Clemson dominates Alabama to claim national championship

Photo credit: @ClemsonFB

By: Eric He

The first drive ended in a pick-six, the first half ended with a stalled offense and the game ended in devastation.

For Alabama, it was a result that not even their harshest critics could’ve imagined. For Clemson, it was pure ecstasy: a 44-16 rout over the Crimson Tide at Levi’s Stadium on Monday to claim the national championship.

Clemson led 31-16 at halftime and never looked back, outscoring Alabama 13-0 in the second half to clinch the title. The Tigers end the season a perfect 15-0, the first team in the AP poll era to do so. It is the program’s second championship.

“We’re gonna enjoy this one. We’ve got a nice spot to put it in our facility, right next to that other one,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve got twins!”

In the process, they became the first team to defeat Alabama by more than 14 points since Nick Saban took over as coach in 2007. And in many ways, it was stunning. Trevor Lawrence carved up a premier Alabama defense to the tune of 347 yards for three touchdowns on 20-of-32 passing. His favorite target was Justyn Ross, who caught six passes for 153 passes and a touchdown.

From the start, the Tiger put their imprint on the game. Alabama quarterback Tua Taovailoa, who threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns but also had two interceptions, tossed his first pick on his third pass attempt. It went all the way back for a touchdown, with A.J. Terell returning it 44 yards for Clemson.

The Tigers scored touchdowns on three of their final five drives of the first half, and then shut down the Crimson Tide in the second half. Three times, Alabama went for it on fourth down — including a fake field goal attempt on its first drive of the second half. Three times, it was denied.

“We’re 15-0, we beat the best team ever, nobody’s taking that away from us,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said.

With another title win over Saban’s team, Clemson is no longer the little brother to Alabama. The two teams have faced off for four straight years in the College Football Playoff, and it is apparent: Clemson is every bit as equal, every bit as dominant and revered a program as Alabama.

Oregon’s Redbox Bowl win caps off 24 hours worth celebrating

Oregon celebrates after winning the Redbox Bowl (Photo by Eric He)

By: Eric He

SANTA CLARA – 24 hours ago, the future of the Oregon football program was in limbo. With Mark Richt’s surprising retirement from Miami on Sunday, rumors swirled around Mario Cristobal returning to coach at his alma mater.

Would he spurn the Ducks, hours before they were to play in the Redbox Bowl — and, more importantly, leave a program after bringing in the nation’s sixth-ranked recruiting class in 2019?

The answer was clear to Cristobal. On the bus on the way to practice on Sunday, he heard the chatters.

“It got a little bit noisy,” he said. “Felt it was good to address it before it became noisy.”

So he called a team meeting, and told his players in no uncertain terms: “This is where I want to be. There was no waffling. It was put to bed quickly.”

Coupled with a 7-6 win over Michigan State on Monday at Levi’s Stadium, the 24-hour period went from potentially catastrophic to one worth celebrating. Tack on quarterback Justin Herbert’s announcement last week that he would return for his senior season, and 2018 could not have ended on a higher note for Oregon.

“Games like that typically have not gone in our way over the last few years,” Cristobal said. “This culture has changed the program. I feel like we’re just getting started.”

The game itself was nothing to write home about.

For three quarters, Herbert and the high-powered Oregon offense was stymied: 11 drives, 10 punts.

But for one drive early in the fourth, it came together. There were two first-down passes to Jaylon Redd. Then, two strikes to Herbert’s favorite target, Dillon Mitchell — the latter a 28-yard perfect throw in the back of the end zone.

Six plays, 77 yards, a minute and 40 seconds. Paydirt, and a 7-6 lead.

That drive wiped out a frustrating offensive performance for the Ducks. They managed just 203 yards of total offense. Their run game was stifled by the Spartans’ No. 1 rushing defense, which held Oregon to 37 yards on 27 carries. They did not cross midfield until the fourth quarter. They held the ball for nearly 15 fewer minutes than Michigan State.

Herbert, too, was rattled by the Spartans’ defense. He completed 19-of-33 passes for 166 yards, his second-lowest total of the season. But the projected top selection in the 2019 NFL Draft before his decision found a way on that one key drive.

“Things haven’t always gone our way this year, but we battled through together,” Herbert said. “We won our championship today.”

Oregon, which finishes its season with a 9-4 record, is a program on the rise. According to Cristobal, it starts with the culture change on the team.

“I can’t speak enough about these guys and what they represent as competitors,” Cristobal said. “I’m not an old man but I’m not a young man. You’re not going to find guys like this. It’s great to see them achieve that next-level success and continue elevating the program.”

Cristobal continued: “If they showed up on the bus by themselves without a coaching staff, they could get the job done.”

On the field, in a nationally-televised interview, Cristobal affirmed his commitment to Oregon.

“I’m a Duck,” he said, to rousing cheers.

The players followed with a chant: “Cristo-bal, Cristo-bal, Cristo-bal.”

Cristobal is back. Herbert is back. The incoming recruiting class is tops in the Pac-12.

It should be a fun 2019 for Oregon.

Redbox Bowl will be a chance for Oregon, Pac-12 to prove itself

By: Eric He

SAN FRANCISCO – Sitting in front of the assembled media at the Redbox Bowl press conference on Friday, Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal was asked a question about his incoming recruiting class in 2019, which is ranked sixth nationally by 247Sports.

He mentioned his previous employer, Alabama, where he spent four seasons as an assistant coach under Nick Saban.

“That needs to be the expectation,” Cristobal said. “One of those classes is fine, but you need to put two, three, four together to make the team what you want it to be. At the previous place I worked, people often asked, ‘What’s the secret sauce?’ The secret sauce was stacking six No. 1 classes together.”

Then, unprompted, he talked about the challenge of taking on Michigan State’s top-ranked run defense ahead of Monday’s bowl game at Levi’s Stadium.

Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio at the Redbox Bowl press conference on Friday (photo by Eric He)

“This is not a top-5 or top-10 defense,” Cristobal said. “This is the No. 1 run stopping defense in America. They’re one of the top defenses in America, period.”

He continued with a breakdown of the Michigan State defense and what makes it so good — the Spartans allow just 81 yards per game on the ground.

“They did it to everybody they played against, whether it be Ohio State or Penn State,” Cristobal said. “We understand that this is certainly a different type of test that we’re facing.”

Offensive lineman Shane Lemieux said Michigan State’s tape lines up with the statistics.

“A couple of weeks ago, I compared [their defensive front] to [Washington] but they’re a lot better,” Lemieux said.

Cristobal and Lemieux may not have said it explicitly, but by namedropping other programs, their statements underscored the importance of how Oregon performs on Monday not just for itself, but also for the sake of the Pac-12. The conference — reeling from a woeful 1-8 record in bowl games in 2017 — is already off to an 0-2 postseason start in 2018, with Arizona State losing in the Las Vegas Bowl and Cal falling in the Cheez-It Bowl. Washington State takes on Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl later Friday.

Ignore the fact that Oregon and Michigan State enter the Redbox Bowl with identical 5-4 conference records, and the Ducks having one more win than the Spartans — Oregon has more to prove in this game.

Sure, bowl games have become increasingly tossed aside as unimportant, with more and more players sitting out as to not risk injury. And the Redbox Bowl hardly qualifies as a bowl game worth gushing over. But bowl games remain one of the few opportunities for cross-conference matchups, to compare and contrast styles of play, to see how one established program from one part of the country fares against another.

In that context, to say the Pac-12 has hurt its brand nationally in postseason play would be an understatement. Last year, USC, the conference’s marquee program, was embarrassed by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. It did not matter that the Trojans had future NFL lottery pick Sam Darnold at quarterback; the Buckeyes seemed on a completely different level.

This year, USC didn’t even make a bowl game. That, in and of itself, is indicative of the state of the Pac-12.

Meanwhile, Michigan State enters Monday’s game unsatisfied with a 7-5 season. Several players volunteered that they had underachieved.

“Some other teams are excited about getting six wins,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “That’s not really where this program is right now.”

The Spartans finished in the middle of the pack in a conference that includes Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, arguably the toughest division in college football. Finishing above .500 in conference play in the Big Ten is far more impressive than a similar clip in the Pac-12, which did not even come close to placing a team in the College Football Playoff.

If the Pac-12 is to change its perception and reputation, Oregon might be the program to begin the turnaround. The Ducks will be a team to watch next season with its loaded recruiting class and crop of returning veterans, including quarterback Justin Herbert, who was projected to be the top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

“The sky’s the limit for these guys,” said senior safety Ugochukwu Amadi. “I give it 2-3 years, these guys could win the national championship.”

A win over a Big Ten program in the Redbox Bowl would be a strong start toward that end.

Earthquakes unable to come back as they lose to Sporting KC 3-2

By: Eric He

The San Jose Earthquakes were in the match until the end, but could not find a late equalizer in a 3-2 loss to Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday night.

Sporting KC held much of the possession throughout the match and outshot San Jose, stats, which were reflected on the scoreboard.

After halftime, with the score knotted at 1-1, Sporting KC took control. Graham Zusi put home a spectacular shot from long range and then Felipe Gutierrez connected in the 68th minute to put Kansas City up 3-1.

Chris Wondolowksi brought the Earthquakes closer in stoppage time, but San Jose ran out of time as Kansas City ran out the clock.

The home team opened the scoring on a penalty kick after Johnny Russell was tripped by San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell. Illie Sanchez nailed the kick past Russell to give Kansas City a 1-0 lead.

But San Jose would equalize in the 32nd minutes, as Nick Lima sent a cross on the rush and Valeri Qazaishvili punched it in the net after a few shots.

Sporting KC had 12 corner kicks to three for the Earthquakes, who drop their first game of the season after winning their home opener two weeks ago.

Up Next: The Earthquakes will host NYCFC at Avaya Stadium on Saturday, March 31 at 5:00 pm PST.

The Giants and Nationals had a fun brawl, but the Giants can’t live in the past

By: Eric He

SAN FRANCISCO – So, there was a fight and a baseball game broke out … or however the saying goes.

The Giants and the Nationals went from 0 to 100 real quick on Monday afternoon in the form of a fabulous eighth inning brawl between Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland — one that probably justified sitting through a 3-0 loss for many fans.

Retribution in baseball is a strange thing. In 2014, Strickland allowed two monster home runs to Harper during the NLDS. Two and a half years later, they dueled again, and Strickland exacted revenge – by plunking Harper with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball high in the right hip.

Strickland said the intent was to just pitch Harper inside.

“I’ve left the ball over the plate a couple of times to him, and he’s taken advantage of that,” he said. “Just mostly go inside, and obviously I got in a little bit too far.”

Yeah, just a little.

Harper begged to differ.

“After he did it,” he said, “I was like, ‘That was definitely intentional.’

And when you think someone just threw a 98 mile-per-hour fastball at you on purpose, what do you do?

“You can’t hesitate,” Harper said. “You either go to first base, or you go after him. And I decided to go after him.”

So Harper, who had already been thrown out of eight previous games and isn’t exactly the calmest player in baseball, went after him. He walked toward the mound, dropped his bat, flung his helmet and charged Strickland. They went at it, both of them landing punches before the benches cleared, and all hell broke loose.

“It’s go time,” Strickland said. “You’ve got to protect yourself and stand your own ground.”

Hunter Strickland speaks with reporters after throwing at Bryce Harper.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy acknowledged the situation looked bad, but defended his pitcher.

“You’ve got Harper throwing a helmet,” he said. “Strick’s got to stand his ground. He’s got no choice there.”

Strickland obviously had no choice with Harper charging at him, wielding a helmet. But Strickland did have a choice as to where that pitch would go, and Bochy talked to him, making sure the hit-by-pitch was not intentional.

“We don’t do things out of the ordinary or from what I want,” Bochy said. “We go out there and try to win ballgames. I needed to talk to him and make sure we’re straight.”

In a rush to get to Strickland, Jeff Samardzija and Michael Morse collided, and Morse went down. A magnificent combination of hair and masculinity enveloped the AT&T Park infield. While Harper looked at Strickland with a death stare, three of Strickland’s teammates literally dragged him off the field, pulling him into the Giants’ dugout.

“There were some big guys tumbling around on the ground,” Buster Posey said. “Mike Morse is as big as they come and he was getting knocked around like a pinball.”

It was probably as much fight as the Giants have shown all season, one filled with frustrations and struggles and shutouts such as this one.

Because everyone’s going to remember the fight, but the only thing that really matters – besides the incoming suspensions to Harper and Strickland – is that the Giants lost the game, falling to 22-31, 11 games back of first in the division.

And to add insult to injury, the brawl incited by Strickland cost them a run. Instead of pitching to Harper with two out and ending the eighth, Strickland plunked him. Two straight singles off Strickland’s replacement, George Kontos, yielded another run to the Nationals.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered, because the Giants couldn’t score a run. But it’s rather symbolic that, in the midst of a subpar season, Strickland is still holding a grudge from three years ago when he should be pitching to win every game in order to pull the Giants out of the mud.

Harper spoke to this point.

“It’s so in the past, it’s not even relevant anymore,” he said. “They won the World Series that year [in 2014]. I don’t he should even be thinking about something that happened in the first round. He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night. I don’t know why he did it or what he did it for, but I guess it happens.”

Morse, who matter-of-factly said he was fine after being plowed over by Samardzija, perhaps said it best: “We lost the game. That’s more important.”

Barracuda’s season ends in Game 5 loss to Grand Rapids 4-2 and dropping the series 4-1

sjbarracuda.com photo: The Grand Rapids Griffins Kyle Criscuolo (51) jockeys for position against the San Jose Barracuda’s Dan Kelly (46) as Cuda goaltender Troy Grosenick (1) defends the net in the final meeting of the two clubs at Grand Rapids game five of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs

By: Eric He

This season, the San Jose Barracuda advanced as far as they’ve been in franchise history. But their campaign ended one round shy of their ultimate goal, and three wins shy of the Calder Cup Final.

With a 4-2 loss at Grand Rapids on Saturday night, the Barracuda’s season concluded in the Western Conference Final, dropping the series 4-1 to the Griffins.

It wasn’t for lack of effort. The Barracuda peppered the opposing net with 41 shots, out-shooting the Griffins in each period. But Grand Rapids jumped ahead early with two goals on just nine first period shots.

In fact, San Jose found itself trailing just 24 seconds in. Matt Lashoff took a pass from Tyler Bertuzzi and buried the one-timer past Troy Grosenick to give the Griffins a 1-0 lead. They doubled the advantage late in the period on Matt Ford’s shot that went off the post and in.

Timo Meier got the Barracuda on the board in the second period, but went into the third period still trailing by two goals as Matt Lorito punched in a power play goal on a rebound.

Grand Rapids extended its power-play goal scoring streak to 11 straight games, while the Barracuda went o-for-4 on the man advantage.

Lorito scored once more less than five minutes into the third period to extend the Griffins’ lead to three goals. Danny O’Regan got it back for the Barracuda, but with time winding down in the third, there would be no season-saving comeback.

Barracuda’s season on the brink after Game 4 loss to Grand Rapids 6-2

sjbarracuda.com photo: The Grand Rapids Griffins center Kyle Criscuolo (51) and San Jose Barracuda goaltender Troy Grosenick (1) anticipate a shot on Friday night in Grand Rapids

By: Eric He

The San Jose Barracuda allowed four goals in the second period and fell 6-2 to Grand Rapids on Friday in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. The Barracuda now trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, and must win on Saturday in Game 5 to keep their season alive.

The Barracuda were doomed by a four-goal second period. They led 1-0 after the first period, but were dominated in the second. Tyler Bertuzzi evened the score four minutes in, putting home a rebound. Five minutes later, Eric Tangradi gave the Griffins the lead, powering his way to the net from beyond the goal line.

The Griffins found paydirt twice more in the period. Tomas Nosek scored a power play goal, and then Martin Frk netted home a breakaway score to give Grand Rapids a 4-1 advantage.

San Jose cut the lead in half just briefly in the third period when Adam Helewka scored on the power play, ripping a host in off the left post. But Ben Street upped the advantage back to three goals at 5-2 just 50 seconds later on a breakaway. Evgeni Svechnikov gave the Griffins another insurance goal late in the third to put the game out of reach.

Troy Grosenick stopped 30 of 36 shots in the loss. The Barracuda were just 1-for-6 on the power play, while the Griffins scored twice in eight opportunities on the man advantage.

Game 5 is Saturday night in Grand Rapids, where the Barracuda must win to stay alive.

Barracuda falter in third period drop game three 4-2, trail Grand Rapids in series 2-1

sjbarracuda photo: (57) Nick DeSimone  rightwinger of the San Jose Barracuda left and (10) Ben Street center of the Grand Rapids Griffiths chase the puck in game three of the AHL Calder Cup Series in Grand Rapids on Wednesday night

By: Eric He

The San Jose Barracuda couldn’t hang on to a third period lead, allowing three unanswered goals to Grand Rapids as the Griffins won 4-2 in Game 3, taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals.

Ahead 2-1 heading into the third, the Barracuda were dominated in the third, allowing three goals on 16 shots. On a power play, Matt Lorito tied the game for Grand Rapids, putting home a rebound on a power play. Then, with under five minutes to go, Mitch Callahan untied the game, poking in a loose puck by Barracuda goaltender Troy Grosenick. The Barracuda couldn’t find an equalizer, and Tomas Nosek sealed Grand Rapids’ win with a empty-net goal.

Up until the third, things were going relatively smoothly for the Barracuda. John McCarthy scored a little more than five minutes into the game, stealing the puck in the offensive zone and finishing the goal to put San Jose up 1-0. Nathan Paetsch tied the game at 1-1 with a low shot past Grosenick, but Ryan Carpenter gave San Jose the lead again just a minute later.

The Barracuda were outshot 16-8 in the third and 44-32 in the game. They were also 0-for-2 on the power play.

Trailing 2-1, San Jose must win on Friday in Game 4 at Grand Rapids to avoid falling into a big hole in the series.

Jed Lowrie, finally healthy, sees dividends at the plate

By: Eric He

OAKLAND – Jed Lowrie is healthy again, and he’s batting .300.

Correlation is not causation, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that one has led to the other.

Last season, his first of his second stint with Oakland, Lowrie played in just 87 games and hit .263 with two home runs and 27 RBI, his lowest total since 2010. He served two stints on the disabled list and had two offseason surgeries: one to fix a damaged ligament in his left foot and the other to remove a bunion and a cyst. Rumors swirled last December that the A’s were gauging trade interest in the veteran infielder.

Good thing they wound up keeping him.

The A’s second baseman’s four-hit day in a 4-1 win over the Marlins on Wednesday raised Lowrie’s average from .283 to .300, which would be a career-high. He went 4-for-4, smacking a pair of doubles and driving in two runs to fuel the A’s offense.

Over the last six games, Lowrie is batting .520 (13-for-25), breaking out of a 4-for-31 slump and leading the A’s in batting average at an exact .300. One factor, he said after the game, was getting healthy.

“I was able to get healthy this offseason and put in a full offseason’s worth of work,” Lowrie said. “It’s not that I wasn’t doing the work before. I just felt better this offseason.”

Staying in shape has allowed Lowrie to better focus and prepare on his game.

“I felt comfortable all year,” he said. “That’s just a matter of putting the work in. I’ve been able to maintain a good routine, work with [hitting coach Darren Bush] in the cage and have a good plan.”

And you know Lowrie is on top of his game when he has performances such as Wednesday’s. He sprayed the ball all over the field: his first hit was to right center, the second to left center, the third down the right field line and the fourth a ground ball through the right side.

Manager Bob Melvin agreed that being healthy has been a key for Lowrie.

“Really consistent the whole year,” Melvin said. “Worked hard this offseason after the surgeries. Physically he feels better than he ever has. Durability-wise, he’s been out there more. I consistently talk to him about DH — no, he wants to play. His defense is better. The surgeries he had were very impactful for him.”

Drafted as a second baseman by the Red Sox in 2005, Lowrie was told he’d be converted to a shortstop the day he was selected. With Dustin Pedroia manning second baseman duties for Boston, Lowrie spent a majority of his time at short with the Red Sox, the Astros and during his first stint with the A’s.

But now, at age 33, he’s at second, where he feels more comfortable and has to move around less.

“I think second base at this point is my natural position and it’s less wear and tear on the legs at this point,” he said.

Less wear and tear means less injuries, which means better health. That, in turn, leads to good things, like going 4-for-4 and batting .300 a couple of months into the season. But none of it would be possible without putting in the effort.

“I always feel like the work allows you to go up there and feel comfortable,” Lowrie said. “If you’re not putting in the work, it’s hard to justify the feeling of being comfortable.”

Barracuda bounce back with Game 2 win over Griffins 4-2

sjbaracuda.com photo: What a difference a day makes after losing game one on Saturday the SJ Barracuda with rightwinger Ryan Carpenter (40) and leftwinger Barclay Goodrow (23) celebrate after scoring against the Grand Rapids Griffiths at SAP Center on Sunday night in game two of the AHL Calder Cup Series

By: Eric He

SAN JOSE–The San Jose Barracuda got back in the win column and got their power play back on track in a 4-2 victory over Grand Rapids in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday.

After going 0-for-6 in a 3-1 loss in Game 1 on Saturday, the Barracuda converted three times on five power play opportunities on Sunday. It propelled them to a much-needed victory to even up the best-of-seven series at one game apiece as it shifts to Grand Rapids.

Before the end of the first period, the Barracuda had already struck gold twice on the man advantage. Julius Bergman opened the scoring less than four minutes in, and Ryan Carpenter tipped home the second power play goal to put San Jose up 2-0.

But Grand Rapids fought back to even the score. After Tomas Nosek cut the lead in half before the end of the first period, Matt Ford scored the game-tying goal seven minutes into the second period on the power play, taking a pass from Ben Street and one-timing it past Troy Grosenick.

That would be it for the scoring for the Griffins, however.

San Jose soon regained the lead late in the second period, with the power play coming through again. Joakim Ryan hammered in a shot from the point to give the Barracuda a 3-2 advantage. Barclay Goodrow added an empty-netter to seal the deal in the third.

Grosenick made 33 saves for the Barracuda, who held Grand Rapids to 1-for-4 on the power play.

The series continues with Game 3 on Wednesday in Grand Rapids.