Capitals

Ball, Burkhead should be at best in B10 title game

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Ball, Burkhead should be at best in B10 title game

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Two of the Big Ten's best running backs will be on the field when Wisconsin and No. 14 Nebraska meet in Saturday night's conference championship game.

Wisconsin's Montee Ball has been at his best lately after a slow start.

Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is running strong after missing a month with an aggravated knee sprain.

The two have long admired and learned from each other.

Burkhead said he's studied tape of Ball to cull tips on how to better use his blockers and to see how Ball patiently waits for a hole to open and attacks it.

Ball said he tries to emulate Burkhead's toughness and relentlessness.

``That man, he's a very physical running back,'' Ball said. ``He doesn't shy away from contact. I believe he loves contact. He loves to deliver the blow to defenders. What I take from him is, don't shy from contact and keep your feet churning.''

Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist after rushing for 1,923 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns last season, this week earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second straight year following a regular season in which he piled up 1,528 yards and 18 TDs.

He scored his 79th career touchdown last week against Penn State to set an NCAA record.

Burkhead was a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2011 after a 1,357-yard, 15-TD season. He sprained his left knee on his third carry of the opener against Southern Mississippi, has aggravated the injury twice and appeared in only six games. He has 474 yards on 63 carries, a 7.5-yard average.

Burkhead originally planned to return in Indianapolis on Saturday, but the Huskers (10-2, 7-1) needed a boost in the second half against Iowa last week, and he told coach Bo Pelini he was ready when needed.

Burkhead started the third quarter, scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 13-7, Legends Division-clinching victory and finished with 69 yards on 16 carries, including a few pile-moving runs.

Pelini said he expects Burkhead to be in the starting lineup against the Badgers (7-5, 4-4).

Burkhead gives the Huskers relatively fresh legs to go along with 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah and two other backs, who worked as the primary ball-carrier when Burkhead was out.

``I hope it kind of gives a burst of energy to the team, just being able to finish off things, finish off runs, fight for those extra yards and just help out the team however I can,'' Burkhead said.

Even without Burkhead the Huskers had the most powerful run game in the Big Ten. With him in the mix again as a runner and receiver - and with Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross as his backups - offensive coordinator Tim Beck will have plenty of options.

``It's nice just to know he's added back into our arsenal,'' tight end Ben Cotton said.

Ball and Burkhead played major roles in the teams' first meeting this season, a 30-27 Nebraska win on Sept. 29.

Ball ran 32 times for 90 yards, and he scored the Badgers' first two touchdowns as they got out to a 20-3 lead. Ball scored again in the third quarter, but the Huskers kept him under control most of the second half. Six of his final eight carries went for losses or no gain.

Burkhead had 18 runs for 86 yards, including a 21-yarder. He fumbled on his first carry when he ran up the back of an offensive lineman, setting up the Badgers' second touchdown.

Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, who tackled Burkhead five times in the first game, said Nebraska's offense doesn't change depending on which of the four running backs is in the game. But Burkhead is the toughest to bring down, he said, and is the master of turning a potential tackle for loss or no gain into a 2-yard pickup.

``That doesn't really show up in the stat book,'' Borland said, ``but that kind of saves their offense at times. Sometimes things will be bottled up, and instead of it being second down and 12, it's second and 8, and that changes their play-calling. I really applaud him for his ability in doing that.''

Ball, a Doak Walker Award finalist for the second straight year, is running for 153.6 yards a game since Oct. 1. He's run for at least 166 yards in four of his last six games.

The end of his senior season has been better than the start. He missed several days of preseason practice with a concussion and facial cuts after five men attacked him on a street in Madison, Wis.

He was held to 61 yards in a loss to Oregon State, had to run 37 times to get his 139 yards in a narrow win over Utah State and sustained another head injury in the first half against UTEP.

``Yards have been a lot tougher this year,'' Ball said.

A big performance against Nebraska could help send Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl for a third straight year and ease the sting of a five-loss season. The Badgers, who finished third in the Leaders Division, are in the title game because Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible.

``These five losses, one loss being against Nebraska, we really feel we have something to prove against them and to the nation,'' Ball said. ``I'm hoping the best team comes out winning, which is us.''

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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

The more you look at Monday's Game 6 between the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the more you realize this game is the most important game of Alex Ovechkin's career.

This is the first time Ovechkin and Co. have made it to the conference finals and it is the first time this postseason in which the Caps face elimination.

Here are the keys for the Caps to staving off elimination and forcing a Game 7:

Get off to a better start

It took Tampa Bay just 19 seconds to score in Game 5 and the score was 3-0 nothing before the Capitals really began to show any signs of life. They cannot allow the Lightning to jump all over them in the same way and take the crowd out of the game early.

With the game being in Washington, the Caps will have the crowd on their side. Use it.

The Caps have been at their best this series playing the trap, holding their own blue line and countering against Tampa Bay's aggressive defensemen leading to odd-man breaks. That's a hard gameplan to run if you're playing from behind. Scoring first would go a long way for Washington.

Stay out of the penalty box

Washington has given up six power play goals to Tampa Bay on just 15 opportunities in this series. That means the Lightning's power play is producing at a blistering rate of 40-percent. That's an insanely good power play rate and that may be putting it mildly.

So far, the penalty kill has had no answer for how to shut down a Tampa Bay unit that features Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov setting up for one-timers and being quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. That's a formidable cast.

If you can't beat it, then there's only one solution: Stay out of the box.

Despite everything that went wrong in Game 5, the one thing the Caps did right was not give up many penalties. They took only one on the night and even that one was avoidable as Brett Connolly got caught holding Brayden Point trying to get around him to get the puck.

Win the top line matchup

The Lightning have found success matching their fourth line against Ovechkin. Of his six points this series, only two of them (one goal, one assist) have come at 5-on-5. That's not good enough.

It's gut check time. The Caps need their best players to be at their best and that means Ovechkin has to win the matchup against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan. In Game 5, Tampa Bay's fourth line actually outscored Ovechkin's line in 5-on-5 play 2-0.

Washington will not win this game if the fourth line outscores Ovechkin's line. It's just that simple.

Take advantage of the power play opportunities

The Caps scored at least one power play goal in Game 1 and Game 2, both wins. They have not scored any since and have lost all three games since. They scored on three of seven opportunities in the first two games and zero of seven opportunities in the last three.

Not a coincidence.

Granted, they did not draw any penalties in Game 5, but it seems unlikely the Lightning will stay out of the box for another sixty minutes. At some point, they will take a penalty and when they do, Washington must take advantage.

Win the goalie matchup

Not much attention has been paid to Braden Holtby in this series. The Caps are not facing elimination because they have been getting bad goaltending, but when the Lightning needed Andrei Vasilevskiy to steal them a win and up his game to get them back into the series, he responded.

Vasilevskiy has been brilliant the last three games as he has turned aside 100 of the 106 shots he has faced for a .943 save percentage. For the series, Holtby has a save percentage of only .883.

Again, Washington is not down 3-2 in the series because of goaltending. Holtby has faced far fewer shots than Vasilevskiy and has been just about the only thing that has worked against Tampa Bay's lethal power play.

But as one of the team's top players, the Caps need Holtby to step up the way Vasilevskiy has. Game 6 will be about winning by any means necessary. If that means they need a hat trick from Ovechkin so be it. If that means they need Holtby to steal it for them, so be it.

Holtby has to be just as good as Vasilevskiy in Game 6, if not better, for Washington to come out on top.

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Trades, misses and mistakes explain Redskins dead cap situation

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USA TODAY Sports

Trades, misses and mistakes explain Redskins dead cap situation

Cut bait. Sunk cost. Under water. 

Whatever the term might be, all industries deploy a certain phrase for wasted money. In the NFL, that term is dead cap, or the salary cap space a team must allocate for a particular player that has been cut or traded. 

In the specific case of the Redskins, the team carries more than $5.2 millon in dead cap space. Where did it come from? Who's to blame? Let's take a look.

Terrell McClain ($3.75M) - The Redskins signed McClain away from the Cowboys early in the 2017 free agency period. The move wasn't quite a disaster, but it wasn't very good. Washington gave McClain a four-year deal worth $21 million, and paid out nearly $7.5 million for the 2017 season. McClain never played well for the Redskins, started just two games and this offseason he agreed to give up a significant chunk of guaranteed money. Without that move from McClain, this cap hit would have been much worse. 

Su'a Cravens ($711k) - The money isn't as big of a loss as the talent. The Redskins selected Cravens in the second round of the 2016 Draft and he showed promise as a rookie while also dealing with injuries. In 2017, however, things fell apart as Cravens dealt with a training camp injury, discussed retiring from football and eventually found himself on the reserved/left squad list for the season. Prior to the 2018 Draft, the Redskins worked a deal to send Cravens to Denver for an additional fifth round pick as well as swapping picks. 

Kendall Fuller ($360k) - A promising young cornerback, the Redskins traded Fuller to Kansas City this offseason as part of a package to acquire QB Alex Smith. Losing Fullers stings — even head coach Jay Gruden admitted that — but Washington had to find a quarterback after the long-discussed Kirk Cousins saga veered toward, and eventually ended in, separation. 

Matt Jones ($150k) - One of the worst Redskins draft picks in the last five years, Washington reached for Jones in the third-round in 2015. As a rookie, Jones looked like a solid contributor, but in the 2016 season he developed a bad fumbling habit and found his way to the bench. From there, things got worse, as Jones ended the season on the inactive list after a squabble about playing special teams. In 2017, Jones was cut. He signed with the Colts, where he played in just five games and was cut earlier this year. This offseason, Jones signed with the Eagles.

Arie Kouandjio ($130K) - This is a weird one. Kouandjio was selected by the Redskins in 2015, and cut by the team in 2017. The dead money comes from that rookie deal. When Washington brought Kouandjio back late in the 2017 season off the Ravens' practice squad, the dead money from the rookie deal remained. Now, Kouandjio is injured and a candidate to start the 2018 season on the PUP list or maybe even the IR. 

Robert Davis ($103k) - Drafted as a sixth-rounder in 2017, Davis did not make the team leaving training camp. Even though he got signed to the practice squad, the dead money tolls from the rookie deal. 

Nate Sudfeld ($69k) - A late-round developmental prospect from the 2016 draft, Sudfeld made the team as a rookie but couldn't survive cuts in 2017. Quickly signed by the Eagles, Sudfeld ended up as the backup quarterback in Philadelphia's improbable Super Bowl run earlier this year. Dead money on the Redskins cap, but a Super Bowl ring in Philly. Strange. 

Tyler Catalina and Kevin Bowen account for about $12,000 in dead cap space as well. 

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