Responding to my piece earlier on Friday about the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto and his approach to at-bats with runners in scoring position, reader Keith Anderson asked:How does his [swing] percentage compare to when there isn’t anyone in [scoring] position? Is there a noticeable/meaningful difference? I just wonder if people are picking at how his play changes or just how he plays.Funny you ask, Keith! Before deciding to focus specifically on whether Votto swings at pitches in the strike zone with runners in scoring position, I collected a bunch of other data covering different scenarios.Let’s look at this year first. Here are Votto’s 2014 numbers in RISP situations versus bases empty.Votto with RISP, 2014121 pitches47.1 percent strike rate (strikes + balls in play/pitches)29.8 percent swing rate24.7 percent called strike rate8.7 percent chase rate (swings at pitches out of the strike zone)57.9 percent fastballs57.7 percent swings on pitches in strike zoneVotto with bases empty, 2014437 pitches58.8 percent strike rate40.5 percent swing rate30.8 percent called strike rate17.4 percent chase rate59.3 percent fastballs64.8 percent swings on pitches in strike zoneSo Votto is swinging a lot more often this year in bases-empty situations than he is with runners in scoring position. Not coincidentally, he’s getting a lot more strikes to swing at with nobody on. Interestingly, he’s also doing something very un-Votto like: chasing pitches out of the zone, in this case twice as often with the bases empty as with runners in scoring position. Of course it’s only May 9, so we’re dealing with relatively small sample sizes.Now let’s take a look at how often Votto has swung at strikes with the bases empty over time.Votto swing percentage on pitches in strike zone with bases empty, 2009-20142009 73.32010 69.42011 66.82012 59.72013 64.32014 64.8Votto swing percentage on pitches in strike zone with RISP, 2009-20142009 78.22010 76.22011 69.82012 62.42013 69.22014 57.7The same trend governing Votto’s swing rate with runners in scoring position can be seen with the bases empty. He’s far less aggressive today than he was in 2009, and somewhat less aggressive than he was during his 2010 MVP season. After that, things level out, assuming we discount (or simply ignore) 2012, when a knee injury messed with his entire stat line. Also note that the small-sample-size issues that make Votto’s swing percentage on pitches in the strike zone with runners in scoring position has not carried over to the same stat with the bases empty; 2011, 2013 and 2014 look nearly identical with the bases empty.One other thing. If we assume that the 57.7 percent figure for runners in scoring position this year is a small-sample-size fluke that will even out shortly, then we’re left with a clear and healthy trend: The better the RBI opportunity, the more Joey Votto swings at pitches in the strike zone.
Source: Football Whispers England is striking gold from the set pieceTeams with the best rate per 90 minutes of shots from set pieces (corner kicks and free kicks) in the World Cup TeamPasses per possessionRank teamGOALSSHOTSSHOTS ON GOAL Portugal0.693.880.69 Croatia3.194 Croatia has conceded only one goal from a set play — Russia’s equalizer in extra time of the quarterfinals. But it has conceded 22 shots from them so far, which is tied for the most in the tournament. This suggests that some luck has been involved — Russia, for instance, gave up the same number of shots from set pieces as Croatia did, but five of those shots resulted in goals against.The game will probably be tense and closed off, with England’s willingness to patiently pass the ball in its own half combined with Croatia’s indifference to pressing high resulting in an overall lack of openness. The beauty of high-stakes knockout stage soccer, though, is that one goal can change everything.Check out our latest World Cup predictions. France3.636 England4.3621 Croatia, which takes on England in the other semifinal, had just a 3 percent pre-tournament chance of winning the tournament and an SPI of 80.4, according to FiveThirtyEight’s predictions. The team is now at 18 percent with an SPI of 82.0, which reiterates the impressive run it’s been on, despite having to ride its luck in two consecutive penalty shootouts. Gareth Southgate’s young England squad, up to 85.2 in SPI, has fulfilled its pre-tournament dark horse expectations, taking advantage of a relatively easy draw to increase the chances of it finally “coming home.”The brutal truth of knockout soccer, though, is that team strength counts for only so much; just ask Spain and Brazil, which went out to Russia and Belgium, respectively. Soccer is a random game, and this is exacerbated in situations where one win carries such importance.Tactics also play a big part. Belgium was lucky in its 2-1 win over Brazil, to the extent that the South Americans had 3.01 expected goals to Belgium’s 0.52. But Roberto Martinez set his side up in a way that was designed to exploit Brazil’s limited weaknesses. Romelu Lukaku — normally the team’s central striker, with four goals already this World Cup — was moved out to the right wing to exploit the space behind Brazil’s marauding left back, Marcelo. Kevin De Bruyne, whom Martinez had underused in a deep midfield role, was shifted to the “false nine” position — in which an attacking midfielder plays nominally as a striker but drops deeper than typical to receive the ball — so that he could receive the ball behind the Brazilian midfielders and launch counterattacks quickly. The Red Devils may have ridden their luck, but they had a plan.In the two semifinals, the stylistic clashes should make for an entertaining spectacle.Belgium vs. France: divergent defendingBelgium and France are both comfortable teams on the ball. They both average more than four passes per possession, according to soccer media and technology company Football Whispers, putting them both in the top third of teams at this World Cup. The Red Devils tend to be slightly more patient, holding the ball for about 1.5 seconds more when they get it than France does, and they switch play from side to side more, with possessions that are wider (in terms of the distance between how far right and left they go) by about 3 yards. How England and Croatia match up stylisticallyNumber of per-possession passes (for and against) and where that ranks among World Cup teams Germany0.304.231.51 TeamPasses per possessionrank Off the ball, both teams implement an aggressive press — but in subtly different ways. England looks to stunt its opposition’s attacks, allowing it to cycle the ball in its own half but not advance much: The Three Lions regain the ball, on average, 54.81 yards away from their own goal, the second highest distance of any team in Russia this summer, but they allow their opponents well more than four passes per possession. Zlatko Dalic’s team, on the other hand, regains the ball in the attacking third just 1.8 times per game compared with England’s 5.6, but Croatia allows its opposition only a little more than three passes per possession, the lowest of any side remaining. In other words, it’s easy to pass into Croatia’s half but difficult to do anything once you get there.The stylistic factor most likely to influence this semifinal matchup, though, is England’s skill when it comes to set plays (corners and free kicks). Southgate has spoken about his focus on them as an opportunity for England to gain an advantage over opponents, with this strategy bearing fruit: England has scored five goals from them already, nearly half of of its total so far. From Set Pieces (Per 90 Minutes) Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group Australia0.003.730.31 England4.846 The World Cup in Russia has become one of European dominance. The four teams that remain all hail from the continent: France, Belgium, England and Croatia will be battling in the semifinals Tuesday and Wednesday for a shot at glory in the final Sunday in Moscow. In this World Cup of Upsets, the French are the only consistently successful team left. Croatia and Belgium have never reached the final, while England’s only appearance was in 1966.The first semifinal, France vs. Belgium, features the two strongest teams remaining in the competition, each with a Soccer Power Index rating of 87.5, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model. Belgium’s rating has improved steadily from before the tournament began, when it stood at 85.4, to after the dramatic quarterfinal win against Brazil, the tournament favorite. France, meanwhile, has strolled to the semifinals relatively easily, apart from a dramatic 4-3 victory against Argentina in the round of 16. While Les Bleus’ World Cup average of 1.12 expected goals per 90 minutes is the worst of the remaining teams, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, their 0.67 expected goals conceded per 90 leads the semifinalists and is fourth best in the tournament: Spain0.645.341.07 When they don’t have the ball, the two teams behave very differently. Belgium is much more willing to press high up the pitch, taking risks and committing men in the hope of a valuable turnover: They’ve regained the ball in their attacking third 5.2 times per game compared with France’s 2.6, while their possessions start an average of 48.92 yards from their own goal, compared with France’s 47.28 yards.The downside to this sort of pressing, though, is that if the initial Belgian press is broken, its opposition can keep the ball under a lot less pressure and start to probe in attack. Belgium’s opponents have the ball for 2.61 seconds longer on average than France’s opponents do. Belgium’s opponents average well over four passes per possession, whereas Didier Deschamps’ side allows opponents just 3.63 passes, the sixth lowest of all teams in Russia.Martinez will need a characteristically proactive game plan to avoid allowing France the room to counter that Argentina did — speedster Kylian Mbappe needs no second invitation. Martinez will also have to find a replacement for Thomas Meunier — his first choice to play right wing-back, who is suspended for receiving his second yellow card against Brazil — in a squad thin on full-backs. Deschamps will probably avoid tinkering, hoping that his balanced side will frustrate Belgium while relying on individual talent in attack.England vs. Croatia: intense pressing and set playsDespite being blessed with arguably the most talented midfield in the competition, Croatia doesn’t dawdle when it gets on the ball, moving it to the attackers quickly: Croatia has had the fewest passes per possession of the four teams remaining. England, conversely, has had the most. Some of this is because of the quality of opposition each side has faced, but it’s also a fair reflection of their respective directness: Gareth Southgate’s men hold the ball for more than 3 seconds longer when they get it, often using possession as a defensive tactic. Croatia3.8916 TeamOpponent’s passes per possessionRank France4.2212 Brazil0.184.231.10 Uruguay0.924.601.84 Belgium4.689 Belgium4.3822 Source: Football Whispers Argentina0.233.930.69 Morocco0.303.951.22 England0.865.711.73 TeamOpponent’s passes per possessionRank How France and Belgium match up stylisticallyNumber of per-possession passes (for and against) and where that ranks among World Cup teams Switzerland0.233.670.46
The modern Champions League has not been a hospitable competition for underdogs. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have won the last four trophies, and the closest thing to an upset winner in recent years was Chelsea in 2012. This season, though, might be different.Sure, Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid are all still in it. But no team left in the Champions League is historically dominant. Expected goals, a statistical measure of the quality of scoring chances a team creates and concedes, rates Barcelona as the top team in this year’s competition, but one with only a 28 percent change of winning the tournament.1All of the data in this article is current through April 10.This year’s Barcelona, however, does not make the top 10 list of expected goals difference for clubs since 2010-11. With fewer truly great teams in the mix, an upset winner is that much more likely. Here’s what to expect.Borussia Dortmund (60 percent chance of advancing) vs. Monaco (40 percent)With a position atop the Ligue 1 table, an impressive defeat of Manchester City in the round of 16, and an incredible 103 goals scored between Ligue 1 and the Champions League, Monaco might appear to have the resume of a quarterfinal favorite. However, Monaco’s numbers require some caution. Despite leading to 90 nonpenalty goals this season, the chances Monaco has created have been worth only about 58 expected goals (xG), according to the soccer stats-tracker Opta. Scoring 33 more goals than expected is unprecedented in the last few years. No other club has even beaten expected goals by 20 or more at this point in the season since 2010-11. While it is not terribly unusual for top teams to outperform their expected goals — top teams tend to have better finishers — Monaco is finishing chances better than any of Lionel Messi’s teams ever did.If Monaco’s goal scoring falls off, Dortmund should be well prepared to take advantage. Since returning from the winter break, Dortmund has been dominant, collecting 1.2 more xG per match than their opponents, compared with only a +0.7 margin before the break. With underlying numbers to match its goals difference and a recent spike in performance, Dortmund looks like the more likely semifinalist.In either case, this should be one of the most exciting matches of the round. Both Monaco and Dortmund depend on pace and quick-hitting attacks — both clubs lead their respective leagues in shot attempts following moves of two passes or fewer. While Thomas Tuchel may attempt to impose more control on the match than Pep Guardiola did against Monaco in the round of 16, the game is likely to be a fast-paced and attacking affair.Barcelona (65 percent) vs. Juventus (35 percent)This rematch of the 2015 Champions League final features the best attack-vs.-defense matchup of the round. This season Barcelona has created the second-most clear scoring chances (116), as defined by Opta, in the big five leagues, while Juventus has conceded the fewest clear scoring chances (20).Barcelona is well known for an attacking style that favors making the extra pass to create the highest-quality scoring chances, rather than trying to shoot the ball from far out. Juventus, under managers Max Allegri and Antonio Conte, has developed a defensive strategy that mirrors Barcelona’s attacking play. The Italian side focuses on defensive structure in order to prevent the same kinds of clear chances that Barca aims to create. A list of the best defensive seasons since 2010-11, judging teams by the number of quality chances they concede, shows Juventus dominating. And this year Juventus is preventing clear chances at its best rate ever, allowing only about one every other match.Barcelona was able to break through Juventus’ defense in the 2015 final just as Bayern Munich did during last year’s knockout stages. But in both of those cases, it took a top performance from one of the world’s best attacks to win the tie. Barcelona is rightly favored, but any slight drop-off in execution could see the Catalan side stymied by Juventus’ defense.Bayern Munich (71 percent) vs. Real Madrid (29 percent)ESPN’s Soccer Power Index rating gives a big boost to Bayern Munich based on the German side’s superior defensive numbers. Bayern has conceded just 23 goals in 36 matches between the Bundesliga and Champions League, while Real has conceded 43 in 38 matches. Some of this difference disappears when you look at expected goals, which drops Real’s total to 37. But it is not enough to erase it all.The two sides not only see different defensive outcomes, but they also play significantly different styles when out of possession. Carlo Ancelotti has his Bayern squad playing the high-pressing style preached by Pep Guardiola. When Bayern turns the ball over in midfield, it breaks up their opponents’ next possession within three passes about 55 percent of the time, the second-highest rate in the Bundesliga. Real Madrid, by contrast, defends much more passively, breaking up opposition possession in only about 45 percent of cases, 12th in La Liga.It is not that Real Madrid has been particularly poor defensively, but its more passive defensive style seems like a major risk against Bayern. Under manager Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid has been an outlier among top clubs in not embracing the new, analytics-minded strategy of pressing on defense. It will be interesting to see if Real’s more old-fashioned defensive style can work. If Real fails to unsettle Bayern early in a possession, that would give time on the ball to central midfielders Arturo Vidal and Thiago Alcantara. That outcome would be risky at best for Real. Thiago in particular is having a great season, leading the Bundesliga with 96 progressive passes and runs. (These are defined as passes which advance the ball through midfield over 10 yards beyond where the possession had reached, or runs which progress similarly while eliminating a defender on the dribble.) Real Madrid may need to adjust its pressing rate to protect the defense from Bayern’s passers if it means to make it to another Champions League final.Atletico Madrid (75 percent) vs. Leicester City (25 percent)Leicester City presents something of a conundrum to any projection system, having won five of six league matches since sacking manager Claudio Ranieri. The club’s performances under new manager Craig Shakespeare have not been quite as good as its unbeaten record suggests — despite outscoring opponents in the league and CL by a combined 17-8, Leicester’s expected goals difference is just 10.3-9.1. But Leicester has produced more expected goals than its opponents in five of its seven matches after running negative in expected goal difference under Ranieri. It is certainly possible that Leicester will continue performing at this higher level under Shakespeare.However, it is hard to identify any key changes Shakespeare made. Leicester City remains the highest-tempo team in the Premier League, with more possessions per match than anyone else. The Foxes still work best without the ball, managing the same 42 percent possession rate as under Ranieri. What seems to have changed is not Leicester’s style of play, but the effectiveness of it. This is the sort of change, not linked to any obvious tactical shift, that analysts tend to be skeptical of. It might just be form, in which case the large SPI advantage to Atletico Madrid may be correct.For Atletico, this persistent Leicester style may present a problem. Atleti prefers to concede possession and play off the ball, especially against top opponents. But while Atletico is unusual in the Champions League for its roughly 50 percent possession rate, Leicester at 42 percent is more extreme. Atletico will likely need to adjust its typical knockout strategy and make use of ball possession to get past Leicester, even if the Foxes’ current run of form may not be entirely sustainable.Check out our club soccer predictions.
The 51 receivers on the chart above average a scoring strike every 157.1 yards. Jones averages a TD for every 262 yards he accumulates, which is the third most extreme discrepancy in the sample.2Only Vincent Jackson and Willie Snead have Jones beat here, with 343.6 and 270 yards per touchdown respectively. The Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, meanwhile, leads all receivers in fewest yards per touchdown, 92.7, but that’s probably no accident: Bryant has long made it clear that he expects a big portion of the touchdown glory — or someone, possibly everyone, is going to hear about it.Jones’s scoring woes almost defy explanation. Receivers who thirst for touchdowns are generally undersized players who do their damage between the 20s. But Jones is one of the game’s largest targets at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds. He’s also one of the position’s best athletes, crushing his scouting combine in speed, jumping ability and agility. It’s tough to imagine a better receiver his size on the NFL boundaries when it comes to getting both feet down inbounds and defying gravity in the process. If an NFL quarterback were to design a perfect red-zone weapon in a lab, he would look a lot like Jones.Incredibly, Jones’s lack of scoring seems to be by design. His percentage of QB Matt Ryan’s targets drops steadily the closer Atlanta gets to the goal line: from 32.8 percent of passes when the Falcons are at least 80 yards from the end zone to just a little more than half that — 16.7 percent — when they’re in the red zone. Julio Jones is unlike most other star receivers. He doesn’t scream at his quarterback or sulk or throw a tantrum when passes don’t come his way. He’s happy to share the wealth with his teammates. In short, he’s no diva.But if any NFL wide receiver has earned the right to complain on the sidelines, it’s Jones. The Falcons star hasn’t scored a touchdown this season — and in fact has underperformed his whole career when it comes to scoring. His touchdown rate has never come close to matching his outsized production everywhere else on the field. So maybe the Falcons — who have scored just 17 points in each of their past two games (both losses) heading into their Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots on Sunday — would actually benefit from Jones flipping a Gatorade cooler or two.Since 2014, Jones has been nothing short of unstoppable. He’s been the NFL’s most productive receiver when measured by yards per game, the second best in terms of receptions per game and the third best in yards per target.1Among all wide receivers and tight ends who have averaged at least 50 yards in at least 25 games since 2014. In those three-plus seasons, he’s averaging 104.8 yards but a ho-hum 0.4 touchdowns per game, which is roughly the same as less-heralded wideouts such as Allen Hurns, Emmanuel Sanders and Jordan Matthews. For an elite receiver, Jones is solidly middle-of-the-pack in touchdown production: Last Sunday, Atlanta lost to the Dolphins in the final minute when Ryan forced a pass in double coverage to second-year tight end Austin Hooper (36 career catches) instead of giving Jones a chance to make a play. The result was a game-ending interception at the Miami 6-yard line. While Jones said nothing, head coach Dan Quinn made it clear that he wasn’t pleased with bypassing his team’s best weapon.Atlanta’s strange unwillingness to use its best receiver has now spanned three offensive coordinators. When the current one, Steve Sarkisian, was handed the keys to the offense that in 2016 led the NFL in scoring, he saw one major area where the unit could improve.“Is there a way to get Julio more touches in the red zone and finding those matchups?” Sarkisian said at the time.The answer, apparently, is “no.”Check out our latest NFL predictions.
OSU junior running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) runs with the ball to the end zone during a game against Michigan on Nov. 28 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. OSU won 42-13. Credit: Muyao Shen | Assistant Photo EditorAfter rushing for 1,672 yards through 12 games, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott was named the Big Ten Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year on Tuesday evening.The junior headlined a class of six offensive players named to either the coaches’ or media’s all-Big Ten teams and was also named the Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year.Elliott was a steady influence on the offense all season long, rushing for triple-digit yardage in 11 of 12 games, including 274- and 214-yard outbursts against Indiana and Michigan, respectively.The St. Louis native tacked on 19 touchdowns in 12 games, one more than his 15-game total a season ago. He has also been lauded by coach Urban Meyer as one of the top blockers on the team all season long. In addition to the ground attack, he added 176 yards on 26 receptions, the third-most catches on the team.Meyer said after the Michigan game that he believes Elliott should be a Heisman Trophy finalist. Regardless, the Offensive Player of the Year award stands as a fitting end to his junior season, which he already announced would be his final one collegiately.Elliott, as expected, was also named to the all-Big Ten first team by both the coaches and media.Joining Elliott on both first teams were a pair of offensive linemen: senior left tackle Taylor Decker and redshirt junior right guard Pat Elflein.Decker also took home a top positional honor as a blocker, winning the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award.Decker, for the second year in a row, was the anchor of an offensive line that overcame a slow start to turn into one of OSU’s biggest strengths toward the latter part of the season.The Vandalia, Ohio, native played a big role in opening up holes that enabled Elliott to have the year he did, as well as buying quarterbacks Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett room to run and time to throw.Decker was named to the all-Big Ten second team in 2014 by both the coaches and media but took a step up to the elite of the conference in his senior season.Elflein was another solid performer all season long on the opposite side from Decker. The first-team honors on the coaches’ ballot were the second in as many years as a starter for the Pickerington, Ohio, product, and he also appeared on the media’s first team for the first time.In addition to the threesome on the coaches’ and media’s first teams, two of Decker’s and Elflein’s mates on the offensive line, sophomore left guard Billy Price and senior center Jacoby Boren, were named to the third team. Redshirt senior wide receiver Michael Thomas joined the two blockers on both third teams.Elliott was the third Offensive Player of the Year from OSU in the past four years, joining redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller, who won the award as a quarterback in 2012 and 2013. He is also the second OSU running back to win the top Big Ten honors at the position, joining Carlos Hyde in 2013.Decker was the first OSU offensive lineman to win the Rimington-Pace award since 2001, when center LeCharles Bentley nabbed the honors.Eight OSU players appeared on the all-conference lists for defense and special teams, which were released Monday night: defensive end Joey Bosa, linebackers Joshua Perry, Raekwon McMillan and Darron Lee, safety Vonn Bell, cornerback Eli Apple, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and punter Cameron Johnston. Bosa was also named the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year.
CHICAGO – How does the Big Ten regain the respect of the rest of the college football nation? First-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said it’s pretty simple. “(We) have to win bowl games,” he said. “That’s the bottom line in all of this is to win.” The Big Ten’s bowl record in the last decade, however, would suggest that it’s something easier said than done. With a 34-51 bowl record since 2000, the conference has struggled to assert itself on the national scene while Meyer’s former league, the Southeastern Conference, has flourished during the same period. Nationally, the reality of bowl wins and losses may be fueling the idea that Big Ten football is – and has been for some time – an outdated art; a mired, old approach to football, and has been surpassed. And, despite its efforts, the Big Ten’s recent bowl performances hasn’t helped matters. In last season’s bowls, the conference recorded a 4-6 mark that watched traditional powers OSU, Penn State, Wisconsin and Nebraska all lose in their respective bowl games. For the SEC, however, last year was its sixth consecutive national championship and it’s eighth since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998. Locally, OSU has historically struggled in battling against its southern brethren -especially on the sport’s biggest stage. The Buckeyes are 0-8 against the SEC in bowl games – a lone victory came in a 31-26 triumph in the 2011 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas. That game has since been wiped from the record books in accordance with an NCAA-ordered vacation of wins from OSU’s 2010 season. Meyer said in his own experiences now at OSU, he’s noticed that the SEC may have an advantage in overall team speed. “I notice it on special teams. In spring practice I noticed that,” Meyer said. “So I just think overall athleticism right now we’re a little bit behind.” That need for speed, though, is something Meyer said he is addressing. “We’re recruiting with that motive, with that intention and I’m real proud to say it’s going very well,” he said. Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who will open this season at defending national champion and SEC powerhouse, Alabama, said it’s hard to paint the entire conference as inferior to the speed and athleticism of the SEC. “I think it’s a hard question, really, to even answer. Because I think everybody’s different. I think when people make the mistake of lumping the conference in not having speed or whatever it might be,” Hoke said. “When we’re playing the reigning national champion, they’re a terrific football team and they’ve done terrific things. We’re excited about the opportunity to go into a great venue, different venue, obviously, and go line up and see what happens.” Similarly, while Meyer said he would benefit from another year of familiarizing himself with the teams and players in the Big Ten, the former Florida coach said he anticipates that “winning is not that far off.” “The coaches in this conference would know much better than I would. I’ll know more obviously next year when you ask that same question. I’ll have a much better understanding because I’ll be in the stadiums and I’ll know the teams much better,” Meyer said. “But I know one thing: I’ve watched enough film this summer, there’s some very good teams in this conference.”
The United States men’s national soccer team’s victory against Jamaica at Crew Stadium added another proud chapter to Columbus’ sports history. So proud and frenzied was the game, in fact, that before the 90 minutes had elapsed on the field, some were already speculating about how the atmosphere in the stadium compared to other professional and collegiate sporting events hosted in Columbus.There is no doubt that the U.S. team’s most recent victory at Crew Stadium – the team upped its all-time record at the ground to 6-0-3 by beating Jamaica – is up there with the top sporting events in the city’s history. Whether it’s comparable to a football Saturday at Ohio Stadium is very much debatable, though.To understand how special the atmosphere was during the Yanks’ shutout victory against Jamaica on Tuesday, look no further than the very first words of team manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s post game press conference.“I think first of all, we want to thank that (Crew Stadium) crowd out there in Columbus for their tremendous support,” Klinsmann said. “It was a tremendous atmosphere that pushed the players. All of us really appreciated that. It was fantastic.”Keep Klinsmann’s status in world soccer in mind – he’s played professionally in England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga. He was a World Cup winner with Germany in 1990 and a European champion with Bayern Munich in 1996.Suffice it to say that the guy knows his soccer, he knows what passionate fan support looks like and while part of his job as U.S. manager is to help stoke the relatively small flame that is American soccer culture, he has no other reason to sugarcoat. And he didn’t on Tuesday. So congratulations to soccer fans in Columbus and all the rest that journeyed to Central Ohio for the game – the performance of the 23,881 fans that jammed into Crew Stadium was just as convincing as the American team’s play on the pitch.I’ll take it a step further, as some members of the press did last night, and say that the atmosphere at Crew Stadium was better than the Columbus Blue Jackets’ opening-round series against the Detroit Red Wings during the 2009 NHL playoffs.Anyone can make that claim easily.With the temporary seating installed in Crew Stadium for Tuesday’s game, a vital World Cup qualifier for both teams involved, the venue held more fans than the Blue Jackets’ Nationwide Arena could ever host (capacity of 18,500 for hockey, according to nationwidearena.com). The Jackets also had a fan base that wasn’t fully invested in the 2009 playoff run, and that’s OK because the team was a heavy underdog against Detroit and was eventually swept, 4-0.American fans, despite seeing the U.S. lose to Jamaica, 2-1, in Kingston, Jamaica, just days before the game in Columbus, had Klinsmann’s promise that the team wouldn’t lose to the Reggae Boyz for the second time in a week. They didn’t, and American fans have come to expect results from their men’s national team against opponents from all over the world. There’s a cautious optimism about the U.S. men’s national team, and that lends itself to a party spirit whenever the squad has a match.It goes without saying that while the U.S. men’s team is far from a juggernaut in world soccer, it is a strong and competitive team, especially in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) region.So in terms of the significance of the event and the passionate crowd support, Tuesday’s game at Crew Stadium tops anything the Blue Jackets franchise has to offer.I’ll even say this – the U.S.-Jamaica game was a better atmosphere than most Ohio State men’s basketball home games.Again, consider the respective stadiums’ capacities – the Schottenstein Center holds 19,500 fans for basketball games and, quite honestly, a lot of those Buckeye contests can be a bore.I’m not talking about the marquee games against big-name opponents such as Duke last season or Kansas this coming season. Big Ten Conference games against Wisconsin and Michigan State certainly might have the U.S.-Jamaica game beat in terms of atmosphere, especially when the Buckeye Nut House student cheering section gets fired up.But are you going to tell me that an OSU basketball game against some of the drab non-conference teams the athletic department brings in is an event you’d be excited to watch? For someone that’s never seen the Buckeyes play live before, maybe you would tell me that. But for Columbus residents and students with season ticket plans, sorry, you’re lying to yourself if you think the average OSU men’s basketball home game tops what Crew Stadium offered on Tuesday.What I can’t do is tell you that the U.S. men’s national team and its fans teamed up to create an atmosphere comparable to an OSU football game at Ohio Stadium. There’s no comparison.Using the same stadium-capacity barometer, well, it would take more than four Crew Stadiums (with additional, temporary seating) to fill the Horseshoe. Even if many Buckeye supporters want to sit on their hands throughout the game, 105,000 people are going to make more noise inhaling and exhaling oxygen than a packed Crew Stadium ever will.So when I overheard members of the Columbus media compare Tuesday’s national team game to the OSU-USC football game at the Horseshoe in 2008, well, there’s a reason I didn’t make that argument the focus of this column. That is a ridiculous and absurd notion.Unlike the OSU men’s basketball team, even the Buckeyes football team’s non-conference games draw massive, passionate crowds. Even on a planet where soccer is king, gatherings of 100,000 or more supporters is a phenomenon that is mostly limited to a select group of American universities with powerful college football programs.There’s no shame in losing out to the tradition and pageantry of an Ohio Stadium football game, though. The U.S. put on yet another memorable performance at Crew Stadium on Tuesday, one that will be remembered as one of the great sporting moments in a city that has had so many.Certainly, Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier provided a performance and accompanying atmosphere that rivals any moment in the history of Columbus’ NHL franchise and even gives the average OSU men’s basketball home game a run for its money.Not bad for a soccer team.
OSU coach Thad Matta looks on during a game against Bryant Dec. 11, 2013 at the Schottenstein Center. OSU won, 86-48.Lantern file photoThe Ohio State men’s basketball team is scheduled to play a home-and-home series against the University of Connecticut, coach Thad Matta announced Wednesday via a press release.OSU’s matchup with the Huskies is set to begin Dec. 12, 2015 when the Buckeyes are scheduled to travel to Connecticut. The Huskies are then scheduled to visit Columbus Dec. 12, 2016 at the Schottenstein Center.According to the release, the 2015 game will take place in one of two locations: the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., or the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.The Buckeyes hold a 3-1 all-time record against Connecticut, with the most recent matchup coming in 1992 when OSU beat the Huskies 78-75 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Connecticut’s lone win in the series came with a 72-67 victory against OSU in the 1988 NIT Championship Game. The Buckeyes beat the Huskies in Columbus in 1983 and in Hartford, Conn., in 1984.OSU’s 2014 season is scheduled to begin Nov. 14 against the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in Columbus.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) is sacked by Virginia Tech sophomore cornerback Kendall Fuller during a game Sept. 6 at Ohio Stadium. OSU lost, 35-21.Credit: Jon McAllister / Asst. photo editorThe Ohio State football team broke records and multiple streaks Saturday night, many of which were not positives.The Buckeyes dropped their first home opener since 1978, due in part to a lack of offense as they allowed seven sacks, six of which occurred in the fourth quarter.The loss also snapped OSU’s streak of 25 consecutive regular-season wins, which was the longest such streak in the country.Coach Urban Meyer said postgame that he was “very disappointed” with the way his team performed in front of a record crowd of 107,517, in Ohio Stadium.“We had all kind of issues that we have to get a lot better at,” Meyer said. “We also had a lot of dropped passes…we just have to do a better job.”Redshirt-senior offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said the offense, which was four of 16 on third downs, needs to do a better job to help out the defense.“We just haven’t been able to get on a roll offensively,” Baldwin said. “Defense has been playing well and when we get these opportunities, we haven’t been taking advantage of them. Those three and outs have been killing us.”Not only could the Buckeyes not convert third downs, they could not complete passes. Redshirt-freshman J.T. Barrett completed just nine of his 29 attempts, including three interceptions — the last of which was taken back 63 yards for a score by Virginia Tech junior cornerback Donovan Riley.Despite a less than stellar showing, Meyer said he thought his quarterback did well with what he had.“Gutsy effort,” Meyer said. “Obviously not good enough, but a quarterback is a product of those around him, and we all have to get better.”The Hokie defense lined up in zero coverage — a formation with no deep safeties — for most of the game and crowded the line of scrimmage, daring the Buckeyes to throw the football. It was a tactic co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said the OSU coaching staff had not expected.“They played something we hadn’t prepared for so it took quite a bit of adjusting,” Herman said. “We had to find some ways to get to the speed option game, and we did that during the second half. We got a little momentum back on our side but couldn’t make the plays in the end.”After a year in which the Buckeyes were near the top nationally in yards per game in 2013, when then-junior Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde each rushed for over 1,000 yards, OSU managed just 108 rushing yards against the Hokies. Barrett, who suffered the seven sacks, led the team with 70 yards on the ground.The next leading rusher for OSU was sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott, who carried the ball just eight times for 32 yards.Baldwin said he was disappointed that OSU could not move the football on the ground.“The run game opens up the entire offense,” Baldwin said. “It really just opens up everything and we just couldn’t get it started.”Although the running game struggled, Herman said the loss cannot be blamed solely on one unit or person.“From myself on down to the players, it was certainly not one position or one thing that you can say, ‘this is the reason,’” he said.Meyer said that the team will regroup and come back ready to go on Sunday.“So anxious to get back to work tomorrow and get a little better,” Meyer said. “We had a good meeting as a team (after the game).”The Buckeyes are set to begin preparations for their next game against Kent State, which is scheduled to kickoff at noon on Sept. 13 at Ohio Stadium.
OSU men’s basketball coach Thad Matta in an Oct. 8 interview with The LanternCredit: Franz Ross / Lantern TV station managerThe NCAA and Big Ten are undergoing major changes, and Thad Matta has taken notice even though he has just over a month to prepare his team for its season opener.The Ohio State men’s basketball coach sat down with The Lantern on Wednesday to discuss his thoughts on paying players, the strength of Big Ten basketball and the upcoming Buckeye basketball season.Players ‘given a lot,’ but still deservingWhen the Ed O’Bannon trial — which went up against the NCAA’s use of student-athlete likenesses — ended over the summer, one thing was clear: student-athletes will be paid in the future.With the decision, players could earn up to $5,000 a year based off the athletic department’s income, which would be a significant change. But for Matta, “it is what it is.”“I understand where the players come from, I think that it’s probably a good thing in terms of what these guys are asked to do,” Matta said of the potential for paying players.He said student-athletes have different expectations that average students wouldn’t necessarily need to worry about, especially when it comes to start times for games running late at night.“So these guys are asked to do a lot that … a normal student isn’t,” Matta said.While student-athletes do not earn a salary or receive pay from their universities, most — especially at a Division I school like OSU — receive extensive financial aid and support, including coverage of the school’s tuition costs.“Now, they’re given a lot, don’t get me wrong on that,” Matta said. “But I think from the standpoint of trying to help these guys out a little bit, I’m all for it.”The O’Bannon decision came just weeks before the Big Ten proposed changes to the NCAA that would include schools being required to cover the full cost of attendance for student-athletes. It would also require schools to guarantee scholarships for a full four years and allow players to return to the university later on to complete their degree if they leave school before graduating.On Wednesday, the conference released a statement saying the decision to guarantee scholarships through degree completion had become official.Matta said he’s found it amusing to hear about other schools announcing they would guarantee scholarships because “Ohio State’s being doing it for years.”“I think that’s kind of the beauty of what this university stands for, where they want to take care of those that have given to the program,” Matta said. “I laughed when I saw schools announcing that and I’m reading it and I’m saying, ‘We’ve been doing this for 10 years and nobody ever knew about it.’”‘Now they’re getting like college basketball’In recent years, football in the Big Ten has not been at its peak.The same can’t be said about basketball, and said he’s perfectly aware of how strong the conference is on the hardwood.“It is what it is, and going into my 11th season now, the one thing I’ve learned about being in the Big Ten is there’s no game on your conference schedule that you look at and say, ‘I know we’re going to win this game,’” he said. “But I think that brings out the best in coaching. I think that brings out the best in your players.”In most years, the teams playing for the NCAA football championship will have no losses, or at most, two. In college basketball, that is rarely the case as the rankings flip-flop throughout the season and teams rise and fall.Over the weekend, the landscape of college football took a shift when five of the top 10 teams in the Associated Press top 25 poll lost, making for an almost completely new set of teams slotting in at No. 2 through No. 5 — and Matta took notice.“I thought it was funny Saturday when I looked at the college football scores, I said, ‘Ahh, now they’re getting like college basketball,’” Matta said. “When (five) of the top 10 teams lose, the competitiveness across the country is becoming what we deal with on a daily basis.”He also said the strength of Big Ten basketball in the collegiate landscape is — at least in part — because of the locations of the schools in the conference compared to where the hotbeds for basketball are throughout the country.“Some of the all-time greatest players are from the Midwest,” he said. “Well, that’s where the Big Ten’s located and I think that’s something a lot of people forget about.”For OSU, being located in the Midwest can be a plus when it comes to recruiting, even in the Buckeyes’ own backyard.There are currently four Ohio natives listed on the OSU’s men’s basketball roster — freshman forward Jae’Sean Tate, sophomore forward Marc Loving, freshman center David Bell and senior forward Jake Lorbach. Aside from Lorbach, each of those players were recruited by Matta to OSU from in the state, but the OSU coach said he doesn’t necessarily focus on recruiting Ohio players unless they are a good fit.“Would I like to recruit inside 270 every year? Yeah, it would save my body a lot of wear and tear on travel,” Matta said. “But you have to go find the players that are going to fit the university, that are going to fit your system and are going to fit the needs that you have.”OSU is scheduled to begin its season Nov. 14 against the University of Massachusetts-Lowell at the Schottenstein Center. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.