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The sports world suffered a twitter-breaking case of shock and awe today with Deadspin’s piece detailing what appears to be the phony story concocted about the late girlfriend of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o.  While the American public and the media sure felt duped, one of Te’o’s teammates wasn’t surprised, telling PepperOnSports.com that the players on the Fighting Irish football team smelled something fishy back in September 2012. 

The Notre Dame football player, who asked for anonymity, told Pepper On Sports, “No we all knew he had only seen her once.  But when the media was saying how he went through both deaths we knew,”  said the source, referring to the back-to-back deaths of Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend Lennay Kekua, who allegedly died of Leukemia. 

In defense of the Heisman Trophy candidate, the source said he believes the lie may have indeed started with somebody duping Te’o using a phony twitter account, and eventually, faking their own death.

Early in my conversation with the source, the Notre Dame player said, “He lied, but the media blew it up.”  In response to my follow-up question asking if the source thought that Te’o kept the story going because of the media attention, the player replied, “Yeah.  Right after the Michigan [State] game.  He should have never brought her in the media. His grandma passing was enough.” 

Notre Dame’s victory over Michigan State and subsequent media explosion appears to have been the turning point for the source and many of his teammates. 

The source said while the players discussed their suspicions amongst themselves, they never confronted Te’o.

“We would never bring it up.  But we would look at him when he would get all emotional during media about his girl,” the player said.

When asked if he thought Te’o was a good actor, the player replied, “Very good.”  

 

Where does one even begin when recapping what went down on the basketball court on Friday?  How can the second day of the 2011-2012 NCAA Championship Tournament possibly be explained?  It was a day chalk full of “you had to see it to believe it” moments. 

After a less-than-thrilling opening day, the hoops gods made up for a quiet Thursday by dropping some major basketball bombs on Friday, consisting of down-to-the-wire finishes and upsets of the rarest breed.

While we still have yet to see the ultimate upset, a 16-seed beating a 1-seed, we got the second best thing on Friday… TWICE!

The last time a #15 toppled a #2 was in 2001 when Hampton got the best of Iowa State in an absolute shocker, beating one of the tourney favorites 58-57. That was one of my favorite tournament games of all time, with perhaps the best celebration I’ve ever seen as one of the huge players picked up his tiny coach who pumped his fists and flailed his legs while being hoisted in the air. 

Friday was somewhat of a throwback to that 2001 game as #15 Norfolk St. (representing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in which Hampton is also a member) gave  #2 Missouri a serious run for their money, sending the Tigers home packing, super-duper early.  The game was hard-fought by dueling point guards, Pendarvis Williams for Norfolk St. and Phil Pressey (and his amazing haircut) for Mizzou. 

But the “darling” of the game, and perhaps the Tourney in general (should his team wear the glass slipper for a while longer and make it to the Sweet 16) was senior Kyle O’Quinn who stole the show with his play and personality alike.  The big man was spectacular in the Spartans’ first-ever trip to the Tourney, logging 26 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and one steal while wearing his heart on his sleeve and a huge smile on his face.

Sure, he almost blew it with some missed free throws at the end of the game, but it was all good for Norfolk St. who kept their composure and did the little things to win the game.  The statistics were evenly matched for the most part, with the Spartans edging out the Tigers in 3-point shooting, hitting an impressive 52 percent of shots from beyond the arc (Mizzou shot 44.8 percent from 3-point range) and also out-rebounding Mizzou 35-23. 

Fun fact alert:  A 15-seed has only beaten a 2-seed six times in NCAA Tourney history (since the tourney expanded to a field of 64).  Three of those six teams were from historically black colleges and universities.  I think that’s interesting, but I digress…

On one hand, I was shocked by the outcome of the game.  After all, we hadn’t seen a #2 suffer an opening-round loss to a #1 in 11 years.  But if it was going to happen, Missouri would be that team.  Mizzou is a school I never trust in the tourney.  Sure, I had them getting out of the first round in my bracket, but I had them out in the Sweet 16.  If it was going to happen, it was going to happen to Missouri.

I sure as HELL didn’t expect it would ALSO happen to the DOOKIES.  Seriously Duke???  I mean, wow.  The Norfolk St. victory lessened the shock value of #15 Lehigh’s win over #2 Duke, but not by much.  Last season, I was in the stands with my Dad watching my Arizona Wildcats beat Duke in the Sweet 16.  Back in 2001, I watched Coach K, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jason Williams and Co. dismantle Arizona en route to an NCAA championship, and I never imagined we could beat them in a meaningful game, especially in the tournament.  Watching Derrick Williams and Zona WHOOP Duke’s behind in person last year, my eyes got a bit watery because for me, it felt like David beating Goliath.  Duke is a team who I find hard to imagine losing.

A la the Honey Badger, Lehigh didn’t care or “give a s^&%” about the Duke mystique as the Mountain Hawks beat the Blue Devils IN NORTH CAROLINA, less than 60 miles from Duke’s campus.  Like the Norfolk St. game just a couple of hours earlier, the favorite nearly crushed Cinderella’s dreams on multiple occasions, but a few plays down the stretch kept the underdogs on top for good. 

C.J. McCollum dropped 30 points on the Dukies  leading the Blue Devils to a first-round demise for only the second time in 16 seasons.  In a strange twist of fate, North Carolina fans who had watched the #1 Tar Heels handily beat #16 Vermont earlier in the day stuck around the arena just long enough to blast their Tobacco Road rivals.   The UNC faithful threw their full support behind Lehigh, turning what should’ve felt like a home game for Duke into hostile, enemy territory which may have played a role in the outcome.  Either way, UNC fans are cold-blooded for that, and very smart indeed as their second favorite team, Lehigh took Duke down 75-70. 

Meanwhile Michigan State, Kansas, Georgetown and Florida beat their lower-seed opponents with relative ease.  The same cannot be said for Cincinnati, Creighton and Florida State who squeaked past the first round and onto the weekend games.  The #6 Bearcats surrendered a 19-point lead but thanks to guys with two of my favorite names in sports, Yancy & Cashmere, were able to gut out a slim victory over the #11 Texas Longhorns.   #3 Florida State was on the verge of losing its ACC membership had the ‘Noles lost to a feisty #14 St. Bonaventure team, but luckily for FSU, they hung on for a 66-63 win.  Then we have #8 Creighton who won its first Tourney game in 10 years after overcoming an 11-point deficit and two heinous free-throw misses with under nine seconds to play, which was just enough to send the Crimson Tide rolling back home to Tuscaloosa.  It sure was tight though as Creighton escaped with a 58-57 win over #9 Alabama.

Temple, Memphis and San Diego State should all be embarrassed as they didn’t come close to bringing their “A” game on Friday, each losing to a lower seed in ugly fashion.  For the record, I had all three of them moving on to the weekend games, so, thanks for nothin guys! 

#13 Ohio provided another shocker taking down the #4 Michigan Wolverines who are so desperately longing for hoops glory once again.  Unfortunately the fine folks in Ann Arbor will have to wait another year.  #10 Purdue managed to fend off #7 Saint Mary’s, hanging on for a 72-69 win and boy, #10 Xavier and #7 Notre Dame played one heck of a nightcap. 

Down by 10 in the second half, the Musketeers kicked it up a notch and with the help of a Zebra calling a lane violation on the Fighting Irish in the final seconds of the game, Xavier did just enough to pull off the upset.

Obviously, the two 15-seeds taking care of business against the 2-seeds was dramatic and the talk of the Tourney thus far.   But this particular Friday was one of the best we’ve seen in recent years because it not only had history-making games like Norfolk St. and Lehigh, but there were plenty of other upsets, photo finishes and good, old fashioned blow-outs. 

Friday was about as well-rounded as one day of competition could be as Day 2 of this year’s Tourney officially brought the Madness we had all hoped to see this March. 

                             

Sitting in the stands watching USC take on Arizona at the LA Coliseum last Saturday got me thinking… The stands were maybe 70 percent full, the crowd wasn’t that loud, and the plays USC ran were boring and predictable.  No spice, no sizzle.  It was a stark contrast from the way I remembered the Trojans…

           

It was my first time inside the Coliseum since November 25, 2006, when I worked as a production runner (aka - gopher to the TV crew) for ESPN/ABC’s broadcast of USC vs. Notre Dame.   Albeit coming off  the most incredible game I’ve ever seen in person, USC’s loss to Texas in the Rose Bowl BCS Championship game, it was still  the hay day of the Pete Carroll era.  The tandem of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, along with several other offensive weapons and an enforcing defense had given the Trojans a supreme confidence, showcased in many ways, including frequent use of trick plays.

                        

I got my start in television working as a production runner for college football broadcasts and covered several USC games over three seasons on the job.  In nearly every game I worked, it seemed like Carroll popped in a reverse, end-around, would go for it on 4th down, or bust out a fake punt or field goal.  Even though I was never a USC fan (my Mom went to UCLA so I grew up a Bruins fan), I found myself shaking my head with a smile on the sidelines as the Trojans unleashed their tricks on opponents.  It was just so cool.  Carroll took no prisoners, going for it when it mattered (SC and Notre Dame both going on 4th downs in the game, eventually resulting in the Bush Push and a USC win, 34-31 in 2005)  and when it didn’t  (leading Arizona State 21-0, going for a first down by faking a field goal, which failed, in 2008).  Successful trick plays ignited the crowd and delated the opposition. 

                     

These days, in 2011, going to a USC game is quite a different experience.  Although the Trojans beat my alma mater Saturday, it wasn’t a pretty win.  Sitting in the stands with my friends (almost all USC alum, which is quite a painful experience) we talked about how boring trojan football has become.  Where was the creativity of the Pete Carroll days?  Heck, even half the creativity of that era would be more than sufficient.  I told my friends that USC’s offensive blandness surprised me.  After all, head coach Lane Kiffin was the receivers coach and Offensive Coordinator working under Carroll during the golden years from 2001-2006.  Why wouldn’t he have a little fun and take a few pages from the old playbook?  Sure, the talent level isn’t the same these days, but surely these kids are capable of giving it a try.  Did the Raiders really take all the fun out of this guy? 

LA Times sports writer Mike Bresnahan answered my questions less than 48 hours later in his article appearing on Monday’s front page of the sports section.  The headline is “No Foolin’ ” and the story is about how trick playes are pervasive in college football, but rarely used in the pro game because the reward isn’t worth the risk for NFL coaches.  If a key player (especially a QB… like the play Andrew Luck successfully executed against UCLA Saturday) got injured on a trick play, or a game was lost on a creative gamble, it could cost a coach his job.  Another very logical reason Bresnahan gave is that the trained eye of an NFL defender will see a lot more than that of a college player, making a trick play harder for an offense to execute successfully.  (Read Mike’s story here, and check out an awesome written and graphical breakdown of Boise State’s famous Statue of Liberty variation used on the game-winning 2-point conversion in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl… http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-football-trick-plays-20111004,0,3075736,full.story)

But that doesn’t explain Kiffin going no-trick at USC…or does it?  In proving his thesis on the lack of trickeration in the NFL, Bresnahan writes, “The Oakland Raiders’ playbook is 700 pages, most of it dedicated to standard sets, page after page of bread-and-butter stuff that has to be perfected. A mere 20 minutes spent on gadget plays would take away from the importance of nailing the basics on offense.”

                    

Is Kiffin still in NFL mode? Is he still scarred by the Raiders?  Is this the JaMarcus Russell Effect? When in doubt, I suppose one can always blame Al Davis.  Kidding, kidding.  Bresnahan cites USC’s defensive coordinator, former NFL assistant coach of 26 years, and Lane’s pops, Monte Kiffin who had an interesting take on trick plays.  While the coaching staff shows the USC defense a tape of their next opponents’ trick plays each week, it seems as though the USC offense would rather not bother coming up with tricks of their own. 

Bresnahan writes that unlike in the NFL, NCAA rules allow for only 20 hours of football activities per week during the season, which means timing is everything and prioritizing is key.  Regarding differences between college and the pros when it comes to preparation, Monte Kiffin said, “They don’t have study halls and they don’t have classes and they don’t have tutors. And coaches have them year-round.”  Perhaps a college coach’s time is better spent installing and perfecting the basics.

USC has a bye week heading into their next game at Cal Berkeley on October 13.  Maybe the guys can learn a flea flicker or something??  Ok, I won’t hold my breath. 

As an Arizona alum, I can’t say that I miss USC’s football dominance. But what I do miss is the guaranteed razzle dazzle every time the Trojans played.  Once the postseason ban is lifted, hopefully Lane will find a new found freedom and reinstate fun on the field as well.