Limber up that thumb, fanatics.

The last two weeks have been paradise for a sports fanatic. Tremendously dramatic playoff baseball, early season hockey, and football(college and NFL) heating up has my remote control screaming in pain.

Saturday I had to ice my thumb down, while having two screens going at once. Upsets, game winning field goals, big saves, whiteouts, bottom of the ninth game winning home runs, and my fighting(and oft injured)Trojans left me needing a good night’s sleep yet gloriously happy.

If you are a sports crazed fanatic like myself, then here is what your day may have looked like.

The upset

Looking at the noon time slate of college football didn’t inspire me to stop my yard work. Regardless, why take chances? I put the rake down and settled in for what looked like some pretty ordinary football games.

While SEC referees were making South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp turn a ruddier shade of red than his Gamecocks uniforms and Miami(Fla) was missed kicking itself further into the college football abyss against a hapless Georgia Tech team, the real news was popping in Champagne, Illinois.

Five minutes into the second half it looked like the inevitable was happening, with Wisconsin taking a thirteen point lead. Then the Badgers went stagnant again, and Illinois heightened the tension with a touchdown run late in the third quarter. Down six going into the fourth quarter, the Illini had a puncher’s chance.

A Badger field goal put them up two scores in the fourth, and it looked like they would escape with an ugly win. Then Illinois fired one last shot with a touchdown pass to close the spread to two. Let’s face it, everyone expected Wisconsin to use Jonathan Taylor to grind out the clock and slither off to Columbus for an undefeated showdown with the Buckeyes. But then they didn’t. Instead, with running difficult, they went unWisconsin-like and threw the football. One too many, as it turns out. An Illini interception, a drive that may turn a program around, and one clutch kick later and the upset was complete. Illinois 24 Wisconsin 23.

Christmas came early in Illinois. You see the beard…Santa…okay, moving on.

Duck Hunting

Next up was the 3:30 games. Baylor staying undefeated, SMU staying undefeated, and my national champion pick LSU were all interesting choices, but my remote kept taking me out to Puget Sound for Oregon and Washington. Washington always plays good teams better than they do weaker teams. Saturday was no different as Husky quarterback Jacob Eason went toe to toe with possible number one draft pick Justin Herbert.

Eason had the Huskies up two touchdowns, but the Ducks kept quacking and eventually won a hard fought game 35-31. The Ducks only blemish is a loss to Auburn in week one at a neutral site. The Ducks gave up a big lead in that one. The rest of the country will ignore Oregon, citing the weakness of the PAC 12. Yet these same pundits will ignore the ridiculously easy schedule of Clemson. Oregon has two more tough road trips to USC and Arizona State. The Ducks are a complete team and capable of staying in the playoff conversation.

Two Screens Cooking

7:30 is where my thumb needed to be limber, and two screens cooking was mandatory. A white out in Happy Valley, game six between the Astros and Yankees, Penguins hosting old friend Marc Andre Fleury and Las Vegas, Arizona State, suddenly relevant, at Utah, and then at 9:30 add in my team of choice, the USC Trojans.

Utah won a dogfight, the Pens got shut out by old friend Fleury, and my Trojans won, but lost six more players to injury. The Trojans uncovered more talent that was mysteriously not seeing the field.

Game six of the ALCS became an instant classic. Both the Astros and Yankees went the route of using multiple pitchers to cover a few outs at a time. Whatever your opinion of that strategy, the game still came down to the ninth inning and both teams’ closers. DJ LeMahieu tied the game in the top of the ninth with a two run home run. The Yankees then turned the game over to all world closer Aroldis Chapman. After two easy outs, Chapman walked George Springer which brought diminutive all star Jose Altuve to the plate. This happened.

Astros to the World Series. Yankees go home.

Then there was the Whiteout. A surging Penn State football team hosting a wobbly Michigan team in the craziest environment in all of college football. These Penn State fans are rabid, and they showed that for two and a half quarters, before becoming very nervous.

Penn State jumped Michigan and looked to be on their way to a lopsided victory, as I had anticipated. Mysteriously, leading 21-0, The Nittany Lions stopped pressing on the gas pedal. Slowly they gave Michigan life, and the Wolverines gained tons of confidence. Quite frankly, Michigan was the better team for much of the game.

As Penn State went into a shell, Michigan started closing the gap. After narrowing the gap from 3 touchdowns to just one, Penn State had one more big play left in the bag. Quarterback Sean Clifford launched a bomb into the arms of a wide open K.J. Hamler. The two touchdown lead wouldn’t last long.

After closing the lead to seven, the Wolverines had one more drive. On fourth and goal, quarterback Shea Patterson threw a strike for a touchdown to Ronnie Bell. The only problem was Bell let the ball go straight through his arms and fall to the ground. Penn State would survive.

This scene on the sideline reminds us that these are just kids, and successes create great joy but failures hurt even more.

Ronnie Bell in tears after fatal dropped pass in end zone.

The game left Michigan with some hope, but unfortunately out of the playoff picture. It left Nittany Lion fans filling my inbox with messages questioning offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s aptitude.

Moreover, it moved Penn State one step closer to a titanic battle of undefeated teams in November. Of course I’m referencing their November 9 game at Minnesota.

As the clock struck midnight Saturday night, the tip of my thumb was red as a cherry, my remote was smoking, and I was thinking how great it was to be a sports fanatic.

Two Cent Takes

College Football

~The best thing that happened Saturday took place in Minnesota.

Sports provide for great scenes. Good for Casey O’Brien. Good for P.J. Fleck.

~Someone on the Arkansas coaching staff thought this was a good idea.

I assume that coach has been dismissed from the staff.

~This was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty according to PAC 12 officials. They also called one for a player flipping the ball up in the air after an interception. They’ve called this stuff all year long.

This is why PAC 12 referees are ridiculed nation wide every week.

~Two Cent Top Ten

  1. Ohio State
  2. LSU
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Alabama
  5. Clemson
  6. Penn State
  7. Florida
  8. Auburn
  9. Oregon
  10. Georgia

Honorable mentions to the other undefeated: Minnesota, Baylor, SMU, and Appalachian State.

Ohio State has easily been the most dominant team, but hasn’t really played anyone. This week they get Wisconsin. Wisconsin is who I thought they were. Ultra conservative with a very average quarterback. They can shut me up with a big win in Columbus. Don’t look for it.

LSU’s win at Texas is losing a little luster. Texas gave up 48 points in a thrilling last second win against Kansas. Of course the same can be said for Oklahoma’s win against Texas.

Alabama must play without Tua Tagovailoa for a couple weeks. He will return for their home showdown with LSU.

Clemson still hasn’t found any consistency. Penn State is a bit of a mystery, though I tend to think they are pretty good. Florida beat Auburn, who beat Oregon. Oregon will need some help to rise further in the playoff picture. Georgia seems ripe for the picking.

Other than those ten teams, Notre Dame, Baylor, and Minnesota are the only others to stand a chance.

Hockey

~The Flyers got off to a slow start last season, and that start eliminated any chance of them making the playoffs. It’s very early, but they have lost four in a row. They will want to nip this in the bud so they don’t end up in the same situation as last year.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a slow start, but got their bearings lately. They have changed their ways due to injuries, and the new style seems to suit them.  The young players called up from Wilkes Barre/Scranton have been a huge lift.

Baseball

~Astros and Nationals, just like absolutely nobody saw coming.

These two teams are proof that pitching still wins, even in this home run happy environment. The Nationals will run out Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patric Corbin. The Astros send out Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zach Grienke. That is six of the top ten pitchers in WAR(Wins Against Replacement) in the past three seasons. Hey, maybe we will actually have some quicker games.

Astros in six.

NFL

~The Steelers got no help from Seattle on Sunday. A game that, on paper, looked like it would go in the loss column for the Ravens instead went to the win side of the ledger.

This is a perfect example of how hard it is to figure out the NFL this year. Every week is different.

The only thing to be sure of is the Patriots will play some pushover and win. Okay, that was a shot but I couldn’t help myself.

~The tonic that seems to cure all ills appears to be the Atlanta Falcons defense. This week the Los Angeles Rams got a pick me up. I can’t imagine Dan Quinn lasting the entire season in Atlanta.

~The NFC North should be an interesting race. The Packers and Vikings both scored 42 points this week to extend their winning streaks to three. Both teams have potent offenses and respectable defenses.

Speaking of the NFC North, who is the creeper that constantly whispers in head coach Matt Patricia’s ear?

Not sure what they are talking about, but it appears like the creeper guy is offering to take a lead pipe to the knee of the opposing team’s quarterback, and Patricia is considering it.

~Every year a team makes the playoffs on the back of an easy schedule and maybe an upset or two. They get there, but they really aren’t a true threat. That team this year looks like Buffalo. After holding off the tanking Dolphins the Bills find themselves at 5-1 with a close loss to the Patriots. It is more than believable, looking at their schedule, to think the Bills will finish at worst 10-6. That definitely makes the playoffs in the AFC.

~Raise your hand if you had New Orleans going undefeated in Drew Brees’ absence. Teddy Bridgewater is the only hand I should see. No, put your hand down Sean Payton. Bridgewater has done a fabulous job leading the Saints, and he continues to be a great story. He also is proving he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL again.

~The Eagles stink. We knew the defense wasn’t going to be a strength, but the offense is equally inept. Could there be some truth to the Carson Wentz not being a good leader stuff? And what about head coach Doug Pederson? He was the greatest thing since sliced bread after winning the Super Bowl. That bread is starting to get moldy, and Philly fans have seen enough moldy things this year. Right, Gabe Kapler?

~Boy, my Super Bowl pick LA Chargers are going to great lengths to prove me an idiot. Look, there is plenty of evidence. No need to pile on.

Sunday the Chargers scored late on an Austin Ekeler catch and run to take the lead and probably win the game versus Tennessee. Then it was overturned. Then they scored again. Then it was overturned again. Then Melvin Gordon fumbled going across the goal line to lose in one of the most bizarre endings ever.

The first overturn seemed questionable at best. It certainly didn’t look like there was evidence to overturn. Another replay decision to add to the ever growing list.

A Penny For My Final Thought…

Officiating in both college and pro football is becoming increasingly problematic.

Over the last handful of seasons we have lost our ability to know what roughing the passer is, what constitutes a catch, what pass interference is, and as of last Monday night apparently we can add hands to the face to that list.

Last Monday night the officials flat out helped determine the winner of the game with several horrific calls. The Detroit Lions should be 3-2-1 right now and a game and a half out of first place. Instead they are 2-3-1 and seemingly out of contention to win the division.

Last year I wrote about how the Steelers had some seriously bad calls go against them in a couple games. They missed the playoffs by a game. If those games are officiated properly that would have been different.

Things haven’t exactly been better in the college ranks.

Last week the USC/Notre Dame game had several clearly missed calls. Penn State had a touchdown incorrectly overturned by replay.

This week Penn State was on the correct side of some poor calls. Ask Jim Harbaugh if he’d like a couple of those pass interference calls changed. At the time it didn’t look like those calls really would make a big difference. As the game played out, they were huge calls that could have adversely affected the outcome for Michigan.

When changes are made often times the changes go too far. Such is the case with changes in officiating.

Replay should either be done away with or streamlined. It slows games down far too much and still comes up with incorrect results.

Safety measures are a good thing, but they took it too far. Football is, and always will be, a violent sport. Nobody wants to see things go back to the Jack Tatum days of the 1970’s, but players have to be allowed to make contact. Right now defensive players have no idea what will draw a penalty flag.

KISS. Not the band, but the acronym. Keep it simple stupid. Quit adding verbiage to all these rules, like the catch rule or pass interference. Allow referees to see it and call it, rather than interpret it.

The fact that this is the second season in a row I’m writing about this topic is not a good sign. And it has gotten worse, not better, since I vented on this last season.

The biggest problem I see right now is that too many of the men and women doing the job aren’t very good, and that includes Al Riveron, the head of officials and replay. He wasn’t good on the field, and is even worse off it. Both college and pro officials are compensated very well. This is a full time job for some college officials and most pro officials. They’ve got to get better at their jobs.

Players get fined, ejected, benched, and cut. Coaches get fired. Referees? Where exactly is the accountability? There seems to be very little. Teams get apologies, referees occasionally get removed for a game, but not much else happens. It is time to start having better training, better vetting, and better searches to equip officials with the skills necessary to do a quality job. In other words, we need more Gene Steratores.

As always, and I do mean always, Lane Kiffin summarized the officiating problem succinctly with this tweet Saturday.

Kiffin suffered a $5,000 fine from Conference USA. What’s the big deal? Just like on the football field, the referees probably didn’t see the tweet anyway.

Just my two cents…