Nationals

Mississippi State's defense ready to rebound

Mississippi State's defense ready to rebound

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Mississippi State's veteran defense is one of the biggest reasons the program has emerged as a consistent competitor in the Southeastern Conference over the past three seasons.

But it's also been a big contributor to the Bulldogs' disappointing finish to this regular season, which included losses in four of five games.

Senior linebacker Cameron Lawrence says he's glad Mississippi State (8-4) has one more chance to leave a good impression when it plays No. 21 Northwestern (9-3) in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.

``We've had time to get our bodies back together, get our bumps and bruises healed up,'' Lawrence said. ``Now we've got to keep working on the little things. It was a hard stretch for us - we played a really tough schedule toward the end of the season - but now we've just got to focus on the details. The sky is the limit for us.''

Mississippi State was scheduled to arrive in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday to begin preparations for the Gator Bowl. It will be the last game for Lawrence, cornerback Johnthan Banks, safety Corey Broomfield and defensive tackle Josh Boyd - a quartet of longtime starters.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Lawrence was a role player in his first two seasons, but moved into a starting role as a junior and has responded with a combined 234 tackles over the past two years.

Banks won the Thorpe Award earlier this month - which goes to the nation's top cornerback - and the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder will almost certainly be an early selection in April's NFL draft. He has 16 career interceptions, using a blend of size and speed rarely seen at cornerback.

Broomfield and Boyd don't have the gaudy numbers but have been consistent the past four seasons, providing the constant production that Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen craves.

But the past five games haven't reflected that experience.

Mississippi State won seven straight to start the season - rising to No. 13 in the nation - but then hit a brutal portion of the schedule that produced lopsided losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU. The Bulldogs responded to beat Arkansas, but then lost 41-24 to rival Mississippi in the Egg Bowl.

In those four losses, the Bulldogs gave up nearly 40 points per game.

``We've always been known for playing hard and giving great effort out there,'' Boyd said. ``But we've been forgetting little things. It's frustrating because we know we can do better. We've been working really hard to make sure Northwestern gets our `A' game instead of our `B' game.''

Northwestern's offense will provide another difficult challenge for Mississippi State. The Wildcats are averaging more than 31 points, which ranks third in the Big Ten, and are averaging more than 230 yards on the ground.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Mullen are two young head coaches who have developed a friendship over the past several years, discussing ideas and philosophy as they try to build their programs. That should lead to plenty of familiarity in the Gator Bowl.

``They're a team that probably should have won their conference and played in the Rose Bowl,'' Mullen said. ``Very talented in every phase of the game - very explosive offense, one of the top rushing offenses in the country. They run at a high tempo, and they have stout, physical offensive linemen, some fast playmaking receivers, and a quarterback and running back who can score every time they touch the ball.''

Mullen was particularly concerned with Northwestern running back Venric Mark, who has rushed for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. He's also scored two touchdowns as a punt returner.

``They get him the ball in the open field and he can score from anywhere,'' Mullen said.

Mississippi State has stopped players like Mark before. That's one reason the Bulldogs are playing in their third bowl game in three seasons.

And Boyd is ready to prove the defense can do it one more time.

``We want to show everybody that we're still us - that we're still a great defense,'' Boyd said. ``This is the last college game of our lives, so we want to go out on top.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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Ryan Zimmerman’s return to the Nationals is finally happening

Ryan Zimmerman’s return to the Nationals is finally happening

If Ryan Zimmerman did not return to the Nationals, he at least would have a future teaching how not to negotiate.

Zimmerman openly drove down his bargaining leverage for almost a year before signing a one-year deal on Friday to return to the only professional team he’s known, a source confirmed. The deal is reported at $2 million.

Throughout the season, Zimmerman openly discussed his interest in returning and understanding it would be at a low rate. As if his stance wasn’t already clear, Zimmerman explained at a screening of the Nationals’ championship video he would return or play more golf.

“So, we’ll be good to go,” Zimmerman said.

It’s baseball for now. Zimmerman rejoins the defending World Series champions to play his 16th season. He’s a 35-year-old platoon player this season. Zimmerman’s money and legacy have been established. He’s back in the fold to pursue another title. 

And he makes an already old Nationals team older. Zimmerman turns 36 years old the day after the 2020 regular season ends. Howie Kendrick will be 37 years old by midseason. Asdrúbal Cabrera is 34 years old. Eric Thames is 33 years old. Will Harris is 35, Daniel Hudson 32, Sean Doolittle 33, Max Scherzer 35, Kurt Suzuki 36. Yan Gomes will be 33 just after the All-Star break. 

Zimmerman will share first base with Thames and, occasionally, Howie Kendrick. They provide an intriguing splits-based platoon. Thames hits right-handers well -- 23 of his 25 2019 home runs came against them, as did much of his opportunity in Milwaukee -- and Zimmerman has a .917 career OPS against left-handed pitchers. Zimmerman is the much better defender.

He’s back because he -- and the Nationals -- believe Zimmerman’s production remains directly tied to his health. His September and postseason work showed Zimmerman’s bat speed remains intact. He is quietly one of the better defensive first baseman in the league. They think they can protect him. Overall, the Nationals are so comfortable with an expanse of older players because they plan to shield them with limited usage. Also, Josh Donaldson went to Minnesota, clearing the cash and providing a need for Zimmerman. 

Kendrick, Cabrera and Starlin Castro can play various infield spots. Thames and Zimmerman will reduce the other’s role, as well as pinch-hit when not starting. Davey Martinez has options. He also has the challenge of rotating players. One thing on his side: older players know they are just that. Grousing about playing time should not be an issue with the group, the majority of which played as role players last year on the way to a World Series title. 

One other thing to note about Zimmerman: he’s 30 home runs short of 300. Can he get there with another two years on the field? He has at least one more to add to his total, assuring his driver has another lonely summer.

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Alex Ovechkin named to NHL's All-Decade first team for 2010-19

Alex Ovechkin named to NHL's All-Decade first team for 2010-19

Alex Ovechkin once again was named to one of the NHL's All-Decade teams.

This go-around, Ovechkin was named to the first-team for the All-Decade Team spanning 2010-2019. 

During those 10 seasons, there was no one that totaled more than Ovi's 437 goals. Only two others had more than his 730 points.

Through our eyes, we saw him mature from a unique superstar to a once-in-a-generation athlete. Ovechkin won his first Stanley Cup in the decade after years of heartbreak and dominant Capitals teams that could never escape the second round. 

Now, he's a mere eight goals away from reaching 700 and further etching his name in the fabric of the sport. 

He is joined with fellow forward Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks. Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, Drew Doughty of the Kings and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Golden Knights rounded out the six-player first team. 

NHL ALL-DECADE FIRST TEAM

Alex Ovechkin - F - Capitals
Patrick Kane - F - Blackhawks
Sidney Crosby - C - Penguins
Duncan Keith - D - Blackhawks
Drew Doughty - D - Kings
Marc-Andre Fleury - G- Golden Knights

NHL ALL-DECADE SECOND TEAM

Evgeni Malkin - F - Penguins
Patrice Bergeron - F - Bruins
Steven Stamkos - F - Lightning
Erik Karlsson - D - Sharks
Zdeno Chara - D - Bruins
Henrik Lundqvist - G - Rangers

The Great 8 was also named to the All-Decade team in 2000-10. Only Zdeno Chara and Sidney Crosby, named to the second team for the last decade, received the recognition last decade as well. 

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