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December 31, 2007

Tennessee: Ainge Talks

It was common knowledge late in the summer that Tennessee quarterback Eric Ainge suffered a broken finger on his throwing hand just days before his team's season opener. What was not so commonly known was that the senior quarterback also played half the season with an injured throwing shoulder. Why didn't you hear about it? Because Ainge and the Tennessee coaching staff didn't want you to know.

"It's not something we tried to advertise," Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "We weren't able to throw the ball down the field very effectively early, but we weren't going to tell our opponents that."

Throughout the preseason, head coach Phil Fulmer touted Ainge as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the country, but Ainge did not produce the way many expected him to. He finished the season completing 63 percent of his passes for 3,157 yards with 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but it was the two picks in the SEC Championship game that will haunt his career as a Vol.

Luckily, as Ainge prepares for his final collegiate game in the Outback Bowl against Wisconsin on New Year's Day, he seems to be the healthiest he's been all season.

"He has, for the last three weeks, thrown the ball better down the field than he has all year long," Cutcliffe said. "Much better."

Ainge initially suffered the shoulder injury in the season opener against Cal. He had an MRI taken but it came back negative, as no muscle was torn, so he was allowed to continue to play without missing a start.

"Broke my finger and dinged my shoulder within about two days of each other and played through it all early in the season," Ainge said. "I kind of got back healthy from it. At the same time, when you're playing every week and throwing every week and throwing as much as we do in practice every single day, it took me longer to let it heal."

One of the reasons why the Vols did not throw deep this season, which was a big point of criticism from media outlets all season, is because Ainge was never fully healthy to do so, but with his shoulder and finger both healed up, look for a few more long balls in Tuesday's game.

Ainge passed Peyton Manning's school record for completions in a single season with 300 this year, and with Wisconsin missing two of its top cornerbacks due to knee injuries, Ainge has the opportunity to play up to his potential on a national stage, just in time for the NFL scouts to take him back into consideration.

December 28, 2007

Kentucky: Music (City) To Their Ears

With the Music City Bowl inching ever closer (kickoff is Dec. 31 at 4 pm ET), Kentucky is enjoying the music as its injury reports are becoming more and more optimistic. This week, head coach Rich Brooks reported that sophomore cornerback Paul Warford was able to practice by week's end and is now expected to play in Monday's game against a Florida State team badly depleted by suspensions. Warford had missed practices the previous week with a shoulder injury after finishing the season with 36 tackles and two interceptions.

Joining Warford on the may-be-able-to-play list is wide receiver Keenan Burton. Burton has been suffering from recurring swelling in his knee, swelling that was bad enough to list the senior as doubtful to play in the New Year's Eve game. However, Burton was able to do some running in practice by week's end, but as of Friday, he was listed as 50-50 for the game.

Burton is Kentucky's leading receiver with 59 catches for 685 yards and 9 touchdowns in only 11 games this season, and as a Biletnikoff Award finalist, is certainly someone the Wildcats would like to have on the field on Monday. Burton participated in about half of Friday's afternoon practice, and his status is still up in the air.

"It did not swell from yesterday," Brooks said Friday. "I would say it's 50-50. If he doesn't swell from what he did today, then he'll probably play in the game."

The Wildcats are looking to win back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1950-51, and Burton is certainly a large piece of that winning puzzle.

"He's clearly a guy who has made huge, big plays in his career," Brooks said. "If we don't have him out there, we're going to miss those big plays."

Just because Florida State has to play with a depleted roster does not mean that Kentucky has to. If Burton's knee isn't the size of a grapefruit, expect him to be in uniform on the sideline at kickoff, ready to play.

December 23, 2007

USC: That Old Familiar Feeling

Remember earlier this season, when USC was picked to be the greatest team ever to hit the collegiate football landscape, but then the Trojans were hit with a plague of injuries that decimated the team leading up to their season-crushing loss to Stanford? Remember all that? Well, it looks like despite the fact that the Trojans will be representing the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl once again, the injury bug is back and attacking with a vengeance. The latest victim is junior linebacker Brian Cushing, who suffered a bone bruise in practice last week.

Cushing knocked knees with receiver Brandon Carswell in practice on Friday, sending him to the turf in a heap before limping over to a trainer's table. He spent the rest of the practice sitting with his knee wrapped in ice. The junior most likely suffered a bone bruise, but don't expect that to keep him out of the Granddaddy of them All.

"I thought the worst when it happened," Cushing said after practice on Friday. "I mean, it hurt like hell. I'm sure it's going to be sore, but I'll play in the game. There's no doubt."

And when Cushing says he'll play, he means it. After all, a year ago, Cushing spent most of the bowl week preparations on the sideline nursing a knee injury, but came back well enough to be selected defensive player of the game for this efforts.

Of course, this is not the first time Cushing has been hurt this season. The arthroscopic surgery he had on his left knee after spring practice had nothing to do with the ankle sprain he suffered in the season opener, but that sprain certainly was the reason for the fracture he sustained in the game against Washington State. The fracture sidelined him for the next three games, but he got back into uniform in time for the Trojans' late-season push.

And as per usual, we wouldn't be talking about USC if Cushing was the only injured player on the roster. Senior tailback Chauncey Washington is still sitting out of practices with a hip injury, so sophomore Stafon Johnson is getting extra reps with the first team. He is looking to get his own form back after suffering a foot injury in late September that never really went away.

Washington postponed an MRI exam in favor of returning to practice in time for final Rose Bowl preparations, so the Trojans are hoping he will be back up to speed, as well.

Also on the banged-up list is receiver Patrick Turner, who has a bruised quadriceps that may keep him out of the bowl game entirely.

December 21, 2007

Arizona State: Hopeful Herring

Arizona State running back Keegan Herring is one of just 16 Sun Devil running backs with more than 2,000 career rushing yards to his name, and he hopes he will be able to add to that total in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27. But as of right now, Herring is more hopeful than hungry, as the junior is still not practicing as he nurses an injury to his left ankle he sustained on Dec. 1 against Arizona.

Herring felt about 65 percent healthy at week's end and while he has never missed a college game, he has yet to practice for the rapidly approaching bowl game against Texas.

"As a football player, that's the toughest thing about being injured - seeing your football family do a lot of work and seeing yourself not really doing anything," Herring said. "People saying i shouldn't play, people saying I should play - I'll just have to go out there and see."

If Arizona State can put Herring in the game, practiced or not, they will do so - he has 2,235 career rushing yards, which makes him 10th on the Sun Devils all-time list, even though he is not a full-time starter and still has a full season in front of him.

The Sun Devils' rushing game could certainly use a healthy - or at least able - dose of Herring, as their tailback corps has been depleted since Ryan Torain suffered a season-ending injury on Oct. 13. Herring led the team in rushing this season, collecting 816 yards with five touchdowns in 12 games, despite only six starts.

If Herring can't go, Jerell Woods may get some playing time - and the opportunity for his first-ever carry as a Sun Devil. Preston Jones is another back likely to see some time in the rotation, while Dimitri Nance should get the start in Herring's absence. A native of Euless, Texas, Nance will certainly have the geographical motivation necessary to put together a stellar game against the Longhorns.

Head coach Dennis Erickson said he expects Herring to be practicing on Sunday, when the team begins its preparations in San Diego. Herring, in the meantime, is looking to a higher authority to make sure that happens.

"I think that's going to be my Christmas present from the angels up top, let me be ready for game day," Herring said.

December 17, 2007

LSU: Back In The Habit

With the awards circuit behind them and the national championship game looming just ahead, LSU finally returns to practice this week, happy to have had some time off to get its long list of injured players a little bit healthier. Head coach Les Miles is proud that his team has been able to win all season despite the alarming number of starting players unavailable due to injury, but with Ohio State returning some of its injured contributors to the field after weeks of rest, the Tigers would far prefer to play their final game in a state of good health, and they seem to be in good shape to do so.

"Ohio State, I know that they're talking about returning to active duty a defensive lineman that they lost earlier in the year to a broken bone," Miles said at a press conference on Monday. "I know that the lineup shuffles a little bit that way at the end of the year, when you've had to play week after week versus quality opponents and it takes its toll.

"There's no question that at some point in time, teams are more healthy and less healthy. It's a testimony to our football team that we won two games with our second-team quarterback, a number of times our defensive line was on the sideline watching, and yet this football team finds a way to win. We'll certainly enjoy the rest, we'll certainly improve our health. We’re looking forward to returning to freshness."

Among those players hoping to improve their health are senior wide receiver Early Doucet, who led the team in receiving yards per game and finished second in receiving touchdowns even though he missed four full games; quarterback Matt Flynn, who missed two games due to injury, including the SEC Championship; various-award-winning defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who played in all 13 games but missed a number of series within those games due to injury; defensive tackle Charles Alexander; and freshman defensive back Stefoin Francois.

Despite the injuries, LSU did find a way to win almost every game this season, but Miles says that the team's success has less to do with the its depth than with the players' attitudes.

"I don't know if it's the depth so much as the understanding of the team that now we've got to find another way to win," Miles said. "We were winning with that guy making the plays and now it's a young player, it's a player that we now suddenly have to count on and there's a responsibility at the position and I think that our players understand that. I think it’s different than just acquiring the personnel. It's what we had to do to win."

The team's key injury updates surround Flynn and sophomore running back Keiland Williams, who finished second on the team in rushing yards per game and rushing TDs behind Jacob Hester. Both Flynn and Williams have been ailing in the past few weeks, but both got some time in during a team run on Sunday.

"We'll practice today and Flynn will throw and Keiland will run, so I don't expect that there will be any issues there," Miles said.

Both are expected to be ready to play in time for the national championship game.

December 15, 2007

Florida: Cast Off

Much to the Gator Nation's sigh of relief, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow had the cast removed from his broken right hand on Friday and - to no one's surprise - practiced without any problems. Remember, the Heisman Trophy winner did not have much trouble with his hand before it was placed in the cast. He sustained the non-displaced fracture during the team's Nov. 24 win over Florida State and played the majority of the game with his hand broken before seeking medical attention. The cast also did not get in the sophomore's way when he hoisted the signature Trophy after his name was called in New York last weekend. But still, getting the cast off is certainly a relief, especially coming so far ahead of the Jan. 1 kickoff of the Capital One Bowl.

"It's weird, obviously, for the first time using it and being able to move the wrist and everything," Tebow said. "It'll be back to normal. It was fine."

After spending the better of a week away from the field attending his many awards ceremonies, Tebow got back to the field with only a small brace on his hand and wrist. He hopes to have both of those removed before the Capital One Bowl, when the Gators face off against Michigan.

"The more you're out here, the more comfortable you're going to get," Tebow said. "I feel back right where I was when we played Florida State. It's nice to get out here and play after a week off. I love playing football, so coming out here, I was having fun running around and getting to play again."

If Tebow can complete 19 of 28 passes for 262 yards with three touchdowns and run for another 89 yards and two scores with a broken hand, just imagine what he can do with that cast off and the hand fully healed. Michigan, most likely, is not eager to find out.

December 10, 2007

Wisconsin: Bowling Without Hill

For those who were looking for a reason other than Erik Ainge to watch the first bowl game of the new year, Jan. 1's Outback bowl between Tennessee and Wisconsin, they may have just lost all motivation. It looks like Wisconsin's explosive sophomore running back P.J. Hill will not be suiting up for the bowl game, as his bruised left leg has kept him mostly off the field since the end of October, and he has yet to take part in bowl-prep practices.

"From what I've seen, he isn't going to be able to carry forward any time [soon] right now," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said, noting that Hill has been given the choice as to whether or not he will play. He said that the sophomore has not been able to run at full speed, which is the main hindrance keeping him off the field.

Losing Hill is a big loss for television audiences, Badger fans and the entire Wisconsin team. Even playing in only 10 of Wisconsin's 12 games this season (and seeing very limited time in the final two), Hill led the team in rushing, averaging better than 100 yards per game (108, to be exact) with 14 touchdowns on the year. For those not mathematically inclined, that's better than a score per game.

Plus, Hill is fun to watch. The 2006 national freshman of the year is an explosive runner who can make plays at any time. But not if he can't run. And at this point, with the game about three weeks away, he still can't run. Assuming that their two-year starter will be watching this bowl game from the sideline, the Badgers have begun making other plans for their backfield.

That leaves freshman Zach Brown and sophomore Lance Smith to fight over the starting role. Brown is leading the charge at this point, thanks to his late-season heroics once Hill became extremely limited in his running abilities. Brown started on the road against Ohio State and rushed for 63 yards, which earned him the right to start the final two games of the regular season. He ran for 108 and two TDs against Michigan, scoring the game-sealing points, and torched Minnesota with 250 yards on the ground and two more scores.

"Zach has the upper hand, I think, just the way he's played the last two ball games," Bielema said.

Smith, on the other hand, had far fewer opportunities to prove himself. He served a five-game suspension over the course of the season that allowed Brown to pass him as the secondary running back in the Badgers' backfield, but he did finish the season averaging 6.2 yards per carry, more than both Brown and Hill.

No matter which backup starts in place of the injured Hill, this game has lost some of its luster. If by some miracle Hill does recover in time to start - or if this news was leaked on purpose so that Tennessee would prepare for the game thinking he wouldn't be involved - the television audiences should flock back accordingly.

December 09, 2007

Hawai'i: Injury Steals Heisman?

Based on his record-setting performance in 2006, Colt Brennan came into his senior season expecting to have another eye-popping year. A couple of injuries and 12 missed quarters of play later, Brennan left the 2007 regular season with an undefeated record and plenty of high-flying numbers, but not as many popped eyes as he was hoping for. His 4,174 passing yards and 35 touchdowns earned him not only an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation, but 54 first-place votes and a third-place finish in the final tally for the sport's most prestigious award. But despite all his successes, it is hard not to wonder - if he hadn't been injured, would the trophy belong to Colt?

In all honesty, the answer to that question is probably no. Tim Tebow had an outstanding year and Brennan's five-interception performance at Idaho in September most likely knocked him out of the running for the title of the most outstanding player in college football (the most outstanding player cannot turn the ball over five times in a single game). But even so, it's worth a look at the numbers.

Even with a combined 12 quarters of sideline time due to a sprained ankle, a concussion and a couple of blowout scores, Brennan led the nation in seven statistical categories, broke or tied 18 NCAA records and threw for more yards and touchdowns than the other two quarterback finalists for the Heisman, Florida's Tim Tebow and Missouri's Chase Daniel.

Daniel's numbers were the closest to Brennan's - he passed for 4,170 yards and 33 touchdowns, but it's important to note that he had three extra games in which to hit those highs. Give back to Brennan those 12 quarters of football, and he certainly would have hit 5,000 yards passing (he averaged 379.5 yards per game this season), and who knows how many touchdowns he could have added to his tally (he threw for 5 TDs in each of the season's final two games).

Brennan's 632 points and third-place finish gave him the highest final tally for a player from a non-major conference since Steve McNair, out of Alcorn State, took third in 1994. Brennan was the only 2007 Heisman finalist to play on an undefeated team, as Hawai'i was the only team to finish the season perfect this year, and he is the only finalist who will play in a BCS bowl come January (the Warriors take on Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1).

After the results of the Heisman voting were released on Saturday, Brennan spoke about how important going undefeated was to the Warriors. He acknowledged Hawai'i's cupcake schedule, but also pointed out that the team could do no more than beat the teams it was scheduled to play, which they did.

"Michigan State paid us $250,000 not to play us," Brennan said. "Michigan didn't want to play us. They chose Appalachian State. There are plenty of other teams that decided not to play us. We had to play who we lined up against. We beat those teams. Now against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, it's a great opportunity for us to get some respect. We can talk after the game."

If the Heisman were awarded after bowl season, and if Brennan does succeed in leading his team to an unprecedented win over a red-hot SEC team, then he can pen his letter to the Heisman committee asking for a re-vote. For now, however, he'll have to be content to blame the injury for taking him out of 12 quarters worth of chances to break the records that the non-believers would not have been able to ignore.

But remember: the kind of injury-related Heisman frustration is not Brennan, who made it to a BCS bowl game, but Oregon QB Dennis Dixon, who still finished fifth in the final vote.

December 01, 2007

No QB, No Problem?

On Championship Saturday, two teams had to play without their starting quarterbacks, but that did not seem to matter much to either one. LSU starting QB Matt Flynn sat out the entire SEC Championship game with a sore shoulder, but sophomore Ryan Perrilloux stepped up when he stepped into the starting role. Over in Morgantown, West Virginia QB Pat White left the Backyard Brawl in the scoreless second quarter with a disloacted thumb on his non-throwing hand . Reports were that the stud signal-caller could not so much as move the thumb, and until that status changed, on the sideline he would stay.

White was hurt with just over five minutes remaining in the second quarter when he fell awkwardly on his right hand after a keeper run. His hand was wrapped in ice by trainers on the sideline and backup Jarrett Brown came in to replace him. Brown did just fine in his first test, finishing the drive out with a 6-yard TD run to put the Mountaineers up 7-0.

West Virginia is facing a considerably weaker opponent in Pittsburgh than LSU did in Tennessee. No matter how much of a boost the spoiler role gives to the Panthers, they simply do not match up against this Mountaineers squad. But the last time West Virginia played without Pat White, they lost the game - and that was the last (and only) time they lost all season. Today's Pittsburgh is no Sept. 28's USF, but the Mountaineers must be a bit antsy that at halftime, they are only leading 7-3.

Still, West Virginia should have no trouble finishing this one out, even with White on the sideline.

LSU, on the other hand, is a bit of a conundrum. Ryan Perrilloux had not thrown a pass in a game in three weeks, and even with plenty of injuries of his own - he spent significant time on the sideline having his profusely-bleeding finger wrapped and re-wrapped - played a great game. He completed 20 of 30 passes for 243 yards, ran, blocked and did everything LSU asked him to do to get the win.

Shortly after Perrilloux sustained an injury to his hand, it was reported that the finger that was wrapped in gauze would need stitches, but that Perrilloux would finish out the game before getting proper medical attention. Perrilloux proved to be the unlikely difference for an LSU team that seemed to lose a different player to injury on every play. It looked like every member of the hot-shot receiving corps took at least one play off while working out an ache or pain, and the defense was hammered on every play, as defenseman after defenseman spent some quality time on the turf dealing with one ailment or another.

But ultimately, interceptions beat out injuries as Tennessee QB Erik Ainge seemed to hand the game to the Tigers with his two picks, one turned touchdown, and the Tigers came out with the win, the SEC Championship, and their quarterback of the future, provided Perrilloux can keep his extra-curricular activities to a minimum.

Now that LSU has won, Flynn and Perrilloux will both have plenty of time to rest their hut hands, and may both see some time in LSU's chosen bowl game. Should West Virginia pull this one out without Pat White, he too will have plenty of time to heal before taking the field again in January.

 

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