NCAA

O-lines paving way to BCS championship game

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O-lines paving way to BCS championship game

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) Offensive linemen are usually the unsung heroes, the guys who only get talked about when they screw up.

Not at Alabama, where the second-ranked Crimson Tide's road to the BCS championship game has been paved by five talented 300-pounders, including two-time All-American and four-year starter Barrett Jones.

``This has a chance to be the best offensive line I've ever played on, and we've had some good ones over the past few years,'' Jones said.

No. 1 Notre Dame's offensive line doesn't have quite the star power or balance. The Fighting Irish don't hide the fact that they lean left - at least when it comes to running the football. Notre Dame has made a living running behind tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt.

``We certainly use the left side of our offensive line I'd say at a ridiculous rate,'' Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. ``I'm not giving away any secrets. They're not very good at what they do if they don't know some of the tendencies we have running the football. We typically like to go left. It's not by accident.''

When the Irish and Crimson Tide meet Monday night in Miami, the BCS championship could very well be on the lines - the offensive lines to be specific.

That the smart and personable Jones has become the face of the Crimson Tide seems rather apropos. Alabama has reached the BCS championship game for the third time in four seasons with a power running game as its foundation. No spread offenses, read-options and up-tempo in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Jones, from Germantown, Tenn., played guard in 2009 when he was opening holes for Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Last year he was Alabama's left tackle, helping Trent Richardson become a Heisman finalist. This season Jones moved to center and has been as good as ever. According to Alabama, he has missed only six assignments, playing 731 snaps. And Alabama has two 1,000-yard rushers in T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy.

``He's just a smart player,'' Notre Dame guard Louis Nix III said. ``He knows what he has to do. He's strong at the point of attack. Just an overall great player.''

As good as Jones is, he's not even the best NFL prospect on Alabama's line.

Left guard Chance Warmack holds that distinction. Guards tend not to get picked in the first round, but Warmack is projected to be one of those rare commodities. Right tackle D.J. Fluker might jump to the NFL as a junior after the BCS title game. Sophomore left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is a rising star who could develop into Alabama's next great tackle, joining the likes of Andre Smith and Chris Samuel. Steady right guard Anthony Steen is a two-year starter.

``We don't play running back but we got skills, too,'' Fluker said.

Those skills were never more on display than in the Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia. The Tide fell behind 21-10 in the third quarter and went to the running game to shift the momentum. Alabama finished with 350 yards on 51 carries and all that running set up AJ McCarron's 45-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass to Amari Cooper off play action.

Against Notre Dame, Alabama will face possibly its toughest test of the season. The Fighting Irish front seven, led by All-American linebacker Manti Te'o and stud defensive linemen Nix and Stephon Tuitt, has allowed only two rushing touchdowns this season.

``Great O-line,'' Nix said. ``Arguably, the best O-line in the country.''

If you ask Notre Dame coaches, they will tell you they have the best offensive lineman in the country in Martin. The two-year starter from Indianapolis has been a rock for the first Notre Dame offense to average 5 yards per rush since 1996.

``Ridiculous,'' Chuck Martin said of his left tackle. ``He should have two scholarships. He's been so good every week. So consistent every play. He rarely misses his block. He's been such a dominant, dominant force for us.''

Watt, a senior, is Zack Martin's right-hand man.

``I would say we certainly don't use it 50-50 right and left,'' Chuck Martin said. ``(Zack Martin) and Watt get the lion share of tough blocks.''

The Irish also have a center who ranks among the best in the country in Braxston Cave, a third-team All-American. On the right side, Mike Golic Jr. holds the guard spot and Christian Lombard is the other tackle. It's a group that has started every game and allowed only 18 sacks while protecting a first-year starting quarterback in Everett Golson.

Chuck Martin gives plenty of credit to line coach Harry Hiestand, who is in his 30th season in coaching and first at Notre Dame. Martin said Hiestand has taught toughness and technique and Notre Dame will need both to run the ball against an Alabama defense that allows only 2.5 yards per rush, anchored by powerful nose guard Jesse Williams.

``Technically, he's as good as anybody in the world at teaching guys how to move people,'' Martin said of Hiestand. ``If you play with great technique you've got a chance. If you don't play with great technique, you've got no chance. That's what we're up against with Alabama. We have to play with great technique every snap up front or we'll have zero chance to ever get a yard rushing. If you do (play with great technique), it'll still be hit or miss, but hopefully you cover up enough people, you'll get a little bit of movement.''

Wolfpack overcomes 10-minute scoring drought to top Virginia

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Wolfpack overcomes 10-minute scoring drought to top Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- D.J. Funderburk scored 14 points before fouling out and North Carolina State overcame a second-half scoring drought of more than 10 minutes in a 53-51 victory against Virginia on Monday night.

C.J. Bryce added 13 points for the Wolfpack (14-5, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), including a jumper with 27 seconds left after allowing the shot clock to race to near 0:00. The victory ended an eight-game losing streak against the Cavaliers.

Viginia (12-6, 4-4) used a 15-0 run during the N.C. State scoring drought that lasted 10:13 to take a 46-42 lead, bringing the crowd at John Paul Jones Arena back into the game. But Jericole Hellems hit a 3-pointer for N.C. State with 3:38 left and, after a free throw by Mamadi Diakite for Virginia, Markell Johnson hit a 3-pointer and then Hellems' putback gave the Wolfpack a 50-47 lead.

Johnson and Bryce both missed the front end of one-and-one free throw opportunities, and Kihei Clark hit a pair for Virginia. Braxton Beverly made the first and missed the second for the Wolfpack with 7.2 seconds left, and the Cavaliers Casey Morsell was short on a contested 3 at the buzzer.

Clark led Virginia with 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

The Wolfpack had used an 8-0 run to go ahead 42-31. Virginia helped out by going scoreless for more than 6 1/2 minutes. Francisco Caffaro, who had just been inserted into the game, ended the drought with 11:13 left.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack seemed on their way to a solid victory until the drought, during which they were 1 for 8 from the field with five turnovers and repeatedly let the shot clock run down into single digits, forcing bad shots.

Virginia: In the Cavaliers' continuing search for scoring help, freshman Casey Morsell had as many as three field goals for the first time since a 65-56 victory against Navy on Dec. 29. He was 4 for 20 from the field in his last five games. He finished the night 4 for 9 and his buzzer-beater attempt was closely guarded.

UP NEXT

The Wolfpack remains on the road and plays at Georgia Tech on Saturday.

The Cavaliers go on the road and play at Wake Forest on Sunday.

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Despite place in standings, Wizards believe playoffs aren't a pipe dream

Despite place in standings, Wizards believe playoffs aren't a pipe dream

WASHINGTON -- This may be the most realistic and self-aware Wizards team we have seen in a while. It wasn't long ago they had a penchant for talking big about what they believed they could accomplish. Nowadays, knowing where they are in the standings, their expectations are much more measured.

They know they are 12th in the Eastern Conference, even after beating the Pistons on Monday. They know their 14-28 record, which is 14 games under .500 and has them on pace to win 27 total games, isn't good.

But the Wizards are allowed to dream and they say making the playoffs is still something they would like to do.

"That's the goal, that's every day for us. [It's] in the back of my mind," shooting guard Bradley Beal said.

"I watch the games, I watch the standings and everything. We're not talking about it," head coach Scott Brooks said. "If that comes into play [we'll see]. The seventh and eighth seeds, the records aren't great."

There is certainly a case for that. The two teams currently occupying the bottom two playoff spots in the East have sub-.500 records. The seventh-ranked Magic are 20-23 and the Brooklyn Nets are in eighth with an 18-24 mark.

Last season, the Charlotte Hornets held up the Eastern Conference playoff bracket with a losing record as the eighth seed. They went 39-43, not good but still a much better pace than the Wizards are currently on. To win 39 games, they would have to go 25-16 the rest of the way.

Though they have shown some positive signs, going 4-4 in their last eight games, that would require going to a completely different level in the second half of the season. Still, there is no harm in maintaining their goals.

Beal, for one, has envisioned a way it can happen.

"Especially once All-Star hits, that second half is just flying. We have to tighten up and try to get some wins here before the break because that's usually the time when teams like to ease off the pedal a little bit. We have to take advantage of [that], that advantage of our schedule, take care of our bodies, and rally together," he said.

If the Wizards really, really wanted to go for the playoffs, they could try to add some pieces before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. But that should not be expected. In fact, this year's deadline for the Wizards likely won't be affected much at all by the playoff picture.

It's hard to envision them being buyers and they may not be able to be true sellers, either, due to injuries and other factors. Also, there is a belief in the front office that keeping a close distance in the playoff race could be a nice incentive for their young players, that having something to work for later in the season could help their development.

If the Wizards did somehow make the playoffs or even get close, that would be quite the surprise and it would say a lot about the direction of the organization. But in the long-term, it would seem to be more beneficial if they continue on their current course and end up with a top draft pick.

The Wizards right now have the fifth-worst record in the league. That would net them a lot of ping-pong balls for the draft lottery.

It seems likely that's where this season will end. But it doesn't hurt to try.

"We just want to play. We just want to finish the second half of the season playing better," Brooks said.

The Wizards are only 4 1/2 games back in the playoff race. Stranger things have happened.

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