Conner blossoming for Steelers as Falcons falter
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Monday, October 8
PITTSBURGH (AP) — James Conner isn’t much on talking. Not about the cancer battle that threatened to sidetrack his promising career before he even reached the NFL. Not about his ongoing audition as the new featured running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers while Le’Veon Bell continues his extended sabbatical.
Not even about his new role as an obstetrician in shoulder pads, a side gig he picked up while helping teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrate a touchdown during Pittsburgh’s one-sided 41-17 victory over Atlanta on Sunday. Smith-Schuster feigned contractions while lying on the Heinz Field turf before Conner took the ball and placed it in the wide receiver’s hands.
“I delivered a baby,” Conner said with only a faint hint of a smile. “First time. I’m going to stick to football though.”
Considering how Conner looked while piling up 185 total yards and two touchdowns as the Steelers (2-2-1) restored some sanity to their uneven season, that’s probably a good idea. Running often and with authority — two traits that defined his record-setting college career at Pittsburgh — Conner served as the offensive fulcrum Pittsburgh turned on while punishing the reeling Falcons (1-4).
“James needed that,” Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix said. “Our team needed that.”
Particularly after the way Pittsburgh looked in the second half of a loss to Baltimore the previous week, when the Steelers basically abandoned the idea of giving the ball to Conner entirely, even though the game was tied at the break.
There was no such wavering this time. Conner had 99 total yards in the first quarter alone, including a 30-yard catch-and-run, and kept right on going. He ran for 110 yards on 21 carries and added 75 yards receiving. It was a performance that was reminiscent of the kind Bell has churned out with regularity before deciding to spend the first portion of this season staying away while waiting to sign his one-year franchise tender.
Though Conner understands the desire to stack his play up against Bell’s, he wants no part of it. He’s just doing what he’s asked to do. Against Atlanta it was give the offense some much-needed balance. The Steelers ran the ball 29 times and passed it 29 times while improving to 7-0-1 all-time at home versus the Falcons.
“I think the (offensive line) were tired of hearing all the, ‘What’s going on? We can’t run it,’” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I think James was tired of hearing about Le’Veon so much, so he put on a heck of a performance today.”
The kind Conner and his teammates hope is repeatable.
“It’s like back on track,” Conner said. “It’s playing Steelers football today.”
Some other takeaways as Pittsburgh sent Atlanta to its third straight loss.
The Falcons are off to their worst start since 2013. While injuries on defense have played a significant factor, one of the main issues in Pittsburgh was an offensive line that couldn’t protect Matt Ryan. The Steelers chased Ryan down six times, including a strip-sack by T.J. Watt with less than 4 minutes to go that ended with teammate LJ Fort falling on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.
“Everybody knows our protection needs to be better than it’s been,” said Ryan, who completed 26 of 38 passes for 285 yards and a score. “The hardest part for players is having to watch that film and critically evaluate yourself. I think with the kind of guys that we have there’s not going to be a whole lot that needs to be said.”
Roethlisberger and Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown rediscovered the chemistry that’s made them one of the most potent combinations in the NFL for the last five-plus years. Brown caught six passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns and downplayed the notion there’s been any sort of communication problem with his longtime teammate.
“All of my catches, all of my touchdowns are from him, and that’s my guy,” Brown said. “I live and die with him and the Wi-Fi was lit.”
SPECIAL … AND NOT SO MUCH
Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell missed his third extra point of the season, matching his career total coming into 2018, but the Steelers also produced a bright spot on special teams when Nix broke in and blocked a punt by Atlanta’s Matt Bosher that set up Conner’s second touchdown run.
“We feel like we’re going to get one (blocked kick) every week,” Nix said. “We rush hard, that’s what we do. It just happened like that.”
Falcons: Welcome NFC South rival Tampa Bay next Sunday. The teams have split their last six meetings.
Steelers: Visit AFC North-leading Cincinnati (4-1) next Sunday. Pittsburgh has won 9 of 10 against the Bengals.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
Oklahoma fires defensive coordinator Mike Stoops
Monday, October 8
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma has fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops after the Sooners struggled to stop Texas in their first loss of the season.
The Sooners said Monday that Ruffin McNeill, the assistant head coach and defensive tackles coach, will be the defensive coordinator for the rest of the season.
The No. 11 Sooners (5-1) lost 48-45 on Saturday, allowing 501 yards to the Longhorns in Dallas.
“I have great respect for Mike,” Riley said in a statement. “He’s a quality football coach, great man and a close friend. It became time for a change in our program and that happens sometimes in football, but we cannot lose sight of the accomplishments Mike had at Oklahoma. He was responsible for a lot of success and deserves the gratitude of everyone associated with Sooner football, not only for his role in the winning, but for coaching with integrity.”
McNeill was defensive coordinator at UNLV from 1997 to 1998, and Fresno State in 1999. He later served in that same role with Texas Tech from 2008 to 2009 before taking over as head coach at East Carolina from 2010 to 2015.
Riley was McNeill’s offensive coordinator at East Carolina.
“Ruffin has an impressive resume,” Riley said. “That’s why I wanted him on our staff in the first place. I have confidence in his knowledge and leadership. Bob has a lot of experience in very good programs and also has a list of accomplishments that will help him step in and make an immediate impact. We are fortunate to have these men in our program.”
Oklahoma players reacted to the news on Twitter.
“All I can say is thank you OU_CoachMike you gave me a shot when nobody else would and for that I am forever grateful no matter what people say they never know you for the great person you really are and how much you care for your players…Thank You Coach,” linebacker Kenneth Murray posted.
Bob Diaco will move from defensive specialist to coach the outside linebackers. He has been defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Nebraska and was the head coach at Connecticut from 2014 to 2016.
Stoops had been defensive coordinator since 2012, when his brother, former Sooners coach Bob Stoops, hired him. It was Mike Stoops’ second stint working as an assistant for his brother. Before serving as Arizona’s head coach from 2004-11, he was co-defensive coordinator for Oklahoma and his brother from 1999-2003.
The Sooners have struggled defensively the last two seasons, finishing 80th in 2016 and 82nd in 2017 in the country in yards per play allowed. Oklahoma is 17-3 under second-year coach Lincoln Riley and the Sooners have scored an average of 41 points in those games, including a 54-48 loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl last season.
In one of Oklahoma’s worst outings under Stoops, the Sooners beat Texas Tech 66-59 in 2016, despite giving up 854 yards. That day, Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes ripped the Sooners for an FBS record 819 yards of total offense, including 734 yards through the air, and frustration from the fanbase reached a boiling point.
After a promising start this season, the complaints returned when un-ranked Army controlled much of this season’s game before Oklahoma pulled out a 28-21 overtime win at home. Army possessed the ball for nearly 45 minutes. At his availability the following week, when a larger-than-usual media contingent got a bit close, Stoops joked that the “vultures were circling.”
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
UFC champ could face fine, suspension for post-fight fracas
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
Sunday, October 7
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Khabib Nurmagomedov was the calm, glowering foil to Conor McGregor’s antics for six months while the loquacious Irishman built a frenzy of hype around their UFC lightweight title fight.
When Nurmagomedov forced the biggest star in mixed martial arts to tap out Saturday night to end what’s likely to be the most lucrative show in UFC history, he had fashioned the perfect response to McGregor’s verbal insults and physical attacks.
But when Nurmagomedov promptly hurdled over the cage and fought with McGregor’s taunting cornermen while his own teammates ambushed McGregor in the octagon, the Russian champion and his friends might have seriously damaged careers that were just about to take off.
“These guys are in big trouble,” UFC President Dana White said. “It is going to be ugly.”
Executive director Bob Bennett said the Nevada Athletic Commission intends to file a complaint following its investigation into the actions of Nurmagomedov and his team for setting off a post-fight melee at UFC 229 immediately after McGregor submitted to Nurmagomedov’s choke in the fourth round. Nurmagomedov’s $2 million purse has been withheld, and he could face a hefty fine along with a lengthy suspension.
White said three members of Nurmagomedov’s team were detained by police, but released after McGregor refused to press charges. White acknowledged Nurmagomedov’s lightweight title could be stripped if his actions result in a significant suspension.
“There’s going to be fines,” White said. “There’s going to be God knows what. Can these guys get visas to get back in the country? We’ll see how this plays out, but I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and this is the biggest night ever, and I couldn’t be more disappointed.”
McGregor’s $3 million purse was not withheld after commission officials examined video footage and determined his side had done nothing wrong in the melee. While Nurmagomedov brawled with McGregor teammate Dillon Danis outside the cage, a few men from Nurmagomedov’s camp — at least two of whom appeared to be UFC fighters, although the promotion and the commission haven’t formally identified them — climbed into the cage and confronted McGregor, who defended himself while getting sucker-punched from behind.
McGregor’s first public response to the drama came on Twitter early Sunday morning: “Good knock. Looking forward to the rematch.”
By following his masterful victory with a reckless response to McGregor’s lengthy campaign of verbal and physical aggression, Nurmagomedov showcased the best and worst sides of mixed martial arts in a 30-second span. The Dagestan native who trains in San Jose, California, also overshadowed his years of steady progress to become one of MMA’s top pound-for-pound fighters.
But Nurmagomedov said he had been brought to a boil by McGregor’s behavior since April, when McGregor infamously attacked a bus carrying Nurmagomedov and several other UFC fighters. McGregor was incensed after Nurmagomedov confronted a member of his team in New York earlier in that week, which ended with Nurmagomedov winning the UFC 155-pound belt.
“I don’t understand how people can talk about I jump on the cage, you know?” Nurmagomedov said after apologizing to the Nevada commission during a brief post-fight statement to reporters, his title belt displayed on the dais before him.
“What about he talked about my religion, he talk about my country, he talk about my father? He come to Brooklyn and he broke bus. He almost killed a couple of people. What about this? … I don’t understand. I’m respectful. My father teaches me, ‘Hey, you have to be always respectful.’”
After McGregor agreed this summer to return from a 23-month UFC absence for this highly lucrative bout , Nurmagomedov absorbed the Irish superstar’s gleeful taunts related to his family, friends and Muslim faith during their fight promotion.
McGregor crowed when Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, the champion’s beloved father and a longtime wrestling coach, couldn’t attend UFC 229 because he couldn’t secure a U.S. visa in time. McGregor called Nurmagomedov’s father a “quivering coward” during a boisterous news conference .
On Thursday, McGregor referred to Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, as a “snitch terrorist rat.” McGregor appeared to be referring to a book written several years ago which claimed that Abdelaziz once worked as an informant for the NYPD and FBI among U.S. Muslims in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
McGregor’s barbs were pointed, as usual for a fighter who built his massive fortune both with heavy fists and cutting words. White knew that Nurmagomedov and his teammates took it all very personally, but he was shocked by their response.
“This isn’t the last time guys are going to say mean things to each other,” White said. “This is the fight business. That’s how it works. People have been saying mean things to each other for 18 years here in the UFC. Nothing like this has ever happened.”
White was at Mike Tyson’s fight with Evander Holyfield in 1997 when Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear and went on a rampage that spilled into the stands. The UFC 229 scene also recalled Floyd Mayweather’s fight with Zab Judah in 2006, in which the fighters’ trainers brawled in the ring between rounds and nearly set off a riot; the post-fight fracas between entourages and fans at heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe’s fight with Andrew Golota in 1996; and a Strikeforce MMA show in Nashville in 2010 which ended with a post-fight brawl carried live on CBS.
McGregor’s fame attracted attention to UFC 229 from millions of people who don’t watch MMA regularly, and the embarrassing post-fight events fit neatly into many casual stereotypes of the sport as a barbaric, exploitative spectacle. In truth, such displays of poor sportsmanship are fairly rare in MMA.
“I promise you this is not what a mixed martial arts event is normally like,” White said. “When you have such an amazing event that we’ve worked hard to build for several months, and it goes perfect … this is not what we’re about. This is not what we do. This isn’t how we act.”
Although White said he was “disgusted” by McGregor’s behavior in Brooklyn, the UFC promoted this bout using video footage of McGregor’s violent attack, which traumatized strawweight champion Rose Namajunas and left two other fighters unable to compete due to injuries from the shattered glass.
When asked about the UFC’s exploitation of the bus attack, White said he would do it all again, calling it “part of the story.”
And whatever punishment Nurmagomedov faces, his drawing power will be increased exponentially when he returns to MMA. The gifted grappler from a little-known republic on the shores of the Caspian Sea acquired enormous cultural notoriety with his renegade actions and the show’s success.
UFC 229 shattered the promotion’s previous gate record with $17.2 million in ticket sales at T-Mobile Arena, and White expects the pay-per-view sales to break the promotion’s record as well. That massive audience saw Nurmagomedov put on a beautiful display of well-rounded fighting against the biggest puncher in MMA.
“He had the opportunity to walk out of that place a champion,” White said. “He would have looked like a stud, instead of flying over the cage and doing the things that he did. It should have been a very different night for him.”
Follow Greg Beacham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregbeacham