Hockey Concedes Spotlight to Football

John Gilbert

Hockey purists among us, and there are many, have had a pretty rich autumn for major events around here. The UMD men’s hockey team was rated No. 1 in the country for two weeks, and even after splitting with Western Michigan, losing 4-3 on a last-minute goal, and winning 2-0, the Bulldogs only dropped to No. 2.

The new No. 1 is Denver, which tied and won at North Dakota in two tough games. That sets up some key matches this weekend, with UMD at Nebraska-Omaha, and North Dakota heading for St. Cloud to face the Huskies. Denver is home to Miami of Ohio, so the rating could get juggled again.
There is no such question about the women’s ratings, or standings. Wisconsin hasn’t lost yet, and coach Mark Johnson has the Badgers perking at high boil as they come to AMSOIL Arena to face surprising UMD at 7 Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday.

The Badgers lead the WCHA Women’s League with a 9-0-1 record, having won the shootout in the tie, with Minnesota second at 9-1, and UMD third at 6-2-2 with a shootout victory in one of those ties. North Dakota is fourth at 5-4-1, and the rest of the league is looking up at those four.

UMD has gotten exceptional mileage out of first line partners Ashleigh Brykaliuk and Lara Stalder, and whoever happens to be plahying with those two on the top line. The Bulldogs made a strong showing at North Dakota, with a victory and a tie, even though they lost the extra point in Sunday’s shootout after a 2-2 tie.

But if the big question was whether UMD could rise above North Dakota this season, the bigger question is whether the Bulldogs can rise up and join Wisconsin and Minnesota at the top echelon. This, then, is their chance to derail the Badgers, who have outscored their 10 WCHA rivals 38-6.

Wisconsin is ranked No 1 with an 11-0-1 overall record, while Minnesota is No. 2 at 11-1, with UMD third 7-2-3. North Dakota is 6-4-2 overall. If those are the WCHA’s top four, then this will be a key weekend, with Minnesota at North Dakota while the Badgers are at Duluth.

College, or Pro?

Even though Minnesota’s two “major” football teams -- the Vikings and the Gophers – seem to have become reluctant participants this season, there have been some incredible games at both levels, and they seem to get crazier by the weekend.

I love college football, even though the national fixation on the Southeast Conference has gotten boring. Yes, Alabama is No. 1, but the rest of the SEC is mediocre this season. The Big Ten has Ohio State and Michigan, with Wisconsin and Penn State close behind, and could wind up with two of the four finalists in the bizarre rating system employed by the NCAA.

As it stands going into this weekend, the Big Ten has Ohio State No. 2 and Michigan No. 4, with Alabama No. 1 and Louisville No. 3. And that is only because last Saturday, the top four took a pounding. Michigan was No. 2 but went to Iowa City where Iowa had lost three straight home games, in addition to being blown out 41-14 at Penn State a week ago. But the Hawkeyes stunned Michigan 14-13 when freshman Keith Duncan kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired, leading to one of the craziest pileups I’ve ever seen.

No. 3 was Clemson, but unranked Pittsburgh shocked Clemson 43-42 on a 48-yarsd field goal by Chris Blewitt with 6 seconds remaining. Chris Blewitt? Not a good name for a placekicker.  Washington was the No. 4 team, and the Huskies were at home against a red-hot Southern California outfit. The Trojans shut down Washington’s offense and won 26-13.

Incredibly, that leaves the Pac-12 North led by Washington State (7-0) and the South by Colorado (6-1), and Washington State plays at Colorado Saturday. That game could be the preview of the Pac-12 playoff game, but if the Cougars and Buffalos struggle at the end, the playoff would be a rematch between Southern Cal and Washington, which could be the classic last Saturday’s game wasn’t.

In the Southeast Conference, while Alabama’s 7-0 leads the West half – and 10-0 overall – second place is Auburn, which is 5-2, and 7-3 overall and nothing like the previous Auburn powerhouses. The SEC East is led by Florida, which is 5-2, and a pretty solid team, while second place Georgia and Kentucky are both 4-4 and decidedly mediocre.

The Big Ten East has Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State all tied at 6-1, while in the West, Wisconsin and Nebraska are both 5-2, having shown signs of excellence but some struggles for consistency.

As for the NFL, it’s hard to imagine any finishes better than last weekend. The most heartbreaking was New Orleans, led by the incomparable Drew Brees, playing at home in the Superdome against Denver. Brees connected with Brandin Cooks for a 32-yard touchdown to tie the game 23-all with 1:22 remaining. Denver’s Justin Simmons leaped over the offensive line and blocked the game-winning extra point, and Will Parks picked up the ball and retuned it 84 yards for a defensive two points – and a 25-23 Denver victory.

Or you could have enjoyed the late game Sunday night, when Seattle went to New England and beat the Patriots in possibly the best game of the season. Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw three passes to Doug Baldwin – all three for touchdowns, and the third put Seattle ahead 31-24 with 4 minutes left. Tom Brady led New England on a final drive. A horrible face-mask penalty on Richard Sherman gave the Patriots a big first down, and a questionable pass interference call in the end zone on an uncatchable pass gave them first and goal at the 1. But the Seahawks stopped them three times, and Brady overthrew his man on fourth and goal, and the Seahawks went home with as 31-24 victory.

Then there was Dallas, going into Pittsburgh and turning loose rookeis Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott ran for 114 yards and two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter, and earlier ran 83 yards with a screen pass from Prescott for a third TD, as Dallas won its eighth straight game, 35-30 over the Steelers. Tony Romo, watching Prescott throw for 319 yards and two touchdowns awaiting his turn to retake “his” QB spot for Dallas, declared after the game that Prescott deserved to keep playing quarterback ahead of him.

As for the Vikings, who collapsed at Washington and lost 26-20, and Green Bay, which got shown up by Tennessee as Marcus Mariota outplayed Aaron Rodgers and beat the Packers 45-27, the Central Division co-favorites are in free fall. The only team to gain ground in the division last weekend is Detroit, which very likely could win the thing!