That still leaves the Big Four in a much stronger state than the prior ruling class ever reached.2None of the three men who preceded Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as new world No. 1s ever had a year as good as each one is on pace to have this year, even though it’s a down year for tennis titans. The trio — Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Lleyton Hewitt — are Federer’s contemporaries, but they never unseated him the way the much younger trio of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have.The five younger upstarts — Cilic and Nishikori, plus Grigor Dimitrov, Ernests Gulbis and Milos Raonic, who are between age 23 and 26 and reached their first Slam semis this year — have mostly been defined by their arrested tennis development. They’ve shed the previously apt Lost Boys title with career years this season. But they’re more of a Medium Five or Next Five than a Fab Five, though at least, unlike that Michigan quintet, one of these five will win a major title in a Monday championship.There wasn’t an obvious name for the group until Cilic perfectly described it after his near-perfect match Saturday. In his press conference, Cilic referred three times to the sport’s “second line.”“The guys there are from second line, are moving closer and they are more often at the later stage of the tournament,” Cilic said. “They are going to get only better; they’re not going to get worse.”Cilic was including Australian Open champ Wawrinka in his list, but Wawrinka, 29, is older than three of the Big Four. For our purposes, we’re not going to include him so that the “second line” is a separate generation from the current stars, who are between ages 27 and 33.There is one major name missing from the second line’s roster: Juan Martin del Potro, who turns 26 this month. He and the second line are the six youngest men ranked in the Top 20. Even Monday’s champion probably won’t finish this year with a season as good as del Potro’s best. In 2009, the year he turned 21, del Potro won the U.S. Open, came within a set of the French Open final and reached the quarterfinals of six Masters tournaments.Injuries have kept him from maintaining that level, and from playing any tennis for the last six months. But already del Potro has achieved in his career more than the quintet of his peers will have achieved after Monday’s final: one major title; three Masters finals (the other five have two total); and seven titles at the 500 level, the next tier down from Masters events (the other five have five, and three of those belong to Nishikori). Before Monday, del Potro was the only man who is now under 27 and had played in a Grand Slam final. Federer had won 12 Grand Slam titles before turning 27.Adjusting for age shows how much the second line lags the first, even in a career year. The most accomplished four of the bunch — del Potro, Cilic, Raonic and Nishikori — have won 24 percent of their maximum possible total of ranking points at the Masters and Grand Slam events this season. The Big Four, at roughly the same average age in 2010, won 68 percent. At age 20, the Big Four won 53 percent to the second line’s 5 percent at the same age. And this year, all of the Big Four could finish ahead of all five of the second line in the rankings.So the second line isn’t the generation we need to take over men’s tennis. But it’s the one we have — at least until the generation of Wimbledon quarterfinalist Nick Kyrgios and other promising teenagers launches its challenge. And the second line is playing its best tennis this season. Heading into the U.S. Open, Dimitrov, Nishikori and Raonic all were on pace for career highs in dominance ratio (DR), the ratio of returning points win percentage to opponent returning points win percentage — a good marker of overall level. And Cilic and Gulbis were serving better than ever, with career highs in ace percentage and first-serve win percentage.Through the lens of the past week, Nishikori looks like the most impressive member of the second line. He beat three top-five seeds in his last three matches at the Open. But his DR was below 1 in his last two wins, meaning he won them with little margin.Cilic, by contrast, straight-setted two top-six seeds in his last two matches, and was forced into just one tiebreaker. He has also been more durable than Nishikori has during their careers. The two youngest members of the group, Dimitrov and Raonic, have stayed mostly healthy, too, and have climbed the most steadily and quickly.One of those three or del Potro probably will finish with the best career of the second line’s generation. Whoever does will be hard pressed even to match the achievements of Murray. He’s by far the weakest member of the Big Four, an oligarchy that remains dominant even in its decline. The reigning oligarchs of men’s tennis — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — have devolved a smidgen of power to the sport’s second line.For six years, the Big Four have ruled the sport, hoarding its biggest titles and topping the rankings. This year, five younger men have broken through, most dramatically on Saturday at the U.S. Open. First Kei Nishikori stunned world No. 1 Djokovic in four sets. Then Marin Cilic straight-setted five-time Open champ Federer. Nishikori and Cilic will play in Monday’s final, the first Grand Slam final for each man and the first without a member of the Big Four since 2005.Federer lightly applauded his younger rivals’ modest achievements in his post-match press conference Saturday. After congratulating Cilic for his great play, Federer called it “definitely refreshing to some extent” to have new names in a Grand Slam final, and added, “I hope they can play a good final.”Federer pointed out that any tennis writers who downgraded the Big Four’s stock when Stan Wawrinka won in Australia in January had to explain the finals of this year’s French Open and Wimbledon, which featured exclusively himself, Nadal and Djokovic. “But this is another chance for you guys, you know,” Federer told the room full of journalists. “So you should write what you want. I don’t think so, but … .”Federer is both right and wrong. The Big Four really have been slipping. That can be hard to spot because each player has had a complicated arc over the last few seasons. Djokovic gained, lost and regained the No. 1 ranking, with Nadal and Federer each holding it for a spell. Federer has rebounded swiftly from a mediocre 2013. Murray has dropped fast after winning two Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal over a 12-month run that ended last summer.Group the four together, though, and the decline is more apparent. In 2011, they won an absurd 84 percent of their maximum possible total of ranking points at the 13 annual tournaments that bring together the world’s best male players: the Masters and Grand Slam events. That share has fallen steadily each year since, to 66 percent so far this year. Some regression to the mean was inevitable, but the Big Four’s grip on the sport has fallen below the mean, to its lowest level since 2006, according to data compiled from the stats site Tennis Abstract.1The analysis is based on the current distribution of ranking points at these events — 2,000 points for winning a Grand Slam title, 1,200 for a semifinal, and so on. The distribution has shifted slightly over the years. Using a constant distribution weights a U.S. Open quarterfinal berth the same whether it was earned in 2004 or 2014.
A’ja Wilson against ranked teams for the last 2 seasons PTS PER 40 MINS.FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGEDOUBLE-DOUBLES 2014-1523.147.42 2015-1626.6 points53.1%7 Coates, the 2013-14 SEC Freshman of the Year, leads the nation in field goal percentage and has an SEC-best 12 double-doubles this season. Coates and Wilson are averaging a combined 29.6 points per game, the most by any frontcourt duo in the SEC. Overall, South Carolina is averaging 40.3 points per game in the paint and has outscored its opponents down low in every game this season.Based on their performance, the Wilson-Coates tandem could prove difficult for UConn to defend. Maryland’s Brionna Jones — one of the premier post players in the nation, with skills and stature similar to Wilson and Coates — put up 24 points against the Huskies earlier this season. UConn allowed a season-high 38 points in the paint to the Terrapins and trailed in the third quarter for the only time this season.South Carolina is also aggressive on the offensive glass, averaging 8.6 points per game on put-backs2All tracking data courtesy of Synergy Sports Technology. and grabbing 13.7 offensive rebounds per game. Connecticut is allowing 10.7 offensive rebounds per game but the Huskies’ opposition has failed to capitalize, managing just 3.5 points per game on put-backs.And don’t discount South Carolina’s home-court advantage. The Gamecocks have won 45 consecutive home games, the longest active streak in Division I, and are on track to lead the nation in attendance for the second consecutive season. Notably, South Carolina averages 80.2 points at home, compared to 68.4 points on the road.But will a strong post presence and a favorable crowd be enough to hand Connecticut its first loss in over a year? Probably not. UConn is on pace to lead the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency for the fourth consecutive season; to have a chance against Connecticut you need to score at least 70 points. Over the last five seasons, UConn is 5-7 when opponents score 70 or more points, compared to 163-3 when holding its opponent to 69 points or fewer.And here’s the bad news for Gamecocks fans: South Carolina is tied for eighth in the nation in offensive efficiency but has been held below 70 points on seven occasions this season, four times against ranked teams.The Gamecocks also struggle on 3-pointers and free throws, which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to run up a big number on the Huskies. South Carolina is shooting 31.4 percent from deep this season, which ranks 150th in Division I. In one of Connecticut’s most tightly contested games this season, Notre Dame shot 65 percent from beyond the arc, making 13 3-pointers. DePaul and South Florida also had early success against Connecticut, making 12 or more 3-pointers and shooting 45 percent or better from beyond the arc.The view is even worse from the foul line, where South Carolina ranks 272nd in the nation with a 65.3 percent free throw percentage. Facing a Connecticut squad that holds opponents to a Division I-low 6.2 free throw attempts per game, the Gamecocks need to convert on any opportunity to put points on the board.Is South Carolina capable of upsetting Connecticut on Monday night? It’s possible, sure. But SC will need either something truly absurd out of Wilson and Coates or a momentary reprieve from its season-long trend of their range extending no farther than the length of their arms. While the rest of the country recovers from its post-Super Bowl hangover, the South Carolina women’s basketball team will attempt to do what only one team has accomplished in the last 35 months: beat Connecticut.The UConn Huskies are in one of the most dominant stretches in college basketball history, winners of 59 straight and 106 of their last 107 games. The South Carolina Gamecocks are having an impressive season of their own, off to a 22-0 start for the second consecutive season. And Monday night’s game between the only undefeated teams in Division I basketball will be the 56th meeting between the AP’s No. 1 and No. 2 women’s college basketball teams. The last such meeting did not turn out so well for the Gamecocks, with No. 2 UConn beating No. 1 South Carolina, 87-62 in Storrs, last season to snap a 22-game win streak.For any hope at a better result this season, the Gamecocks will need something special out of their dynamic duo on the interior, A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates.Wilson is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year and top-ranked recruit for the Class of 2014,1According to ESPNW and HoopGurlz rankings. and she has elevated her game in her sophomore season, becoming South Carolina’s go-to player against ranked teams. The 6-foot-5-inch forward has accounted for 25.6 percent of South Carolina’s points and 26.3 percent of its rebounds against Top 25 opponents this season. Wilson had a tendency to disappear in big games last season, but she’s now averaging 26.6 points per 40 minutes against ranked teams and has a double-double in seven of her nine games against Top 25 opponents this season, more than she had all of last season.
The Southeastern Conference got a record-breaking eight schools ranked in the Associated Press college football poll.The Top 25 list was turned upside down this week after seven ranked teams lost. Five of the teams lost to squads that were either lower ranked or not ranked at all. As a result, Michigan fell from the poll and Stanford dropped eight spots.The top four teams on the list didn’t change, with Alabama at No. 1, Oregon No. 2, followed by Clemson and Ohio State.Stanford lost 27-20 at Utah and fell to No. 13, becoming the first top-10 team to lose to team not ranked this season. Michigan dropped from the list after falling to Penn State 43-40 in four overtimes.Auburn landed in at No. 24 in the rankings for the first time this season. The SEC team joined No. 11 South Carolina, No. 14 Missouri, No. 6 LSU, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 15 Georgia and No. 22 Florida to help set the record.The SEC had eight teams ranked back in a 2011 preseason poll, but never in a regular season poll.
LaMelo Ball left California high school to be homeschooled. (Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Crosswalk Productions)In a world where young athletes are unable to profit from their likeness, a marketing maven says LaMelo Ball may be the catalyst for change. The youngest of Lavar Ball’s sons is a 16-year-old point guard, but he already committed to UCLA at 13. While he’s set to follow in his older brother Lonzo Ball’s footsteps, LaMelo will have a new challenge to take on.The youngest Ball appeared in an advertisement for his signature sneaker under the family’s Big Baller Brand, the Melo Ball 1. The ad for the MB1s, which go for $395, could put him in violation of the NCAA’s rule prohibiting athletes from profiting from their likeness.“An individual loses amateur status and thus shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition in a particular sport if the individual (a) uses his or her athletics skill (directly or indirectly) for pay in any form in that sport;” Article 12 of the NCAA Division I Manual reads per Sports Illustrated. “[Or] (b) accepts a promise of pay even if such pay is to be received following completion of intercollegiate athletics participation.”But according to Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketing executive known for signing Michael Jordan to his first sneaker deal, the Balls can sue the NCAA if they deem the former Chino Hills High School student ineligible.Related: Ball Family NewsLaVar Ball Pulling AAU Team Off Floor Over ‘Bad’ Call Earns Immediate Scorn from Disgusted Twitter UsersLaVar Ball Shaking Things Up Again As He and Sons Set to Star In Facebook DocuseriesLaVar Ball Remains Unbothered As Son Lonzo Gets Drafted by L.A. Lakers“This has the potential to change the landscape of amateurism, but I hope it’s resolved before the Ball kid gets to the NCAA,” Vaccaro told Bleacher Report Thursday, Oct. 19. “This is an obscene rule where they discriminately have control over individuals that they shouldn’t have control over in earning a living. This would create more turmoil in the right to earn, and is the ideal setup for what I believe athletes should have — the freedom to earn money off their God-given ability.”According to Sports Illustrated, Ball’s suit can claim the non-profit regulatory organization and member schools have banded together “in an anti-competitive arrangement to prevent him and other players from being able to license their identity rights or ‘brand.’” Such an arrangement would break the federal antitrust law, he could argue.Still, Ball may circumvent the issue altogether if dad LaVar sticks to his statements made in September.“When it comes to basketball and you’re good, you just better be ready for training camp … Who cares?” LaVar said on ESPN’s “First Take” in September. “He won’t go to the NCAA. ‘Oh, he better go overseas.’ Why? All he gotta do is be faster and stronger. And when it’s time to prepare, we could sit out for as long as we want.”
42N. Backstrom85.937000 12Jeremy Roenick105.682310 45Zach Parise85.054010 5Pierre Turgeon119.482200 26Brett Hull96.456000 17Keith Tkachuk99.791100 10Jarome Iginla112.450010 36Pavel Bure93.113010 50Henrik Sedin83.654010 Alexander Ovechkin’s Capitals have never managed to make it past the second round of the NHL playoffs. Sidney Crosby is largely to blame.The playoff futility of the Ovechkin-era Capitals has reached almost comic proportions as the team has made it nearly an annual tradition to squander a great regular season with a first- or second-round exit each April. And the Penguins are the team that’s most responsible for that history of failure: In their nine playoff appearances from 2008 to 2017, Ovechkin’s Capitals have been eliminated in the second round by the Penguins on three occasions. And each time, Crosby’s Penguins have gone on to lift the Stanley Cup — including both of the last two years.Another second-round series between the two teams kicked off on Thursday night, and if the result of that game is any indication, the Capitals might be looking at more of the same. Despite scoring just 17 seconds into the first period, holding that 1-0 lead for more than two periods, and then taking a 2-0 lead 28 seconds into the third period on a snipe from — you guessed it — Ovechkin, the Capitals managed to, somehow, lose to the Penguins. It feels like déjà vu all over again for the Capitals and their tortured fanbase.But regardless of how this series ends, it’s a safe bet that it will be competitive. Despite their inability to progress to the conference finals or beyond, Ovechkin’s Capitals have played a lot of playoff hockey — in the 16 series they’ve been involved in since 2008,1Excluding the one they’re currently contesting with the Penguins. they’ve played 103 games, or 92 percent of the maximum number of games they could have played had all 16 series gone to a seventh game.Perhaps it’s because the Caps are just 3-7 in game sevens during his tenure, but there’s a misconception that Ovechkin has been subpar in the postseason, which has clouded his legacy as one of the two or three best left wingers in league history. The 32-year-old Ovechkin has never missed a playoff game his Capitals have been involved in, and he’s averaged more than half a minute more ice time in the playoffs than he gets in the regular season. He earns slightly fewer points per game in the playoffs than the regular season — .95 versus 1.12 — but so do Crosby and Patrick Kane, and you won’t see anybody questioning their legacies. And for what it’s worth, Ovechkin has outperformed Crosby when they’ve met in the playoffs — 28 points to 24 over the course of four head-to-head series.2Including their ongoing series, which began last night.You’d think a guy who’s won seven Rocket Richard trophies as the league’s top goal scorer (the most ever since the award was first handed out in 19993Bobby Hull also led the NHL in scoring seven times, but he did so long before the Richard trophy was awarded. Bobby Hull is pretty good company.), three Hart Memorial trophies as the league’s MVP (one more than Crosby, mind you), and who this season became just the 20th member of the 600-goal club might command a little more respect. But the Ovechkin narrative — however unjust — revolves around playoff failures.To be fair, those failures are manifold. They’re also amplified by their contrast with Ovechkin’s regular-season dominance. From 1987 to 2018, Ovechkin has earned more point shares than any other player through their age-32 season. Among the top 50, only four players 32 and under failed to claim even a single conference finals berth: Teemu Selanne, Brett Hull, Ovechkin’s teammate and power play provider Nicklas Backstrom, and Ziggy Palffy. 48Phil Kessel84.522002 38Peter Forsberg91.241402 2Jaromir Jagr144.044202 7Mats Sundin116.543200 30Anze Kopitar95.030102 24Ryan Getzlaf97.452301 44Jonathan Toews85.440203 14Luc Robitaille102.445110 15Theoren Fleury101.560101 25Corey Perry97.152301 21Ilya Kovalchuk98.520010 20B. Shanahan99.163103 37Daniel Sedin92.554010 22Patrick Kane97.840203 furthest round reached 28A. Mogilny96.261111 29Patrick Marleau96.155300 6Joe Thornton118.664200 Show more rowsIncludes players whose entire careers have come since 1987, the first season in which the NHL used its modern 16-team, best-of-seven series playoff format. Point share totals are regular-season only. For players in the 2018 playoffs, furthest round reached totals include the round their team is currently in.Source: Hockey-Reference.com 9Mike Modano115.243121 27Mark Recchi96.441101 31Vincent Lecavalier94.921101 43V. Damphousse85.963101 47Jeff Carter84.531212 16Marian Gaborik101.430201 19Rick Nash99.222110 33Eric Staal94.420101 34Sergei Fedorov94.143113 23Paul Kariya97.732010 ▲▼Player▲▼point shares▲▼1st Rd▲▼2nd Rd▲▼Conf Final▲▼Final▲▼Won Cup▲▼ 8Evgeni Malkin115.733113 40Patrik Elias87.463012 4Joe Sakic125.930402 1Alex Ovechkin152.737000 32Jason Spezza94.743110 13Marian Hossa104.061121 18Eric Lindros99.511210 Ovechkin’s playoff record is uniquely disappointingNumber of playoffs by furthest round reached, among forwards with the most point shares through their age-32 seasons, 1987-2018 But some of these players had more shots at glory after their age-32 season. Things didn’t end up working out for Palffy (and they obviously haven’t worked out yet for Backstrom), but Selanne and Hull remained productive in their mid-to-late 30s. Each man was blessed with longevity and an ability to mostly escape calamitous injury, and each finished his career having hoisted at least one Stanley Cup. Hull was 34 when he finally got the job done (in dramatic fashion), while Selanne was 36.Who knows exactly how much longer Ovechkin’s career will last, or how much longer he’ll remain the NHL’s best goal-scorer. To this point, he’s been like Selanne and Hull, able to avoid career-jeopardizing injury while remaining one of the league’s elite forwards. It’s difficult to sustain scoring numbers like Ovechkin’s for a single NHL season, let alone well into one’s 30s. But nothing of what Ovechkin does in the future — or what he did in the past — will matter if he’s able to lead his Caps to postseason glory this spring.So, could 2018 be different? Could this be the year the Capitals finally flip the narrative? This Capitals team is in many ways worse than those that won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010, 2016 and 2017 (and they’re already down a game in yet another second round series). They score less relative to their competition, and they give up more shots, which means they also give up more goals. But maybe being unburdened by the weight of the expectations that come with being the league’s best regular-season team is exactly what the Capitals need. There’s a lot of hockey left to play in this series, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge victorious.If the Capitals can exorcise their Penguin-shaped demons, there’s no telling how far they can go in these playoffs. And even if they crash out in the conference finals, at least Ovechkin will get to wash off some of the stink that has followed him in his otherwise brilliant career. 46Joe Nieuwendyk84.671102 3Sidney Crosby137.933113 41Patrice Bergeron86.134011 49Ziggy Palffy84.221000 39Steven Stamkos88.811210 11Teemu Selanne105.732000 35Dany Heatley93.711210
England0.89 Portugal1.10 Pogba has much more rarely gotten into the final third to create, passing instead more from deep and wide areas. This has kept him from being particularly dangerous in the attack, where his shot involvement has dropped by 4.6 shots attempted or assisted per 90 minutes with Manchester United to 2.8 for France. But in this disciplined, defensive role, the midfielder has found ways to affect the game, most recently with six attempted tackles and two penalty area clearances against Belgium. Pogba has been asked to trade his usual attacking production for defense, and so far, the plan has worked.The one man on France who doesn’t seem limited by these tactics is Kylian Mbappe. With Pogba playing deep, Mbappe has been asked to move the attack through the final third. He has attempted 52 take-ons, most in the tournament — a rate of about 10.6 per 90 minutes. Mbappe is a dangerous dribbler, but for Paris Saint-Germain last season, he averaged 6.4 take-ons per 90. If you’re hoping for excitement from France, wait for Mbappe to get on the ball. He will be looking to beat a defender or two, and that will be the primary danger France poses in open play. Otherwise, Les Bleus will be focus on defending.Will this strategy work against Croatia? Deschamps has to trust that his attack will produce goals even while outnumbered in the final third, while the midfielders trail the play. If Mbappe cannot progress the ball for his teammates, a long and scoreless match is possible.Croatia has thus far excelled in long matches, surviving extra time three times to reach the final. Its strength is its skilled midfield, where Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic all rate among the world’s best passers. Over time, opposition teams lose the legs to press Croatia, and the midfielders can find space to work. England successfully pressed Croatia in the first half and kept possession about even at 47 percent to 53 percent, but Croatia dominated the ball 64 to 36 percent in the second half, when it scored its equalizer.In the final, Croatia is likely to depend on its defense (seventh in the World Cup in the chart above) to hold back a more talented opponent. France will likely refuse to commit numbers to the attack and hope its skill wins out. If France can notch an early goal, it’s hard to see Croatia finding a comeback as it did against England. But France’s strategy has the same weakness that was discovered by Portugal in the final of the 2016 Euros. If the opposing team’s defense is solid, Les Bleus do not have the kind of swarming, overwhelming attack that can be counted on to pick up a needed goal. And if the match is running late and Modric starts to find himself with an extra yard of space in midfield, the possibility of an upset — and a first-time World Cup winner — starts to look a lot more likely.France is rightly favored, and its defense, strengthened by some conservative tactical choices by Deschamps, has been impregnable. But the final of the Euros showed what happens when this French approach fails, and if Croatia’s defense can hold back Mbappe and the French forward line to start, its midfield has the skills to pull off a late upset.Check out our latest World Cup predictions. Spain1.02 Brazil0.56 Senegal0.64 Sweden1.00 TeamExpected goals allowed France0.61 Three players exemplify how the French approach works. First is N’Golo Kante. He may be the world’s premier open-play defender. Kante has averaged about 7.5 tackles or interceptions per 90 minutes since 2014-2015, most in the world among players with at least 8,000 minutes played in league and Champions League play those four seasons. Brazil’s Casemiro, at 7.04, is the only other player with more than 7. Kante’s talents prevented Leicester City’s open attack from leaking goals during the Foxes’ miracle title campaign, and they then helped Chelsea rebound to a title after falling out of the top four the previous season. He is the primary reason that France so rarely concedes good chances. But instead of giving Kante the job of cleaning up midfield himself, as he often does for his club teams, Deschamps gives him added protection with the deployment of Paul Pogba.Pogba is a great playmaker who does much of his best work in more advanced areas. With France, Pogba is reserved, and his forays into the final third are limited. The blue wallTeams with the fewest expected goals allowed per match in the 2018 World Cup Uruguay0.50 Source: Opta Sports Croatia1.00 France entered the European Championships in 2016 with perhaps the most talented squad, and Les Bleus beat fellow tournament favorite Germany in the semifinal. A final matchup loomed against a less-heralded Portugal, which had never won the tournament. Portugal had played a defensive style that bottled up the midfield and limited opposition attacking opportunities.Sound familiar?In this World Cup, France knocked off two former champions from South America before winning its semifinal over Belgium, the next-best team remaining in the tournament according to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index. Croatia, like Portugal in 2016, has never won a major tournament and got to the final through a comparatively easy draw. In the 2016 final, Portugal managed to stymie France and won its first ever European championship on an extra-time strike. Will this international final see another upset and first-time winner, or will the French golden generation bring a second-ever cup home?Croatia is a clear underdog — as it was in the semifinals against England — and there’s reason to believe the task ahead is even more difficult than it seems. SPI rates France as a solid 59 percent favorite to win. Through the tournament and even in qualifying, as Mike Goodman pointed out before the games started, it has been clear how France would choose to play. Despite an incredible blend of world-class attacking talent, Les Bleus set up first to prevent opposition chances and win on defense. And they have. France has conceded just four goals in six matches — three of which came against Argentina in the round of 16. And Didier Deschamps’s team has even better underlying numbers, with about 0.6 expected goals conceded per match. Australia0.76
The “Dark Night at The ‘Shoe” turned out to be a dreary one for Ohio State’s passing game, but the ground attack and defense pulled through for a 38-10 win over Penn State in front of the second-largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history of 108,423.For the second time in 2015, redshirt junior starting quarterback Cardale Jones was benched in favor of redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett for an extended time after going just 9-of-15 for 84 yards. Combined with Barrett’s 30 yards through the air, the Buckeyes were held to a season-low 114 yards passing.“That’s one of the best defenses in the country,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “And statistically, the personnel, they are.”Donning black uniforms for the first time in program history, the Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0) were able to shake off the ineffective aerial game to pile up 315 yards on the ground against the visiting Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-1), led by junior running back Ezekiel Elliott with 153.“We went out there in the nice uniforms, the crowd was into it, they were in all black also, so I definitely think it lived up to the hype,” senior defensive lineman Adolphus Washington said.Despite the energy from the crowd, Penn State quickly took the first shot in the game, holding OSU to a loss in its first possession before generating its own offense. A first-play 11-yard run followed by a 45-yard pass from junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg to freshman receiver Brandon Polk got the Nittany Lions inside the red zone. The Buckeyes held from there, however, holding the visitors to a 33-yard field goal to grab a quick 3-0 lead.The Penn State defense, which came into the game ranked 10th in the nation, continued to give OSU problems in the passing games on its next two drives, both resulting in punts. Through three drives, Jones was just 3-of-7 for six yards.The fourth finally featured life from the OSU offense, as redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller had consecutive gains of 17 and 15 yards — a catch and run, respectively — to move OSU inside the Penn State 30-yard line.After a run by Jones lost three yards to end the first quarter, Barrett supplanted him to begin the second. Barrett and junior running back Ezekiel Elliott traded runs of six, 12, eight and five yards — the last of which was by Barrett after a fake handoff — to find the end zone and take a 7-3 lead.The score was Barrett’s fourth rushing touchdown in six trips inside the red zone since Meyer implemented a two-quarterback system in Week 6 against Maryland. The Buckeyes scored a touchdown in each of their first seven trips to the red zone with the system.Barrett made it 8-for-8 in OSU’s next drive, handing off to Elliott on his first play for a 10-yard touchdown run, in which Elliott dodged several tacklers to muscle into the end zone. The score was Elliott’s 11th of the year.“I think it’s really my mindset,” Barrett said about his improved performance in the red zone. “The first two weeks, I was coming out trying to make plays, trying to force it. You’re asking for bad things when you try to force it instead of letting the game come to you.”Looking to answer, the Nittany Lions drove the ball into OSU territory, but a 4th-and-8 attempt from OSU’s 31-yard line was stopped when sophomore linebacker Chris Worley sacked Hackenberg.OSU went right back to work after the stop, rapidly moving the ball 66 yards in six plays to extend its lead to 21-3. Barrett entered the game at the 16-yard line, and just two plays later, he was in the end zone, this time from 13-yards out after faking a handoff to Elliott. At the half, Jones was 7-of-12 for 56 yards, while Barrett did not attempt a pass but filled in for 30 yards and two scores in three runs. Elliott had 78 yards in 15 carries.For Penn State, Hackenberg struggled mightily, going 4-of-9 in the first half for 56 yards, 45 of which came on his first attempt of the night. Freshman running back Saquon Barkley picked up the load for the Nittany Lions, piling up 86 yards in 13 carries.Not going down quietly, the Nittany Lions erupted in the second half, traveling 78 yards in just three plays. The first play was a 56-yard pass, followed by a run of 14 yards from Barkley and an eight-yard touchdown catch-and-run by redshirt sophomore receiver DaeSean Hamilton to cut OSU’s lead to 21-10.“The D-line, we take some credit for that, because we’ve got to get some pressure on (Hackenberg),” Washington said. “We can’t just let him sit back there and pass the ball.”Both offenses stalled for the rest of the third quarter, but early in the fourth OSU padded its lead by three when redshirt senior Jack Willoughby connected on a career-long 39-yard field goal. On that drive, which started from OSU’s own 25-yard line, Barrett took over for Jones for the entirety.“The No. 1 job we have is to win football games and give Ohio State the best chance to win,” offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said about the change. “Whoever can help us do that at the time, is what we’ll do … we’ll go any direction in a game to win a game.”Barrett said he feels that whether he is starting, coming in for red-zone sets or simply replacing a struggling Jones, his role and mindset must remain the same.“At the end of the day I’m just trying to help the team win,” Barrett said. “Whether it be going in the red zone or if I’m starting quarterback, at the end of the day I don’t think it really matters.”Penn State was able to get the ball into the OSU red zone on the ensuing possession, but a fourth-down sack by senior defensive lineman Tommy Schutt gave OSU the ball back. Barrett then engineered an eight-play, 85-yard drive culminating in a five-yard jump-pass to Miller to extend the lead to 31-10.“Coach Meyer’s made that famous over the years,” Warinner said of the jump-pass, which was a common weapon of Tim Tebow when Meyer was at Florida. “That’s always something that’s been in our package, and it happened to have the perfect opportunity there.”After a Hackenberg fumble forced by Washington, Barrett put the exclamation point on the game with another touchdown pass, a six-yard fade to redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas.“I think he sparked us,” Warinner said about Barrett. “Some of the things we did with him in there helped get us get some momentum. He had a big impact.”With his 153 rushing yards, Elliott became the ninth OSU player to eclipse 3,000 career yards on the ground.Junior punter Cameron Johnston starred on special teams for the Buckeyes with four punts downed inside the 10-yard line. With Johnston’s help, the Nittany Lions’ average starting field position was at their own 17-yard line.For Penn State, Hackenberg finished 6-of-12 for 120 yards, while Barkley led the way with 26 carries for 194 yards, something Meyer called “alarming.” Overall, OSU outgained Penn State 429 to 315.OSU senior linebacker Joshua Perry suffered what Meyer said after the game was an ankle sprain on OSU’s third defensive play of the game and was carted to the locker room. He did not return to the game, and Meyer said he will be reevaluated later in the week.OSU is next set to travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, to battle Rutgers on Oct. 24. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. A “blacked out” OSU crowd on Oct. 17 during a game against Penn State at Ohio Stadium. OSU won 38-10. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor
Iowa senior center Adam Woodbury (34) puts up a shot while OSU freshman center Daniel Giddens (4) defends during a game on Feb. 28 at the Schottenstein Center.Credit: Evan Szymowicz | Sports DirectorAfter its five-point halftime lead quickly evaporated in the beginning of the second half, the Ohio State men’s basketball team desperately tried to hang on as eighth-ranked Iowa slowly gained control. Then, with about four minutes left in the game, it all changed. Redshirt sophomore guard Kam Williams sank a jumper, trimming Iowa’s lead to four. From there, the Buckeyes rattled off a 10-2 run, which included two clutch 3-pointers, the first by junior forward Marc Loving. The second came from Williams in the corner after a cross-court feed from JaQuan Lyle to give OSU a 66-62 lead. Iowa trimmed it to a one-basket deficit after a layup from senior center Adam Woodbury, and it had a chance to tie it with less than five seconds remaining, but senior guard Mike Gesell was swatted from behind by sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop at the rim. As the scarlet-and-gray clad crowd erupted in piercing applause, Loving chased the ball down, then calmly sank two free throws to cap off the Buckeyes’ second-half push to grab a 68-64 upset on Sunday afternoon at the Schottenstein Center. “This was a great win, because (first) we won the game but (also) how we had to win it,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “Being down, and fighting and scraping and clawing, we came together.” Loving led OSU (19-11, 11-6) with 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including four 3-pointers. It was his first 20-plus point game since Jan. 3. Besides getting it done on defense down the stretch, Bates-Diop supplied 19 points and six rebounds. Williams, who was instrumental in the second half as OSU climbed back into it, finished with 11 points after a sluggish start. His energy off the bench, coupled with his scoring punch, proved to a key reason why the Buckeyes engineered the upset.“Just because I’m missing shots doesn’t mean I have to stop being aggressive,” Williams said. “I just stay confident in my ability, and it worked out pretty well.” The game’s opening five minutes were characterized by sloppy play — uncontested rebounds careening of players’ hands that eventually fell out of bounds, travels and lazy passes. At the 15-minute mark, the teams had a combined seven turnovers, which was one more than total shots made. Shortly after though, the offenses began to show a pulse.The Hawkeyes (20-8, 11-5) secured a 12-7 advantage after an 8-0 run, and it looked like they really found their stride, but Loving would not let them break free.The junior forward hit his second 3-pointer of the game, then followed it up with a layup after an aggressive take. Then, after a two-minute back-and-forth, Loving connected again from deep to give OSU a 15-13 lead with 11:04 left in the half. Both teams brought high energy levels, as players were looking to push the ball off misses and were quick to the deck for loose balls. Williams didn’t score in his first-half stint off the bench, yet his ravid activity spread to his teammates. Neither team could swing momentum solely in its favor, as they traded baskets throughout the final 10 minutes of the first half. It wasn’t until the final three minutes that the Buckeyes really looked like the better team. After a crafty up-and-under reverse layup by Bates-Diop at the 1:42 mark, OSU led 33-28. Maybe sensing it was its last time to see OSU at home in the regular season, the crowd was engaged, responding to unfavorable calls with emphatic boos, while cheering made baskets with heavy applause. It provided the underdog Buckeyes with the necessary boost to overcome an 11-turnover first half to head into the locker room leading 35-30. “We feed off their energy,” Loving said of the louder-than-usual fans. “The adrenaline definitely helps boost you a little bit.” Loving paced the Scarlet and Gray with 13 points on 4-of-5 shooting, three of which were from downtown. Bates-Diop complemented Loving with 11 points of his own, as well as four rebounds. As a team, the Buckeyes posted a 54 percent clip from the field, which was critical, along with the crowd’s boost, in overcoming 11 turnovers. The Hawkeyes, despite shooting 39 percent from the field, including an 0-for-7 showing from 3-point territory, were able to trail by just five because a balanced attack. Seven players tallied points, with Gesell leading the way with 10. Senior forward Jarrod Uthoff, a top candidate for conference player of the year, was held to seven points on 2-of-7 shooting. If the Buckeyes devised a scheme during halftime to quickly bury the Hawkeyes, it was hard to tell.The first two minutes couldn’t have gone much worse for OSU. The Buckeyes had three turnovers, including a lazy cross-court pass and one that went through redshirt sophomore center Trevor Thompson’s legs as he rolled uncovered to the basket. Meanwhile for the Hawkeyes, junior guard Peter Jok drained a corner 3-pointer and Gesell sank two three throws to tie the game at 35-35. OSU had the chance to try and put away Iowa early on, but it simply couldn’t rid itself of the turnovers, which continued to give the Hawkeyes extra possessions. Frankly, the Buckeyes weren’t shooting bad from the field — at the 12:00 mark, they were at a respectable 48 percent — it’s just that they kept turning it over before attempting shots. This allowed Iowa, powered by nine successive points from Uthoff, to methodically build momentum, despite multiple aggressive attempts by OSU to keep the game within its grasp. After grabbing its first second-half lead at the 13:46 mark, Iowa held control over the next seven minutes, although Williams, Loving and Bates-Diop tried to claw OSU back. Eventually, after trailing for much of the second half, the Buckeyes swung momentum back in their favor after Williams began heating up. Feeding off the crowd and, OSU was able to string together near-flawless play down to stretch to get the win in final regular-season game at the Schott. “Today we just showed a great amount of toughness and the ability to fight adversity,” Loving said. “It’s hard to stay in the game with that amount of turnovers.” Although Lyle didn’t score, the freshman point guard added five rebounds and five assists, two of which set up critical 3-pointers down the stretch. Matta praised his young player for finding ways to impact the game outside of the scoring column. Uthoff and Gesell finished with 16 points apiece to lead the Hawkeyes, who now drop to a three-way tie for second place in the Big Ten.Looking for a second straight upset as a last-ditch effort to bolster their NCAA tournament résumé, the Buckeyes are scheduled to conclude their regular season Saturday on the road against Michigan State. OSU fell to the Spartans 81-62 at home on Tuesday. The rematch is set for noon in East Lansing, Michigan. “We’ve got to be a better basketball team up there on Saturday than we were last Tuesday,” Matta said. “We’ll go back to the drawing board, keep working and get better.”
Whether Michigan State junior running back Le’Veon Bell will be a contender for this year’s Heisman Trophy remains to be seen, but Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer has already compared Bell to a former Wisconsin running back who won the award in 1999. “(Bell) reminds me of Ron Dayne, even a little more athletic,” Meyer said. “Extremely strong, powerful guy, and times up his blocks very well, and runs through tackles, and then we see the athleticism that usually people that size don’t have.” Bell, a native of Columbus who played high school football at Groveport Madison High School, will be starting at running back for the No. 20 Spartans when they play his hometown No. 14 Buckeyes on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in East Lansing, Mich. OSU’s defense is tied 34th nationally in rushing defense with 117.5 yards allowed per game, but it could be facing its toughest test on Saturday in Bell. Bell, a 6-foot-2, 244-pound running back, ranks second among all Football Bowl Subdivision running backs with 610 rushing yards through his first four games of the season, and is coming off of a career-best 253-yard rushing game in a victory against Eastern Michigan last Saturday. OSU co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers said the skill set that has made Bell so productive this season. “He’s a patient runner. He does a nice job of setting up blocks within their offense in the power game, and I think he does a nice job of cutting back,” Withers said. “He knows where the soft spots in the defense (are), he knows when to take it on the edge. He does a nice job with a stiff arm out on the edge. He will lower his shoulder inside. He’s built for an I-back inside runner, and I think it fits what they’re trying to do offensively.” The worst day for OSU’s rushing defense thus far this year came on Sept. 15 versus California, which ran for 224 yards against the Buckeyes, 160 yards of which came from sophomore Brendan Bigelow on just four carries. Meyer said the Buckeyes cannot allow Bell, who has already gone for more than 200 yards in a single game twice this season, to do that again on Saturday. “If it turns into a 200-yard rushing day,” Meyer said, “then we’re going to lose the game.” Withers explained what the OSU defense must do to keep Bell’s rushing yards in check. “We’re going to have to make sure we keep him sideways and not let him go north and south,” Withers said. OSU redshirt senior safety Orhian Johnson said that the key to tackling Bell, considering his combination of size and athleticism, is to “get him before he gets to you.” “You definitely want to get to him before he gets started because he’s real top-heavy, so you know he’s going to run downfield,” Johnson said. “He’s got good feet, so you just can’t chop at him, but you just got to make sure you’re going to get up there, you’re going to wrap him up.” As a sophomore in last year’s matchup with the Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium, Bell only ran for 50 yards on 14 carries. At that point, however, Bell had only run for 217 yards through his first four games of the season, and was splitting carries with then-junior running back Edwin Baker. This season, with Baker having moved on to the NFL, Bell has become the Spartans’ workhorse at running back. Bell already has 117 carries this season, with no other running back having more than 15 attempts through the first four games. MSU coach Mark Dantonio said during the Spartans’ weekly press conference on Tuesday that Bell has progressed as a running back since last year’s matchup with the Buckeyes. “Where (Le’Veon’s) grown is as a complete football player,” Dantonio said. “He’s always been very, very good. But he’s gotten bigger, stronger.” OSU senior fullback Zach Boren, who said he tackled Bell in high school when he was playing on both sides of the ball for Pickerington High School Central, said Bell has “stayed true to himself from high school to college.” “In high school, they would feed him the ball 30 to 40 times a game, and that’s the same at Michigan State,” Boren said. “He’s a great player, he’s a powerful runner.” In addition to lining up at running back, Bell has also returned three punts for a total of 18 yards for the Spartans this season. Meyer said the fact that Bell has been used as a punt returner is a testament to his athleticism. “He might be the biggest punt returner in the history of college football,” Meyer said with a laugh.
Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo EditorThe Big Ten schedules for the next four seasons were released Tuesday, nearly completing Ohio State’s full schedules up to 2021. A pair of nonconference matchups in 2020 and 2021 remain the only two yet-to-be determined opponents for the Buckeyes.Ohio State will only play games on Saturdays for every game announced through 2027, unlike 2017 when Ohio State had opened up on the road against Indiana on a Thursday. And in 2021, Ohio State’s first game will be on the road against Big Ten opponent Minnesota, the team’s only scheduled conference matchup to start a season. Nebraska is scheduled to play Ohio State every year from last season’s matchup in Columbus and 2021, marking six straight seasons the two teams will match up against one another. Ohio State won last season’s game 62-3 and is scheduled to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, on Oct. 14.Ohio State also will play host to Iowa in 2020, which will be the Hawkeyes’ second visit to Columbus since 2013.Upcoming Schedules2018 Ohio State Football ScheduleSept. 1 – Oregon StateSept. 8 – RutgersSept. 15 – vs. TCU*Sept. 22 – Tulane Sept. 29 – at Penn StateOct. 6 – IndianaOct. 13 – MinnesotaOct. 20 – at PurdueOct. 27 – Off Nov. 3 – NebraskaNov. 10 – at Michigan StateNov. 17 – at MarylandNov. 24 – MichiganDec. 1 – Big Ten Championship Game *AT&T Stadium; North Dallas 2019 Ohio State Football ScheduleAug. 31 – Florida Atlantic Sept. 7 – Cincinnati Sept. 14 – at IndianaSept. 21 – Miami (Ohio) Sept. 28 – at NebraskaOct. 5 – Michigan StateOct. 12 – OffOct. 19 – at NorthwesternOct. 26 – WisconsinNov. 2 – Off Nov. 9 – MarylandNov. 16 – at RutgersNov. 23 – Penn StateNov. 30 – at MichiganDec. 7 – Big Ten Championship Game2020 Ohio State Football ScheduleSept. 5 – Bowling Green Sept. 12 – at OregonSept. 19 – TBDSept. 26 – RutgersOct. 3 – OffOct. 10 – Iowa Oct. 17 – at Michigan StateOct. 24 – at Penn StateOct. 31 – NebraskaNov. 7 – Indiana Nov. 14 – at Maryland Nov. 21 – at Illinois Nov. 28 – Michigan2021 Ohio State Football ScheduleSept. 4 – at MinnesotaSept. 11 – Oregon Sept. 18 – Tulsa Sept. 25 – TBDOct. 2 – at NebraskaOct. 9 – PurdueOct. 16 – OffOct. 23 – at RutgersOct. 30 – Michigan StateNov. 6 – at IndianaNov. 13 – MarylandNov. 20 – Penn State Nov. 27 – at Michigan