Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Mount. St. Jacksonville

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

The last time I saw a post-season game at EverBank Field was on February 6, 2005 when the New England Patriots edged the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 on a chilly clear 59 degree night in front of 78,125 to win Super Bowl XXXIX.

While I've covered my fair share of games in this venue since then, this post-season contest pitting the Buffalo Bills (9-7) vs Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) is one with no shortage of story lines.

As I mentioned in the last story, Jaguars Coach Doug Marrone served as the Bills head coach from 2013-14. During the week, my media colleagues have touted this game as "The Doug Marrone Bowl."

During the season, the Jaguars bolstered their run defense by acquiring defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from the Buffalo Bills. To demonstrate their thanks to Buffalo, Jacksonville inserted Dareus into the starting lineup.

Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette bought his offensive line Rolex Watches as he eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark by amassing 1,040 yards in 13 games with nine rushing touchdowns.

CBS sent their top broadcasting team of Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feeley to cover the game. Wolfson and Feeley are both Michigan Wolverine alumnus and were assigned to report from the sidelines.

But the big story lines with these franchises was their long playoff droughts.

Buffalo owned the longest drought in the NFL by sitting on the sidelines since 1999, 17 years.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars won their first division title in franchise history and had a 10-year playoff hiatus.

Between the two squads, you're looking at 27 years of no playoff football.

The one thing that I've enjoyed over the past 13 months is how the Jaguars have made a nice turnaround, coming off a 3-13 mark.

During the past two stories, I've talked about what's transpired with this team.

The word sellout hasn't been used much while the team has struggled since they appeared in the post-season in 2007.

But that word sellout has reappeared at the end of the 2017 season to the tune of three straight and this is just the beginning.

With a competitive team, I've always believed that this town would Erupt which is behind the name, Mount. St. Jacksonville.

In My Sports Writing career, I've seen a lot of different Sports Towns.

The ones which have intrigued me the most are those that are "The Only Game In Town."

Some of the teams and towns that have stood out over the years include: The Portland Trail Blazers, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Vancouver Canucks and of course the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Other towns and teams that had one major sports team before they ultimately gained expansion franchises include: The Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Toronto Maple Leafs. These are the places I've seen.

There are others which I'm not mentioning at the moment because they're on my bucket list down the road.

What amazes me about the Jacksonville situation is they get seven regular season home games in addition to the pair of pre-season games.

Jaguars Owner Shad Khan has a home game in London, England, which is also on my bucket list and Jacksonville makes a lot of money playing across the pond. Jacksonville recently extended its deal to continue playing a game in the UK.

With this team being in the playoffs, Khan will reap the benefits of his team being a Cash Cow as revenues figure to increase as a result of continued fan support along with merchandise sales both locally and in London.

I spoke with a writer from the Toronto Star and he said Khan markets the Jaguars in Canada.

Prior to the Buffalo Game, Khan gave away 1,000 free tickets to Puerto Ricans, who were displaced from Hurricane Maria.

You want to talk about a hot ticket, the Jaguars vs Bills was just that.

Tickets for this game were going for $300 for standing room, while the other AFC Wild Card Game in Kansas City pitting the Chiefs against the Tennessee Titans was $38 per ticket.

Regardless of how much the Jaguars fans paid for this game, the "White Towels" were waving at full force.

The Titans defeated the Chiefs 22-21 so the financial hit for those fans wasn't high, but the loss stung nonetheless.

Before the game, I spoke for a couple minutes with NFL Network Analyst Mike Mayock and asked him what type of game that he expected to see.

Mayock was doing the color analysis for Westwood One National Radio Broadcast with play-by-play partner Ian Eagle.

He told me that he expected a hard fought and low scoring affair.

While neither of us predicted a team, I did tell him that a 17-14 or 21-17 score is what I thought would occur and he seemed to like those scores.

That's how evenly matched these teams were.

They have QB's in Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor and Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, who were making their playoff debuts.

Plus, running backs LeSean McCoy of Buffalo and Fournette are game breakers.

How do you impress your fan base and regional following?

You win and the Jaguars sent 69,442 people home real happy with a 10-3 win on a clear 53 degree day.

Going into the game, Jacksonville was an 8.5 point favorite and the Over/Under was 40.

The prognosticators and the gamblers were definitely off base with these numbers.

Here are some interesting numbers that stood out in this contest.

Buffalo out gained Jacksonville in net yards, 263-230.

Time of possession favored the Bills as well leading by a 32:37-27:23 margin.

McCoy performed better than Fournette. McCoy had 75 yards rushing and 44 yards receiving. Fournette rushed for 57 yards and added another 21 in the air.

On the depth chart, Blake Bortles is listed as a QB, but put on a Halloween Costume as a running back. I can't remember the last time that a signal caller rushed for more yards than he threw for. But that's exactly what happened.

Bortles rushed for 88 yards and passed for 87, although he did throw a touchdown pass and didn't throw an interception.

For this story, I've decided to use what I consider key adjectives and use definitions to describe what I saw.

1. Ugly--If you were looking for a shootout, this wasn't the game.
2. Stingy Defenses--Both teams combined for 493 net yards.
3. Energy--The crowd noise could even be heard in the press box through the windows.
4. Rodney Dangerfield--Blake Bortles gets no respect from the National Media but got a win.
5. Emotional--Sellout crowd with Flag On The Field during National Anthem in this Military Town.
6. Challenging--For radio announcers calling such a low scoring contest.
7. Full--The Press Box. I met a columnist from the Toronto Sun.
8. Cooler Temperatures--Than Super Bowl XXXIX (39).
9. Painful--To watch Bills QB Tyrod Taylor getting tackled and head thrown into ground leading to a concussion.
10. Vindication--Marrone and Dareus defeat former team.
11. Dramatic--Hometown kid Nathan Peterman enters game after Taylor leaves via a concussion.
12. Gordie Howe Hat Trick, Peterman throws an interception, runs for a first down, intentional grounding penalty.
13. Chris Webber--Buffalo had no timeouts resulting in two 10 second clock runoffs, with Peterman intentional grounding and Taylor's injury.
14. Clutch--Bortles picking up a first down off a botched play, fumbled snap scrambling for a first down with under five minutes left in regulation time.
15. Smash-mouth--If there was ever a physical football game, this was it.

There were some very happy Jaguars and here is what some of them had to say.

Dareus had four tackles, three solo and one for a loss. When I approached him, he remembered me from our last conversation and he had a smile that went from Jacksonville to the North Pole.

"It was nice defeating my old team and I wanted to give whatever information to the coaches," Dareus said. "Whatever they wanted to use, it was up to them.

"It's nice to continue playing and the energy in this stadium was tremendous. To feed off the fans the way we did was great. It's something to play in front of a small market where you're the only team in town and watch the community get behind this team. I was just hovering over the whole atmosphere and trying to live in the moment.

"I've really enjoyed my time here and I'm glad the season isn't over. We have more work to do and I'm looking forward to the next game."

Marrone knows how far this team has come in the past year. But for a guy that's pretty even keeled and downplayed the revenge Buffalo match-up during the week, it wasn't hard to tell that he's pleased that there won't be any exit interviews this week.

"Like I told our team, it was a hard fought game on both sides, both teams. Credit, obviously, to Buffalo. They did a heck of a job today. They played their butts off. I thought we played hard too and at the end of the day we were just able to make a couple of plays.

"Playoff football is about you just going out there to win. No one was trying to win a beauty contest. The teams that are playing, it's going to be all out, everything is all out on the football field. Like I said, I'd be remiss not to give credit to Buffalo. They left it all out there, and I thought our guys were leaving it all out there. Each week it's a different story, you know what I'm saying, in what you want to do.

"Each week is going to be geared toward doing the best job you can, but it still goes back to the same thing we've been talking about all year. It's going to be your performance on that day, and what you're able to do, so obviously we're going to have to do some better things going forward."

Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue was asked if this felt like a game that one play could make a difference.

"Yeah, definitely. I just felt like from the start the defense came out and we did what we were supposed to do. All 11 guys flying to the ball, had a little bit of mistakes, but that's part of football. You're not going to be perfect. Overall, I feel like the effort and I feel like the energy was there."

Cornerback Aaron Colvin described his first playoff experience.

"The atmosphere was incredible. The fans, they were rocking from start to finish, and I've just got to say thank you to all the fans that were out there that supported us today and have been around with us all year. It's a cool feeling, but at the same time, we've got bigger goals."

Offensive lineman Cam Robinson talked about what it's like when Bortles breaks out for big runs.

"He's an athlete, that's what it tells me. He's going out there and do whatever it takes for us to win. That's all you can ask from a quarterback is to go out there and lay it on the line every time and he does a great job of doing that every week."

Linebacker Telvin Smith described his thoughts on finally getting a playoff win.

"I'm telling you it feels great. I know that's simple, but it is what it is. It's simple in the formula that we did. If you put that hard work in from the front office to the players and to the coaches, you put in that hard work and you're going to get results, so that's all you see. Right here, are the results of hard work."

Cornerback A.J. Bouye talked about how Bortles handled himself.

"Everything is not perfect. He finds a way to keep fighting through. He blocks out all the noise. It shows you how tough he is especially that one third-down where the ball came down. He picked it up and ran off. Things weren't perfect but he keeps fighting. He has grit. Coach Tom Coughlin talks about that a lot."

Defensive end Calais Campbell was asked why this season is different than previous seasons for the Jaguars.

"I don't have that answer for you, I wish I did. All I know is that this season, everybody's focused and having fun and enjoying the game, and we put the work in. This is the hardest I've ever worked in my whole career. Coach Marrone really demanded a lot out of us and the guys responded. This team is incredible and we have so many playmakers, different guys who love this game and play the right way."

Wide receiver Allen Hurns had nothing but praise for his underrated signal caller Blake Bortles.

"It shows who Blake is. No matter what happens he finds a way. No matter what happens during the course of a game, he has that belief that he can go down and lead us on any given drive. He wasn't able to get it done in the passing game, but that's on all of us. He made a lot of plays with his legs to continue drives."

Last but not least, there is Blake Bortles. This guy won't win any Olympic Gold Medals in running events, but he probably doesn't even care.

A Vince Lombardi Trophy would suit him fine.

On this chilly afternoon in Northern Florida, he was asked if he ever thought he would rush for more yards than he would pass.

"No, that's usually not ideal for a quarterback but it is what it is. I said earlier I kind of felt like last week I didn't run a whole lot. I don't think I ran at all so it felt like we lost and got beat with emptying all of our bullets, so I wanted to make sure that whatever happened today, if we were going to get beat or something bad was going to happen, it was going to be with us going down swinging, using every option we could. I think the wind was a factor a little bit going one way but I thought we did a good job up front and they did a good job of getting back and getting under routes, so it kind of allowed me to run a little bit."

Bortles was asked if the overall experience lived up to his expectation.

"It was incredible. Talking to guys on the sidelines there's not a lot of people outside of Marcedes (Lewis) that have ever seen the stadium like that. I think for us to run out of the tunnel and see all of those people out there and for the first time since I've been here to see the tarps taken off of the upper deck in the corners was real special. It was cool to be able to do this in front of our home crowd in Jacksonville, our stadium. Everyone knows it hasn't been done in a long time so it was really special to be able to do that."

While Jacksonville didn't win a beauty contest against Buffalo, the Jaguars did against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pennsylvania, Sunday, 45-42.

This was Jacksonville's second win over Pittsburgh in the Steelers building this season.

I've maintained all-season that I feel the Jaguars are playing on "House Money." I still believe that way so it was easy for them to prepare for a rematch with the Steelers as an underdog.

Especially since the Steelers (13-3) entered the game overconfident and appeared to be looking forward to facing the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh fans, that match-up never materialized.

When your Super Bowl winning signal caller Ben Roethlisberger throws for 469 yards and five touchdowns, one would think this should be a victory.

But he threw for one interception and Jacksonville's defense sacked Ben seven times and the Steelers had two turnovers.

If you want lots of yards, this game had it as Pittsburgh out gained Jacksonville 545-378 totaling 923 for both squads.

Bortles numbers were a bit better than against Buffalo as he amassed 214 yards passing and one touchdown, plus 35 yards rushing. Bortles did an exceptional job managing the football game by not self destructing and beating himself.

But Steelers nemesis Fournette was at it again as he scored three touchdowns and gained 109 yards.

Jacksonville will now face the New England Patriots Sunday in Massachusetts in the AFC Championship Game.

This is the Jaguars third appearance in this game, but the first since 1999.

When you consider the magnitude of the Jacksonville run this season, here are some things to consider.

First, former Coach Mike Mularkey was fired by the Tennessee Titans this week even though his team won a playoff game.

Second, the Cincinnati Bengals are 0-7 in the playoffs since Marvin Lewis has been the head coach.

Third, the Detroit Lions haven't won a playoff game since the 1991 season, their only campaign where they advanced to their lone NFC Championship Game.

Fourth, Jim McMahon (Chicago Bears), Doug Williams (Washington Redskins), Jeff Hostetler (New York Giants), Mark Rypien (Washington Redskins), Trent Dilfer (Baltimore Ravens) and Brad Johnson (Tampa Bay Bucs), Jim Plunkett (Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders) proved a QB doesn't have to be a Hall of Famer to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Despite winning two Super Bowls, Plunkett's statistics are definitely not worth bragging about.

He amassed 25,882 yards, with 164 touchdown passes and 198 interceptions with a passer rating of 67.5.

Since his arrival to Jacksonville in 2014, Bortles has thrown for 14,928 yards, 90 touchdowns, 64 interceptions and has a passer rating of 80.8.

Romo, who called the game for CBS had a 78-49 record for the Dallas Cowboys and amassed 34,183 yards.

But for all of these yards, when it came to the playoffs, Romo's record of 2-4 and no Super Bowl appearance would ultimately define his career.

Bortles is already 2-0 in the playoffs and has his squad one victory away from the Super Bowl.

When the Jaguars returned home from Pittsburgh there was a Small Rally at EverBank Field celebrating their win.

At the moment, we're getting just a Snap Shot of what Jacksonville will look like with some post-season success.

I can only imagine what this town will be like should the team get to the Super Bowl, let alone win it.

There is one Jaguar player who will have some hardware heading to his trophy case.

Calais Campbell has been named Defensive Player Of The Year By The Football Writers Of America.

Campbell, who was acquired by the team as an unrestricted free agent on March 10, 2017, started all 16 games for the third consecutive season and totaled 67 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery, which he returned 10 yards for a touchdown.

Campbell set the Jaguars single season franchise record with a career-high and AFC-leading 14.5 sacks.

As outsiders try to think they know the answers as to whether Bortles can lead this team to the Lombardi Trophy searching to find his replacement, the team is becoming more confident he's their QB of the present and future.

The attitude in Jacksonville is Us Vs The World. The Jaguars will have it no other way.

The amount of players featured in this story really paints a good picture of what's going on in This Military Town.

If there is an advantage of being in a smaller market with less media and blue collar fans, this is it.

What I've seen over the past year and a half is truly incredible.

I'll say this, whenever the Sun Sets on the season whether it be this weekend, or perhaps after the Super Bowl, Mount St. Jacksonville is about to Erupt and the Lava is starting to come out in an area which is the "Only Game In Town." 

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Ebling's Editorial Elevation

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

I'm very proud to announce that Candice Ebling has joined me on the editorial staff.

She will make her writing debut covering the NHL All-Star Weekend from January 27-28 in Tampa. This is a move which I've been considering for quite some time.

During my five-year association with Ebling, she's done an outstanding job as our photographer working extensively with the NFL, NHL, NBA, College Football Games, MLB as well as other assignments.

I marvel at her creativity when she's taken photos and some of her action pictures have been off the charts.

What impresses me about Ebling is her attention to detail and despite being 5-foot-3, she finds a way to overcome this and get what she needs to in order to overcome her height challenges.

When we're not at sporting events, her knowledge of sports amazes me. We can have stimulating conversations that last hours and even days on certain subjects. Some will go on for weeks.

When we'd go out to dinner with my parents, she would hold a conversation with my father real well and even educated him on certain topics.

My father's body language and voice inflections indicated that he was impressed at how knowledgeable Candy is in sports.

One of the most recent things she would talk about were head injuries in the NFL regarding Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which is a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have had multiple head injuries.

She's had other interesting conversations with him about other sports and while my mother feels left out watching the banter go back and forth, she still is amazed that Ebling is as knowledgeable about sports.

Ebling will have a variety of assignments on this platform.

I've worked with numerous women in sports through my 39 years in Sports Media, and Ebling could hold her own with many of them.

We'll be incorporating a debate feature called Point-Counter-Point where we'll take sides on given issues.

During my years in the media in radio and newspapers, my longtime colleague George Eichorn and I had a lot of fun with this concept.

There is no doubt Candy will do well with this as well as other columns that she decides to write.

She defines the word Photo-Journalist and will continue to take photos for us.

When she learned of this decision, she quipped with me and said "You're having me cover a sport that I know the least about."

She's done an outstanding job when Eichorn and I have thrown her into the NHL fire and she acclimated quite well.

Being from the Milwaukee, WI., area, she's followed the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers, Milwaukee Bucks as well as the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University.

She never knew much about the NHL until she began hanging around me.

When she informed her father, two sisters and brother of this move, they were excited. But they've known her as a photographer and not a writer.

They definitely were excited for her and wondered if she felt comfortable writing. She was honest and said not really, but embraced the challenge of learning a new craft.

There is no doubt that Candy has the creativity to do well with being a writer and with her knowledge and passion, this move to elevate her to Editorial Status is undoubtedly overdue and a nobrainer!

Ebling, who has a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration and Finance from The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, will find Sports Media a far cry from what she learned in college.

But to get through college, she had to take an English Class and write papers to graduate.

Now what better way to break in on the editorial side than on the NHL's Big Stage at the end of the month?

But she'll do fine and I look forward to helping mentor her as she continues her acceleration into some more big events in the future.

She won't need a lot of mentoring as long as she combines her creativity, knowledge and passion into words.

I'm excited in helping her begin this journey and I hope all of you appreciate what she'll bring to the table.

Up in heaven, her mother is looking down on her and is very proud of Candy in discovering she has a skill she never knew she had and is smiling.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Outback Bowl: Tale Of Two Programs

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

Throughout the years, I've worked my fair share of Bowl Games and there were a lot of activities to keep fans and media busy. I really embrace those memories.

But I have to admit, The Outback Bowl is a totally different and refreshing experience.

When I looked at the itinerary a few weeks ago, these people really get it when it comes to the KISS Theory: Keep It Simple Stupid or as I would say, Straight Forward.

On January 1, 2018, I completed My Major Florida Trifecta by covering The Outback Bowl featuring the Michigan Wolverines and South Carolina Gamecocks.

In the past, I've covered multiple Orange Bowls and Citrus Bowls, but this was my first Outback Bowl.

During these Bowls, I've watched the likes of Miami, Florida State, Notre Dame, USC, Alabama, Ohio State, Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Michigan.

There have been some interesting coaches in this group such as Bobby Bowden, Lou Holtz, Pete Carroll, Steve Spurrier and Jim Harbaugh.

There were a few things that made this match-up quite interesting.

The programs are miles apart in tradition.

Going into this contest, South Carolina's all-time record was 600-574-44 with a .511 winning percentage and 8-13 in Bowl Games.

Meanwhile, Michigan, took a 943-338-36 mark with a .730 winning percentage, 11 National Championships, along with a 21-24 record in Bowl Games into the game.

That's the big picture featuring these squads.

The small picture was South Carolina had a 2-1 record against Michigan and was 1-0 in Bowl Games as these two met on January 1, 2013. The Gamecocks prevailed 33-28.

Would Michigan, which has been to the Outback Bowl more than any other Big 10 School with six appearances get revenge?

For much of the game, it appeared that way as the Wolverines led 9-3 at halftime and built up a 19-3 lead into the third quarter.

At one point, when I was looking at My MVP Ballot, I considered U-M Kicker Quinn Nordin as he connected on four field goals. Nordin's four field goals tied a school high set by Travis Fortney, against Penn State in 1999.

But when it was all said and done, Michigan would let this game slip away by committing five second half turnovers. South Carolina scored 23 unanswered points in the second half and even missed a late game field goal which gave Michigan a punchers chance at the end.

A crowd of 45,687 watched South Carolina pull out a 26-19 win in 50 degree temperatures and light drizzle which might have caused the smaller turnout.

Wolverines freshman QB Brandon Peters threw two fourth quarter interceptions including one in the end zone which could have given U-M the lead.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the numbers don't lie.

South Carolina forced five Michigan turnovers in the win (three fumbles, two interceptions), the most in its bowl history.

South Carolina's defense held Michigan to just 2-for-17 on third downs and 277 yards in the game.

Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh was asked if he felt the game slip away at any time, or did the Gamecocks get better as the game went along.

"I think they did get better," he said. "I think probably both of those things. They got better as the game went on, no doubt, and made great plays to win the football game. We didn't get the knockout punch when we needed it. We didn't take advantage of the opportunities that were there."

Gamecocks sophomore QB Jake Bentley would turn out to be the player who earned My MVP vote by passing for 239 yards and two touchdowns. He did win the honor as you can see him with the trophy.

When I asked him about defeating a team with Michigan's tradition, he smiled and said, "Yeah, I mean, obviously Michigan has got a good history that we don't, and to be able to beat them and get a W is huge."

"But building up to the game, I mean, this is a different Michigan team than it was last year or two years or back in their history. It's just trying to take it game by game, just getting a big bowl win I think is the biggest thing right now."

The Gamecock's finished the season with nine wins, which is tied for the fifth highest in school history.

South Carolina now leads the overall series with Michigan 3-1, with the Gamecocks winning the last two meetings, both in the Outback Bowl.

South Carolina moves its bowl record to 9-13 and its Outback Bowl record to 4-1.

South Carolina is now 7-9 against the Big 10 Conference.

Those numbers had Coach Will Muschamp very pleased especially since he inherited a 3-9 team in 2015.

"This is a really great team win for us, ninth win this year, only the seventh team in school history to do that," Muschamp said. "But all the arrows are pointing up for us. Our administration is investing in our program, our football operations building, the things that we're doing to be successful."

"We're going to have those trophies soon, and I'm looking forward to our future. So I appreciate it. It's been a great week."

Muschamp said the future looks bright.

"I think we've made some progress. It's easy to point at tangible things and say, this is good. It helps in recruiting, obviously. It obviously helps your fan base. We've got to continue to move forward. The great thing about it is we're building, and 70 percent of our offense was freshman and sophomores. We have a bunch of really good players coming back next year."

"We need to have a great off season. I told the guys, I thanked the seniors, but told the underclassmen, when you come back in January, all gas, no brakes, lets get ready to roll and that's what we need. You've got to keep pressing forward. You've got to stay hungry in everything you do, and that's what we're going to do in our program, and certainly we scratched the surface of what I think we can do."

Muschamp said there were no speeches delivered on the sidelines when his team trailed 19-3.

"No, I wish those worked. I'd be good at them, but they don't," he said. "No, I think that it's 365 days a year how you run your program and the culture of your program, and our guys understanding at halftime we're 9-3. We gave them short fields. We actually moved the ball against a very good defense. But you know at the end of the day, we play 60 minutes, and our guys understand that, and they keep chomping and they keep hanging in there.

"They realize that when you have Jake Bentley and you have a Hayden Hurst and you have Bryan Edwards and you have some guys that are able to make some plays, and those guys are eventually going to make some plays for us, and that's why you just keep chopping and keep playing.

"Never once did I feel like the game was in the balance as far as I was concerned."

While Muschamp had plenty to say, Harbaugh on the other hand made it easy write down what he had to say.

The Wolverines entered the game with an 8-4 record and have now lost three straight. Harbaugh was asked about the reason?

"It's just being able to just sustain the momentum, keep the momentum and then get the knockout punch. That would be my thought right now."

The Big 10 entered the Outback Bowl with a 7-0 record and a Michigan win would have given the conference an undefeated 8-0 mark. Nobody at the press conference asked him about this however, one reporter did ask that with the possibilities that have opened up in the NFL, is there a possibility this is the very last game you'll coach at Michigan?

"No."

The Wolverines Bowl record dropped to 21-25 and 8-6 vs the SEC in Bowl Games. Michigan is now 24-9-1 against the SEC all-time.

It's amazing that Michigan has played in 38 January Bowls and was playing in a January Bowl for the 16th time in the last 19 Bowl trips.

The Wolverines have 10 players That Hail From The State Of Florida.

Who knows how many more they'll land with Harbaugh recruiting heavily down here.

While Harbaugh will not leave Tampa happy at the moment, Muschamp unquestionably did and it wasn't for just the victory, but the Entire Outback Bowl Experience.

"I want to thank Jim McVay and The Outback people and the wonderful week they had for us," Muschamp said. "The great thing about this bowl game is they don't make us do 400 different things, but the one thing you do ask us to go to, I went. It was great to be there and represent the University of South Carolina in a first class manner."

The only real events that I missed due to a late arrival was Clearwater Beach Day that was from 11-4 pm on Saturday, December 20, 2017. This featured the school marching bands and cheerleaders, plus tug-of-war contests. On December 31, 2017, The Battle of The Bands took place at Busch Gardens, and in Ybor City, there was a New Year's Eve Parade & Pep Rally.

But I did get to the beach at 6 pm for dinner then returned the next night for a beautiful sun set.

Having the game on a Monday gave me the entire weekend in an area that I called home from 1984-86 as a University of South Florida graduate. I've been to the parades in the past as well as Busch Gardens from past visits, so this business trip enabled me to weed out the obvious tourist traps.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to stop by USF this time and Busch Gardens will come another time.

Instead, The Outback Bowl should be proud of the presentation they put on and we would welcome the opportunity to return down the road.

I was particularly impressed with Director of Communications & Sponsorship's Michael J. Schulze.

He still issues a credential for late Tampa Tribune legendary Sports Editor Tom McEwen, who died on June 5, 2011 at the age of 88. I had the good fortune to work for McEwen from 1984-86 and we'd see each other a couple times a year when the Detroit Lions were in the same division playing The Tampa Bay Bucs regularly.

McEwen was an iconic figure in the area and has a street named after him near the Media Entrance of Raymond James Stadium.

But it will be interesting to see how Michigan and South Carolina progress down the road.

On Friday, South Carolina rewarded Muschamp for his 9-4 record with a six-year deal worth $28.2 Million, and gives him a $1 Million raise.

Meanwhile, for both programs, it's off to the recruiting trail and then to spring practices leading to the regular season later in the year. It will be interesting to see whether Peters remains the Wolverines starting QB next season.

Perhaps, we'll see them meet in another Bowl Game since there are SEC vs Big 10 tie-ins.

But once again, if there is a Bowl Game to attend, The Outback Bowl gets my endorsement.

The Football In Paradise Booklet does an outstanding job promoting the Tampa Bay Area in general so whether an individual goes to some of the organized events or not, there is plenty to do.

I look forward to working with these people down the road, and these people are classy to work with.

Once again, I'll be monitoring the Michigan and South Carolina Football Programs in 2018.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Florida's Best NFL Team

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

Who is the best NFL team in Florida?

If you guessed the Miami Dolphins or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then you're absolutely incorrect!

The Dolphins haven't won a Super Bowl since former Owner Joe Robbie and Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula were running the show in the 1970's.

There was some success in the 1980's and 1990's when Shula and QB Dan Marino were making the playoffs but couldn't attain championship status.

All Marino did with Shula was pad his passing statistics with the likes of wide receivers Mark Duper, Mark Clayton and Mark Ingram Sr.

After Shula retired, Jimmy Johnson, who had two Super Bowl Championships on his resume with the Dallas Cowboys, couldn't convince Marino to accept having a balanced running and passing attack.

As a result, their careers ended abruptly as the Jacksonville Jaguars mauled the Miami Dolphins 62-7 in the 1999 Divisional Playoffs in Northern Florida.

The Miami Dolphins haven't sniffed much success since Shula and Johnson departed.

They've only won two AFC East Championships since 2000.

Excluding current Head Coach Adam Gase, the last full-time winning coach for Miami was Dave Wannstedt in 2004. His career mark with the Dolphins was 42-31.

The Dolphins have been a dysfunctional organization and of the 12 head coaches in their history, they've employed eight since 2004 which includes interim coaches and now Gase.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban was in this group as he coached the Dolphins from 2005-2006 and was 15-17.

On Monday, December 11, 2017, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers honored former Coach Jon Gruden by inducting him into their Ring of Honor.

The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl 15 years ago and since Gruden stopped coaching the team, they have gone through four coaches.

Only Gruden and Tony Dungy have ever left their jobs in Tampa Bay with winning records.

Current Coach Dirk Koetter was given one more season to develop franchise QB Jameis Winston, who you see in the photo in a game versus the Detroit Lions on December 10, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium.

The only team remaining is the Jacksonville Jaguars.

This is a team which finished the 2016 season with a 3-13 record and their transformation in the past year has been tremendous.

The team fired Gus Bradley on December 18, 2016 and hired Doug Marrone as interim coach on December 19, 2016 for the final two games.

Marrone finished the season with a 1-1 mark.

Prior to coming to Jacksonville, Marrone had some success coaching the Buffalo Bills.

As the team's head coach in 2013-2014, the Bills were 15-17.

In his first season, Buffalo was 6-10 and in his final campaign, the Bills improved to 9-7.

After the 2014 season, Marrone had a three day out clause in the event of an ownership change and he quit on December 31, 2014.

What a difference two years makes since departing Buffalo and Marrone took over the interim job.

Back in January, former Jacksonville Coach Tom Coughlin was hired as the Executive VP of Football Operations.

He wasted no time hiring Marrone full-time on January 9 as Doug become the fifth head coach in franchise history, thus the culture change was underway.

The 71-year old Coughlin made his impact on the team in the NFL Draft by selecting LSU standout running back Leornard Fournette in the first round, fourth overall.

Coughlin and Marrone's impact was known as they suspended Fournette for one game because of disciplinary problems.

When we went to Jacksonville on November 12, 2017, the Jaguars faced Melvin Gordon and the LA Chargers. Their defense limited Gordon to just 27 yards and as a result defeated the Chargers 20-17 in OT.

This was Jacksonville's third straight win and doubled it's total to six by improving to 6-3, while the Chargers dropped to 3-6.

It was a hard fought contest, but the Chargers would go on a four-game winning streak before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday, December 9, 2017, 30-13.

The Jaguars only loss since we attended the Chargers game was on the road to the Arizona Cardinals, as they lost 27-24 snapping a four-game winning streak. Cardinals kicker Phil Dawson kicked a career long 57-yard field goal.

Jacksonville would go on and start a new winning streak that had reached three.

Before the Chargers game, there were rumors that the team was considering bringing in Eli Manning to rejoin Coughlin in 2018.

That talk has definitely subsided with the recent offensive explosion and continued development of QB Blake Bortles.

In addition to Marrone, Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and QB Coach Scott Milanovich have been a major part of Bortles development.

The Jaguars have won three straight home games starting with the Indianapolis Colts 30-13, Seattle Seahawks 30-24 and when we were there Sunday, December 17, 2017, they thrashed the Houston Texans 45-7.

This game was over by halftime as Jacksonville led 31-0. The Texans self destructed by committing 14 penalties for 127 yards.

In the two games Jacksonville won against the Texans, in week one and fifteen, they outscored Houston 74-14.

In the home win, the Jaguars inserted former Michigan QB Chad Henne into the line-up for mop-up duty at the 12:33 mark in the fourth quarter with a 38-7 lead.

Going into their week sixteen contest on the road against the San Francisco 49'ers, patience has paid off for the Jaguars coaching staff as this recent three game winning streak has seen Bortles throw seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

Bortles has performed to a career high 89.7 QB rating to date.

Against the Texans, Bortles threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns and had a QB rating of 143.8. Once again, there was no talk about Eli Manning in the press box, just the maturity of this fourth year pro from the University of Central Florida.

Texans Coach Bill O'Brien noticed improvement from Bortles since the beginning of the season.

"He played a good game, he's had a good year," O'Brien said. "Give him a lot of credit. You know he's had a good year for them, and they've got him playing real well."

Fournette missed the game due to a quad injury but as indicated by the lopsided score, the Jags didn't need him and the rookie running back had a week of rest.

Keelan Cole had a career day by catching seven passes for 186 yards and one touchdown.

Jaydon Mickens, who was recently on the practice squad and was sleeping in his car at Ever Bank Field, made sure with his performance he won't have to do this again. He amassed four receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns.

This has been a very touching story especially hearing about this during the holidays.

During the Jags three game home stretch, they had two sellouts and have now clinched their first playoff spot since 2007.

The parking lots are getting filled with tailgaters and this town is on the verge of erupting.

When there was a shot of Coughlin in his private suite shown to the crowd, the stadium erupted. These fans know he's behind the resurrection of this incredible turnaround.

But at what point during the season did people start taking this team seriously?

When you walk into Pittsburgh on October, 9, 2017 and whip the Steelers 30-9, it's time to start paying attention.

Fournette had 28 carries for 181 yards and two touchdowns and set a franchise record with a 90-yard touchdown run.

Jacksonville's defense hammered Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger on this day. He was 35-55, 312 yards and threw five interceptions.

This win enabled Jacksonville to improve to 3-2 as it matched its win total of 2016.

A week later, the Jaguars lost to the LA Rams 27-17, but Fournette still amassed 130 yards including a 75-yard touchdown run.

Despite missing three games, Fournette has been a force on offense as he's rushed for 971 yards and has 235 receiving yards leading to 1,206 all purpose yards producing 10 touchdowns.

There is no doubt he'll be a strong candidate to win Rookie Of The Year Honors.

In the Jaguars win against Seattle, this was the first time they defeated an opponent that was entering the game at least four games over .500 since week 15 of the 2007 season (Pittsburgh).

The 2017 season can be summarized in different ways as there have been many firsts in what's been viewed as a remarkable turnaround.

After the thrashing of the Texans, Jaguars Owner Shad Khan was the happiest man in the stadium after his team clinched a playoff berth.

"It's unbelievable. To win it and win it the way we did today, mind-blowing and I'm really grateful, obviously and proud of the players," Khan said. "The football leadership and the fans, especially the last two games, have given us the energy, put it over the top. It's been awesome."

Khan knew that the fans would return to the stadium when the team started to make it worthwhile.

"It's been awesome. It's been awesome," Khan said. "We've had standing room tickets today, which certainly hasn't happened in the almost six years I've been here, so it's wonderful. The energy in this stadium, you can't replace that, and that's why we need the fans."

Khan was asked if he thought success would come this soon after bringing Coughlin back.

"I'm always an optimistic guy, " Khan said. "And certainly, whatever I was hoping for, it's that and more."

Khan had a ton of praise for his signal caller Bortles.

"I think it's been incredible," Khan said. "I think the stats show that. He's been kind of different, more confident person, and he's providing the leadership we all want out of him."

The entire theme after the game was about the fans coming back especially since this was Jacksonville's final home game of the regular season.

Marrone was asked if this team feeds off the crowd?

"No doubt. No doubt. No doubt," he said. "When you play late in the year and you need to win football games and you have a great crowd that is ready to go, that helps," Marrone said. "I've been saying that for weeks. I think that through this time that all the work that this team has put in, I've said before, we're trying to earn the, I don't know what the right word is, of our fans. I guess we want to be able to go out there and be able to perform and have them be proud of our performance."

During the course of the week, it's been interesting to see the National Media's reaction to Jacksonville's turnaround.

While I'm not in the immediate local media, thanks to my Great Friend and Jaguars Senior VP, Communications, Dan Edwards, he's been great by credentialing Myself and Ebling when we come up to the area.

It would be hard to find a nicer and classier person than Edwards!!

Thankfully, he always seems to find space for us.

But during the last two seasons, we've covered four games, two per season, and it's very easy to gain a pulse on the progression of this franchise as I see myself as somewhat of an insider and look forward to continuing to working with the Jaguars in the future health permitting.

Marrone was asked if the Us Against The World is a good description of this team.

"I've said before people on the outside might feel that way," Marrone said. "I don't use 'us against the world' per se. I talk about putting in the work, gaining the respect and the only way to do it. You know, good football teams win in December. We're just trying to keep pushing the players to be better and not really riding any theme  like 'us against the world,' because it's not. We have our fans. We have the other side of the building in the business section of it. We have our media. We have a lot of people that are with us. So maybe it's all of us against the world."

Bortles will be making his first playoff appearance and he's using the rest of the regular season to improve his game, he's definitely looking forward to playing post-season football.

"It feels good. Obviously, I think everyone knows the history of the organization to be able to say that we are part of the group that kind of changed the culture and changed the narrative about the Jaguars is special," Bortles said. "I think it's a never ending battle. You do it one week or you do it for a couple weeks or for one season. It's something we have to find a way to make consistent on a weekly basis and on a yearly basis."

Bortles added that he's pleased the crowds are coming back.

"It all comes with winning," he said. "I think that is the main thing, that is the main key, the main ingredient. People want to come watch a team win. They want to be part of a winning organization. Now that we are able do do that and give them that and put a good product out on the field that they can come watch, I think it only makes it more exciting for them. To be able to do it in front of them and have them be as loud and cheer like they did in the playoff change at the end. It's pretty cool and surreal."

Against the Texans, Jacksonville's defense once again made life difficult as Houston amassed only 186 yards in total offense.

Overall, the Jaguars lead the NFL with 879 tackles and 52 sacks. This defense will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

Texans QB T.J Yates was running for his life all afternoon and was sacked four times.

Yates only touchdown was to standout wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for 25 yards shown in the photo, Hopkins would finish the afternoon with four receptions for 80 yards and a touchdowns. This kid is a stud and will be a superstar for many years to come.

During the season, the Jaguars have been hit with numerous injuries, losing wide receivers Allen Robinson, Dede Westbrook and Allen Hurns but they continue to play through these using the next man up.

Jacksonville added defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to bolster their defense.

There is a saying that defense wins championships and I'll be curious to see how Jacksonville's will fare against the elite QB's and offenses come playoff time. It will also be interesting to see the continued progression of Bortles.

But as I look at the tale of two seasons between Houston and Jacksonville, it can be summarized in this respect.

Houston lost defensive standout J.J. Watt earlier in the season and then their QB of the future DeShaun Watson succumbed to a season ending ACL Injury.

Prior to Watson's injury, he threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 289 yards and added two more touchdowns.

With a 4-11 record to date, it would be unfortunate to see Texans Coach Bill O' Brien to lose his job come "Black Monday, January 1, 2018."

As for Jacksonville, it's hard to believe that a year ago, this squad finished with a 3-13 mark and was a laughingstock.

Khan found this term rather enlightening and said, "Well, I've been through life when I was a laughingstock in whatever business I was in, auto parts or what have you. You have to stay in it and success comes. It's a story of perseverance."

Truly, I think the Jaguars are on house money because nobody expected them to be where they are now so anything they accomplish is a building block.

In my 39 years of covering sports, I've covered numerous championship teams and it's always a building process to reach elite status and maintain it.

It will be interesting to monitor the Jacksonville Jaguars over the coming weeks.

The Jaguars and their fans have had a tough task as they faced the San Francisco 49'ers , who are playing much better with the acquisition  of Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots.

Against the Jaguars, Garoppolo threw for 242 yards and a touchdown to lead San Francisco to its fourth consecutive win.

As for Bortles, he threw for 382 yards, two touchdowns and one interception as his squad dropped to 10-5.

The 49'ers defeated the Jaguars 44-33. But the big news of the day was the LA Rams defeating the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. For the first time  since 1999, The Jaguars have clinched the the AFC South Division.

As a result, the 10-5 Jaguars will host a playoff game for the first time since 1999. It's been announced that they received permission from the NFL and their sponsors to remove the tarps in the upper level of EverBank Field and sell those tickets for their home playoff game next week.

The NFL prohibits changes in seating capacity during the regular season, and tarp sponsorship's
are sold on a season-long basis.

The additional 3,501 seats went up for sale Friday Morning at 10 A.M. ET and took just six minutes
to sell out according to the team.

The Jaguars are Florida's Best NFL Team and I don't see the Miami Dolphins or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers catching up anytime soon!

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of The Detroit Sports Media.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What's Ahead For Lions?

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

If you're looking to keep your head coach employed, Lions QB Matthew Stafford knows the formula.

Keep winning.

After throwing for 381 yards and a touchdown on December 10, 2017 on the road to defeat the Tampa Bay Bucs 24-21, Stafford had some interesting things to say about Coach Jim Caldwell's future.

"Listen man, we go out and play and he goes and coaches," Stafford said. "He understands part of the business, we understand, who knows. I'm not on social media so I don't give a crap but we just go play, man. We go play, he goes and coaches, our job is to win football games. That's what we're trying to do."

Against the Chicago Bears Saturday, December 16, 2017, Stafford's 237 yards and two touchdowns performance led Detroit to its second consecutive victory 20-10.

Detroit's record improved to 8-6 and the Lions continue to remain in the playoff hunt.

Lions Coach Jim Caldwell is guaranteed of the team at least finishing with a .500 record. 

After the Buccaneers game, the head coach addressed his job security and you can rest assure that anybody who addressed it Saturday would get the same answer we received in Tampa pertaining to his contract expiring at the end of 2018.

"We never, never ever, ever been in the practice of talking about contracts and anything of that nature, and we're certainly not going to start today," Caldwell said. "There's no (security) it's coaching. That's the way it is."

As for what's ahead for the Lions, on Monday Night, the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-21 to improve to 9-5.

Detroit remains one game behind Atlanta but the Falcons need some holiday cheer to get into the playoffs.

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, Atlanta travels to New Orleans to take on the high powering Saints (10-4).

We all know how dangerous QB Drew Brees is, but the two headed running back monster combination consisting of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are good enough to shred any defense.

Ingram has rushed for 1,045 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's tallied 375 receiving yards.

Meanwhile, Kamara, has 652 yards carrying the rock with seven touchdowns. He's been an explosive receiver out of the backfield adding another 684 yards and five touchdowns.

Detroit needs this dynamic duo to have a big day.

On December 31, 2017, Atlanta faces Carolina QB Cam Newton, who is playing some of his best football leading the Panthers to a 10-4 mark, in Georgia.

In the Panthers 31-24 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Newton threw for 242 yards and four touchdowns. He had one of his favorite targets back as Tight End Greg Olson caught nine receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown.

The Lions lost to Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans, therefore the head-to-head tiebreaker works against them.

Detroit's playoff hopes rest firstly on them taking care of business.

First, the Lions have to win out against the Cincinnati Bengals, who just got crushed Sunday by the Minnesota Vikings 34-7 on the road. Like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati (5-9) could be looking for a new head coach when "Black Monday" takes place on January 1, 2018.

Second, they also need to beat the Green Bay Packers.  With the Packers (7-7)  now out of the playoffs, despite 290 yards and three touchdowns from Aaron Rodgers, the future Hall of Fame QB took a pounding against the Panthers which led to three interceptions.

Rodgers missed eight weeks because of a broken collarbone. He woke up very sore on Monday and appears to have aggravated the injury returning too soon.

Rodgers was put on season-ending injured reserve and Brett Hundley will be under center when the Lions play the Packers December 31, 2017 at Ford Field.

Also, will the game be changed to a later time than it's current 1 pm slot and be on National TV?

In the past few years, when there have been playoff implications, the game time has been switched.

But once again, Sunday's action will give us more answers.

If Detroit loses at Cincinnati, then none of what we're discussing means anything.

So the question remains, will Santa Claus deliver the Lions two victories and the Falcons two losses?

As for Caldwell, I'll continue to say this as I have all year.

If you fire him, who are you going to replace him with?

Are you going to bring in New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels, who worked with General Manager Bob Quinn in Massachusetts?  Even if this happens, there are no guarantees that this move would work.

McDaniels could be heavily coveted as 5-10 teams could be looking for head coaches on Black Monday, January 1, 2018.

The only other candidate who might make sense is Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith.

Smith Coached the Atlanta Falcons from 2008-2014 and was 66-46 with a .589 winning percentage. He led the Falcons to five playoff appearances and was 1-4 in the post-season.

Unfortunately for Smith, he was 10-22 during his final two campaigns which led to his dismissal.

Aside from that, as I've written about before and I'll say it again, the Lions best move pertaining to Caldwell is to keep him.

Since he was hired in 2014, Caldwell is 35-27 with a .564 winning percentage and two playoff appearances.

Detroit's issues go deeper than the coaching search.

The Lions need to start by bolstering their running back position, because the only stats which are missing are lack of 100 yard games, in addition to 1,000 yard seasons.

Against the Bears, The Lions amassed 91 yards on the ground as a group led by Theo Riddick's 49 and Tion Green's 35.

Unlike many teams in the NFL, the Lions are fortunate they don't need to look for a franchise QB.

They have a young gunslinger and stud in Stafford, 29, who is the ultimate competitor and plays through injuries.

Going into the Cincinnati contest, Stafford has 2,966 career completions and 34,223 yards. He has 212 touchdowns and 117 interceptions. He could hit the 3,000 milestone for completions against the Bengals.

Otherwise, he'll attain that milestone against the Packers.

Against Green Bay on December 31, 2017, Stafford will have played in all 16 games since 2011.

Who would have ever have thought that back on December 19, 2010 that Detroit snapped a 26-game road losing streak at Tampa Bay.

How times have changed as Detroit enters its road game with Cincinnati with a 5-2 road record and is 3-4 at home. It's safe to say that road win number six, will be huge!

This is What's Ahead For The Lions.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Unemployment Bowl?

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

There are no shortage of memories when I cover a Lions vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers road game.

Whether the venue is the demolished Tampa Stadium or Raymond James Stadium, there have been some nice story lines.

On Sunday, October 12, 1997, I remember wishing Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders luck at the team hotel in the morning where we were staying. Barry in his polite way, said thanks and shook my hand with a smile.

That day, he wasn't shaking any Tampa Bay Bucs players hands, just having their defenders shake their heads as he became the first player in NFL History to record two 80-yard TD runs in the same game. He broke off an 80-yard scoring play late in the first quarter and added an 82-yard touchdown romp in the third quarter, finishing the day with 215 yards.

The Lions won the game 27-9 in Tampa Stadium and even though there is no cheering allowed in the press box, it was hard to confiscate media credentials during such an incredible and memorable performance when we all cheered.

At the time, My longtime friend Chip Namias was the Director of Media Relations of the Buccaneers, and I told him after the game that it was neat to be a part of this type of history.

Chip smiled and agreed that it was an unbelievable day.

I have made other appearances in Raymond James Stadium including covering a Super Bowl featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers vs the Arizona Cardinals.

But one regular season game that stood out occurred on December 19, 2010 as Detroit ended a 26-game road losing streak when they claimed a 23-20 overtime win at Tampa Bay.

The Lions would proceed to win another road game in Florida as they defeated the Miami Dolphins on December 26, 2010, 34-27.

Detroit was 2-0 in The Sunshine State in 2010.

Here on December 10, 2017, the Detroit Lions had another important contest as they attempted to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Coming off a pair of losses to the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens the past couple weeks, there were no shortage of story lines.

There is always speculation of Coach Jim Caldwell's job status, and this week, QB Matthew Stafford has been battling a hand injury.

Detroit entered the game with a 6-6 mark while Tampa Bay was 4-8.

The Lions came away with a 24-21 win as Matt Prater booted a 46-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to play as Detroit improved to 7-6.

The Lions got an early Christmas gift as Tampa Bay committed five turnovers. Detroit also benefited from two successful replay challenges.

Stafford was 36-44 for 381 yards and a touchdown.

He knew that Detroit better not look past the Buccaneers or any chances of getting into the playoffs wouldn't occur.

"Yeah, you throw the tape on these guys and they're talented, they're extremely talented," Stafford said. "They got a lot of guys at every level on the defense, 93 (Gerald McCoy), 54 (Lavonte David), 24 (Brent Grimes)--they got guys that can wreck the game, and really make big plays, and they did some today.

"And then our defense having to defend that offense, I mean, Jameis (Winston) is as talented as anybody in the league and they've got some big-time receivers and tight-ends, have a good running game. This is the NFL; we know every time we show up on a Sunday it is going to be a big one."

When asked about the Lions being able to make plays in the last minutes of games, Stafford added, "I just think we have a lot of confidence. I think guys that have been around here have understood that's kind of sometimes the way the game boils down and we go out there and make plays and when you have success, it breeds confidence.

"Frankly, there's been times this year where we haven't been successful in those situations, some close calls in some other games. It feels good to get back out there and have a two-minute drive, go out there and win the game."

Caldwell deflected any talk about his job security as he has so many times during his tenure with the Lions especially when a report surfaced that his contract was guaranteed through the end of the 2018 season.

"We never, never ever, ever been in the practice of talking about contracts and anything of that nature, and we're certainly not going to start today," Caldwell said. "There's no (security) it's coaching. That's the way it is."

Caldwell praised Stafford and was relieved to get an important win.

"Yeah, tough guy. Tough guy who heals real quickly," Caldwell said. "Really, it's always been that way. He's a great leader and did a tremendous job out there for us under some tough circumstances, I should say.

"You know, it was a key win for us. It was key for us to play a team that is very hard to beat in this stadium with Jameis back there playing. They've got weapons. They've got people that can run. Overall, it's a talented team. If you can get one on the road in this league, it's a good thing."

There has been no shortage of close games in Caldwell's coaching stint in Detroit and this was no exception.

"It's been a hallmark of ours," he said. "We've been able to battle at the end. Our guys show great resiliance, and they don't get nervous in tough situations at the end of games. They find a way to win it. It might not always be pretty---we'd always been like that---but we lost a few this year just the opposite the side of that.

"Atlanta, Carolina, and a couple others that were close right there at the end. We weren't able to finish them, so we have been uncharacteristic in the middle portion of the season. So hopefully we can see if we can continue to do that and be a little better this next week."

The one thing which has always been consistent when I attend a Lions game in this area is there is no shortage of Detroit colors on display. Sunday was no exception. There are a lot of transplants from Michigan that live in the Tampa Bay Area and the Tigers train 45 minutes away in Lakeland.

One puzzling inactive was Detroit running back Ameer Abdullah.

Once again, Caldwell wouldn't get into too elaborate of an answer when it came to why he sat him and what the future holds into using him as a feature back.

"We don't go into details about everything, but obviously he's still nursing an injury," Caldwell said. "He's coming a long. I think he'll be ready to go here shortly. We don't talk about number ones, number twos. That's you guys business. We have a three man rotation. With the three guys that we have up, all three guys play."

With Abdullah inactive, the Lions rushing attack mustered up only 53 yards, led by Theo Riddick, who amassed 29 yards and two touchdowns.

There is no doubt there will be continued talk about Caldwell's employment status and he is focusing on the Lions next opponent, Chicago.

Stafford was having no part of this conversation after the contest.

"Listen man, we go out and play and he goes and coaches," Stafford said. "He understands part of the business, we understand, who knows. I'm not on social media so I don't give a crap but we just go play, man. We go play, he goes and coaches, our job is to win football games. That's what we're trying to do."

There is no shortage of drama in the Tampa Bay locker room as a report surfaced that Winston's relationship with Coach Dirk Koetter is deteriorating.

The Bucs 4-9 record is going to do nothing to quiet that talk regardless of what Winston said.

The loss to Detroit eliminated Tampa Bay from the playoffs.

My sources say that Koetter will be terminated at the end of the season.

On Monday, December 18, former Coach Jon Gruden will be inducted into the teams Ring of Honor as he coached the team from 2002-2008, compiled a 57-55 record and led the franchise to it's only Super Bowl Title.

One person who should be in The Bucs Ring of Honor is Tony Dungy.

He led Tampa to a 54-42 mark and his squads made the playoffs in four of his six seasons at the helm. Dungy is Tampa's all-time winning coach with a .556 percentage.

You can rest assure, there will be a lot of talk about bringing Gruden back to roam the sidelines at Raymond James Stadium. I've always thought highly of Gruden as a head coach, but in reality, he won it with the talent Dungy molded together.

If Tampa Bay was smart, they should try to get Dungy to leave his cozy seat at NBC and return to coaching.

Tampa Bay QB Winston threw for 285 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

But on this day, Winston refused to speculate on Koetter's job status.

"I don't control that. That's not my place. I play quarterback for this organization, that's all I play," Winston said. "When you lose, everything gets blamed on one guy: the head coach and quarterback and I'm ok with that. I'm pretty sure Coach Koetter is ok with that. We don't care about that stuff. All we care about is each other, our family and trying to win.

"I've been with Coach Koetter since I've got in this league and he has not wronged me since I stepped foot in those doors. We have a great relationship first and foremost.

"I believe in what we have in what we have as an organization. We've got talent. Some unfortunate things happened. That's life. That's football. Some people can blame it on this, some people can blame it on that. But at the end of the day, we've got to win. As long as we are winning, no one is sitting here asking me questions about me and my head coach. No one."

Koetter also addressed the reports about him and his quarterback and said, "It's obviously news to me. I think Jameis and I have had an extremely consistent relationship for the last three years. I don't think anything is different about it, but it's just my opinion.

"What concerns me is that we aren't winning enough games. That's my biggest concern. I mean, I know about our relationship, but my biggest concern is our football team."

On January 1, 2018, the Michigan Wolverines face the University of South Carolina Gamecocks in the Outback Bowl in this very stadium.

The question remains which one of these coaches will be employed by either of these organizations.

But to Caldwell's credit, he's been facing job uncertainty for quite some time and always finds a way to keep winning to quiet that talk.

He follows like Morris The Cat and has Nine Lives.

At least Stafford always has his back and this gunslinger will continue to battle through what he calls "Crap" as this duo works towards its goal of reaching the postseason.

To be frankly honest with you, I'm sick and tired of writing about Caldwell losing his job because as I've mentioned before, he's one of the best coaches Detroit has had in years.

If Detroit does terminate him, unless General Manager Bob Quinn were to hire Josh McDaniels away from his former club the New England Patriots, and that's no sure bet it would work out, who would the Lions bring in to get better?

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out.

But all the Lions have to do is simply win games and there next three opponents are the Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers.

The Bears and Packers are at home but unfortunately for Detroit, Aaron Rodgers could
very well be back in the lineup. But as the old adage says, it's important to take these games one at a time.

But as I take a moment to reflect on this game, the Lions did get another three point win that nearly went to overtime and it was an exciting finish.

For myself, it was great seeing my old Tampa Tribune colleagues Roy Cummings and Joey Johnston again.

We worked together from 1984-86, but it seems like yesterday that we were all covering High School Sports.

As a University of South Florida graduate, it was nice to be back in my old stomping grounds doing what I enjoy doing and that's covering Pro Football.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Scrambling To Salvage Seasons

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

Last week in my column, I mentioned that Florida State University (FSU) had to reschedule an early regular season game with the University of Louisiana Monroe (UL-Monroe) that was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma to December 2, 2017 in a desperate attempt to become Bowl Eligible.

Since there are 40 Bowl Games, which begin from December 16, 2017-January 8, 2018, it's hard to not take note of certain games this weekend of teams scrambling to get into a Bowl Game.

I've always enjoyed watching and occasionally covering Bowl Games because it's another opportunity for NFL Scouts to see prospects to compliment the regular season, plus the few All-Star Games that are also scheduled.

There is no question that there is a saturation of Bowl Games and a lot of Empty Stadiums.

Yet these games do give universities, especially the smaller ones, much needed exposure to help bolster recruiting.

The Bowl Season does give student athletes a chance to extend their careers by a game.

You'll see unique match-ups that wouldn't be possible because of how difficult it is for Athletic Directors and Head Coaches to fit in when building future schedules.

In many instances, these are first time match-ups.

It's neat to see these students play in the Bahamas and Hawaii as well as other cities, plus also have the opportunity to possibly take their families.

I doubt I'd hear a complaint of a student getting to play in a warm California, Texas, Arizona or Florida city and spend some time at a popular tourist attraction as part of the business trip.

Let's not forget that in addition to the exposure and recruiting benefits, universities do get a payout to fund their athletic departments plus promote academics.

Here is a look at some of today's interesting match-ups as we examine how things play out in the coming weeks leading up to the Bowl Selection process.

1. Louisiana-Monroe (4-5) has a tough task as it faces No.6 Auburn (8-2) in Auburn, AL. Win or lose, UL-Monroe figures to get a big payday while still trying to earn additional cash in a potential Bowl Game as well as valuable exposure.

Meanwhile, Auburn must play well in an effort to keep its National Championship hopes alive. They can't have a let down today.

2. Florida State faces the Delaware State Hornets in Tallahassee, FL. Delaware State is the same university which forfeited a conference game to earn a sizable payday as it faced the Michigan Wolverines in The Big House in Ann Arbor a few years ago.

Delaware State is 2-8 while FSU is 3-6.

Who would have thought that two schools so far a way in tradition would have records like this? Yet, Delaware State figures to get a huge payday and a moral victory would be keeping this game close. FSU is clinging to dear life just to get into a Bowl Game as evidenced earlier by rescheduling Louisiana-Monroe.

3. The Florida Gators (3-6) host the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) Blazers (7-3) in Gainesville. There are indeed other teams in Alabama besides Auburn and the University of Alabama, traditional powerhouse programs.

A few years ago, UAB dropped its football program only to bring it back. If the Blazers defeat the Gators, U-F will most likely be eliminated from Bowl Consideration. The only way Florida gets in with five victories is there aren't enough Bowl Eligible teams. If Florida defeats UAB, it still has a contest against state rival Florida State on November 25.

Like the Seminoles, Hurricane Irma didn't do the Gators any favors as its September 9, 2017 game against Northern Colorado was cancelled and as of yet hasn't been rescheduled.

The question remains, in a rough season, would the Gators even want to play in a Bowl Game which saw Head Coach Jim McElwain get terminated?

I would highly doubt it unless the Gators hire a new coach very quickly that endorses the idea to scout his new players. But the Gators have a lot of work to do in the meantime.

Finally, the Texas Longhorns (5-5) travel to West Virginia to face the Mountaineers (7-3) in Morgantown.

Mediocrity got former Longhorns Coach Charlie Strong fired a year ago in Texas, but he's rebounded very well at My Alma-Mater the University of South Florida with a 9-1 record.

Texas (5-5) lured Tom Herman away from the Houston Cougars with a five-year contract worth $5 Million per-year.

The Longhorns have two opportunities to reach a Bowl Game. A win over West Virginia and they'll get invited someplace. Otherwise, next week, they'll host Texas Tech (5-5) at home in Austin.

But the question remains, how long will the fans, boosters and alumni be patient with Herman if this national powerhouse doesn't regain elite status, thus having to settle for a lower tiered bowl game for a coach that figures to earn $25 Million for the length of his contract.

But as I analyze this weeks schedule, it's hard to believe that I'm writing a column on Florida, Florida State and Texas scrambling and hammering their way to get into a Bowl Game.

How times have changed and I'm doing just that.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of The Detroit Sports Media.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Nice Turnaround In Northern Florida

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

The last time we saw the Jacksonville Jaguars on December 24, 2016, they hammered former head coach Mike Mularkey and his Tennessee Titans 38-17 at EverBank Field.

In the game, the Jaguars improved to 3-12, and Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota left the game due to a fractured fibula.

The Titan's game was Marrone's first game as Jacksonville's interim head coach.

He replaced current LA Chargers Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley. Bradley compiled a 14-48 mark with a .226 percentage.

Jacksonville would finish the regular season with a 3-13 mark.

The Jaguars finished 1-1 under interim head coach Doug Marrone.

Things have drastically changed since we were in Northern Florida 11 months ago.

The Jaguars hired former Coach Tom Coughlin to run the football operations and he wasted no time naming Marrone as the permanent head coach.

Coughlin's presence has been felt by two organizations.

His former team The New York Giants are 1-8 and Sunday lost to the previous winless San Francisco 49'ers, who are now 1-9.

The distance between Jacksonville's EverBank Field to the Giants MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ is 932 miles north on I-95.

With moderate traffic, it's 15 hours and 37 minutes and without traffic, you're looking at 13 hours and 34 minutes.

What's also changed since December is Jacksonville drafted running back Leonard Fournette from LSU and he's improved the running game.

Going into this weekend's action, Fournette has 147 carries for 629 yards and six touchdowns. He's also caught 17 passes for 149 yards and another touchdown.

Fournette learned quickly that when he recently had disciplinary problems, Coughlin and Marrone suspended him for one game sending a clear message to the team that this regime won't tolerate any problems and distractions.

EverBank Field also looked different behind the south end zone as it's more closed in and is louder because of a new amphitheater called Daily's Place (capacity 5000) which holds small concerts and events.

It shares space with a Jaguars indoor facility called Flex Field.

If you're looking for a hard hitting game then this was it.

The Jaguars had nine penalties for 106 yards while the Los Angeles Chargers were flagged seven times for 77 yards. I have to admit that it was tough not saying the San Diego Chargers.

This was a contest that on the surface had two great young running backs on display.

The Chargers Melvin Gordon and Fournette went into the game looking to put on a running show. Instead, they had games they'd like to forget.

Gordon had eight attempts for 16 yards, plus three receptions for nine yards. Fournette had nine carries for 21 yards.

Part of Gordon's struggles were attributed to the Jaguars recent acquisition of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (99), who played for the Buffalo Bills a couple weeks ago.

The 6-3, 331 pound run stopper gave Gordon very little room to move in the backfield. He amassed four tackles as you'll see in the photo.

After the game, I spoke to Dareus and I told him his former team Buffalo got hammered 47-6 to the New Orleans Saints.

I also told him there is no state income tax in Florida and he wasn't shy about being pleased to be playing in the Sunshine State getting a fresh start.

He said he likes what he's seen so far with the team and says if this team get into the playoffs it would be like comparing it to a piece of popcorn and seeing the colonel pop.

"Today's game showed me a lot. These guys fight for each other," Dareus said. "It's all about my man next to me. You can see the passion. I'm doing everything I can for the man next to me. These guys showed me a lot today."

When I asked Dareus if he felt the defense is the strength of the team, he said, "The left hand washes the right hand. We look out for each other. It's not about us (defense) feeling like we have to carry the team. It's not about us looking like we have to carry the team. We do the best with each other so we can help each other get better.

"The offense made big plays for us today, we made some big plays for them and special teams came up big. We made big plays all over the place."

The Jaguars had 398 net total yards and Los Angeles 322. Jacksonville won the contest 20-17 in overtime.

Cornerback A.J. Bouye came up with a crucial interception in overtime that led to the game winning field goal by Josh Lambo. Lambo, formerly of the Chargers, haunted his old team by converting a 30-yard field goal 3:12 left in overtime for the victory.

Bouye posted four tackles and the interception against the Chargers.

As a result, he was named AFC Defensive Player Of The Week and is the third Jaguar to earn that honor this season.

The win improved Jacksonville to 6-3 and doubled it's victory total in 2016.

Throughout the day, I spoke with a lot of the media and asked them about speculation concerning the future of QB Blake Bortles.

There has also been speculation of Giants QB Eli Manning, 36, rejoining Coughlin, but because Jacksonville continues to win, the situation wouldn't be addressed until the offseason.

Bortles was 28-51 for 273 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also rushed five times for 34 yards.

With all due respect to Bortles, he lost his top wide receiver Allen Robinson to injury during week one.

Jacksonville drafted Dede Westbrook in the fourth round and the 6-0, 178 pound speedy receiver from Oklahoma, underwent core muscle surgery and has been on injured reserve. He is expected to be activated this weekend.

When I asked Bortles how difficult the season has been without two weapons, he said, "It's been a challenge. Those two guys you said, anytime you're playing with those two guys, we have both seen what Allen Robinson is capable of doing. We have talked about it before.

"He goes down and that's a lot of production that's lost and Westbrook with his ability and not being out there. I think it's a tribute to Nathaniel Hackett and what he's been able to do and the offensive staff, schematically and scheming things up to get guys open. Then that room has taken it on themselves and the running backs and tight ends have helped us out as well. It's been a group effort with those two guys not being out there to be able to kind of keep the pass game rolling."

A crowd of 60,835 were loud and Bortles said that "It's awesome to have a real home field advantage. It's something that hasn't always been that way in the past and something we wanted to try and bring back. Coach Coughlin came up here and talked to us at the beginning of the season and talked about back when he was here, the support and how the city was when they were rolling.

"That's something that we talked about last week a little bit. We want to make sure that this is an advantage when we come play in Jacksonville in front of our fans. They've been incredible all day like you said."

When the game was over, Marrone was asked if he enjoys these close games?

I'm exhausted right now. I'm shot," Marrone said. "I'm living and dying on every single play with every call that we have, but every play and call I have, you know what I mean.' So after the game is over, I'm shot."

Marrone added that the main thing is "Obviously we came away with a win which is obviously the objective. You know it's difficult in this league when you've been in the league for a while, these types of games where you're just trying to grind them and just find a way to get an opportunity to win the game."

What did Marrone think was the reason the Chargers (3-6) did to slow down the running game?

"They did a good job. They got after us up front. We lost some battles up front. They did a very good job. They're a good football team. They really are."

If Marrone was exhausted over this win, he'll have a week of stress that Detroit Lions Coach Jim Caldwell dealt with.

The Jaguars coach has to face the 0-9 Cleveland Browns and doesn't want to be the team which allows them to notch their first win.

For those individuals that think Jacksonville has QB issues, since 1999, the Cleveland Browns have used 28 signal callers.

For the Jaguars to leave "The Super Bowl Non Participation Club" that has the Detroit Lions, Houston Texans and the lowly Browns, it would be wise to not overlook and underestimate this team.

The Lions would sure like company in the 0-16 club and the Browns are the only winless squad left in the NFL.

To say the Cleveland Browns contest for Jacksonville is one of the biggest games of the year for the Jaguars is mildly under stating this.

But it is because they're expected to win this game.

Jacksonville leads the all-time regular season series 11-5 over the Browns, have won two straight and three of the past four meetings.

Marrone knows it and after the Chargers game, he's very appreciative of the fan base which has been starving for a winner for years. A loss to the Browns would only be detrimental to getting fans to return.

"I think first of all, I want to credit the people that are here that do give us the advantage because they do a heck of a job," Marrone said. "I still go back to the same course that I took early on when I would get asked that question if we're building a home field advantage.

"I think we have to go out and continue to play well and earn that right. I really believe that. If someone was to say, 'Well, I don't want to see those guys, I just hope that they give this time an opportunity to come out and watch this team.

"I think if they do, I think they'll be happy with the type of effort we have. I think the people that are here are great. We would love to have more, we really would, but we have to understand that it's on us to bring them here."

It will definitely be interesting to see which organization makes greater strides to get into the playoffs.

There are men with the Lions and Jaguars who have been to Super Bowls.

Lions General Manager Bob Quinn (New England Patriots) and Coach Caldwell (Indianapolis Colts) have both won Super Bowls.

Tom Coughlin has a pair of Super Bowl wins with Manning as his QB.

Coughlin was the first coach of the expansion Jaguars in 1995, and has led this franchise to two AFC Championship Games in 1996 and 1999.

Meanwhile, the Lions lone NFC Championship game occurred in 1991 under Coach Wayne Fontes and featured Hall of Fame Running Back Barry Sanders.

A tale of two organizations looking to finally reach a Super Bowl with starving fans.

Will it take a Hall of Fame QB to win a Super Bowl and do either of these franchises have one?

There are no playoff wins between Matthew Stafford and Bortles.

But I'll say this, names like Jim McMahon (Chicago Bears), Doug Williams (Washington Redskins), Jeff Hostetler (New York Giants), Mark Rypien (Washington Redskins), Trent Dilfer (Baltimore Ravens) and Brad Johnson (Tampa Bay Bucs) proved a QB doesn't have to be a Hall of Famer to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out in the coming weeks.

As I mentioned before, the Jaguars hope to avoid a letdown in Cleveland while the Lions (5-4) face the Chicago Bears in Illinois.

Jacksonville enters the Cleveland contest in first place thanks to the Pittsburgh Steelers 40-17 thrashing of the Tennessee Titans Thursday Night. The loss dropped the Titans to 6-4.

Tennessee and Jacksonville could play for the AFC South Title in Nashville on December 31, 2017.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a Member of The Detroit Sports Media.

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