BALTIMORE: They appeared overmatched, especially against a Baltimore Ravens offense that was much more balanced than they’d faced in recent years.
Yet it seemed as if the Browns were fighting to save their season Thursday night in M&T Bank Stadium. Amidst the negativity of an 0-3 start, an ineffective offense and the uncertain future under incoming owner Jimmy Haslam III, the Browns played as if determined to prove they all shouldn’t be shown the door.
They found their only prime-time television appearance of 2012 to be the perfect forum.
Although the Ravens pulled out a 23-16 victory, the Browns’ gutty play seemed a drastic improvement over Sunday’s lackluster loss at home to the Buffalo Bills.
Yes, the outcome was the same for the winless Browns. Yes, when they closed the gap to 16-10 in the third quarter on a 51-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, they couldn’t seize the night.
But in the final minute, they drove to the Ravens’ 18 with a chance to tie.
“We’ve got to find a way to coach a few plays better and each guy’s got to find a way to make one or two more plays and then we’ll be over the top,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said afterward. “We’re close in a lot of ways.”
All night, there were flashes of talent from rookie defensive lineman Billy Winn and first-year linebacker Craig Robertson. There were flashes of brilliance from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and rookie running back Trent Richardson.
“I’m proud as hell of these guys,” Weeden said. “It’s a close-knit group. We battled, we came up short, but we fought our asses off.”
Watching in person, Haslam may continue to be caught in an internal struggle, wondering what to do with such a young team -- blow it up or suffer through the growing pains?
Unlike the Bills’ game, the moments to forget were offset by moments of promise.
In the second quarter, the Browns put together an 11-play, 94-yard drive that included a 43-yard catch by goat of the week Greg Little. In the fourth quarter, Little let a high ball that would have been a game-tying TD pass go through his hands at the goal line.
“If you want to be a great player, you want to be a great receiver, you want to make plays that people remember, that people name, that put you in position to come back, you make the play,” Little said. Little caught four passes for 77 yards, but was targeted 10 times.
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, whose rollercoaster ride in the NFL found a valley on Sunday, seemed back on the rise, at least until 15 seconds remained in the third quarter. That’s when Weeden tried to get the ball to rookie receiver Travis Benjamin on the sideline and was picked off by cornerback Cary Williams, who returned it 63 yards for a touchdown that gave the Ravens a 23-10 lead. It was the first interception of Williams’ five-year career.
Before and after that, Weeden was much more in control. In the 94-yard drive, he completed 5 of 8 for 80 yards. In the third quarter, he directed a 53-yard drive to Dawson’s first field goal. Although he missed a wide-open Little in the first quarter, he found Richardson for an 18-yard reception on the same play. He continued to spread the ball around, hitting nine receivers, and showed poise when it began to rain and when adversity struck.
Weeden was operating without his most reliable receiver, Mohamed Massaquoi, out with a hamstring injury, and his replacement Josh Cribbs, who suffered a concussion on a first-quarter punt return. In the second half, Weeden’s receiving corps consisted of Little, Benjamin and Jordan Norwood, active for his first game of the season.
“He battled,” Shurmur said of Weeden, who completed 25 of 52 for 320 yards with an interception and a 59.8 rating. “I think he made progress as a player tonight. But when you really make progress is when you lead your team to victory.”
The Browns’ pass rush, while inconsistent, also showed improvement with four sacks, their second-most of the season, and two more hits on Joe Flacco. Jabaal Sheard, who led the team with 8.5 sacks as a rookie, notched his first of the season. Winn, a sixth-round pick from Boise State, came through with five solo tackles and two tackles for losses.
The unknown Robertson, a North Texas product signed to the practice squad last Dec. 11, stopped Flacco’s streak of 125 consecutive passes in the red zone without an interception in the first quarter.
“It’s not about yards, it’s about points,” Shurmur said. “When you can intercept the ball in the end zone like that, you’re accomplishing something we need to get done.”
Then there is the incomparable Dawson, who hit field goals of 50, 51 and 52 yards against the Ravens and is 8 for 8 this season, four of them from 50-plus.
“He’s a big part of this football team and he’s very, very dependable,” Shurmur said. “That’s what you want in a player, guys who are passionate, productive and durable and he’s all those.”
Yes, the Browns are still wildly inconsistent. They couldn’t come up with a big play on defense when within striking distance. Injuries and cornerback Joe Haden’s suspension continue to leave them lacking in depth and talent, especially as they attempted to cover Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught nine passes for 131 yards. There seems no urgency in play-calling when they fall behind in the first three quarters, the no-huddle apparently lost on page 999 of an imaginary 1,000-page playbook. The Browns’ bench drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 5:27 to go, which doesn’t reflect well on Shurmur.
“It was on me,” said Shurmur, who was protesting an intentional grounding penalty on Weeden. “Fortunately we had an opportunity on that drive to shoot a ball in the end zone or I would have felt worse about it. I can’t do that. It’s an emotional game and I’ve got to make sure I keep my emotions in check.”
But the Ravens are expected to be Super Bowl contenders. The Browns didn’t roll over as they had four days before. They rediscovered their pride, which seemed lacking in the second half against the Bills.
“There’s going to be a lot of negative outside this locker room,” Weeden said. “My goal is to keep this team united. We’re all in this as one. My goal is to keep this group as close are we are right now and to continue to fight. We’re a young team but we’re making strides.”
It has been an agonizing wait for the Browns to put it all together, with the setback against the Ravens their 10th consecutive loss dating back to last season. But against a supposedly vastly superior opponent, it finally seemed as if they have some pieces.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.: About two months into his son Terry’s tenure as the University of Akron football coach, Bobby Bowden considered the chances he’d have to see the Zips in person and figured a trip to Neyland Stadium would be feasible.
“They might even be able to win that one,” the elder Bowden mused as he sat in his family room in Tallahassee, Fla., in February.
At the time, it seemed like wishful thinking from the legendary Bowden. But the 82-year-old came to the intimidating home of the Tennessee Volunteers Saturday night, sitting in the third row of UA’s lone section with his wife Ann, to provide support. He’d spoken to his son’s team in the afternoon.
The scoreboard read Tennessee 47, Akron 26. But no matter what it said, Bowden saw the Zips take a huge step towards legitimacy.
They played like they were oblivious to the fact they were 34-point underdogs.
With 2:14 left in the second quarter, the Zips led 23-20 after a 70-yard touchdown run by third-string tailback Quentin Hines, who was never touched. UT fans booed.
At halftime, the game was tied at 23. The crowd of 81,179, well below capacity of 102,455, seemed disgruntled. Even “Rocky Top” sounded a little less spirited.
UA served notice it meant business just 35 seconds into the game when cornerback Avis Commack, a senior transfer from Florida State, picked off UT quarterback Tyler Bray and returned the interception 44 yards for a score.
That seemed to wake up the Vols, perhaps as disinterested as the crowd considering the game was sandwiched between Southeastern Conference foes Florida and Georgia. But every time the Vols scored, the Zips had an answer, at least in the first two quarters.
Redshirt freshman kicker Robert Stein connected on three first-half field goals, including a career-long 45-yarder, and another early in the fourth.
UA junior cornerback Malachi Freeman, who is 5-foot-9, found himself in perhaps the biggest battle of his career with 6-foot-4 receiver Justin Hunter, who caught eight passes for 115 yards and a TD. Yet Freeman came up with several big pass breakups.
Zips quarterback Dalton Williams, the fifth-year senior transfer from Stephen F. Austin, continued to prove he’s the perfect fit for Terry Bowden’s quick-strike offense. Even when Williams missed wide-open receivers Jerrod Dillard and Marquelo Suel on UA’s second offensive series, Williams kept his poise and moved the ball on the Volunteers. Suel notched a career-high 12 receptions.
Although they allowed 633 total yards, the Zips defense also showed fire and heads-up play. None moreso than senior linebacker Kurt Mangum, who alertly fell on UT running back Rajion Neal’s fumble when sophomore safety Bre’ Ford knocked it loose with 4:20 left in the first quarter. Neal was originally ruled down, but the play was reversed on a replay review.
That seemed to give the Zips’ even more life. Even though the ensuing possession netted only 1 yard, Stein converted his 45-yarder.
UA wasn’t doomed until it surrendered 17 points in a span of 5:54 in the fourth quarter.
“I’m not happy and I’m real disappointed, but I’m awful proud of our players for coming in here and not accepting the fact they’re supposed to lose and accept a guarantee and go home,” Terry Bowden said afterwards. UA received a guarantee of at least $850,000, according to director of athletics Tom Wistrcill. “We stood foot to foot with Tennessee and punched when they punched and weaved and bobbed and all those things.
“They just had too many weapons for us and too many skill people, we couldn’t continue to match up with ‘em.”
Last week, Bowden put his folksy spin on the matchup between a team from the powerhouse SEC and his Mid-American Conference squad that had matched its 2011 win total with its first triumph of this season seven days before. He’d spent nearly six seasons coaching in the SEC at Auburn, where he went 47-17-1, but 0-2 against the Vols.
“They put their pants on the same way we do,” Bowden said during the MAC teleconference Monday. “Of course, they have to split them up the back a little bit to get their legs in.”
It was a good thing the Zips didn’t see UT’s walk-in. Even clad in suits, the Vols looked like an NFL team.
“We were playing from the short tees,” Bowden said on the MAC teleconference in reference to previous week’s foe Morgan State, which plays in what was formerly Division I-AA. “We’ve got to go back on the pro tees now.”
Bowden knew he didn’t have the athletes or the depth, but he got the Zips to believe.
“Every Saturday somebody upsets somebody. We have to go out with the mentality, ‘Why not us?’” Bowden said going into the game.
That had already happened long before the Zips took the field as Central Michigan of the MAC upset Iowa. Then Western Michigan stunned Connecticut of the Big East for the second consecutive year.
Bowden told his team of the MAC brethren’s feats and kept his foot on the accelerator with his aggressive play-calling. Even though his quarterback was playing with bruising below his ribs, Bowden allowed Williams to continue his aerial assault while mixing in the run. Williams came into this weekend tied for second in the nation in touchdown passes (10), matching the total of USC’s Matt Barkley.
“He’s played football his whole life for an opportunity to play at a place like this,” Bowden said last week of Williams, a career backup until 2012.
Williams and the rest of the Zips got more inspiration when Bobby Bowden addressed them at 3 o’clock.
“We had a chapel service so a lot of it was spiritual, but he talked about them just doing the best they can,” Terry Bowden said. “He talked about how Akron reminded him of when he went to Florida State. They were 0-11, 1-10 and 3-8 the three years before. All their big games were on the road. He had to play LSU five years on the road and two years at Ohio State. He talked about us and where he thought our program was starting to go. The kids really enjoyed it.”
The outcome wasn’t what either Bowden wanted. But it gave Terry Bowden hope that his rebuilding plan is working.
“I don’t need reassurance, but in my mind the players really do,” Bowden said. “They got beat 55-14 by Central Florida but gave up about 28 points in turnovers inside the 10. Maybe it should have been 38. The next week, FIU played Louisville down to the wire tonight, they had to come back in overtime to beat us. Then we dominate a I-AA team and we lasted about three quarters with Tennessee before they pulled away.
“I think our players are going to benefit. I don’t think they’re going to be down at all. But it does need to lead them to finishing teams off. We play conference teams that win these games a lot. But it will be a positive, there’s not a doubt in my mind.”
Bobby Bowden came to Neyland Stadium to witness what is essentially a two-fold reclamation project for UA football and for his son’s career. If the Zips’ effort Saturday night was any indication, both may be accomplished long before the proud papa ever dreamed.
After his No. 9-ranked Zips battled No. 10 St. John’s to a 0-0 draw after 110 minutes, University of Akron soccer coach Caleb Porter called out a few of his players that he’d hoped would have a bigger impact in UA’s tournament game Friday night at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“I was disappointed overall with the group in overtime,” Porter said. “I wanted a little more, another level, another gear out of some of the key guys. Scott Caldwell is capable of doing better. He had a solid game, but we need him to step up and find a goal or an assist ... Thomas Schmitt.
“Eric Stevenson today for me was the man of the match. I thought he was a handful all game, but he still needs to produce. Renaldo (Brenes) I thought did well coming in in a tough situation, he hasn’t played a lot, he did a pretty good jub with what we wanted him to do. I think we were missing Alfred (Koroma) a little bit, he gives that game-changer. We’re not sure when he’s going to be back. We hope he gets back soon.”
The Zips (3-1-2) were playing without two starters. Junior Aodhan Quinn was out after being red-carded in UA’s last match, a loss at Notre Dame. Freshman striker Alfred Koroma was hospitalized with a staph infection and Porter said his availability is uncertain for Sunday’s match against No. 11 South Florida.
UA had a 9-7 edge in shots and 6-4 in corner kicks, but six of the Zips’ shots came in the first half. They had only one in the two 10-minute overtimes, while St. John’s (5-0-2) got off two in that span.
“Overall we need to create more,” Porter said. “We wanted to be on the ball a lot. St. John’s is a team that wants to push the tempo, keep us in our back half, press us and try to turn us over. I thought we did a pretty good job of breaking their pressure. We were the dominant team for most of the game.”
Porter thought St. John’s was at its best during a 10-minute stretch in the middle of the first half. He also believed the Redmen benefited from using five substitutes, while Porter played only two.
“They had some periods, I thought late they got a little stronger, they’re a very fit team. They made quite a few subs, I think that helped them; we made very few subs,” Porter said. “Other than (the middle of the first half) I thought we were clearly on the ball more and we ended up being in the front half.
“That’s a credit to our guys, we basically played the game on our terms. I know St. John’s likes to play the game on their terms. We won that battle. But we need to accelerate the game and penetrate a bit more.”
Porter also criticized his team for its lack of precision.
“I thought at times our final passes, our precision in the key moments – be it find a slot pass or a better angle on a cross or having a little bit more bravery or courage to get on the end of something in the box – some of those details we could have done better,” he said. “We had a couple chances that could have been goals, if we finish one of those we win the game.”
But Porter believed the Zips benefited from the tough competition.
“We were playing a good team, St. John’s is well coached, very organized, very fit,” Porter said. “It felt like a tournament-caliber game, which is good. We’ve played several of those already and it forces you as a team to find another level. I thought we went toe-to-toe with them all game. I thought we had maybe the better of the flow on the possession, probably created more dangerous chances than they did; they had a few. Their goalkeeper came up big on a couple. We had enough to maybe find a goal
“In the end it’s probably a fair result. We get a good RPI game out of it and a good result. If we’re going to win these kind of games we have to find another gear, individually and collectively.”
Zips sophomore defender DeAndre Yedlin was pleased that UA created more shots than St. John’s.
“We just need to get that final shot, that final pass down and hopefully we would go up 1-0,” Yedlin said. “It was a little disappointing we couldn’t find a goal, but it’s good that we were getting that many opportunities.”
Former Browns Jim Brown, Paul Warfield, Bernie Kosar, Dick Ambrose, Doug Dieken, Robert Jackson and John Wooten were among those attending the funeral of ex-owner Art Modell in Baltimore Tuesday.
Also paying their respects to Modell, who died Thursday at age 87, were former coach Marty Schottenheimer, retired trainer Bill Tessendorf and equipment manager Ed Carroll, Modell’s secretary Marilyn McGrath and Dino Lucarelli of alumni relations.
Dieken said no members of the Browns’ front office attended, but that the team considered the players their representatives and paid for their airfare.
Dieken said Modell's son John twice referred to how much his father loved Cleveland during his eulogy and looked in their direction.To read more or comment...