5-6-11: While I Was Away, Part 1...

Hello again everybody...

I hate to keep starting blogs with cautions, warnings and explanations, but I also don't want to raise people's expectations too high as I get back into the swing of things here.

Just because I managed to crank out three blogs this week doesn't mean I'll be doing that every week. At least not the in early goings of getting back to writing. After all, there likely would've only been two this week, except for the fact that we had a no-hitter dropped into our midst.

The truth is I'm battling between a couple of writing theories. One says that you should set a schedule and stick to it. Even if you don't have much to say on a given day, sticking to a schedule forces you to stay in the habit of cranking out material on a regular basis, which - according to the theory - helps you get better as a writer.

My own history bears that out to a degree. There have been a number of times where I've sat down in front of a blank screen with no earthly idea what I was going to write about, only to crank out a column that got a lot of positive reaction.

That being said, the second theory encourages a writer to be more organic with their writing. Wait until the spirit moves you and then really focus and crank out something worth reading. Producing nothing, under this premise, is better than producing crap just to say you did something.

It certainly seems to me that there's something to be said here as well. As often as I've managed to crank out something readable after starting with nothing in mind, I've also started columns with a loose idea of what I wanted to do and managed to get sidetracked and ramble off in several nonsensical directions.

Basically I'd like to get more focused in my writing, but I also don't want to get out of the habit and disappear for long stretches of time. So if any of you have thoughts, opinions, or suggestions on how to reconcile these two seemingly opposed notions, please pass them along. I can use all the perspective I can get on this.

But enough of my esoteric babbling. It's time for sports, sports and more sports!

There were plenty of notable sports occurrences over my hiatus. So many in fact, that while I intended to get to them all in a single column, I decided I'll have to break them up into two columns.

I'll get to part one...

Right after the quote!

“When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.”
- Marquis de la Grange (1639-1692), French writer

Whoops! Maybe I should've shared this before asking for “ thoughts, opinions, or suggestions”? Though in that case I would say I'm not looking so much for an accomplice, as a scapegoat, right?!

Time to talk about what happened...

While I Was Away...

The Giants won the World Series... and I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out exactly how.

Look, I'm as big a fan of the old adage “good pitching beats good hitting” as the next guy, but I'm also realistic enough that you have to be able to score some runs at some point to win a World Series.

The Atlanta Braves teams from the early 90's might have had the best run of starting pitching of any franchise in the last 30 years. That's the main reason they went to the World Series five times in that decade. But their inability to score runs in clutch situations is the reason they only won the whole ball of wax once.

So as I look back at the 2010 Giants, I'm still kind of befuddled as to how they managed to win the title.

Remember, this is a club that didn't earn its berth into the post-season until the final week of regular season play. And they needed a significant melt-down by the San Diego Padres to pull that off.

I knew going into the playoffs that they'd be dangerous due to their pitching. Any time you can run Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner out there three games in a row, you're going to give opposing offenses fits.

But as we just got done discussing, you have to score runs - and score them fairly consistently - to win a World Series.

Consider the following numbers... the Giants had exactly one of their regular position players finish with a batting average over .300 - catcher Buster Posey, who was a rookie. They had just two players finish with 20+ home runs (Aubrey Huff and Juan Uribe) and none with 30+. Not one of their hitters reached 90 RBI on the season, and only four of their players had what would be considered an “above-average” OPS.

An offensive juggernaut, they certainly weren't.

And yet - as is so often the case - baseball had a surprise for us.

Somehow, some way, the Giants caught fire offensively in the post-season and their bats more than held up their end of the bargain to match the production of their talented pitching staff.

OF Cody Ross, who appeared in only 33 regular season games while posting a .288/.354/.466 line (batting avg./on-base %/slugging %), absolutely exploded in the post-season with a .294/.390/.686 line in 51 at-bats. He hit 5 home runs, 5 doubles and knocked in 10 runs, ranking second amongst all post-season hitters in those categories.

And he wasn't alone in producing for that lineup.

Juan Uribe's line wasn't great (.149/.196/.277), but he had several clutch at-bats, knocking in 9 runs for the Giants. Aubrey Huff plated 8 runs over the course of his 56 at-bats. And Edgar Renteria had an insanely good World Series, hitting .412/.444/.765, while hitting two home runs and knocking in 6 runs in those five games alone, on his way to winning the World Series MVP award.

Sometimes teams just get on a roll and feed off of each other, and as long as you have nothing against them (Red Sox, I'm looking at you) it's a beautiful thing to watch.

The Vikings imploded... and looking back, we probably should've seen it coming... at least to a point.

Look, when your team's season kicks off under the cloud of “Penis-gate”, you probably shouldn't expect a great run that year.

With that being said, I don't know how anyone could've predicted what turned out to be perhaps the goofiest season in the history of professional sports.

A team that finished 12-4 and two plays away from a Super Bowl berth while earning their head coach a contract extension in 2009, managed to bumble their way into a 6-10 record, while getting that same head coach fired in 2010.

We've seen teams fall from grace before, but never quite so spectacularly.

Their highly-paid offensive line sucked. Their highly-paid defensive line was mediocre. Their best wide receiver had hip surgery late in the off-season and was never truly able to get back to his regular form. Their second best receiver fought the symptoms of his migraines all season, going so far as to collapse on the practice field at one point and get taken off by an ambulance.

And then there was the quarterback.

All picture-message-related troubles aside, the All-Pro form he displayed in 2009 was conspicuously lacking in 2010.

Maybe he was distracted by the aforementioned potential legal troubles. Maybe his age finally caught up with him. Maybe, like many a great fighter, he just plain got tired of being hit. Most likely it was a combination of all of those things.

Whatever it was, he was flat awful, and eventually had his consecutive games streak ended due to an injury that quite literally turned his arm purple.

Perhaps the oddest stat of the year: the Minnesota Twins who play 81 home dates, had 1 game postponed due to weather, while the Vikings who play 8 home dates, had two games postponed due to a Snonami that collapsed the Metrodome roof. One of which got moved to Detroit of all places, while the other was played at TCF Bank Stadium (home of the Gophers) which is in no way, shape, or form designed to host a game in late December.

Throw in the game in Philadelphia that went from a Sunday game to a Tuesday game due to inclement weather there, and you start to understand just how goofy that season really was.

The Badgers lost the Rose Bowl... which sucked, but - at least for me - didn't ruin what was an otherwise fantastic season.

Regular readers know that I had all sorts of trepidation going into the 2010 college football campaign. I knew that Bucky had some talent, and enough experience that if things fell their way, they could be dangerous.

But I also had some serious concerns. Their quarterback was still something of a question mark. Their running backs had all sorts of trouble holding on to the ball the previous season. And their defense, while having some talented players, was also prone to giving up too many big plays.

They got off to their usual solid start, steamrolling their non-conference competition. Then immediately confirmed my concerns in a 34-24 loss at Michigan State. They turned over the ball at critical junctures and gave up far too many big plays to an offense that wasn't exactly a juggernaut.

Little did I realize at the time, that would be their only regular season blemish.

They were able to even their conference record the following week thanks to the ever-woeful Gophers, and took that 1-1 record into a showdown against Ohio State the week after that, in a night game at home in the friendly confines of Camp Randall Stadium.

I was actually in Lincoln, Nebraska, that weekend to see the Cornhuskers lay an egg against the Texas Longhorns. (I'm not being disrespectful when I say that - the Huskers are in the Big Ten now - mild jabs are to be expected!)

Thanks to the fact that Wisconsin vs. Ohio State was a night game, I was still able to catch most of it.

Night games at Camp Randall are always a little odd. I don't mean that in a negative way. There's just an entirely different energy in the stadium at night. And if that energy gets rolling in a positive direction, look out. The Buckeyes fought back from an early deficit, but the Cardinal and White had the mojo that night (rhyme only slightly intended), and they rode it to 41-23 win.

That win started a roll the likes of which I've never seen from the Badgers.

They went to the traditionally unfriendly confines of Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City and eked out a 31-30 win over the Hawkeyes. They handled Purdue on the road, 34-13. They obliterated Indiana at home in an 82-20 drubbing. They went to the Big House and laid a 48-28 whipping on the Wolverines. They came back home to crush Northwestern 70-23 and in so doing earned their first trip to Pasadena since 1999.

Sadly, that trip didn't have the happy ending that Wisconsin fans hoped for.

Don't get me wrong, it was a fantastic game. A 21-19 loss to the team that finished the season ranked second in the country behind only the National Champion Auburn Tigers isn't anything to sneeze at.

But it was the missed opportunities for the Badgers that left a bad taste in the fans' mouths.

A missed 39-yard field goal in the second quarter came back to haunt the Badgers. Kickers are bound to miss kicks sooner or later, but they don't usually miss kicks shorter than 40 yards. And to do it in the biggest game of the year is rather unfortunate timing.

Then there was the two-point conversion at the end of the game.

Wisconsin had just completed a fantastic drive with a 4-yard Montee Ball touchdown run to get them within two points of TCU. Obviously the kick team wasn't going to take the field.

But then the offense went and did a funny thing: they lined up in the shotgun formation. It was a head-scratcher of a move at the time, because lining up like that basically told TCU that Wisconsin was throwing the ball, when clearly their best weapon all day had been the run.

While I understand the criticism that was heaped on head coach Brett Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst for that move, ultimately I was good with it.

Running a two-point conversion isn't the same as running a play in an ordinary series. Two-point plays are designed very specifically to confuse defenses in such a way as to make gaining two yards (all that's required on that play) fairly simple. And the design of the play that the Badgers ran would've done exactly that if not for a great play by TCU linebacker Tank Carder.

Badger QB Scott Tolzien lined his guys up, recognized that Carder was coming on the blitz, and knew that meant he'd have TE Jacob Pederson wide open in the end zone. The play developed exactly as expected, right up until the point where Tolzien committed to pulling the trigger.

Just as he set his feet to throw, Carder recognized that he wasn't going to get to Tolzien in time to hit him, stopped his rush, and jumped straight up in the air, knocking down the pass and sealing the win for TCU.

To this day, I'll argue that the play call was just fine. The receiver was open, the quarterback was in position to get him the ball. If the blocker had been able to get Carder to the ground, or if Tolzien had been able to take one extra sidestep before he delivered the ball, that game goes to overtime and perhaps I'm writing about yet another Badger Rose Bowl victory (let us not forget they've won three of the last four they've played in).

But neither of those things happened. Sometimes you draw up a play, and a defender makes a great play to stop you. After getting over the initial sting of the loss, I was able to tip my hat to Tank Carder and the TCU Horned Frogs and enjoy the fact that my favorite college football team had an excellent year.

Those weren't the only things that happened while I was away. I'll get to the rest next week!

In the interim, I hope you all have a safe and enjoyable weekend.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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