NCAA

College football roundup: Young stars electrify all-time classic Rose Bowl

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USATSI

College football roundup: Young stars electrify all-time classic Rose Bowl

With just the national championship game remaining on the schedule, it’s time to reflect on the highlights of the 2016-17 bowl season.

Close encounters: This has been the most competitive and exciting post-season in recent memory. Over half the games had a one-score margin of victory and were decided in the last minute or overtime.

Best Game: The Rose Bowl, our choice for the best matchup in the post-season lineup, certainly lived up to the hype. USC beat Penn State, 52-49, on a 46-yard field goal as time expired. The game showcased two of the brightest stars in college football, the Trojans’ redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and Penn State’s sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. Darnold passed for five TDs and 453 yards; Barkley rushed for 194 yards, including a spectacular 79-yard TD jaunt that was one of the niftiest runs you’ll ever see. With these two around, the game is in good hands for the next couple of years.

Semi-finals: Sadly, both College Football Playoff semi-final games were one-sided affairs. No. 1 Alabama outclassed No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl, 24-7, and No. 2 Clemson destroyed No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-0.

‘Bama’s win was no surprise. Washington’s high-scoring offense was simply no match for the Crimson Tide defense. Husky quarterback Jake Browning looked rattled most of the day. His pick-six gave Alabama a 17-7 lead that sealed Washington’s doom. However, even those of us who predicted a Clemson win over Ohio State never imagined a 31-0 beat-down. It was the first time in 194 games that an Urban Meyer coached team was shut out. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, despite his customary two turnovers, played brilliantly, and his receivers made the all-world Buckeye secondary look quite human. 

So the championship game will be a rematch of last year’s classic 45-40 Alabama win. Alabama is the early favorite, but we like Clemson in this one. The game may hinge on whether Watson and company can keep the Alabama defense out of the end zone.

Foster Farms Bowl—Utah 26, Indiana 24: It was a great game, decided by a Utah field goal in the final minute and highlighted by the 222-yard rushing performance of "unretired" Utah running back Joe Williams. It’s just a shame there wasn't much of a crowd on hand to see it...27,000 tickets “distributed,” 15,000 fans in the house. Fox did an excellent job on the broadcast (other than the introduction of Foster Farms’ CEO as “Mr.” Laura Flanagan during the trophy presentation), with its No. 1 announce team and studio crew.

Unfortunately, Foster Farms was swamped in the TV ratings by the competing bowls on ESPN—Russell Athletic and Texas. The Pac-12 and 49ers believed that being the only bowl game on Fox would translate into a big viewing audience. But over the years, it’s been proven time and time again that the built-in audience and constant promotion on ESPN—the undisputed home of college football and the place where most post-season games reside—delivers higher ratings than being the lone wolf on an over-the-air network like Fox.

Sun Bowl—Stanford 25, North Carolina 23: Another great game, with almost the identical score as the Foster Farms Bowl. With Christian McCaffrey sitting out and Keller Christ felled by a knee injury, Stanford’s defense and special teams saved the day. Defensive end Solomon Thomas and safety Dallas Lloyd were brilliant, with Thomas harassing Tar Heel QB Mitch Trubisky throughout and making the game-deciding play, and Lloyd intercepting two passes, returning one for a score. Running back Bryce Love did his best McCaffrey impersonation with a 49-yard TD reception and 59-yard run from scrimmage. 

Cardinal kicker Conrad Ukropina (try saying that quickly five times in a row!) scored more than half of Stanford’s points with four field goals and an extra point. The lone miss clanged off the left upright, something that Ukropina did four times this year. The odds on that happening must be a billion to one. For the season, Conrad hit 22 of 27 field goal attempts. If those goal post shots had caromed through the uprights instead of bouncing out, he’d have converted 26 of 27 on the year.

Note to those who think bowl games are “meaningless exhibitions:” Check out the sideline and on-field celebrations by Stanford players when they stopped North Carolina’s two-point conversion attempt to win the game.

Shaw Superlatives: There were some who questioned former Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby (now Big 12 Conference Commissioner) in January of 2011 when he hired David Shaw to replace Jim Harbaugh as head football coach. Shaw has not only proven the naysayers wrong, he’s become the one of the most successful coaches in Stanford history. In six years, Shaw has posted a 64-17 record, won four Pac-12 Conference Championships, gone to the Rose Bowl three times (winning two), won 10 or more games five times, and finished in the top 10 nationally four times. Next year, in all likelihood, he will pass the legendary Pop Warner (71-17-8) as the winningest Stanford coach of all time. Heady stuff.

Shaw’s name is routinely mentioned as a candidate for every NFL job that pops up, because of a stellar resume that includes pro coaching experience prior to his Stanford tenure. So far, he’s resisted the urge and the promise of more money. Why? He’s a Stanford alum who truly believes in the university’s mission to win the right way, and his family loves the environment on campus and in Palo Alto. Stanford has had a long line of coaches who’ve left soon after achieving success on the Farm—John Ralston (Denver Broncos), Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers), Denny Green (Minnesota Vikings), and Tyrone Willingham (Notre Dame). Shaw just may be the one who sticks around.

Memory lane: We spotted Sun Bowl officials Jimmy Rogers and John Folmer on the dais for the trophy presentation to David Shaw. Rogers and Folmer were the two bowl representatives who invited Stanford to the Sun Bowl back in 1977, when I was Sports Information Director and Bill Walsh was the head coach. After Stanford's 21-3 win over Cal in the Big Game, I walked Jimmy and John down to the Stanford locker room, where they extended the official Sun Bowl invitation to Bill as he emerged from the shower, draped only in a white towel. His best friend, Cal coach Mike White, was standing right next to him.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkles was suspended from the Belk Bowl for shoplifting…at the Belk department store, the game’s title sponsor.

Pac-12 to experiment with ways to shorten football games

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AP

Pac-12 to experiment with ways to shorten football games

LOS ANGELES -- The Pac-12 will shorten halftime and reduce the number of commercial breaks during its non-conference schedule this season as part of a trial program to reduce the length of its football games.

Halftime will be 15 minutes long, cut down from the usual 20-minute break. The number of commercial breaks will be reduced and they will be shorter in length, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said Wednesday.

Scott announced the initiative as the Pac-12 kicked off its media days in Hollywood. The experiment is intended to shorten ballooning game times in an era of up-tempo offenses running more plays and the increased scoring that comes with it.

"Just because metrics show robust ratings and attendance doesn't mean we shouldn't be experimenting and piloting with formats that will keep the sport attractive," Scott said. "It's incumbent on us to look at the presentation of the sport and make sure the pace of play is moving as much as possible and without changing the fundamentals of the game."

Scott did not completely dismiss potential rule changes in the future to address the length of games, saying that the upcoming experiment was part of a larger, more comprehensive review.

Scott noted that Pac-12 games have averaged nearly 3 hours and 30 minutes, more than 30 minutes longer than NFL games. Some of that discrepancy can be attributed to stopping the clock after first downs in college football, a rule not used in the NFL.

The halftime reduction could be a significant incentive to keep television viewers tuned in. Scott said up to 30 percent of the audience is lost during that break.

The changes could also have a positive effect on stadium attendance since Pac-12 fans have complained about the increase in late starts under the conference's most recent television deal. Fans might be more likely to watch a game in-person on a Thursday or Saturday night if they have a chance to get home before midnight.

For Arizona and Arizona State, which hold their early-season home games after dark to avoid the desert heat, it could mean their fans spend less time in triple-digit temperatures.

Pac-12 coaches consulted about the change did not believe it would hinder their ability to make adjustments at halftime, Scott said.

"I was delighted to hear our coaches feel like 20 minutes is more than they need from a student-athlete health and rest and X's and O's perspective," Scott said.

Scott also announced the league's plans to operate a centralized replay center, joining other conferences in consolidating its video review facilities.

The Pac-12 title game will stay at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, through 2019, Scott said. The league also has the option to hold the 2020 game in Santa Clara.

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

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AP

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

Even the most passionate Cal fan might struggle to name a single player on the current basketball roster. The team's top five leading scorers from last season have all departed. Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird moved on to the NBA, Grant Mullins graduated, and both Charlie Moore and Kameron Rooks elected to transfer.

But perhaps the most significant change is on the sideline. Out is Cuonzo Martin, who agreed to a massive seven-year contract with Missouri, worth a reported $21 million. Replacing him is 44-year-old Wyking Jones, a longtime assistant coach, who spent the past two seasons as Martin's top aide in Berkeley.

Jones' promotion was met with heavy criticism from many in the media, both locally and nationally. Skeptics believe Cal settled for the cheap option, rather than the best option. But why can't both be true? There's no denying that salary played a factor in the hire - the athletic department's financial troubles have been well documented in recent years. But Jones impressed Athletic Director Mike Williams in other areas too, reportedly acing his job interview with a detailed plan for the program moving forward. And unlike the other candidates, Jones already has direct experience dealing with Cal's unique set of circumstances.

“It's not something that you can walk into and just get a really good grasp of,” Jones explained. “It's a learning curve that, if you walk into this situation for the first time, it would take you a tremendous amount of time. Knowing who to go to when you need things, who's in charge of this, who's in charge of that, just having a familiarity of how to really get things done around here.”

Jones also discovered the challenges of recruiting at a school like Cal, where not every athlete can qualify academically. While many coaches would view that as a negative, Jones chooses to embrace it.

“In my mind, that's what makes this place special,” he said. “It's the number one public institution in the world for a reason. Your recruiting pool shrinks quite a bit, but that's okay because typically what happens is if you get a kid who has a lot of discipline on and off the court, you're not going to run into troubles on the weekends when they're in the dorms. They're usually kids who have a lot of respect for the community and other students.”

From a coaching standpoint, Jones has unquestionably paid his dues in the world of college basketball. Prior to joining Cal as an assistant in 2015, he made stops at Louisville, New Mexico, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount, where he also played from 1991-95. Now, after nearly 15 years in collegiate coaching, Wyking Jones is a head coach.

“I think initially it's very exciting to have an opportunity to coach, have your own program at a storied program like Cal, to follow in the footsteps of some great coaches,” he said, smiling. “But now the smoke has cleared and it's time to get to work.”

That work has already begun. As previously mentioned, Jones will have to replace his top five scorers from a year ago, who accounted for nearly 56 points per game. The Bears will count on increased production from senior center Kingsley Okoroh and junior guard Don Coleman. They will also rely heavily on redshirt senior forward Marcus Lee, who sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky.

“It's an adjustment, for sure,” Jones admitted. “But you have 13 scholarships for a reason. It's just an opportunity for the guys who are still here to earn their scholarship. It's an opportunity for them to make a name for themselves and have an impact on this program.”

Under Cuonzo Martin, Cal established itself as one of the best defensive teams in the country. Last season, the Bears ranked 18th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 63.4 points per game. Jones hopes to continue that trend while also implementing a full-court pressure defense, similar to the one he coached at Louisville, which resulted in a national championship in 2013.

“It's a process,” he acknowledged. “In year one, hopefully we can be good at it. In year two, look to improve. In year three, hope to be great at it... It's a type of defense, when you're talking about pressing, it's reading all the other guys on the court. It's never scripted. It's being able to read when is the right time to go trap, when is the right time to go switch, when is the right time to bluff and stunt at a guy to slow him down. So there's a learning curve in it.”

Jones knows there will also be a learning curve for him personally as a head coach, especially with such a young and inexperienced roster. He expects his team to be overlooked and undervalued by much of the college basketball world, but that's just fine with him.

“I think a lot of people will probably guess that we won't be very good, and that's motivation right there. That's motivation for my staff, for our managers, for the support staff. It's motivation for everybody that's a part of this program to exceed those expectations. So I think that makes for an exciting season.”