Fixing the Flyers, Step One: Dont Panic Over a Shortened Season

Fixing the Flyers, Step One: Dont Panic Over a Shortened Season

It seems we’ve been on Peter Laviolette watch practically all
year, waiting for the inevitable to happen. The Flyers are notoriously tough on
head coaches. For instance when the Flyers began the 06-07 campaign with a
1-6-1 record, Ken Hitchcock was handed his walking papers that fast, while
general manager Bobby Clarke stepped down.

Coincidentally that was the only other occasion over the past
18 seasons where the Flyers missed the playoffs. This year the team started a similarly
awful 2-6, and from there we could never quite shake the feeling that Lavvy might
get canned at any moment, until Sunday that is. One day after the final horn
sounded, Paul Holmgren reiterated to reporters the message that he stuck to all
along: this head coach will return.

“Peter Laviolette is the coach,” Holmgren said. “I don’t
know where all this crap came from.”

“Our team played hard until the end,” he said. “Peter is a
strong motivator and a strong tactician. I expect him to lead our team back into
the playoffs next year.”

That doesn’t mean Laviolette won’t be looking over his
shoulder when the Flyers resume their quest for the Cup come October. While you
get the sense there is some legitimate support for the man inside the front
office, it might have as much to do with the fact that Lavvy will only be embarking
on the two-year extension he signed just this last summer, or in other words
saving face.

Still, keeping Laviolette on board (for now) – not to
mention Homer – is also the smart decision, primarily because it’s not the one
being made out of panic. In an 82-game season, eight games represent less than
10% of the schedule. In 2013, eight games was 1/6 of the slate.

Maybe this is the sign of an organization that concedes a
condensed 48-game season is not necessarily a complete representation of where
their hockey club stands today.

More quirks of a 48-game schedule

Make no mistake, nobody is trying to "blame" the shortened
season for the Flyers’ woes. Everyone had to play under the same conditions,
and the guys in Orange & Black simply were not good enough. Their 5-on-5
scoring differential ranked 25th in the NHL, the defense was plagued by constant
complete breakdowns throughout, and for much of the way there was essentially one
goaltender on the roster.

In a normal season though, eight games would not so heavily influence
the final outcome. In a normal season, the Flyers would be six points out of a
playoff spot with 34 contests left to play. And in a normal season, they are
just hitting their stride.

Don’t look now, but Lavvy’s squad started to turn the corner toward the end. Philly won six of their last seven games, and are 10-5 dating back to March 30. At the 48-game mark of an 82-game season, the Flyers would
widely be considered in the midst of their playoff push.

Instead, in a 48-game season every little misstep gets
magnified. It took 16 games, or 1/3 of the season, to figure out Claude Giroux
should be paired with Jakub Voracek. It took until the April 3 trade deadline
to add a truly viable backup netminder in Steve Mason, at which point Ilya Bryzgalov had
played in 22 games in a row – nearly half of the schedule.

Where would they be
if either of those changes had been made in January?

Some things just didn't fall their way

Then there is the matter of 262 man games being lost to injury,
2nd-most in the NHL by some counts, and also more than the Flyers endured in two
of the previous three full seasons (240 in 10-11, 205 in 09-10). Yes, that is an
excuse. Every team has to deal with injuries. But still, that averages out to roughly
five scratches per game – four even if Chris Pronger is removed from the
equation.

As a result the Flyers were forced to lean heavily on young players. By the end of the season, they had been relying on major contributions from as many as a dozen players 25-years-old
or younger, many of whom were in their first or second NHL seasons. Some of them did not enjoy the growth that the team was
counting on to be successful this year, most notably Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier.

Remarkably that was yet another area where the Flyers did
not panic. Couturier in particular was linked in potential deals with San Jose
and Ottawa for Ryane Clowe and Ben Bishop respectively. However, Homer was not willing
to give up on the talented 20 year old, even though there was almost an
expectation from fans and observers that a struggling young player would be
moved for immediate help.

2013 was a disappointing hockey season for Philadelphia, one
that exposed some definite issues that need to be addressed. However, 48 games do
not indicate first- and second-year players have hit a wall, and therefore the Flyers need to be reinvented yet again. The actions of the front
office suggest they agree.

So far at least.

Previously: Positive Takeaways from a Lost Flyers Season

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Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

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Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley believes he can score a touchdown every time he takes a handoff.

Don't mistake the Penn State running back's confidence for arrogance. He's put plenty of evidence on tape in just 15 games to earn a growing reputation as one of the country's most dangerous backs in space.

But with each game this season, Barkley's discovering that space isn't always there in Penn State's new zone-read rushing attack that ranks near the bottom of every major statistical category. Barkley's sure if he remains persistent, more of those highlight-reel runs will come, however.

"We've got to be patient," Barkley said Wednesday. "Stuff will open up and I've got to step up as a player and make more guys miss and break more tackles and we've really got to start getting our run game going because if we get the run game going, that can open up the passing game even more."

Barkley leads the Big Ten with six rushing touchdowns but Penn State ranks last in the conference and 122nd in the nation with just over 101 rushing yards per game. Those sagging rushing numbers can be traced to the big-play back being bottled up before he even gets going.

Usually Barkley's first step is backward in Joe Moorhead's zone-read rushing attack. A delayed handoff follows and Barkley or quarterback Trace McSorley have at times been swallowed up quickly as defenders converge on the mesh point. Although his 55-yard score against Temple came on an inside zone run, Barkley's average on such plays over the last three games falls to just 1.4 yards without it.

It's a cause for concern for Penn State's offensive staff, which is committed to finding more ways to get Barkley the ball as the team prepares to face Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) on Saturday.

Shovel passes and pitches have made brief appearances. Barkley's also caught 10 passes thus far and direct snaps may show up in the future.

Eliminating inside zone reads isn't an option, though.

"There's a lot of different ways," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

Penn State has had success on the outside. Even with a delayed start, Barkley's done most of his damage over the last three games when he's been able to flank defenders. He's averaging 10.8 yards per carry on those plays, further evidence of his skill on the edge.

"He's a game-changing player," center Brian Gaia said.

But one that's not comfortable lobbying his coaches for more touches or criticizing a young offensive line that will likely start two freshmen guards this weekend. Like Franklin, Barkley believes a little more early physicality coupled with his own patience will open things up in the middle.

"I would say the thing that we really need to improve the most is just coming out stronger, coming out faster and starting fast," Barkley said. "Physically, I think we're there. Mentally, we've really got a good grasp of the system but, especially in away games, we've been starting out really slow."

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Take a look at the standings and you’ll see the Temple Owls are 2-2 so far this season with wins over Stony Brook and Charlotte and losses to Army and Penn State.

But take a peek to the right of that 2-2 mark and you’ll see a 0-0 record in AAC conference play.

While the Owls would most certainly like to have a better record than the 2-2 record they sport at this very moment, the silver lining is that none of those games were conference games. Therefore, those games don’t affect Temple’s overall goal of defending its AAC Eastern Division crown.

But, on Saturday afternoon, that title defense finally begins when Temple welcomes SMU and its uptempo offensive attack to Lincoln Financial Field in the first of eight straight AAC games that will close out the regular season.

“It sort of feels like a new start to the season,” Temple senior quarterback Phillip Walker said following Tuesday’s practice on campus at Edberg-Olsen Hall. “It’s just another great opportunity for us not to look back on anything or think about anything that happened in the past in the first four games. Now it’s an opportunity to play our next eight games and enjoy playing the conference again.”

The good news for Temple heading into conference play is that the offense has found its stride. The Owls overwhelmed Charlotte last week, 48-20, behind 268 yards and two touchdowns throws from the arm of Walker and two touchdowns runs a piece from senior Jahad Thomas and Sophomore Ryquell Armstead. After early struggles, Walker is now up to 846 yards and five touchdowns on the year.

That’s after the tough loss at Penn State two weeks ago when the offense settled itself for the first time this season and found continuity. Thomas’ return to the backfield has helped, as he’s scored four touchdowns in two games since missing the first two games of the year with a dislocated left thumb.

The Temple defense is still hurting itself with a lackluster pass rush. The Owls have only five sacks through the first four games. Last season, they had 10 sacks in the first game alone. Big plays allowed are an issue, too, as Temple has allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage through four games.

But the confidence is there and the Owls believe they are getting better each week.

“I think we’re better than where we were [earlier in the year,]” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who has five tackles for loss on the year. “A lot of guys are stepping up, locking in on the small details that were hurting us the first couple of weeks. We’ve got the younger guys playing better and harder, so I think we’ve come a long way. I still think there are some things we need to get better on, but we’re close.

“Those first four games, none of those teams were conference teams. It was like preseason to work out the kinks. Now it’s time to go. It’s full-throttle now. There’s no time to make mistakes. There’s no time to beat ourselves.”

Temple head coach Matt Rhule, on the other hand, doesn’t like to talk much about the “fresh start” or “restart” that comes with the beginning of AAC play this weekend.

He preaches the importance of conference play every week, and he has proof.

“Every week, I put up the conference rankings, no matter what,” he said Tuesday “Week 1 when we lost, I put up the conference rankings. Week 2 when we won, I put up the conference rankings. Week 3, Week 4, I do that every week because I want guys to understand the importance of conference wins, conference losses and conference play.

“I will say, to be fair, I did say we were going to try and get our kids to be ready for Week 4 or 5 or 6, because we knew we were going to have to play a lot of young guys and knew we were going to have to teach them.”

All the Owls, young and old, know they need to be prepared on Saturday.

The Mustangs have already equaled their win total from last season and have the same record, overall and conference, as the Owls heading into Saturday. They hung tough with Big 12 powerhouses Baylor (6-6 at half) and TCU (6-3 TCU at half) before eventually succumbing in the second half of both games.

Defensively, SMU is tied for tops in the nation with 10 interceptions. But plenty of focus goes on the Mustangs’ uptempo offense, which break off chunks of yardage in the blink of an eye with 448 yards per game so far this year. Rhule and the Owls know that fact better than anyone. The last two times these schools have met, SMU earned a 59-49 win in 2013 and Temple came away with a 60-40 victory last season. That’s 208 points combined in the last two meetings.

SMU’s fast-paced attack is exactly the type of offensive system Rhule’s Owls have historically struggled with, too.

“They have, obviously, a lot of offense,” Rhule said of Saturday’s foe. “(SMU head coach) Coach (Chad) Morris was one of the best offensive coordinators in the country. He did it at Clemson and he’s doing it there. There’s a lot to deal with. That’s the history of this series, though.”

Quarterback Matt Davis, who hurt Temple with both his arm and his feet last season, is out for the year with a knee injury suffered in Week 1. Ben Hicks has stepped in and thrown seven interceptions compared to just two touchdowns. But big-play receiver Cortland Sutton is still there and he already has four touchdown grabs on the year.

In practice this week, speed has been the theme of the Owls' defense, which is 28th in the nation with 327.3 yards allowed per game this year.

“It’s difficult to prepare for,” Reddick said of SMU’s offense. “You’ve got to just work on it in practice, going fast and getting the defensive calls faster. You have to look and read to the offense faster to see what you have to do faster. So you have to kick it up.”