Iowa, USC tangle in Miami
MIAMI, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- No. 3 Iowa meets fifth-ranked Southern California Thursday night in the Orange Bowl in Miami.
This game would normally be staged in Pasadena this time of year, but when the Fiesta Bowl pitted unbeatens Miami and Ohio State for the national title, the Orange Bowl used the rules of the Bowl Championship Series to execute an end-around, landing a matchup of two of the hottest teams in college football.
"Funny how things work out," said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, who admitted that back in the summer his team had set its sights on playing in the Rose Bowl.
The good fortune continued for the Orange Bowl even after the pairings was announced. The game gained additional luster when USC quarterback Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy, and his Iowa counterpart, Brad Banks, was second.
"There's going to be a lot more pressure on me in that game and he's definitely got something to play for, so it's going to be exciting," Palmer said.
The Orange Bowl normally has trouble selling tickets in games when it does not have the national title contest, but this game sold out quickly.
"Just a perfect matchup," said USC Coach Pete Carroll, who has built a 14-3 record with the Trojans after a 2-5 start.
Palmer has been at his best during the Trojans' late eight games, passing for 2,676 yards and 27 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He likely won the Heisman on Nov. 29, when he passed for 425 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-13 rout of Notre Dame.
It capped a remarkable turnaround for the senior, who up until this year had fallen short of expectations. Palmer played in the Sun Bowl in 1998 and the Las Vegas Bowl last year, and lost each time.
In this contest, he also has a strong cast of characters with him.
There also is a deep stable of running backs that includes Sultan McCullough and Justin Fargas.
Safety Troy Polamalu leads a defense that ranks seventh in the nation against the run.
USC (10-2) will take a six-game winning streak to the game, while Iowa (11-1) has won nine straight since its only blemish of the season. In that one, Iowa squandered a 24-7 halftime lead in losing to Iowa State, or it could have been playing for even higher stakes.
The Orange Bowl will mark a homecoming of sorts for Banks, a native of Belle Glades, Fl., who threw for 2,369 yards and 25 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Banks had never started a major college game before this season, but emerged as the unquestioned leader of the Hawkeyes.
His favorite target is Maurice Brown, who had 10 touchdown catches this season. On the ground, Fred Russell rushed for 1,219 yards while being limited to 10 games because of an injury.
Defensive lineman Jared Clauss and linebacker Grant Steen anchor a run defense ranked second in the nation. The Hawkeyes likely will need a big game from safety Derek Pagel as the secondary tries to contain Palmer and his speedy group of receivers.
Iowa has the edge in the kicking game.
Nate Kaeding won the Lou Groza Award as the top kicker in college football, and has scored a school record 115 points. In its first bowl game under Ferentz, Iowa beat Texas Tech, 16-13, last year in the Alamo Bowl.
USC is 25-15 in bowl games, but has not won one since beating Northwestern, 41-32, in the Rose Bowl following the 1995 season.
USC leads the series with Iowa, 6-2, but the teams have not met since a 55-0 win by the Trojans in 1976.
Report: Lewis, Bengals to talk
WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Marvin Lewis has confirmed that he will speak with Cincinnati about its head coaching vacancy.
The Washington Post reported that the Bengals invited Lewis for an interview, and he said he will use the interview process to determine whether he would take the job if it's offered to him.
"That's why you go and visit with them and talk," Lewis told the paper. "You lay out your program, and they lay out their program, and you see if the two of them can meet."
The Lewis interview is seen as Cincinnati doing its part to at least pay lip service to a recent minority hiring program put together by an NFL committee.
The league has been accused of lagging in the area of hiring minorities for head coaching positions.
The Post said the Redskins granted a request by Bengals President Mike Brown to interview Lewis, who oversaw the league's fifth-ranked defense this season, and that Lewis said he had one brief conversation with Brown about the job, but no formal interview had been scheduled.
"We've talked for about 12 seconds, not very long," Lewis said.
Brown has indicated that he will not alter the way he runs the team, and the paper said Lewis has been told that he keep his distance because the job is seen as a coaching graveyard.
Lewis recently rejected an overture from Michigan State, primarily because he did not think he could commit to the school because of his desire to coach an NFL team.
The Post report also said Brown will speak to several other candidates, including Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, St. Louis defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, and two Cincinnati assistants, defensive coordinator Mark Duffner and running backs coach Jim Anderson.
Packers have two starters hobbling
GREEN BAY, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Two key Green Bay starters are listed as questionable for the Packers' playoff tilt Saturday night against Atlanta.
Driver, the Packers' leading receiver with 70 catches for 1,064 yards and nine touchdowns, sustained a shoulder injury in last Sunday's loss to the New York Jets. An MRI done Monday showed Driver suffered a contusion and strain of the back of the right shoulder.
"Obviously he'll be out for a while anyways," said Coach Mike Sherman. "I don't know how he's going to feel later in the week. He's pretty sore right now, but I will not rule him out of the game just yet."
Meanwhile, Sharper still is recovering from a sprained MCL in his right knee, which he sustained at the end of an interception return against Buffalo on Dec. 22.
He was inactive for the Jets game.
Sharper, fitted for a brace, is walking with a slight limp and continues to be bothered by knee swelling, but may benefit from his inactivity.
"I thought he might be back this week," Sherman said. "I can't honestly say one way or the other at this point. I'm certainly hopeful that he can get well enough to play, but I can't guarantee anything at this juncture."
Sharper told the Green Bay Post-Gazette that he would play, but will try to convince team doctors to use tape instead of the brace.
"I know it will probably be recommended, but I think if I taped it up well, I'll be fine," Sharper said. "A brace is kind of like putting a red dot on your chest. It definitely makes you a target, and restricts you a little bit. Running straight ahead is fine. It's the cutting that has to come around. It's better than 50-50. We'll see in the latter part of the week if I can cut and move laterally."
The Packers also have questions about backup wideout Robert Ferguson, who would start if Driver cannot.
Ferguson, who suffers from a compressed disc in his back, missed practice Wednesday.
"I feel fine," Ferguson told the Green Bay Post-Gazette. "I'll practice (Thursday) and be ready to play."
Falcons put Christian on IR
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga., Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Atlanta running back Bob Christian has been put on the injured reserve list, meaning he is done for the season.
Christian left the field on a cart, but under his own power, on Dec. 22 in the game against Detroit, and was taken to a nearby hospital for observation. He was determined to have a Grade Two concussion.
It was the second time this season that Christian suffered a concussion. His first was against Carolina on Oct. 20.
Coach Dan Reeves said he will be out 2-4 weeks. Ironically, this will be his third trip to the IR. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Thursday that, on each occasion, the Falcons have made the playoffs.
"I don't think it was a big surprise," Christian said. "If anything, it kind of relieved me of the pressure, at some point, possibly having to make a tough decision (to play or not). I was happy to do it, especially to help the team."
The latest injury has put Christian's career in jeopardy. He is a 10-year NFL veteran.
Oakland gets Fikac from Padres
OAKLAND, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- The Oakland Athletics Thursday acquired righthanded relief pitcher Jeremy Fikac from the San Diego Padres for a player to be named.
Fikac, 27, was 4-7 with a 5.48 ERA, and led the Padres with 65 appearances last season. He allowed 74 hits with 34 walks and 66 strikeouts in 69 innings.
Fikac, originally taken by the Padres in the 19th round of the 1999 draft, was on San Diego's 2002 Opening Day roster after undergoing surgery 10 weeks earlier to remove scar tissue from his right palm.
He has a career record of 6-7 with a 4.38 ERA in 88 appearances.
Australia advances to Hopman finale
PERTH, Australia, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Australia beat the Czech Republic Thursday to advance to the final of the $1 million Hopman Cup.
The win came despite the loss suffered by world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who was beaten by Jiri Novak, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. He had five titles in the 2002 season, including the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, and won easily in his first two Hopman matches this week.
Alicia Molik had given the Australians the lead as she beat Daja Bedanova, 7-6 (7-3), 7-5. Molik rallied from a 5-1 deficit in the first set, and then teamed with Hewitt for a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (10-4) victory over Bedanova and Novak.
The tournament uses a "super" tiebreaker, in which the first team to 10 points, by at least two points, wins.
Earlier Thursday, Kim Clijsters and Xavier Malisse led Belgium to a 3-0 win over Uzbekistan. Clijsters, the fourth-ranked woman in the world, cruised to a 6-3, 6-2 romp over Iroda Tulyagnova in a match that lasted just 57 minutes. Malisse had a little more difficulty, but posted a 6-3, 6-7 (3-7), 6-2 victory over Oleg Ogorodov.
Clijsters and Malisse routed Tulyaganova and Ogorodov, 6-1, 6-1, in 41 minutes to advance to a meeting with the United States on Friday. The U.S. beat defending champion Spain, 3-0, on Wednesday.
Australia faces the U.S. or Belgium in the final Saturday.