Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bennie and the Jets

Photo Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images

Hey kids, shake it loose together the spotlight's hitting something.

Elton John famously sang those lyrics, which were written by longtime songwriter and friend Bernie Taupin, to the song "Bennie and the Jets" in 1973. Thirty-eight years later the spotlight shined brightly on the city of Pittsburgh the past two evenings in the world of both professional and collegiate athletics.

On Sunday evening Ben Roethlisberger helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 24-19 victory of the New York Jets to earn the Steelers' third Super Bowl appearance in the past six seasons. It was really in part to a superb effort by the offensive line who helped pave the way for RB Rashard Mendenhall, who gained 121 yards on 27 carries.

Pittsburgh's running game helped control the time of possession 34:41 to 25:19 in favor of the black and gold, who ultimately held on to what at one point was a 24-0 lead in the first half. New York managed to score a field goal before the end of the half and added a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half.

Deja vu then struck as Roethlisberger later fumbled and recovered a center snap in the endzone for a safety. Earlier in the season when the two teams met in Pittsburgh the Jets recorded a safety to help stifle a late Steelers comeback. The Jets won that game 20-16 but there is no doubt the Steelers gladly would relinquish that game again in favor the AFC Championship victory on Sunday.

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers will greet the Steelers in Dallas for Super Bowl XLV. Stay tuned for more Super Bowl coverage from Stars and Slights.

Switching gears, the Pittsburgh Panthers men's basketball program earned a #2 ranking after defeating Syracuse last Monday night 74-66 and DePaul on Saturday 80-50. Awaiting the Panthers this Monday night was #14 Notre Dame who was fresh off of a comeback win at home against Marquette, 80-75 on Saturday.

Winning at home is no big deal for the Irish, though, having won all thirteen of its home contests this season so far, including victories over two top 10 teams in Georgetown and Connecticut.

You know I read it on a magazine, oh, the Irish are woeful on the road. Going into tonight's matchup against #2 Pitt the Irish were 4-17 in true road games since 2009. Few gave the Irish a fleeting chance in this game given the three other dreadful road performances this season at St. John's, Marquette, and Syracuse.

Enter Bennie, Ben Hansbrough that is. The little brother of former UNC All-American and current NBA player Tyler Hansbrough put on a show in the Steel City, leading all scorers with 19 points to hand the Panthers their first Big East conference loss this season.

More importantly, it was probably the biggest win in Coach Mike Brey's career. It marked the first time the Irish had beaten such a highly ranked team since 2002, when Brey's Irish upended #2 Texas Longhorns 98-92.

Carleton Scott chipped in 16 in the 56-50 Irish victory, continuing his resurgence after missing a few games due to injury. Scott provided a much needed lift for the Irish by knocking down 5 three-pointers (including one for a four-point play).

But it was Hansbrough's fire and conditioning late in the game that prevented the Panthers from posing as a serious threat in the waning minutes. Repeatedly the Irish cleared the lanes and used Pittsburgh's defensive strategy, switching on all screens, against them. Hansbrough used picks set by big man Ty Nash to matchup against the much slower Gary McGhee, who was left in the dust on a few occasions.

Notre Dame put Pittsburgh on 'burn' notice by employing a slow down offense that literally slows down the pace of the game by letting the shot clock nearly expire before attempting to score. It is the same game plan that they employed last year when Luke Harangody went down with an injury. The methodical approach was effective enough to catapult Notre Dame into an NCAA berth last year. Look for Mike Brey to use the method again throughout the rest of the season against teams he knows the Irish cannot run with.

A major knock against the Fighting Irish up until tonight was its lack of a road win. Now that the first road win of the year is out of the way Notre Dame will seek to add another notch to its belt at DePaul on February 3.

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