Reliability is Oregon's question mark

Wed, 08/26/2015 - 9:13am
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What a difference 12 months has made for the University of Oregon football team and its loyal fanbase.

Last year, Oregon prepped for a run at the national championship fueled by the steady, reliable play of Marcus Mariota, who eventually led the team to the title game and won the Heisman Trophy. That led to him being selected second in the NFL Draft.

A year later, the Ducks feature a free-agent quarterback who already has fans worried about his reliability due to … college classwork (imagine that). Vernon Adams.

What a thrill ride Oregon fans are basically set up for this season.

Maybe we all need that, too.

Oregon football has become somewhat tame, leading to the program signing payday games – for their opponent – in two of the three non-conference slots annually. This week Oregon announced it would play North Dakota State of the second-tier FCS in 2020 at Autzen Stadium. Awesome.

Wouldn't a game against, say, Iowa State be better? North Dakota State beat Iowa State last season, but what really matters there is ISU is from the Big 12. Why does Oregon play teams like North Dakota State, Georgia State, UC Davis, and beyond? To win big and pad stats for its players.

So, maybe Vernon Adams is this season's path to adventure. He gets a game against his former school – Eastern Washington - in his first game at Autzen. Then, off to Michigan State, which is just jonesing for retribution for its loss at Oregon last season, a loss that unhinged its national title hopes.

Adams and the Ducks play at Arizona State and host USC of the Pac-12 South this season as well, so the conference schedule has some sauce.

Adams is a big unknown as the season starts, primarily because he didn't take care of school business as had been promoted in spring. Only in August did he get clearance to actually suit up for the football team after passing a math test.

But, again, that might be good for Oregon fans. The Ducks are rarely an underdog, but Adams has made the season scary by just being an outsider from the Oregon culture. A free-agent. That's becoming quite a thing in college athletics, especially basketball. Now, it is likely to spread to football, potentially keeping programs like North Dakota State from becoming dynasties because their top players might move to programs like Iowa State to improve them and show off their skills to NFL teams.

So, buckle up Oregon fans. It's going to be a … fun season of not relying on reliability that's been established from previous seasons. That didn't actually have such a downside for Ohio State last season, which played the final month with a freshman quarterback who started the season No. 3 on the depth chart. Maybe Oregon will play its way to a national title with a free-agent quarterback who had everyone in the state wondering about his reliability right up until he needed to show off his skills in the classroom and on the field.



Chambers Bay plays its role

Fri, 06/19/2015 - 10:25am
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If you were fortunate enough to have access to coverage of  the U.S. Open Thursday, you got one spectacular view of professional golf, and the range of emotions that engage the sport. After watching much of the first round of the Open, it hit me that more than one player would leave the course and talk to the media with some disgust about Chambers Bay with a quote something like "I hate this course, and I shot even par."

"But it sure made the game fun."

All those swales, the funky-colored greens, guys hitting the ball onto "backstops" way past the hole to have it roll back and narrowly miss going in - it was fun to watch. And, despite the challenges, the first round was one of the better scoring rounds in Open history with 29 players breaking par and a whole stack shooting par at 70.

There were 11 eagles on the par-4 12th hole, which virtually every player was able to reach with a driver.

And, still, there was the complaint, by Sergio Garcia about the course - at least the greens tweeting the Open “deserves better quality green surfaces than we have this week but maybe I’m wrong!”

And he shot 70.

If anyone could have been complaining about the greens, it would have been Tiger Woods. He was perhaps three combined inches away from making enough putts that he might have been at 70 instead of 80. But, he had so many other issues during his round, he could hardly single out the putting surface. And he played in one of the best/worst pairings of the day. Golden Boy Rickie Fowler was right there just waiting to make Woods look really old with a simple round of 70. But he shot, wow, 81. And the third player in the group, Louis Oosthuizen - getting a chance he may never get again to be in front of a large television audience, outdueled his partners with a 77.

A combined 28 over par. Chambers Bay kicked their butt, although no one looked at the course as causing their troubles. They just played terribly - Woods lost the grip on his club during one swing from long grass.

With the pairings swapping tee times from morning to afternoon and vice versa, the view of the course is likely to change for each player. Let's see what Sergio has to say after playing in the afternoon, where only 11 players broke par as opposed to 18 in the morning round.

Go get'em Chambers Bay!



Give those Ducks and Beavers a hand

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 10:42am
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In spite of being one of the last teams to get into the NCAA baseball tournament Monday morning, there might not be a hotter team in America than the University of Oregon based on its play from the past month, including a weekend series win over UCLA.

That's the NCAA talking, too.

Oregon beat UCLA in extra innings on both Saturday and Sunday, which didn't stop the Bruins from moving up in the national rankings. So, if Oregon can beat the top-ranked team in the nation, what's stoping them from winning a national title.

That's a topic Sportsland, Oregon co-hosts Cliff and Derek take on in the 14th Episode this week.

Oregon State, a team with a lengthy history of postseason success, is also among the tournament picks.

There's more action on the diamond from the state as the Ducks are headed to the College Softball World Series this week in Oklahoma City.

The NBA gets some time, as does a rough weekend of soccer for Portland. Derek provides some insight on attending the upcoming U.S. Open, and there's plenty of discussion about the growing popularity of ... roofball.

It's all recorded at Blitz Pearl in Northwest Portland.


Here's to a slow start for Marcus

Fri, 05/01/2015 - 5:58am
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When the Tennessee Titans drafted Marcus Mariota Thursday night, fans of the University of Oregon football program could finally take a big, deep breath with finally knowing where its most famous, recent, player was headed.

Now, he just has to wind up there, and represent the school for future Heisman-level quarterbacks. That’s something that’s been a tough sell at Oregon over the past two decades.

And, fast starts may have accounted for that.

The Titans have already expressed expectations that Mariota will be their starter on opening day, when the team plays the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who drafted Jameis Winston with the top pick, one ahead of Mariota. There’s a bevy of media experts who promoted getting Mariota into the starting line-up that fast, or even in his first season, was a career mistake for him and his team.

Mariota did a fabulous job moving directly into the starting line-up at Oregon as a freshman, but the pro ranks are entirely different in their style and the opponents, none of whom have to attend class or have a limit on their seasons. Mariota will face harden pro defensive players from his first snap, and even the most dedicated student of the game will need game experience to handle that. Four preseason games isn’t going to help that a ton.

Mariota handled the experience well Thursday.

“For me, I’m going to do my best to transiton to everything,” Mariota said in a conference call with Titans reporters Thursday.

“I’ll continue to be the player I’ve always been, and do whatever’s asked of me. Coach Whisenhunt’s going to have his offense and the complexities of his system, and I’m going to do my best to execute it.”

And No. 2, the only player from Oregon ever selected higher was quarterback George Shaw, the top overall pick in 1955.

Shaw was a classic Oregon pro - he started as a rookie with the Baltimore Colts, but got hurt his second year and finished his eight-year career primarily as a back-up with the Colts and New York Giants.

Other notable Oregon quarterbacks who just never took off were Akili Smith, drafted in the first round in 1998, and Joey Harrington, who was the third overall pick in 2002. Smith was selected third overall by Cincinnati in 1999, but only played in 22 games with the team, and finished his career with the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders. Harrington was promoted extensively by the Ducks, and Nike as an Oregon senior, but lasted just six years in the NFL. He started 12 games as a rookie.

If the Titans have a long-term desire to keep Mariota on their roster, starting, or even playing early in his career with the team is a big mistake. Look at Tom Brady’s career. Drafted in the sixth round out of Michigan in 2000, he threw only three passes as a rookie, but has started almost every game since - outside of missing the 2008 season due to injury. Having a year to prep for the game is huge.

But, when you’re selected second, and not in the sixth round, you have expectations that don’t allow for time to grow into the job. People expect performance right away, whether you’re ready for it or not. Mariota was ready for it on Day 1 in Eugene. Oregon fans can only predict, and hope, he’ll produce the same in Memphis when the pro game gets going in Summer.

Let's go change NBA!

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 8:12am
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If you're a fan of the NBA, then you've got to say some kind words under your breath for the Los Angeles Clippers because everyone wants to see them playing the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals.

James Harden against Chris Paul? Blake Griffin taking on Kawhi Leonard?

Portland's own Terrence Jones getting to meet Clips owner Steve Balmer after throwing down a dunk?

But, the real joy of that series is going to be fouls. Hack-a-Howard vs. Hack-a-Jordan.

When they are behind in the second half, the Clippers will just foul Dwight Howard on every possession until he proves he can make two free throws in a row. And, the Rockets will do the same with DeAndre Jordan. The basketball world wants to see that.

The Blazers took advantage of that last year in the first game of its first-round playoff series with the Rockets, and it paid off by helping them rally from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to win on the road. They didn't use it to any significant degree the remainder of the playoffs, but that option always existed.

Tuesday, the San Antonio Spurs basically shut down the game for 15 minutes by fouling Jordan on every possession in the third quarter even though the game was tied. They managed to take a slim lead, but then the Clippers rallied and produced an exciting finish ... which the Spurs won 111-107 to take a 3-2 series lead.

What the NBA needs to see from a game to alter the hack-a-bad-free-throw-shooter strategy is a game in which both teams do it at the same time. And, they'll look into changing the rule because of who it bothers most - television viewers.

No one wants to see a parade of free throws. An intentional foul away from the ball should be considered a mild version of a flagrant foul, which results in free throws and the ball back. Foul away when a player has the ball, but at least there's a legit reason for going at him. Simply stopping the game and making it longer goes against the challenge of the day these days - make events shorter. Baseball has done that in requiring batters to keep at least one foot in the batter's box during plate appearances.

It's certainly easy to argue there's no need for a rule change - if Howard and Jordan were better free-throw shooters, then this wouldn't be a problem. But, there's likely to always be a very poor shooter in the league, and it'll always be someone who's a frontline player such as a center. That's an exciting player fans want to see, but not at the free-throw line for being fouled intentionally.

And, the way to bring that front-and-center for the league's managers is to have Houston play the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs.




Blazers are playoff-building bound

Sun, 04/26/2015 - 11:03pm
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The Memphis Grizzlies haven't been a secret for some time in how they've been developed during a season - they're built for a playoff run. Incredible how that can be said when Zach Randolph is one of their starters, but the deliberate and physical style of play they have says "we want to make every possession count."

In the past four seasons, they've been past the first round twice, reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2013. The other two seasons, they lost in the first round - in seven games each time.

Heck, if they've had Greg Popovich as coach, the Grizzlies might have an NBA Title or two in the trophy case.

So, how can the Portland Trail Blazers create that same reputation around the NBA? That's going to be quite a challenge this summer for General Manager Neil Olshey with the team facing that prospect soon by trailing the Grizzlies 3-0 in their first-round series.

The Blazers have pieces of a playoff contender in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, but the third part of the planned threat - Nicolas Batum - has never played up to his role. Perhaps it's time to see what his value is on the open market. This summer.

With only one playoff series win in the past 14 seasons, and only two seventh games since 1990, Portland just hasn't gotten the playoff excitement its fans crave.

Somehow, there's a gameplan that hasn't gotten on the chalkboard that will get Portland into some form of playoff run it hasn't been in since the days of Clyde, Terry, Duck, Buck and Jerome.

Aldridge is a player. Lillard is a player. CJ McCollum appears to be one who can take his place in the building process.

Olshey is in need of being a player himself this summer. Portland is a wierd place that remains calm during the summer, making solid moves like bringing Robin Lopez in at center two summers ago. But, that move got only one playoff series win. Snagging Aaron Afflalo at the trade deadline this season didn't make an impact either.

Whatever the moves end up being, one of the playoff elements that can happen even off the court is in the court of public opinion. Portland has chased after big names, notably Paul Millsap one summer, but no big names seem interested in winding up in a nice, humble town. That's a factor that has to change this summer if the team's history is to change in the playoffs.

There must be a million ways to lose in the West

Mon, 04/13/2015 - 7:00am
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Wow. Just a couple weeks ago, it was sort of a gimme that the Portland Trail Blazers would be playing either the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs or possilby the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

After a pair of stirring runs by the Spurs and Clippers, the opponent could be Memphis or Houston, with the Blazers having played their way out of homecourt edge in the series.

This is what makes the Western Conference one of the best conferences in any pro sport in the world. Not only are there so many quality teams - two teams with winning records will miss the playoffs entirely, but so many of the playoff teams are closely matched that even their playoff seeds are up in the air until the final three days of the season.

Sports books in Las Vegas must be loving this because there's two odds-on favorites - Golden State and San Antonio, but so many upset potentials.

NBA executives have to be loving how the playoffs are shaping up, too, with a pair of season upstarts: Golden State in the West, and Atlanta in the East, possibly lining up against the stars of their conferences: the NBA champion Spurs against Lebron James' Cleveland in the conference finals.

But, that's anything but a gimme in the West.



West leading Dallas just what the Timbers need

Thu, 04/02/2015 - 9:33am
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PORTLAND - After four games the Portland Timbers are just three points shy of the third spot in Major League Soccer's Western Conference. Trouble is, that's a big three points as it equates a victory.

So far, the Timbers have been victory-challenged, turning in four solid performances that turned into three draws and a frustrating loss at Vancouver Saturday.

Portland has scored three goals during the season, and given up four, but two of those were in the 90th minute or stoppage time, including Saturday's game-winner.

Vancouver won 2-1 in the first of six games that make up the Cascadia Cup between the Timbers, Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders.

A victory this week would be a huge lift as Saturday's opponent is Dallas FC, which leads the Western Conference with 10 points in four games.

Dallas has scored six times, and given up a league-low one goal amongst teams that have scored at least one goal. Colorado has given up no goals, but also scored none, settling for three draws.

Saturday's game is set for a 7:30 p.m. start.

Portland's offense has been centered around forward Fanendo Adi, who has all three goals, which has him tied for first in the league with four other players. One of those players is Blas Perez of Dallas.

The Timbers appear ready for a breakout game offensively. They lead the league in corner kicks with 26, and are second in shots-on-goal with 18, trailing only Vancouver with 20.

Timbers not in a hurry to panic

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 11:20am
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After a lively practice performed in front of more than a dozen local media members, Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter had a resilient response to the undertone of the ensuing question-and-answer session that resonated around the teams’ first three games - all draws.

The undertone? Is he starting to get frustrated/worried about the Western Conference standings and the points his team is missing out on by not winning at least one of the games, two of which it clearly outplayed the opponent.

The answer? Not at all.

“We’ve got three points, and that’s more points than we had after three games than we had two years ago when we won the West,” Porter said referring to his first season as coach when the Timbers finished atop the conference standings. “The points will come. We just have to stay consistent in what we’re doing because we’re playing well.”

Portland won the conference title in Porter’s first season after moving up from the University of Akron. The team attacked the goal constantly and it turned into 57 points. Last season, the speed of play seemed to slow down just a tad other than a regular late blast and it turned into 49 points.

But, those 49 points were one shy of Vancouver for the fifth and final playoff spot.

So, naturally there’s regular conversation from every group of team supporters about those points left on the field and not being put on the standings.

Porter pointed to the length of the season - 29 more games - and the fact the Timbers have given up just two goals.

What’s frustrating to watch is how well the team plays and the results that it doesn’t turn into. In their season opener, for example, Portland scored an amazing 11-0 edge in corner kicks against Real Salt Lake. The game, though, ended 0-0.

The Timbers went up by a goal twice the following week against Los Angeles only to have the Galaxy even the score for a 2-2 draw. Saturday, an evenly-played match ended 0-0 at Kansas City.

This week the team travels to Vancouver, B.C. for the first of their matches with their Cascadia Cup rivals.

Portland actually has some good history on its side in looking at its record. Not only do the Timbers have three points, but they’ve got two shutouts. Under Porter, the Timbers have finished seasons impressively. Not only did they win the West in 2013, they finished third in the league in goals scored, and first in goal differential - 21. They led the league in draws as well as had a league-low in losses with just five.

Last season, Portland finished third in goals scored and second in draws. In his third season, Porter is 26-14-31.

Three points after three games is actually a good start to a season, but that’s equal to one win and two losses. That’s maybe the most frustrating part for fans, deciding if one win - to get that sense of victory - coupled with two losses is better than not losing at all. It goes against the drama of sports, which the Wide World of Sports highlighted in the ‘70s with the tagline “Thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”

Draws work well in that they keep a team moving forward in the point totals, but they get on a supporters’ nerves after awhile. So, hopefully, this week the Timbers will get off that train of single points, and either win or lose.

After three no-decisions, even a loss might help fans feel more comfortable with the team this season.

Tattoo: The Ducks! The Ducks!

Mon, 02/09/2015 - 8:42pm
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Oregon's big foray into the college football signing day phenomenon actually happened five days late - or later - in terms of news the rest of the nation could focus on.

Monday, the Ducks extended the contract of head coach Mark Helfrich to the 2020 season, with the specifics being $17.5 million over five seasons. Oregon put a tattoo on its coach for the rest of the decade, unless he wants to bolt for the NFL - and the $3 million buyout. Doesn't seem likely, though.

Then, later in the day, the Ducks announced they had landed Vernon Adams, the three-year starting quarterback at FCS power Eastern Washington, as a potential replacement for Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

Adams joins a crowded group - at least until someone transfers - of players awaiting their shot at becoming the next standout at Autzen Stadium.

Adams threw for more than 10,000 yards while guiding the Eagles on their red turf. He'll graduate from EWU in June, then be able to join the Oregon football team in time to get ready for another run at a national title.




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