Wizards

Back home, No. 18 Rutgers set for Kent State

Back home, No. 18 Rutgers set for Kent State

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) There was a time when a game against a Mid-American Conference program could be counted as a win for Rutgers.

That's changed this season.

Ohio is ranked No, 23 and MAC teams have posted wins over Big East foes Cincinnati, Connecticut and South Florida already, with Cincinnati dropping its first game of the season to Toledo last weekend.

It's no wonder the No. 18 Scarlet Knights (7-0, 4-0 Big East) are wary heading into Saturday's homecoming game against Kent State (6-1, 4-0 MAC) and its sensational running back-returner Dri Archer.

Archer leads the nation in all-purpose yards (a 212.9 yard average). He ranks 33rd nationally in rushing (98.1) and is first in kickoff return yardage (47-yard average).

``You just have to keep doing the things that got you to this point. You can't take anybody lightly,'' said Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova, who threw four second-half touchdown passes last week against Temple. ``Everybody can give you their best shot. Obviously we just got a great example. Cincinnati just lost to a MAC team. The MAC, you can't take anybody lightly. Definitely a top contender in Kent State that is going to come in here and fight their heart out. We have to be ready for the shots they're going to give us, and we have to respond.''

If there is a concern for the Scarlet Knights, it's looking ahead. After this week, they will face Army in their final non-conference game and then continue pursuit of their first conference title with games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville.

Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Green tries not to pay too much attention to conference affiliations or records.

``It's not about our opponent. It's about us and how we perform,'' Greene said. ``It would definitely be a letdown for us if we don't take care of business because we know what we're playing for and where we want to be at the end of the season. For us to lay an egg, it would definitely be a letdown and we don't plan on having that problem.''

Favored by 13 points, Rutgers will be looking for its fourth 8-0 start in 143 years of college football. It would be the third since 1976 and the second since joining the Big East in 1991.

To get there, the Scarlet Knights need to slow down Archer, a speedster who is tied for third in the nation with 14 touchdowns.

``He's a real special guy. One of the faster players,'' Rutgers defensive tackle Scott Vallone said. ``You can see him in the open field, outrunning defenders. He flies, and he's all-purpose. He's a kick returner, punt returner, he plays a little tailback, slot receiver. They do whatever they can to get him involved. He's their No. 1 guy, and he's a really special player.''

Archer, however, will be facing an outstanding defense. The Scarlet Knights are ranked third nationally in scoring (11.3).

``They're very stout. They got a great front. They're constantly moving,'' Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said. ``The linebackers are making turnovers all over the field. They play a lot of man coverage and they play a lot of Tampa 2 coverage. We've been able to run the football pretty successfully throughout the first half of the season. But there will be some tough running going on Saturday so we'll have to figure out what to do.''

The Golden Flashes have topped 40 points four times this season.

``We just have to do what we do, and that's get to the ball fast, tackle and hit people hard,'' Greene said. ``(Archer's) a fast player, he's leading the nation in all-purpose yards, they line him up in the slot, everywhere. He's a very fast guy. But it's about us at the end of the day doing what we do and that's playing our style and attacking people. It's definitely a challenge when you go against a guy like Archer, but it's more about us.''

Kent State will look for its first six-game winning streak since 1940. It won't be easy.

Defensively, the Golden Flashes need to slow down Nova and running back Jawan Jamison, who ranks 20th nationally and first in the conference, averaging 111.3 yards.

``He's very efficient with the football and he looks like a great leader,'' Hazell said of Nova. ``He definitely has command of the offense so we're excited to play him.''

The game will not only be homecoming for Rutgers, but also for Hazell, who coached under Greg Schiano here from 2001-04.

``It will be fun for me,'' Hazell said. ``My family grew up about 45 minutes out (Cinnaminson) from Rutgers. So it's going to be fun to get back there. We're obviously playing a very tough opponent.

``It's going to be a formidable test for us this week, but we're excited to get out there.''

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Three things to watch for Wizards' regular season opener against the Heat

Three things to watch for Wizards' regular season opener against the Heat

The Washington Wizards open their regular season on Thursday night against the Miami Heat. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington. 

Here are three things to watch...

Will Howard play?

Just one week ago, it would have seemed near impossible that Dwight Howard, the Wizards' biggest offseason acquisition, would be ready to play in the season opener, but after three solid days of practice, it can't be ruled out. The Wizards plan to evaluate him throughout the day on Thursday to determine if he can take the court in what would be his first live game action with his new team.

Howard, 32, missed the entire preseason and nearly all of their practices leading up to the opener with a strained piriformis muscle. Though reports have been encouraging from his three practices, he is not yet in game shape. Even if he can play, expect him to be limited. If he can't play, Ian Mahinmi will get the start.

Heat are banged up

Miami is not only coming off a game the night before, as they lost in their season opener to the Orlando Magic, but they are missing some key guys. Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Justise Winslow are out due to injuries.

That will leave Miami perilously thin at the guard and small forward position. That happens to be an area of the roster where the Wizards are especially deep, now with Austin Rivers as the backup shooting guard behind Bradley Beal and with first round pick Troy Brown Jr. behind Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr.

That said, Waiters and Ellington being out means Dwyane Wade may get more run and, as we saw in the preseason, he is still very hard to stop. He is capable of a big night, especially given it's so early in the year and he doesn't yet have the wear-and-tear of a long season.

Can Beal reach the next level?

One of the most important indicators of how much better the Wizards will be this season is the continued improvement of their young players. John Wall, Porter and Oubre are included in that and particularly Oubre, who is entering an important season in the final year of his contract.

But the guy who improved more than anyone last year and has a chance to take another big leap this season is Beal. Now with one All-Star nod under his belt, what does he have for an encore? 

If Beal can get his scoring average up even higher from the 22.6 he put up last season, he could enter the All-NBA conversation. And he now has more help than ever with Rivers behind him. Beal should, in theory, be more fresh each night with Rivers taking away some of his workload. 

The Heat offer a good matchup defensively for Beal with Josh Richardson. He is one of the more underrated players in basketball and is a menace on the perimeter.

"I've been a fan of his since I played him in college at Tennessee," Beal said. "He's always been a pest. He's super athletic, sneaky athletic. And I feel like he developed his shot to where you have to respect it. If you go under [on screens], he's shooting it."

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Wide receiver Willie Snead thriving with Ravens as man in the middle

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USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Willie Snead thriving with Ravens as man in the middle

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Willie Snead has a knack for weaving through a row of linebackers in the middle of the field before making a clutch catch for the Baltimore Ravens.

Such was the case last Sunday against Tennessee, when Snead squeezed between two defenders for a 24-yard gain on a third-and-17 from the Baltimore 15.

"He's on the ground, he makes the catch, he's getting pushed back to the ground, stepped all over, and he just gets up and gives the first-down signal right there in the guy's face," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's the kind of competitor he is. He's all ball, all the time."

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome rarely chases restricted free agents, but he made an exception with Snead this past offseason after it became apparent that the receiver's three-year run in New Orleans was done. One of Drew Brees' favorite targets in 2015 and 2016, Snead began last season with a three-game suspension for violating the NFL personal conduct policy. He then fought a hamstring injury and finished with just eight catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns.

Armed with a two-year, $10.4 million contract, Snead was delighted to arrive in Baltimore last April.

"Last year just left a really bitter taste in my mouth, the organization and how everything was handled," Snead said Tuesday. "To be a part of this organization was just a breath of fresh air. I wanted to go somewhere where I'm wanted."

It couldn't have worked out better for Snead -- and the Ravens.

"To see that you were right, to see all that come together and him play so well, being exactly what you thought you were going to get, is very rewarding," Harbaugh said.

Snead was one of three free agent receivers signed by Newsome in an effort to enhance a passing game that sputtered in 2017. Snead is the possession receiver, Michael Crabtree provides an outside threat and John Brown is the speedster.

Snead and Crabtree are tied for the team lead with 30 catches. Brown has 21 receptions for a team-high 424 yards and three touchdowns.

"I don't have the physical ability like John Brown to run by you, and I'm not big and strong like Michael Crabtree," Snead observed, "so I have to work harder than everybody else just to stand out."

That's how it's always been for Snead, who finally finds himself in a place where his talent is acknowledged and appreciated.

"This is a guy that's been doubted his whole career -- high school, college and the NFL," Harbaugh said. "So I'm fine if they keep doubting him."

After starring as a quarterback at Muskegon Heights in Michigan, Snead played three years as a receiver at Ball State before going undrafted in 2014. He finally made it to the NFL the following year.

"Coming out of college, (people said) I left too early, I wasn't ready to play in the NFL," Snead recalled. "And in the NFL, it was, `Is he fast enough to separate? Can he make those plays in clutch situations?' I've always been doubted."

Not anymore.

"I'll tell you one thing, Willie comes Sunday ready to play," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "He's one of the toughest guys I've been around."

This Sunday, the Ravens (4-2) host the Saints (4-1). Snead insists this wasn't one of those games that he circled on the calendar.

"This is another team. I have to approach it that way just to stay focused," Snead said.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton has seen enough of Snead this season to know he's a threat with the ball, and without it.

"He has a tremendous amount of grit. You see him making plays on third down," Payton said. "He's an outstanding blocker. He'll come across in motion, he'll get to the point of attack in the run game, but he'll also find the holes in the zone and man-to-man coverages."

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Snead has no problem mixing it up with anyone, large or small, at any spot on the field.

"He can go inside or outside, but man, he makes some -- scouts call them blood area -- catches," Harbaugh said. "In the middle, that's where he thrives."

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