season play but Coach O’Brien can attract more athletes with more scholarship money.

Thanks to the extra scholarships, Penn State will be able to increase depth at every position. To date, the school has oral commitments from 12 players for 2014, a group rating somewhere from 25th nationally to 36th on the various recruiting websites. This season, O’Brien has managed to keep 5-star athletes from quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, and tight end, Adam Breneman. The Lions had a bye last week but used the time to schedule 3 players who would start in 2015 for conference calls.  Kicker Sam Ficken expressed his happiness about the NCAA ruling.  “It was definitely good news for the Penn State freshman class starting in 2015,” said Ficken.  Speaking of O’Brien, Ficken continued, “His message this entire season has been ‘Win the day” but I still have to learn to kick correctly. And we still have to focus on this year.” Ficken is a junior who has kicked successfully 7 for 8 on field goals so far this year. State will continue to focus on winning games and their upcoming Big Ten match on October 5th against Indiana. “That’s what’s important,” Ficken added, “Next week and every game on the schedule.”

One of the sanctions handed down last year was that players could not transfer to another FBS school without sitting out a season. Redshirted freshman, South Jersey’s St. Augustine Prep defensive tackle Austin Johnson, has stayed the course this year and said, “We’re trying to finish the season strong and for now the big focus is on Indiana.” Canadian Akeel Lynch, redshirted last season after a move from New York to Penn State, thought long and hard about transferring but decided being sidelined for a year was worth it. Noting the academic life, social life and alumni network, Lynch felt that his years playing for Penn State would stay with him for the long haul. As for now, Lynch is preparing for Indiana along with his team.  Happy Valley is a little happier.

Basketball – College and Pro

Football is just underway but here comes basketball. The new 76ers coach Brett Brown has a special message for Evan Turner: beware of reports in the media. “I really hope that he’s not caring about what goes on Twitter,” said Brown. Turner was the 76ers’ second overall draft pick in 2010 and Brown wants Turner to get into a gym and rediscover his passion for the game. Brown said the key to rediscovering that passion would be to go back to his time as a kid, how he really enjoyed learning and playing the game. It’s Brown’s opinion that it’s not easy to do but it’s the only way to achieve the right results and it can be done. It begins with the knowledge that you’re putting in the time, you’re getting a new toy to play with and you’re allowed to bring it into the house. That’s how he wants Evan Turned to approach things.

Turner came out of Ohio State as a junior. He appeared to be unhappy and frustrated for the last 3 years, playing under former head coach Doug Collins. His passion for the game often had been questioned by Collins and Turner seemed to sag at times through the last season. The 6’7” guard played like inconsistency was his first name. Just when it appeared that Turner had found the key, someone would shot down the basket on him. Last year, he averaged 13.3 points, which was noteworthy because he was the only 76er to start all 82 games and had at least 2 or 3 horrible nights. His lowest point came in a 97-96 victory against Washington on April 12 when he was held scoreless and shot 0 for 11. So far, the guy’s role has been impossible to describe. Is he a point guard, a 2-guard or a wing? Coach Brown describes him as a generic player and a good, all-around player, one whom the coach would like to see improve his outside shooting and overall perimeter game. “But most of all,” Brown repeated, “we hope to help him find a real joy to play again, find a passion to play.”

Brett Brown also had a few remarks to make about Khalif Wyatt, the guy from Temple who reported to work on September 9th. After two weeks of work, Coach Brown said, “He is tempting for an undrafted rookie free agent. There is a tantalizing part of him that you wonder if he might be another Gary Neal. He has the potential to be a scoring point guard like Neal.” You’ll recall that Neal is a former San Antonio Spur who now plays for Milwaukee. Wyatt is 6’4”, 206 pounds and his conditioning was called into question while he played for Temple. Brown said, “He’s got to get in great shape. There’s a part of him that you get excited about but I’m convinced his key again is fitness.” The Sixers will have to decide whether Wyatt is a scoring guard or a point guard, and will be watching to see if he shows them a player’s instinct, a scoring instinct and a sense for distributing the ball.

The 76ers also are trying to fill an assistant coach vacancy, with several candidates having been mentioned of late. They include John Kuester, a former Detroit coach and Sixer assistant. Kuester also was Brown’s assistant at Boston University in 1983. There’s also a lot of chatter about the Sixers becoming active in the trading market, which could involve Turner despite Coach Brown’s outwardly supportive comments about him. In short, stay tuned.

Eagles – Giants

I usually spend the week scouting the local team and reviewing its pluses and minuses as it faces another game. This week, it seemed fitting to pen a review of the coming opponent. We remain fixated on the Eagles and their discouraging start but there are teams with bigger problems. One of them is the New York Giants. The Eagles will play them on Sunday in a “must win” contest for both teams and, no matter how concerned we may be here in Philly, Giants coach, Tom Coughlin, allowed safety and defensive captain, Antrel Rolle, to address the team after its 31-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) last Sunday. Rolle spoke about there being a bond among the team and about his belief that good things will happen in the season if they play as a team. The Giants have started this season poorly and their record is 4-0. The first play of the season saw Eli Manning’s pass intercepted by the Dallas Cowboys and the Giants seem to have been behind the eight ball ever since. They’ve been outscored 146 to 7, 69 to 7 in the last 2 weeks as they lost to Carolina and Kansas City. Quarterback Eli Manning and the offense have been especially bad, averaging 24 minutes time of possession per game. The offensive line has allowed 14 sacks and the running game is averaging 58 yards. Even the place-kicker, Jack Brown, has missed 2 field goal attempts of 33 and 44 yards in the last 2 games. Victor Cruz is an option with 26 catches for 425 yards and 4 TD’s but Manning has thrown 10 picks and the Giants have racked up 6 fumbles and 9 turnovers. Add to this the fact that Steve Weatherford is having a sub-par season so far, kicking 2 punts down the middle only to see them returned for TD’s, and you know that the Giants have got their share of problems. Despite this atrocious start, Coach Coughlin’s message to his team centered on the NFC East: they trail first place Dallas by only 2 games with 12 to go. Rolle told the team last week, “I believe we can still go 12- from this point. I truly believe that.” That’s their honest message but the question remain, is anyone in that locker room listening?

The Eagles have got to play really well to beat a team with dominant stats and talent like the Denver Broncos. They failed in that mission. But if the numbers mean anything, they’ll have to play pretty badly to lose their upcoming contest with the Giants. The Birds will play the Giants this Sunday at Met Life Stadium, 1:00 p.m. And Andy Reid is 4 and 0.

The Phillies’ Final Loss

The most diehard Philadelphia baseball fan had to be happy to see this season end. It came to a close, a collapse, for the Phils on Sunday in Atlanta in much the same way as the season had. The team was battered 12 to 5 by the Braves, who finished their season in the place the Phils coveted:  division winners. Like all of his team mates, Cody Asche had hoped for a better ending but he required 7 stitches to close a gap on his chin, suffered by a Domonic Brown throw that struck him. The 23-year old third baseman personified the miserable conclusion of the worst Phillies season in 13 years. Asche, a most promising rookie, is a player who represents the future of the team – a team that managed to score just 135 runs in the 2013 season. He showed signs of fatigue as the campaign drew to a close, furnishing just 2 hits in his last 31 times at bat and with blood on his uniform from Brown’s errant throw. While losing 12-5 they did hit a home run on the last Sunday of the season, the first in the last 10 days.

The Phils’ season-ender mirrored the season itself:  the team had a batting average of 248, drawing only just over 2 walks per game for a total 73 victories, 89 defeats. It was far from the season they envisioned when the assembled in Clearwater last March.  The team batting average coupled with their base percentage was its worst since 1991. They scored almost 4.4 runs per game, their fewest since 1988.  If there is any hope for the future, it lies in the chance to get to work a bit sooner and start on improving at nearly every position for 2014. Ryan Howard and a few other recovering players already have spent some time in Florida rehabbing and that can only help them get off to a better start. A new coaching staff probably will be put together and the 2014 player roster surely will look very different. GM Ruben Amaro and manager Ryne Sandberg will direct all of that now.

The team has 2 free agents: Carlos Ruiz and Roy Halladay. There are 10 arbitration-eligible players for this winter: Kyle Kendrick, John Lannan, Antonio Bastardo, Zach Mine, Ben Revere, Roger Bernadina, Casper Wells, Pete Orr and Kevin Fransden. They must be tendered contract by December second. The Phillies paid $50 million for reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, who once had a fast ball that topped 91 m.p.h. He finished the year at about that velocity but with a record of 5-12. The Phillies don’t know of an 8th or 9th inning reliever who can be effective on a consistent basis. That’s one of those mystery questions to be pondered during the cold weather months. As of now Papelbon, who said a minor hip injury cost him some power, says he has no clue as to his future. Neither do we.

No-Hitter in Miami

Not much of an exciting nature happens in Miami – at least when it comes to baseball. But last Sunday night, with the bases full, 2 outs and the score 0-0 in the bottom of the 9th, pitcher Henderson Alvarez stood in the Miami on-deck circle, bat in hand, hoping to complete a no-hitter. Alvarez had blanked the Detroit Tigers for 9 innings and mistakenly thought he had already pitched a no-hitter. But the desperate Marlins needed a run for him to achieve that feat.  “I was nervous,” Alvarez said through a translator, “I started praying because the Marlins needed a run, I said “Please give us a run’.” He added that he was “hoping for a wild pitch.” Someone up there must have heard him because, once Miami loaded the bases with two outs, Luke Putkonen uncorked his second wild pitch allowing Giancarlo Stanton to race home with the game’s only run. Alvarez must have a straight line to heaven.  Now he’s in the history books.

Rich Dubee

At least Rich Dubee can say he outlasted Charley Manuel by 45 or so games. Manuel had the Phils’ all-time best won and lost record in Phillies history but he had a losing season and it cost him. The Phillies had 5 successful seasons both on the field and at the gate, where they set records for attendance streaks that probably never will be matched. Dubee was part of the Phils’ organization for 9 years and, while working under Manuel, he made all of the team’s pitching decisions. For that lengthy period, he headed a pitching staff that finished in 2013 with a National League ERA of 4.34, lower only than that of high-altitude Colorado. He was Manuel’s right-hand man during the team’s finest era but that era has come to an end for Dubee too. His successor will be selected by Ryne Sandberg in conjunction with GM Ruben Amaro. High on the list of possibilities is bullpen coach Rod Nichols, who was Sandberg’s pitching coach at Lehigh Valley.

There were other baseball notes as the season faded into history. The Chicago Cubs fired manager Dale Sveum after a 20-year run that produced more losses than in any other period in the team’s history. The Minnesota Twins gave Ron Gardenhire a 2-year extension even after 3 straight seasons of at least 93 losses. The New York Mets signed Terry Collins to a new 2-year deal following a third place finish on the current season. Terry Francona, the ex-Boston pennant-winning manager who led the Cleveland Indians to a 24 game turnaround in 2013, says he owes it all to staying away from chicken and beer. They say the problem in Boston that led to his firing was allowing the clubhouse to become an animal house with players drinking beer, eating chicken and playing cards and Donkey Kong during baseball games in 2011. Now a wild card win over Tampa Bay would bring Francona back to Boston. No more Animal House.

Out in Pittsburgh

The day that Clint Hurdle took over as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he promised to “electrify” the place. He seems to have lived up to that promise. The Pirates under Hurdle have made the play-offs in the NL East for the first time in 21 years. Hurdle took over in December 2010, preaching optimism and went on the field practicing it every day. He took a declining franchise and made it not only respectable but competitive. He wasn’t satisfied with his 94-68 record for this year and was not content to approach Tuesday night’s game against Cincinnati as one to be won by “hanging tough”. To the contrary, he planned to win it all out and play it like a World Series contest. Pittsburgh had home field advantage by virtue of its sweep of the Reds in the regular season-ender. But Hurdle’s philosophy paid off: the Pirates beat the Reds 6-2 on Tuesday night and the 21-year wait for the playoffs is over.

The Flyers

The other season opener, about which little has been said, is that of the Flyers. The team looks capable of scoring more than a few goals but, maybe, giving up almost as many. Defense could be a problem this year and a tandem of Ray Emery and Steve Mason in goal will have to do the job.  It seems that goal-tending is an everlasting issue to be solved in Philadelphia. It didn’t work out with Ilya Bryzgalov, who doesn’t work here anymore. We’ll be watching that net as the season begins. All eyes will be on Scott Hartnell this year. He went from 37 goals in 2011-12 to 8 last season. But he looks ready for a big year. He is now 31 years old and said he is in the best shape of his like. His body fat is 7 percent lower than ever. He never was in great shape last year, started poorly, then broke his foot and just never recovered. He vowed he would make the play-offs this season. General Manager Paul Holmgren says, “We’re very optimistic for this season.” Let’s hope he’s right.  The Flyers open at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m.