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No. 4 Bama gets bounce-back game against FCS WCU

No. 4 Bama gets bounce-back game against FCS WCU

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Western Carolina coach Mark Speir has dealt with some of the challenges Alabama faced in recent years as the team everyone badly wants to beat.

It makes Saturdays that much harder, if decidedly less daunting than taking a 1-9 Football Championship Subdivision team to face the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (9-1), which is coming off its first loss of the season.

Speir was an assistant on the Appalachian State teams that won three consecutive FCS titles from 2005-07.

``Getting this kind of loss late, it can cripple a national championship,'' said Speir, ending his first season leading Western Carolina. ``But the thing about Nick Saban, whether you like him or not, he's one of the best in the business, of all-time.

``He's a guy that it doesn't matter if they're going to play the Green Bay Packers or Western Carolina University or Smoky Mountain Middle School. He's going to prepare that team the very best he can.''

Given the obvious mismatch, this might be the fourth most important game of the day for Alabama, which fell 29-24 to No. 9 Texas A&M last weekend after 10 weeks atop the rankings.

Later, No. 1 Oregon faces No. 14 Stanford, No. 2 Kansas State visits Baylor and No. 3 Notre Dame meets Wake Forest. In those games, at least, the Tide will be cheering for the underdogs.

Two of those unbeaten teams will likely have to lose for Alabama to play for a third national title in four years in Miami.

``We're just focused on now and what we have ahead, not on Miami,'' Tide tailback Eddie Lacy said. ``If we take care of everything, Miami will take care of itself.''

That means beating Western Carolina and Auburn and then No. 5 Georgia in the SEC championship game. The Tide would earn a berth in Atlanta with a victory over the Tigers.

The next order of business is restoring order to a program that barely beat LSU and lost to the Aggies.

``We have an opportunity now to prove that we are and can be a good football team,'' Saban said. ``That's what we want to focus on. That's all we want to talk about. We are looking forward.

``The only thing that we can gain from the past is lessons learned, for all of us, in terms of what we can do better, what we need to do better and what everybody has to make a commitment to in terms of trying to do better and accomplish something significant with what is left of this season with this team.''

The Tide now faces an FCS team with two wins in the past two seasons. The Catamounts have lost all 13 games against SEC schools by an average of 47-4.

Alabama handily won the two previous meetings with Western Carolina, including a 52-6 victory in Saban's first game with the Tide five years ago.

Western Carolina hasn't beaten a Division I (FCS or FBS) team since topping The Citadel on Oct. 2, 2010.

Speir has still tasted both the joys and challenges success creates during his tenure at Appalachian State, which included an upset of No. 5 Michigan in 2007 on the same day as Saban's Alabama debut.

``It just gets harder and harder and harder because you have a huge target,'' Speir said. ``You get every team's very best shot. You get every trick play on special teams. You get every trick play on offense, especially in the SEC. It's just hard to do what they've done.''

Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said the team's attitude in practice has been positive after the loss.

``That's one good thing about this team,'' said McCarron, who was intercepted twice against Texas A&M. ``You can't worry about things that happened in the past. You can't control that. Got to move on. We got to win out, take care of business and, you know, just control what we can control.''

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More trust in Brett Connolly is leading to a career year

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More trust in Brett Connolly is leading to a career year

After all the pomp and circumstance of the Capitals’ banner raising to start the season was over, a hockey game still needed to be played. That night, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov took their familiar spots on the top line. On their right, was Caps forward Brett Connolly who had earned a chance to compete for that top spot during Tom Wilson’s suspension.

That night was a very early indication to Connolly that things were going to be different this season. Todd Reirden is not Barry Trotz.

Connolly first signed with Washington in 2016. A cast off of the Boston Bruins as they did not offer him a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a restricted free agent, Connolly needed a team to take a chance on him. The Caps did, signing him to a one-year deal worth $850,000. Connolly responded with 15 goals and 23 points for Washington, earning him a new two-year, $3 million contract to stick around.

Despite that, however, Connolly never seemed to gain the full trust of head coach Barry Trotz. Connolly averaged just 12:00 worth of ice time per game last season over 70 games.

“Obvioulsy the last couple years you'd like to play a little more, but I knew that with the way that he was coaching and the way Barry was handling me, that was going to be my role for that,” Connolly said. “I took pride it that last year, but this year's a little different.”

Though Connolly’s stay on the top line was brief, he is averaging over two minutes more of ice time per game than last season and it is clear Reirden envisioned him having an increased role.

“I liked how he came into camp,” Reirden said. “I think we had good discussions about a plan for him going into the year. There was room for growth still in his game and he's still a young player.”

“[Reirden] has been really good with me and making sure my minutes are a little higher,” Connolly said. “Obviously, you've still got to earn that, but he's put me in situations to succeed. It's been nice to deliver on that a little bit.”

In just 29 games this season, Connolly has five goals and 18 points. His 13 assists sit just three shy of his career high set in 2015-16 over the course of 71 games. He is currently on pace for a 50-point season which would shatter his previous career high of 27.

Increased playing time should naturally result in increased production, but Connolly has not been a passenger getting carried by better teammates. He has played all through the lineup and keeps producing regardless of the situation.

“There's a lot more trust in me to play in all situations and move up and down the lineup,” Connolly said. “I've played all over the lineup which is nice. It's nice to know that when you're playing well you can be moved up at any time. It's been a really positive change for me and I'm happy that I could deliver a little bit and play well when I am given those opportunities.”

In 2017, Connolly was a healthy scratch for six of the team’s seven playoff games. Trotz elected to go with seven defensemen in the lineup, something he had not done the entire season, rather than dress Connolly.

Reirden has taken a different approach this season and it is paying dividends both for the player and the team.

“He's been really important part of us getting through these injuries because we've used him on the power play in different areas as well,” Reirden said. “I think he's had a strong season and not surprised to see that his numbers are following along, but to me it started with his commitment this summer and then to start the year, the confidence he had and the kind of belief in using him in a different way than maybe he's been used in the past that he could generate some higher numbers.”

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Jay Gruden not considering changes to his coaching staff

Jay Gruden not considering changes to his coaching staff

The Redskins gave up 40 points and more than 400 yards in a loss to the Giants last Sunday, and that was without Odell Beckham suited up for New York. 

The Redskins have lost four straight games, and five of six, while giving up more than 30 points three times. 

The Redskins surrendered more than 200 rushing yards to the Giants, and have not held an opponent under 100 yards rushing in their last six games. 

You get the idea. 

After the Washington defense got out to an impressive start to the season, things have fallen apart down the stretch.

Despite the struggles, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden has no intention of shaking up his coaching staff.

"No. Not really," Gruden said on the Redskins Talk podcast when asked about any coaching changes. 

As the Redskins struggle and lose their grip on a playoff spot, it's not unheard of to think some staff changes might be coming. The Panthers fired two defensive assistants last weekend, and as the NFL season approaches the finish line, more coaches will lose their jobs. 

In Washington though, it seems the staff is safe. Still, the Giants loss stings. 

The Redskins' offense has been decimated by injuries, particularly at quarterback and along the offensive line. There was some leeway for a loss to New York, but not when the home team got down 40-0 to a 4-8 Giants team. 

That type of deficit brings questions. Questions about the coaches, questions about effort.

On Sunday, Gruden made clear he understands his future is week to week.

"We have a game to win next week in Jacksonville," the coach said. "We have to go about trying to find a way to do it."

On Monday, he made clear his assistants are safe. As far as he is concerned anyway. 

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