30 September 2012

Fun with nicknames

Cajun Field prior to kickoff.
We had some fun with nicknames on our ESPN3 college football broadcast Saturday night, as I covered Louisiana-Lafayette against FIU, teamed with my first repeat partner of the football season, one Mr. Forrest Conoly. We used nicknames or variations for several players on the broadcast, but it actually all started earlier in the day.

Before every game, the analyst provides ‘Keys to the Game,’ one of those segments you see on just about every broadcast. To keep it from being too straightforward and clichéd, the production staff often tries to use puns or wordplay in the on-screen graphic, counting on the announcer to explain its meaning.

For this game, Forrest and I met with our producer in the afternoon at one of the hotels. It had poured the night before, was raining again, and the forecast called for scattered thunderstorms throughout the night. We figured throwing the ball could be tough, so the ground game would be important, and Louisiana-Lafayette uses a two-back system, rotating a bigger back (Alonzo Harris) with a quicker back (Effrem Reed). We didn’t want to put ‘run the ball’ on the graphic, so we looked out the window, and quickly arrived at a(n admittedly clichéd) moniker: ‘Thunder and Lightning.’ This has been used for countless running back duos, so it is not at all original, but we liked the double entendre referencing both their running styles and the weather.

Once the game began, Forrest of course explained his keys to the game – “That’s Alonzo Harris and his ability to be a powerful runner, as well as Effrem Reed and his scatback ability to get to the outside and get those corners” and later elaborated further – but I don’t know if fans got the second meaning, given that there was no literal rain, thunder, or lightning during the game. At any rate, we had fun with it, and Forrest would occasionally call them simply ‘Thunder’ or ‘Lightning’ while analyzing a replay. I, the straight man, used their names while calling play-by-play.

But I had to have some fun when the Ragin’ Cajuns went to seldom-used wide receiver Bradley Brown, a transfer from Northwestern State in his first year at the FBS level. While doing research for my first Louisiana-Lafayette game, I had learned that his high school nickname was ‘Downtown,’ courtesy of an article at theGaiterView.com. This developed in my head into a rhythmic ‘Downtown Bradley Brown,’ vaguely reminiscent of the Jim Croce song ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.’

So when Brown got into the game late in the first quarter and made a big catch, I couldn’t resist saying, “Bradley Brown – they call him ‘Downtown Bradley Brown’ –with the first-down catch.” I figured that was all I would get out of it. But two plays later, Cajuns quarterback Blaine Gautier found Brown in a lot of space, and I had my chance to use it live: “Catch is made by Brown, and he’s going downtown!” He couldn't quite finish the play, as two FIU defensive backs were able to pull him down inside the 20-yard line, but it was definitely a fun one to call. If that nickname ever started to wear off, hopefully this helps him bring it back!

I also made a few puns with UL quarterback Terrance Broadway, the unquestioned star of the game after passing for 228 yards and one touchdown and running for 28 yards and two more scores. I don’t think I’m the first to make a ‘Broadway’ joke, and I’m sure I won’t be the last (especially with the unfortunate news that starting QB Blaine Gautier will be out at least four weeks with broken bones in his throwing hand.)

Anyway, those are some of the nicknames we dropped on the broadcast, the last one we have scheduled with ESPN3 at the moment. We’re a bit of a size mismatch for on-camera portions of the broadcast (Forrest is 6-foot-7, I’m somewhere in the 5-11/6-0 range), but I think we complement each other well in most other aspects and, most importantly, we enjoy working together. Hopefully we get the chance to do some more games this year, maybe even involving Louisiana-Lafayette. After all, the Cajuns are 2-0 when we call the shots.

28 September 2012

Why all of the final CCL matches matter

Houston could play the second leg of a quarterfinal at
BBVA Compass Stadium, depending on goal differential
The group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League - contested for the first time in eight groups of three - is down to one remaining round of matches, to be played October 23-25. Three teams have clinched their spots in the quarterfinals, but even those three teams need to be on their game next month. Here's why.

One of the changes to the competition is that matchups in the quarterfinals (and beyond) are now determined by performance in the group stage, rather than by random draw. This is an underrated move by CONCACAF, in my opinion. Yes, the teams are being compared against unequal opponents; is it really fair to reward teams that go 4-0 against a group that included a Caribbean or weak Central American opponent? But the move is worth that question because (a) it legitimizes a competition that sometimes seemed to be fixed to get at least one American team to the semifinals and (b) it makes every minute of the group stage count.

Seeding in the knockout round is very important, because the higher seed gets the second leg at home, usually a big advantage. This is far from the only reason Mexican clubs have dominated American ones in head-to-head competition, but the second leg has been in Mexico more often than not. This time, they'll have to earn it.

So here's how the race for home-field advantage in the elimination round shapes up. Projected seeds are how I think the teams will finish, not their current spot:

Proj SeedTeamRecordGDLast Game
(Almost) clinched
1Santos Laguna3-0+1110/24 vs. Toronto
ORToronto FC2-1+510/24 at Santos Laguna
2Monterrey3-0+910/23 at Chorrillo
3Seattle Sounders3-0+510/24 vs. Marathon
4LA Galaxy2-0-1+710/25 at Metapan
Battling it out
5Houston Dynamo2-0-1+610/23 vs. Olimpia
OROlimpia1-1-1+210/23 at Houston
6Real Salt Lake2-1+210/23 vs. Herediano
ORHerediano3-0+310/23 at Real Salt Lake
7Tigres1-0-2+410/24 vs. Alajuelense
ORAlajuelense2-0-1+410/24 at Tigres
8Chivas1-1-1+310/25 vs. Xelaju
ORXelaju2-0-1+210/25 at Chivas

Head-to-head matchups will determine the final five spots (CONCACAF may have a history of corruption, but the people running do not miss a chance for drama, pairing two powers in the final match of each group), but you can see where this is going. If the home teams prevail with the results they need, we'll get the Mexican/U.S. quarterfinals, but the matchups would play out to something like this:

1. Santos Laguna vs. 8 Chivas Guadalajara
2. Monterrey vs. 7 Tigres
3. Seattle Sounders vs. 6 Real Salt Lake
4. LA Galaxy vs. 5 Houston Dynamo

Of course, that's taking a lot for granted. Five teams still need to take care of business just to advance. But the point is that they need to focus not just on doing enough to advance; they need to be worried about their quarterfinal seed. Santos cannot afford to tie Toronto at home; a win would secure them the top seed. Seattle cannot afford to be on cruise control against Marathon; they have an outside chance of catching Monterrey for the all-important No. 2 seed, which could give them a home game in the semifinals.

Real Salt Lake, Tigres, and Chivas will all be trying just to get the win that will send them to the quarterfinals (RSL needs to win 1-0 or by multiple goals), and Houston needs just a tie at home against Olimpia. Given its precarious MLS playoff position, the Dynamo will probably put out a mixed squad, but winning and tacking on a few goals should still be a priority in an attempt to wrest the second leg of a potential quarterfinal matchup away from recent rival LA. After all, Houston's last two playoff outings have ended at The Home Depot Center.

The new format of the Champions League has its positives and negatives, but there is something to play for in all eight of the final matches, and we could be in store for the most storied quarterfinalists in the tournament's short history.

22 September 2012

An Obama sighting in ... Texas?

Dan McCarney addresses the Mean Green Friday.
I haven't had time to blog about my game this weekend, North Texas vs. Troy, but it's not because I haven't been preparing for it. I arrived in Denton on Friday afternoon and quickly headed to highly-regarded Apogee Stadium, which opened last year, for the Mean Green's walk-through. I ended up seeing a more than credible impersonation of President Barack Obama, about the last thing I expected to find in Texas, as part of the North Texas post-game speeches.

The impersonation came from actor Aaron Norvell, who played under Dan McCarney at Wisconsin in the early 90s and was one of two of McCarney's former players invited to speak to North Texas following its light workout. As McCarney put it, "I don't let anybody speak to this team unless they're special, I love them, or both," and it was a nice way to close the afternoon.

In terms of the game, it's a great "battle of philosophies," as Troy head coach (and Friday birthday boy) Larry Blakeney put it, between Troy's wide-open, up-tempo aerial attack (537.7 yards per game) and the battering, physical, ball-possession approach favored by North Texas. To put it in perspective, Troy threw more passes in one game this year (75 against Louisiana-Lafayette) than North Texas has all season (73). Both teams, former conference powerhouses, badly need a win to get into the Sun Belt Conference title race.

The real key to the game, though, will be turnovers. Troy is an abysmal -5 on the season, including turnovers on four straight possessions against Mississippi State last week - the Trojans wound up losing by one score. North Texas is +3, and I think the Mean Green will have to win the turnover battle again to open the year with a win.

Apogee Stadium, opened 2011.
For more on the game, check out the excellent blogs by the teams' respective beat-writers, outgoing Drew Champlin (Dothan Eagle) and  Brett Vito (Denton Record-Chronicle).

Tonight's game kicks off at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

13 September 2012

FC Dallas vs. Vancouver: What I'm watching for

Vancouver will have to stop David Ferreira on Saturday night.
I’ll return to MLS action for the first time since July 28 this weekend, calling the most critical game so far in the Western Conference playoff race, with FC Dallas hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps. Catch it on TXA 21 Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. CT.

FC Dallas trails Vancouver by four points, but the Whitecaps have a game in hand, so Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi’s quote in the Vancouver Sun that “it is a must-win for them more than it is for us” is a spot-on assessment.

FC Dallas has to win this game to have any realistic shot of making the playoffs; Vancouver could definitely get by with a tie and will still be favored even with a loss. That’s mostly because of an incredibly favorable closing schedule, with Vancouver hosting the bottom three teams in the Western Conference down the stretch. Even seven points of a possible nine in those games would all but secure the last playoff spot, especially given that Dallas is unlikely to take major points at San Jose and at Seattle.

But that’s why they play the games! Dallas can keep itself in the race with a win on Saturday night, and word on the street is that the crowd is likely to be a big one. These teams have been going in opposite directions since June 23, with FC Dallas averaging 1.58 points per game (5-3-4) with Ferreira and Vancouver struggling to the tune of 0.91 points per game (3-7-1) in July, August, and now September. What’s more, the Whitecaps have lost six straight road games, tied for the second longest streak in MLS this year.

With all that in mind, and without consulting my partner, traveling man Brian Dunseth, here are some angles I’m keeping an eye on Saturday night:

12 September 2012

The important stuff: Tying a tie

A Troy, Alabama welcome.
I really enjoyed my trip to Troy, Alabama, last weekend, including Louisiana-Lafayette's 37-24 win over Troy, breaking a 25-game Troy winning streak in home openers. Hopefully the good people of Troy won't hold it against me.

The game was my first working with former Florida State offensive lineman Forrest Conoly, and we made sure to sample some local fare, going to Hook's BBQ for Friday dinner and Julia's Restaurant for Saturday breakfast. It should be noted that somebody awarded Julia's 'Sun Belt Conference Best Breakfast Spot' last year, and it didn't disappoint.

My version of a half-Windsor.
Forrest and I also bonded over trying to tie just the right tie knot for the occasion. Now, although we wear suits and spend the game in them, we're usually not on camera all that long. Those in-game booth close-ups that Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit get? Not really done at this level. So worrying too much about your tie knot, when it's only on screen for about 30 seconds, really doesn't make much sense.

No pressure, Forrest, but my tie is already good to go.
But at my brother's urging, I decided to try a half-Windsor knot for this game, rather than whatever you call my normal knot. I'm not going to lie, it took me a while to get it, and I have a certain YouTube video to thank for the final result. I ended up feeling pretty good about the knot, though, so I couldn't resist having a little fun with my partner in crime as he tried to tie his just right.

Eventually both our ties were ready to go, we recorded what I thought was a very solid opening segment, and the game was on. Four hours later, after many penalty flags and replay challenges, our ties were still going strong at the final whistle. We even wound up with some extra camera time, thanks to our halftime interview with the Troy chancellor, Dr. Jack Hawkins, and so our half-Windsors came in handy.

Dr. Hawkins, what do you think of our ties?
There's a lot that goes into these broadcasts - memorizing names/numbers, talking to coaches, studying statistics and schedules - but tying that tie just right certainly can't be overlooked!

07 September 2012

Why you should watch: Saturday's Sun Belt opener for Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette

After an early wake-up call in Shreveport, I returned to southern Alabama for the second consecutive weekend, this time for tomorrow night's Sun Belt Conference opener between Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette. My partner for this game will be former Florida State offensive lineman Forrest Conoly, and we had a great time this afternoon touring the Troy campus and talking with Trojans head coach Larry Blakeney. One thing to watch for on the broadcast: There's a slight height differential. As in, Forrest stands 6-foot-7, and I would be generously listed as 6-foot-0. We'll see if the camera can fit us in the same picture.

Turning to the game, I think it's going to be a good one. Troy was 3-9 last year, but the Trojans dominated the conference from 2006-10, and they haven't lost a home opener since the mid-1980s (24 wins in a row since a tie in 1987). With an enthusiastic crowd expected, this is their chance to prove to themselves and their fans that they can contend for the conference title once again.

On the other side, Louisiana-Lafayette (they prefer just 'UL') may have the most momentum of any program in the conference. The Ragin Cajuns (can't say that nickname enough) are coming off of the best season in school history (9-4) and a dramatic New Orleans Bowl victory over San Diego State. That energized their passionate fan base, which had the largest attendance increase in the NCAA last year, and has helped second-year head coach Mark Hudspeth's recruiting efforts for the future.

Both teams see themselves as Sun Belt contenders and have reason to believe they can win the tone-setting conference opener. What I'm excited about for tomorrow night:

1. The atmosphere
Troy is an under-the-radar football hotbed. A long-time Division II powerhouse that transitioned to Division I back in 2002, Trojan fans have tremendous pride in their history of conference titles and NFL players. (For the record, I've had healthy respect for them since they kicked my Rice Owls' butts in the 2006 New Orleans Bowl.) I expect Troy fans to come out in force for the home opener, but I also expect Ragin Cajun fans to travel well and provide some support for the visitors. If the rain holds off (which remains a bit iffy, but we can hope), 33,000-seat Veterans Memorial Stadium should be rocking.

2. Quarterbacks
Any discussion of these two teams has to start with their signal-callers, the MVPs of the last two New Orleans Bowl games. Troy junior Corey Robinson set a national high-school record with 91 touchdown passes in one season as a senior in Paducah, Kent., and he's thrown for 3,400+ yards in back-to-back seasons. On the other side, UL senior Blaine Gautier makes the Cajuns go. He can throw the deep ball - although he was erratic downfield in the season-opening win - and scramble when necessary. He tied Jake Delhomme's school record with five career games of 300+ yards passing, except Gautier did it in a single season. Yeah, these guys can play.

3. Second, third, fourth chances
Both teams have guys who have overcome long odds, adversity, or their own mistakes to become productive collegiate players. For example, Troy walk-on linebacker De'Von Terry, the reigning SBC Defensive Player of the Week, used to be excused from some practices by Blakeney so he could earn enough money to stay in school. Lafayette linebacker Le'Marcus Gibson and Troy safety Barry Valcin are both sixth-year seniors who had to apply for extra years of collegiate eligibility, while Gibson and teammates Tig Barksdale and Delvin Jones are both playing at their third school. These are just some examples, but we're going to be watching a lot of seriously motivated guys tomorrow night.

4. The big men
They may not be quite as big as my esteemed partner, but both teams have some big guys up front who you will definitely notice. As Blakeney put it, "the guys who hit each other on every play" are going to play a big role. Each team has three linemen upwards of 290 pounts, led by the Quave brothers - Daniel and Mykhael - at guard for UL and Troy center Kyle Wilborn. On the defensive side, watch for Lafayette nose tackle Justin Hamilton, a 330-pound sophomore who forced two fumbles against Lamar, and the speed of Troy ends Tony Davis and Marty Stadom.

5. Throwback kickers
Both teams employ specialists who handle punting and placekicking, which seems kind of old-school. Lafayette's Brett Baer is closing in on the NCAA record for kicking accuracy and hit from 50+ yards last week. He's also 7-for-9 on onside kicks in his career, recovering four of them himself. Troy's Will Scott, a junior college transfer signed for his punting, won the kicking spot and hit from 44 yards against UAB. If my opener was any indication, one or both of these guys could be lining up some high-pressure kicks on Saturday night. I hope you'll tune in to see it.

Saturday night's game will kick off at 7 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

01 September 2012

Dramatic welcome to college football! UTSA 33, South Alabama 31

Wow. What an introduction to college football broadcasting that was!

Just like last year, UTSA and South Alabama traded momentum all afternoon, with some impressive big plays tempered by a mess of turnovers and penalties. It was fascinating to see things swing first one way, then the other, and continue back and forth throughout the game. In the end, though, we got one of the most dramatic endings we could have asked for.

In last year's game between the teams, UTSA kicker Sean Ianno had a chance for a close-range game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining. Whether due to a low trajectory, a slight struggle at the line, or some combination thereof, the kick was blocked. South Alabama went on to win in overtime. While the play does not go down as Ianno's fault, you have to believe he had been seen that kick in his dreams plenty of times over the last 11 months.

He got a chance to make up for it and then some on Saturday, as UTSA, trailing 31-30, reached the 34-yard line in the final 30 seconds. Ianno seized his chance, hitting a bomb from 51 yards that cleared the crossbar with plenty of room to spare, giving the Roadrunners a win in their first game as a transitional FBS team. It was an incredible moment both for Ianno, personally, and for the UTSA team and school.

It was also a lot of fun to be part of as a broadcast team! Cole Cubelic was a great partner for my first televised football broadcast - he seemed to know half the people we ran into at Ladd-Peebles Stadium - and I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. I'm sure it was not perfect -- I know there were a few name hiccups, and I'm still adjusting to football play-by-play -- but I enjoyed the whole thing just as much as I hoped, and I can't wait to work on more college football games this fall.

My next one is Troy against Louisiana-Lafayette next Saturday, also here in Alabama, and I can only hope the ending lives up to today's.