An 80-yard sprint to the end zone by Denver’s Demaryius Thomas that ended the Steelers’ season abruptly on Sunday was the final thud in a seven-day sports stretch that just might have been the worst our region has ever endured - at least in terms of rosters and on-field results.
The week began with Penn State’s abysmal effort against Houston in the TicketCity Bowl – a loss that likely sealed
Johnstown native Tom Bradley’s coaching fate – and included a bowl setback by Pitt and more injuries for the Penguins.
Then on Sunday evening, a Tim Tebow party was thrown in the Rockies at the expense of the Steelers.
When LSU and Alabama met Monday night for the BCS championship – an all-SEC contest that no self-respecting western Pennsylvanian would normally even watch – there was nothing to do but sit back and take it in, knowing that nothing more could happen to lower our spirits here.
Here’s what the previous seven days had brought:
- On Monday, Jan. 2, Penn State’s celebrated defense was torched for 532 yards by Houston QB Case Keenum as the Cougars whipped the Lions, 30-14. Penn State played the game without its starting quarterback, Matt McGloin, who had been injured in an altercation with a teammate. The Lions obviously were playing under the ongoing cloud of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse situation and uncertainty regarding the coaching staff. But all that said, the effort was a stinker.
- That same day, it was confirmed that the Steelers would be without top running back Rashard Mendenhall throughout the playoffs due to a knee injury.
- On Tuesday, the Steelers and safety Ryan Clark announced that he would sit out the wild-card playoff game against Denver due to a blood disorder that nearly killed him and cost him his gall bladder and spleen the last time he played in Denver. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey was also a scratch for the Broncos game.
- On Thursday night, Pitt squandered a four-point lead in the final 17.2 seconds of an 84-81 basketball loss to DePaul. The setback knocked the Panthers – already in the rare position of being outside the Top 25 – to 0-3 in the Big East and gave the team its first four-game losing skid in coach Jamie Dixon’s nine seasons.
- Early Friday morning, Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson was severely burned in a fire in the kitchen of his home. Wilson, 50, was hospitalized and in an induced coma receiving treatment as of Sunday.
- On Friday night, the Penguins fell to the New York Rangers, 3-1 - the Pens’ third straight loss. Center Jordan Staal suffered a serious knee injury late in the game when he collided with former Pen Mike Rupp. Later, the team would say Staal will miss four to six weeks.
Saturday was a train wreck that rolled through Pittsburgh and State College and rumbled all the way to Birmingham, Ala.
- Late in the morning, Penn State introduced its new head football coach - little-known Bill O’Brien – spurning longtime assistant and interim coach Bradley along with everyone else with ties to Joe Paterno and the now-tarnished program. To make matters worse, O’Brien comes from the hated New England Patriots. Ugh.
- As Penn State’s press conference was wrapping up, Pitt was taking the field for the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham amid its own coaching turmoil, thanks to Todd Graham’s abrupt leap to Arizona State. With future leader Paul Chryst watching from the press box and interim coach Keith Patterson running the show, the Panthers laid a rotten egg in the form of a 28-6 loss to SMU. Pitt ended the season with a losing record (6-7).
- In the evening, the Pens dropped their fourth in a row - a 3-1 setback at New Jersey. Injury was added to the insult when sharp-shooting forward James Neal took a puck off his skate and suffered a broken foot during the third period. Neal, who has a team-best 21 goals, is out indefinitely.
- On Sunday – even as the extent of the injuries to Staal and Neal were becoming clear – Pens defense-minded forward Craig Adams twisted a knee during practice and joined the likes of Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang on the sidelines.
- And then on Sunday ... Well, you know all about that. Tebow, of all people, shredded the Steelers defense for 316 yards and and two passing scores. The Broncos’ QB also ran for a touchdown. And his 80-yard slant toss to Thomas on the first play of overtime ended any hopes in Steelers Nation of a return trip to the Super Bowl. It was the definition of sudden death. Defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel went down with injuries during the game, and Ben Roethlisberger played despite hobbling on a sprained ankle. Ouch.
What’s left of the Penguins will be on the ice tonight, hosting the Ottawa Senators. I’m sure Johnstown’s Dana Heinze, the team’s equipment manager, has been hustling to prepare jerseys for all of the call-ups needed to fill out the roster.
And you can only hope things don’t get any worse.
Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat.