Redskins

Wisconsin's Alvarez relishes Rose Bowl return

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Wisconsin's Alvarez relishes Rose Bowl return

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) When the Wisconsin players asked Barry Alvarez to return to the sideline, he couldn't resist.

After all, it's the Rose Bowl sideline, and that old stadium has an irresistible lure for lifelong football people.

But when Bret Bielema abruptly left the Badgers for Arkansas after they clinched their third straight trip to Pasadena, Alvarez also felt a compulsion to protect the program he built into a power. The underdog Badgers (8-5) realize the odds they face against powerful No. 8 Stanford (11-2) on Tuesday, but Alvarez's mere presence on that sideline tells his players they've got a shot.

``Just give me a whistle,'' Alvarez said. ``That's all I need, is a whistle and a bunch of guys to coach, and I feel very comfortable with that. And it's been fun for me. This has been like a gift. To be able to do this, and on this stage, is truly special.''

Alvarez is a Hall of Fame coach, but Wisconsin's athletic director knows he can't work miracles. He acknowledges no tricks or insight into beating the favored Cardinal in Wisconsin's third straight trip to Pasadena for the 99th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All.

Instead, the Badgers are getting perspective, inspiration - and even a little swagger - as Alvarez bridges Wisconsin's one-game gap between Bielema and Gary Andersen, who also will watch his new team from the sideline while Bielema's soon-to-depart assistant coaches largely run the show.

Alvarez's current players were kids when he retired, and the athletic director doesn't hang out much with the football team during the season. But the Badgers know a leader when they see him.

``He's almost got an aura around him, like this man built what we are, and everyone knows it and recognizes it,'' Wisconsin defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said.

``He definitely walks around with a lot of confidence,'' Wisconsin safety Shelton Johnson said. ``I think that rubs off on the players as well. You just see, he's just the Don sometimes when he walks around, because you just know. He has a physical presence to him when he walks in a room.''

Over 16 seasons in Madison, Alvarez built Wisconsin's long-mediocre program into a consistent contender and a three-time Rose Bowl winner, most recently in the 2000 game, a 17-9 victory over Stanford led by Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Ron Dayne.

Alvarez sees similarities between his work and the Stanford revitalization led coach David Shaw, who could be in the early stages of a similar program transformation in the Bay Area. The Cardinal won the Pac-12 title to advance to their third straight BCS bowl with their third consecutive 11-win season, including the last two under Shaw after Jim Harbaugh left.

Such success was all but unthinkable just a few years ago at the academic-minded school that hasn't won the Rose Bowl since 1972, but Shaw has the Cardinal believing they belong in Pasadena.

``We're grateful to be in this game where every West Coast team wants to end their season, and we realize the opportunity we've got,'' Shaw said. ``They did what they did to get here, and they're going to do that. Just like us, we're not going to change drastically. That's a disservice to the kids. It's going to be strength against strength. We're going to do what they do.''

Indeed, Wisconsin and Stanford have remarkably similar approaches to their sport. Both schools favor hard-nosed running games with tailbacks Montee Ball and Stepfan Taylor running behind mammoth offensive lines.

Both offenses are run by relatively inexperienced quarterbacks: Stanford freshman Kevin Hogan has beaten four ranked teams in his four starts since taking over, while Wisconsin senior Curt Phillips is a smooth game manager who missed two full seasons with injuries and only got his starting job in November.

Both defenses lack glaring flaws, and Stanford is eager to show off the nation's third-ranked run defense. Both teams played numerous close games this season, with Stanford enjoying a bit more success than a Wisconsin team that lost three overtime games.

``We can see a lot of us in them,'' Stanford offensive tackle David Yankey said. ``We both like to run the ball, and we're both just tough, physical teams. It should be a great matchup to watch.''

Wisconsin earned a third trip by blasting Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, becoming the first five-loss team to reach the Rose Bowl. The Badgers got the chance to trounce the Cornhuskers only because the two teams ahead of them in their division - Ohio State and Penn State - were ineligible for postseason play.

The Badgers won't apologize for using a back door to Pasadena, not with Alvarez leading them through it.

Wisconsin lost the last two Rose Bowls by falling just short in the fourth quarter of tight games, so Alvarez has stressed the importance of tenacity and commitment. Even if the Cardinal come out on top, Alvarez thinks the Badgers have learned how to finish a season with pride.

``It would really be a great life lesson for these players,'' Alvarez said. ``I think they'd learn quite a bit about how to deal with adversity, how to deal with (tough) situations and make something positive come out of it, especially after two tough losses. They could have won either game the last two years. They had opportunities to win, but couldn't close the deal. So I think it would be a tremendous lesson for them and very positive if they could win.''

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Three ways the Redskins helped Dwayne Haskins truly shine for the first time

Three ways the Redskins helped Dwayne Haskins truly shine for the first time

Dwayne Haskins played really well Sunday against the Eagles, and it wasn't just on certain drives or in specific situations. Haskins put together a complete and encouraging performance in Week 15, and for that, he deserves a lot of credit.

But the Redskins' coaching staff, and most notably Kevin O'Connell, should be praised as well for setting Haskins up to shine versus Philly.

Here are three things O'Connell and the offense did at FedEx Field that contributed to the rookie's best effort as a pro.

They were more aggressive on early downs

The following two things are true: 1) Bill Callahan loves Adrian Peterson, and 2) Adrian Peterson has a legitimate shot at rushing for more than 1,000 yards this season. Because of those two facts, it felt like Sunday was setting up to be the Peterson Show, especially on first down.

It wasn't, though, and that greatly benefitted Haskins.

No. 7 found Terry McLaurin for a nine-yarder to start the contest, a throw that allowed the QB to settle into a nice rhythm from the start. The 75-yard touchdown pass from Haskins to McLaurin was also a first down toss, one that featured play-action:

A first down pass in the second quarter, meanwhile, led to a defensive pass interference that advanced the ball 14 yards. On that possession, Haskins would eventually find Steven Sims for a score. 

Throughout the matchup, the Burgundy and Gold seemed more comfortable with trusting Haskins to attack the Eagles, and that's something he very much enjoyed.

"I hope to continue to do it," he told reporters postgame.

They targeted Steven Sims a bunch

Want another example of O'Connell's influence over the gameplan? Look no further than how much Sims was involved.

Overall, Sims was targeted 11 times, and while he only hauled in five of those passes, he's a guy worth looking to often. O'Connell has talked for weeks now about how much he wants to use Sims, and while it may sound odd to say that an undrafted receiver from Kansas deserves lots of chances on a unit that includes McLaurin and Peterson, it's true.

He's really difficult for defensive backs to stay in front of and he's shown a penchant for making some tremendous grabs, including his toe-tapper for his first career receiving TD on Sunday.  

"I'm seeing everything and I'm playing faster," Sims said in the locker room. 

O'Connell and Haskins are seeing him, too, and his larger role is giving Haskins another weapon to rely on.

They introduced a creative option play

In addition to the uptick in aggressiveness, the Redskins also were more creative against the Eagles than they had been lately. The best example of that is the option they introduced and executed perfectly on two separate snaps.

On the first option, Haskins fake-tossed it to Peterson before lateraling it to him a second later. The fake from Haskins was a nifty way to buy more time for the play to develop and it set Peterson up to pick up a first down:

They went back to it again in the third quarter, but this time, Haskins kept the ball and cut upfield for a 23-yard gain:

Watch any NFL game on any weekend, and you'll see offenses trying new concepts and surprising defenses with those concepts. In Week 15, the Redskins were finally one of those offenses, and the group as a whole was the most effective its been under Haskins. And for that, both the player and the staff should be recognized.

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Mark Lerner reflects on Bryce Harper’s departure in free agency

Mark Lerner reflects on Bryce Harper’s departure in free agency

The entire Donald Dell interview with Mark Lerner can be seen Tuesday, December 17, at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

For seven seasons, the Nationals and Bryce Harper enjoyed a happy marriage that included four NL East division titles, an MVP award and the respect from the rest of the league as legitimate playoff contenders year in and year out.

But principal managing owner Mark Lerner knew their relationship might not last forever. In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Washington’s Donald Dell, Lerner talked about how the team balanced making a business decision with the personal side of hoping to extend Harper when he hit free agency last offseason.

“We all like Bryce but at the end of the day, there’s the economic factor, there’s other factors that come into it: clubhouse, interaction with teammates, everything you could imagine in a decision about a free agent,” Lerner said.

Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, which at the time was the record for the most expensive contract in MLB history. The Nationals reportedly made him an offer for 10 years and $300 million that included $100 million in deferrals at the end of the 2018 season.

“He [was] a free agent for a reason, he earned that right,” Lerner said. “It’s his decision and his family’s decision where they play. And he chose to move on. He obviously got an incredible offer.

“Everybody seems to forget it’s not just a bidding war to get the players, the player has to want to play here and sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.”

By the time Harper signed with Philadelphia in early March, the Nationals had already reported to Spring Training with starter Patrick Corbin signed to a six-year, $140 million deal as well as a slew of new faces on the roster that had joined the club through free agency. Lerner said Washington never heard back from Harper and didn’t want to wait for him to make a decision.

“We were moving down a different path at that point anyhow,” Lerner said. “Because, as you may recall, Bryce had not given us a response through his agent Scott Boras and we had decisions we had to make so we didn’t get caught waiting too long for him to find out we can’t get other players to replace him.

“And our choice at that point in time was either wait for him or we had the opportunity to sign Patrick Corbin. And we chose to sign Patrick Corbin and get another great starter, which has worked out great, and it was really more us at that point to say, ‘We have to move on.’”

The Nationals went on to win the World Series in 2019 while Harper posted an .882 OPS with 35 home runs in 157 games for the 81-81 Phillies. But as division rivals, Harper and the Nationals will see each other plenty over the next 12 years he’s locked into Philadelphia.

Only time will tell which side ends up wondering what could’ve been.

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