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Fate in its hands, Rutgers eyes a Big East crown

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Fate in its hands, Rutgers eyes a Big East crown

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) With three weeks left in the season, Rutgers is in the driver's seat in the Big East Conference.

The road is straight for first-year coach Kyle Flood and his program, one that has never won the league.

But if the Scarlet Knights (8-1, 4-0) win their final three games, they will capture the conference crown, a BCS bowl bid and complete a more than a decade-long revival that will see the birthplace of college football rise from a gridiron doormat to elite status.

The final steps won't be easy, though. Rutgers' schedule is back loaded with its three toughest opponents - Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1), Pittsburgh (5-5, 1-4) and No. 20 Louisville (9-1, 4-1), whose surprising 45-26 loss last week to Syracuse (5-5, 4-2) left the Scarlet Knights alone in first place.

``It's something that is always on our minds. Last year, we were one victory away from a Big East title, so we're not overwhelmed,'' cornerback Logan Ryan said. ``We've been there before with the pressure and we came up short. I think one thing we learned is that you have to come out to play every week.

``Keep chopping and you'll end up where you want to be.''

It starts this weekend in Cincinnati, a place that has never been very hospitable to the Scarlet Knights. They are 1-6-1 all-time there, with their only win coming in 1987.

Ironically, the last time Rutgers started 4-0 in the league was 2006. The fourth win was a nationally televised upset of then-No. 3 Louisville. The following week, the Scarlet Knights went to Nippert Stadium and were embarrassed by the Bearcats, 30-11. The title slipped away two weeks later when West Virginia beat the Ray Rice-led team in three overtimes.

While Pittsburgh isn't having the best of seasons, the Panthers recently took No. 3 Notre Dame to three overtimes before falling. And of course, it all could come down to the final weekend and Louisville, which has a bye this week.

Flood - given the job after Greg Schiano left in January for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL - isn't worried about his team losing focus staring at the big picture.

``I think when you are playing an opponent like we are this week, and again, I'll say it one more time - a team that has been able to call themselves the Big East champions three of the last four years - they have your attention right away,'' Flood said of Cincinnati, a program that went to BCS bowls in 2008 and 2009. ``There is nothing else on our mind this week other than trying to be 1-0 this week and executing our game plan against whatever game plan they show up with.''

There are a couple of other teams thinking the same way. Cincinnati and Louisville both have a chance at the title if Rutgers stumbles down the stretch, with Louisville having the inside track, having beaten the Bearcats.

Syracuse has an outside chance at the title, but it would have to finish tied for first with Louisville. For that to happen Rutgers would have to lose its final three games, Cincinnati would have to lose its last two after beating the Scarlet Knights this weekend, and Louisville would have to lose to Connecticut next weekend and beat Rutgers.

Louisville coach Charlie Strong isn't going to worry about what-ifs. He will sit back this week and watch Rutgers, knowing that the Cardinals will go the rest of the season without their leading rusher, Senorise Perry, because of a knee injury.

``I told them, `Guys, I know this. We go to Syracuse and we got our butt kicked in. Still though, you have to beat Rutgers to go win it.' So, your goal is still there,'' Strong said. ``Whatever is in front of us is still there. It's all about taking care of Connecticut. Let's not worry about Rutgers.''

For those who haven't seen them, the Scarlet Knights are reminiscent of the Virginia Tech Big East teams of the late 1990s. They are a fast, aggressive defense that is outstanding against the run and very opportunistic in getting their hands on opponent miscues.

Rutgers ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense (fifth, 13.4 points per game), total defense (14th, 309.4 yards, pass efficiency defense (17th, 109.9 yards), rushing defense (17th, 110.0 yards) and pass defense (25th, 199.4 yards).

The special teams are among the best in the country, and have been for years. They have blocked a nation-best eight kicks this year - including two field goal attempts by Army last weekend- and 31 kicks since 2009, which also is best in the country.

The offense is the question mark despite the presence of running back Jawan Jamison (105.9 yards per game) and receiver Brandon Coleman, who has a league-high eight touchdown catches.

Sophomore quarterback Gary Nova has thrown 18 touchdowns but also has tossed eight of his 10 interceptions over the past three games, including a few that were just bad decisions. Against Army, it seemed that the offensive game plan was overly conservative to avoid mistakes and allow the defense to carry the team.

It remains to be seen if that will work in the final three games.

``We've been underdogs all year,'' said linebacker Khaseem Greene, the league's co-defensive player of the year in 2011. ``Everybody expects us to lose or wants us to lose. We're going to be the same Rutgers team that was the underdog when we went down to Arkansas or when we played all these other teams. I love the underdog role.''

All that said, the critics this year have at least a little to go on. Rutgers, after all, has played just one FBS team with a record over .500 - Kent State of the Mid-American Conference - and lost to the Golden Flashes, 35-23, on homecoming in Piscataway. Last week, Rutgers was tied 7-7 with Army (2-8) in the fourth quarter.

But Nova isn't worried. He's got a job to do, and skeptics aside, he knows Flood is in his corner as the Scarlet Knights seek out history.

``He told me that no matter what happens this year, I'm going to be his guy and I'm going to be his guy for the next three years,'' Nova said. ``Having that out of your mind in the game is just huge and takes a lot of weight off my shoulders.''

If there is an intangible for Rutgers down the stretch, it might be Flood. He is a player's coach that has carried on the culture and brand of Rutgers Football that Schiano cultivated.

``People may not believe us, but we believe we can win every game on our schedule,'' Ryan said. ``Coach Flood believes in us. Coach Flood is not afraid to talk about winning a championship. That's what we're trained for, so we're not afraid to go out there and say we expect to win the Big East Championship.''

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For Redskins, even without Alex Smith, focus remains on 2018, not 2019

For Redskins, even without Alex Smith, focus remains on 2018, not 2019

Redskins fans can be an odd bunch.

The team suffered a major loss on Sunday when Alex Smith broke two bones in his leg, and for many supporters on social media, the questions all turned to what happens at quarterback next season. Can Smith return? Will the team draft another passer? What are the salary cap implications of the injury?

Jay Gruden had a simple message about where his mind was focused after the 23-21 loss to Houston on Sunday.

"To Dallas," the head coach said. "We're excited about it."

For the Redskins, the only thing to think about is winning on Thanksgiving at AT&T Stadium. At 6-4, Washington remains in first place in the NFC East, holding a one game lead over the Cowboys. 

While it might seem like the playoff hopes vanished when Smith got carted off the field, Redskins players and coaches don't see it that way. 

"I have confidence in Colt, always have. I'm a big, firm believer in Colt McCoy's ability to play football in the National Football League. This is an opportunity of a lifetime for him. I know he would like it in different circumstances but things happen for a reason," Gruden said. 

Particularly for McCoy, there is no looking ahead to 2019. He's not even looking ahead to December. The former University of Texas star is going to take his opportunity one game at a time, and that starts Thursday in Dallas.

"You never like to see how it happened today, but for me I just have to go out there and give it all I’ve got. I’ve been a starter before, had it taken away, and it’s not a good feeling," McCoy said. "We have a good team here and they’ve got us in great shape, Alex [Smith] has got us in great shape, we’ve just got to go continue to play football.”

In less than a half against Houston, McCoy moved the Redskins offense and energized the crowd. On just his second snap, McCoy threw a touchdown pass to Jordan Reed. On the day, McCoy finished with 54 yards passing and another 35 yards on the ground. 

McCoy won't be Smith, but that isn't all bad.

Despite two interceptions on Sunday, Smith basically protects the football like a mother grizzly bear protects her cubs. McCoy will take more chances, and that could mean more big plays and more scoring for the Redskins offense. It could also mean more turnovers, but that's probably something Gruden will live with. 

Remember, too, this Redskins coaching staff believes in McCoy. 

When the organization was considering all options with Kirk Cousins last season, handing the team over to McCoy was a possible option. Or at least letting McCoy compete with another veteran free agent passer was taken into account. 

McCoy knows that Gruden's comments are sincere, and he knows this is a major chance for him to prove he belongs as an NFL starter. 

"I know how Jay [Gruden] wants this offense run," McCoy said. "I’ll do my best to make that happen.”

The Redskins have six games remaining, and four of them will be in the division. Washington's season is anything but over.

The focus for Jay Gruden and Colt McCoy remains firmly on 2018. And with an NFC East title firmly in play, that's what the fans should be looking at too. 

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Gonzaga beats DeMatha on Hail Mary in bonkers WCAC championship game

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Gonzaga beats DeMatha on Hail Mary in bonkers WCAC championship game

The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) has a long history of football excellence, and the 2018 championship game was no exception. 

No. 2 Gonzaga College High School defeated No. 1 DeMatha Catholic High School, 46-43, in the title game at Catholic University of America on Sunday night thanks to three lead changes in the final 60 seconds and a game-winning Hail Mary. 

After allowing  DeMatha to race out to a 20-point lead, the Purple Eagles scored in the second quarter on a one-yard rushing touchdown. Dean Engram, son of Baltimore Ravens’ WR coach Bobby Engram, caught a 35-yard pass to score again for Gonzaga, closing the deficit to just six at 20-14. DeMatha rushed in another touchdown and intercepted Gonzaga’s next pass before entering the half at 26-14.

Both powerhouses scored a touchdown in the third, leaving the teams to fight until the very end of the fourth quarter in order determine the 2018 championship. That's when things got extra weird.

With 39 seconds left, Gonzaga's Sam Sweeney caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Caleb Williams to give the Eagles a 40-36 lead. 

But on the ensuing kickoff DeMatha senior Dominic Logan-Nealy returned the kick to the end zone, giving DeMatha a 43-40 lead with just 15 seconds left.

Gonzaga would get another crack at the title, and they did not let it go to waste. Williams hurled a desperation pass to the end zone with no time remaining. Eagles' receiver John Marshall got his hands on the pass and snagged the game-winning touchdown catch to give Gonzaga the stunning 46-43 win. 

The winners immediately rushed to celebrate with their student section, but the protective fencing separating the two was ultimately torn down.

The WCAC champions end the year 9-3. Head Coach Randy Trivers emotionally addressed his troops after their battle, reminding them that Gonzaga won their first title on Catholic University of America’s field:

DeMatha ended its season 8-3.