Belichick, Patriots impressed with Jackson's career

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Belichick, Patriots impressed with Jackson's career

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick has spent this week scheming to stop Steven Jackson, but there was a point in time when he was interested in making the Rams leading rusher a Patriot.

Back in the spring of 2004, New England was coming off of a Super Bowl win over the Panthers and in the market for a running back. They had the 21st overall pick in the draft thanks to a trade with the Ravens, and Belichick's interest was piqued by a strong runner out of Oregon State University with a head full of dreadlocks.

"I went out to Las Vegas and met with Steven out there -- he's from Las Vegas," Belichick said Thursday. "I went out there and met with him and spent pretty much a whole day with him out there. He's a very impressive individual. Obviously he's a big strong kid that runs well, catches the ball very well, very good in the passing game. I think he's probably a little bit underrated in that area. Good in blitz pickup. Smart guy. Really he's had an outstanding career. He definitely was a guy we were very much interested in. Like I said, I personally spent quite a bit of time with him."

Taken as Belichick may have been, he never selected Jackson. Instead, days before the draft, the Patriots traded a second-round pick for Bengals running back Corey Dillon and then drafted University of Miami defensive lineman Vince Wilfork with the 21st pick.

That plan worked out OK. The Patriots went on to win their second-straight Super Bowl title that season, solidifying their place as one of the few dynasties in NFL history.

The Rams took Jackson with the 24th pick in 2004. Now in his ninth season, the 29-year-old has rushed for at least 1,000 yards every season except for his rookie season.

Years after pursuing him, Belichick still holds Jackson in high regard, especially his ability to remain relatively healthy despite the punishment he's taken as a result of the massive workload he's assumed in St. Louis.

"It's impressive," Belichick said. "It's real impressive. He's had 1000 yards it seems like every year, right? Close to it. But he dishes punishment out. I think he gives out probably about as much as he takes. It's not like that with all backs. He's got the quickness to be elusive on the second level, avoid guys. He's also got the power to put his shoulder down and run through guys. He's a hard guy to tackle. As I said, his production in the passing game is very good, too. Not just screens, but route running, getting out there, getting open, and beating linebackers. And he's a great target for the quarterback to throw to. He's not a little 5-(foot)-8 guy you're trying to find out there. He's a big, tall, strong guy that's got a lot of range and a big catch radius and big hands."

Though much has been made of the Patriots' struggles against the passing game, the focus of the defense this week is on slowing Jackson.

"They got a good running back there," Rob Ninkovich said. "He can make a few plays as well so as a defense we gotta do a good job of stopping him first . . . We pride ourselves on stopping the run first. As long as you do that and kind of make the game more one-dimensional, it's just going to help your defense in the long run."

The Patriots have made good on their efforts at stopping opposing rushers so far this season. They've seen some of the league's best -- Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Buffalo's CJ Spiller, Baltimore's Ray Rice and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch -- but they've allowed just 86 yards rushing per game on average, eighth best in the NFL.

"I prefer a team that loves to run the ball," Vince Wilfork said. "Especially a scheme running team, because, you know, you get a little dirty. You don't have to worry too much about cut blocks, zone runs and stuff, reading. That's a football team that wants to line up and smack you in the mouth . . . St. Louis is another team that wants to line up and run the ball three straight times, four straight times if they're successful doing it."

Jackson is averaging 3.8 yards per carry this season and has just one touchdown, but the Patriots know that he has the ability to be one of the few backs to hurt them to this point in the season.

"He's a big guy. He's strong. When you have some size and speed it definitely makes it a lot harder to tackle somebody," Ninkovich said. "You just gotta make sure you really get your hat on him."

Nash scores a pair of goals in Bruins 2-1 win over Islanders

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Nash scores a pair of goals in Bruins 2-1 win over Islanders

BROOKLYN, NY – The Bruins knew they needed to find stellar performances somewhere in order to come out of a must-win game vs. the Islanders with two points, and they got exactly that.

Riley Nash had his best game as a member of the Bruins with a pair of goals scored in a 2-1 win over the Islanders at the Barclays Center that snapped a four game losing streak, and pushed them back into the wild card playoff spot.

It wasn’t a perfect game for the Black and Gold by any means and it was nip-and-tuck all the way, but it was important for the Bruins to show they could pull out those kinds of games late in the season.

Things didn’t look all that great early when John Tavares cut through the Bruins defense in the first period, and whistled a wrist shot from the high slot that went through Adam McQuaid’s legs before beating Anton Khudobin. The Bruins responded, however, on the very next shift with Nash stealing the puck from Scott Mayfield in the neutral zone, and beating Thomas Greiss short side for the important game-tying goal.

It looked like the Bruins had their go-ahead score in the first period on a second-effort power play goal by Frank Vatrano, but that was wiped out by a coach’s challenge that ruled David Backes interfered with Greiss in front of the New York net.

So the Bruins needed to wait until the third period when Boston’s fourth line stepped up and won the massively important game for Boston. Dominic Moore fed Riley Nash hustling into the offensive zone, and he weaved through the Islanders defense before snapping a shot past Greiss for his second goal of the game and his seventh on the season for the Bruins. 

NCAA TOURNAMENT: Gonzaga beats Xavier 83-59 to reach first Final Four

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NCAA TOURNAMENT: Gonzaga beats Xavier 83-59 to reach first Final Four

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points while orchestrating Gonzaga's efficient offense, and the Zags finally shook their overrated tag by routing Xavier 83-59 on Saturday to reach the Final Four for the first time.

Gonzaga (36-1) has been dogged by criticism through the years despite winning consistently, in part for playing in a weak conference but also for never making the Final Four.

On the cusp of history, the Zags took it head on with a superb all-around game to give coach Mark Few the one missing piece of his resume.

Gonzaga found the range from the perimeter after struggling the first three NCAA games, making 12 of 24 from 3-point range. The defense, a soft spot in the past, shut down the underdog and 11th-seeded Musketeers (24-14) to win the West Region.

The Zags will face the winner between South Carolina and Florida in next week's Final Four in Arizona.

J.P Macura led the Musketeers with 18 points.

The Musketeers brought their turn-the-page jar of ashes to the NCAA Tournament, where they burned through a string of upsets to reach their third Elite Eight and first since 2008. They beat Maryland, Florida State and took down No. 2 Arizona in the regional semifinals, setting up a matchup of small Jesuit schools seeking their first Final Four.

The Final Four was the only thing missing on Few's resume, which includes 18 straight NCAA Tournaments, eight trips to the Sweet 16 and a third Elite Eight after surviving West Virginia's constant pressure in the regional semifinals.

The Zags struggled to find an offensive rhythm against the Mountaineers - who doesn't? - but had it flowing against Xavier.

Gonzaga came into the Elite Eight hitting 29 percent of its 3-point shots after making 37 percent during the season. The Zags found the range early against Xavier, hitting 8 of 13 from the arc in the first half, mostly against the Musketeers' zone or on kick-outs from center Przemek Karnowski.

Xavier got off to a good start offensively by working the ball around, but hit a dry spell and made 1 of 5 from 3-point range as Gonzaga stretched to lead to 49-39 by halftime.

Halftime did little to slow the Zags, who pushed the lead to 59-42 on 3-pointers by Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews. Gonzaga kept the machine rolling in the second half, continuing to make shots while its defense prevented the Musketeers from making any kind of run.