Big Ten in the Bowls: Grading Each Team's Performance

Zach TravisContributor IJanuary 9, 2012

Big Ten in the Bowls: Grading Each Team's Performance

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    With bowl season nearly in the books—just waiting on a rematch between two boring teams that can't score; nothing to see there, folks—it's time to look back on how exactly the Big Ten fared in its own national showcase against teams from all over the country.

    National reputations are won and lost during the bowl weeks, and a great deal of the Big Ten's problems of perception are deeply rooted in New Year's Days past.  With a 4-6 record in the bowls this year, an awful 1-4 showing in the traditional New Year's Day bowls (played on Jan. 2) and 1-1 in BCS bowls, the Big Ten again struggled to put to rest doubts about the overall quality of the league.  There were losses to top-flight teams from power conferences (Oregon, South Carolina), mid-majors (Houston) and mediocre competition (Florida, Texas A&M).

    With that said, allow me to use this platform to lodge a complaint to Jim Delaney with the Big Ten's bowl setup.

    Jim, I know how important the idea of New Year's Day bowls are to you.  The tradition and prestige goes back a long way, and even to this day evinces a special feeling that these bowls are somehow set apart or above the fray that is most of the random weeknight bowl games between Christmas and New Year's.  I get all of that, but why do they all have to be on TV at the same time?

    I sat down on Jan. 2 this year to watch the Big Ten compete in traditional games like the Citrus Bowl (Capital One), Gator Bowl (Taxslayer) and Outback Bowl (cheap, overseasoned steak), but I found my hand glued to the remote.  With four games on at the same time (one began at noon, the rest at 1 p.m.) it was nearly impossible to enjoy more than one or two at the expense of the others.

    Move the games to different times.  Start the Gator Bowl at 10 a.m., the Outback Bowl and Capital One Bowl at noon, and the Gator Bowl at 2 p.m.  Give Big Ten fans and college football fans everywhere a chance to enjoy all of these games while still not cutting into the Rose Bowl's time.

    Although, with the way the Big Ten teams played on NYD, I guess it was best to just get it all out of the way quick.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl: Purdue 37, Western Michigan 32

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    The Boilermakers kicked off the Big Ten bowl season Dec. 27 against the MAC special du jour, the Western Michigan Broncos, and despite forcing seven turnovers, recovering two onside kicks and returning a kickoff for a touchdown, the Boilermakers were still only able to survive the game with a close five-point victory.

    Purdue's offense was quietly efficient for the game with an average of 4.7 yards per rush and 8.4 yards per pass attempt but struggled to stay on the field (4-of-14 on third down) and had fumble problems of its own (four of them, two giving the ball back on the same play the defense forced a WMU turnover).

    Defensively, the good news is that, yes, Purdue did force seven turnovers—really five because of the two fumbles that gave the ball back—while getting a sack and holding the Broncos to just two yards per rush.  Unfortunately, none of that matters much when you give up 439 passing yards.  Receiver Jordan White had 265 of those yards by himself and looked every bit the uncoverable draft prospect that some had pegged him as.

    If the grade were for entertainment value, Purdue would get an A, no questions asked.  However, we are grading on performance and in this one there was a little left to be desired. 

    Grade: B-

Insight Bowl: Iowa 14, Oklahoma 31

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    If you had to write a script for this Dec. 30 game that would give the Hawkeyes the best chance at stealing a victory over the heavily favored Hoosiers, this would have been it: a low-scoring defensive battle with plenty of punts and few sustained drives.

    That is just what Iowa was able to do, but unfortunately the offense took too long to find even a modicum of success, and by that time Oklahoma was able to grind out one more scoring drive to put the game out of reach.

    The Hawkeye defense was excellent in this one for most of the way, allowing just 275 yards, 16 first downs, and four of 12 third-down conversions for the high-powered Sooner offense.  Landry Jones passed for just 161 yards, one touchdown and one interception while the Oklahoma ground game struggled to an inefficient 3.1 yards per carry.

    However, compared to the Iowa offense Oklahoma looked downright good.  Missing tailback Marcus Coker's suspension proved to be a huge blow to the Hawkeyes' offense, which notched just 76 rushing yards on 2.1 yards per carry for the game.  James Vandenberg couldn't do enough to keep the Iowa offense moving, especially with receiver Marvin McNutt having merely a human day (four catches, 46 yards).

    Iowa had perhaps the toughest task of any Big Ten team, and despite a valiant defensive effort, the Hawkeyes are left to wonder "what if?" 

    Grade: C-

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas: Northwestern 22, Texas A&M 33

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    At first it looked like the Texas A&M team everyone expected all year had decided to show up.  Late in the game it seemed like, no, in fact the same Texas A&M team that had blown multiple second-half leads was in the house.  As time expired on Dec. 31, it was clear neither team was necessarily happy with the outcome.  Northwestern squandered yet another opportunity while Texas A&M had squandered an entire season that began with such promise.

    Northwestern certainly didn't wow anyone in the raw-yardage department.  The Wildcats didn't break 300 yards and took an incredible 38 rushing attempts to tally 52 yards, although giving up eight sacks for 65 yards has a tendency to skew those numbers.  What is clear is that the Northwestern offense struggled to pick up yardage all over the field.  The longest rush was 15 yards and the longest reception just 16.

    Texas A&M, on the other hand, moved the ball with relative ease all game.  Quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed two-thirds of his 40 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown while running back Ben Malena was responsible for 77 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

    Northwestern made a valiant comeback attempt late in the game, scoring touchdowns on its first two fourth-quarter possessions while forcing a turnover and a three-and-out on defense, but a field goal on the Aggies' last possession sealed the game.

    One has to wonder just how well Northwestern could have done in this one had the team not given A&M such a big headstart.  While there are no As for effort, there are Cs for execution. 

    Grade: C-

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Illinois 20, UCLA 14

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    Alright, bear with me because this is going to sound a little bit crazy: Illinois just might have played the best game of any Big Ten bowl team.

    Nuts, right?

    Look at the facts, the Illini offense for the first time in over more than months found its long-lost rushing attack to the tune of 178 yards and more than four yards per carry.  Nathan Scheelhaase, after struggling for much of the season, finally reverted back to his solid move-the-ball-and-don't-screw-up form of his first year-and-a-half as starter by completing 18 of 30 passes for 139 yards, a touchdown and just one interception with another 110 yards on the ground.

    Defensively, the Illini were their normal stifling selves.  While some might attribute this to UCLA being, well, UCLA, it falls in line with how the Illinois defense has performed all season.  UCLA finished with a paltry 18 yards rushing thanks to five sacks and solid run defense, and Bruins' quarterback Kevin Prince could only complete 48 percent of his passes for 201 yards.

    While a win against UCLA doesn't put Illinois is an exclusive club—there are, after all, seven other teams that have done it this year—the win has to be bittersweet.  For the first time in six games, on Dec. 31 Illinois didn't squander opportunities and won the game on both sides of the ball.

    That this could be considered the most impressive performance (relatively speaking) in the Big Ten says something about the conference as a whole.  I'm just not completely sure what that is yet. 

    Grade: A-

TicketCity Bowl: Penn State 14, Houston 30

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    I know sympathy is in short supply around Happy Valley, but you really have to feel for the players on the football team.  Amid a run at the conference championship, the biggest scandal in the history of college athletics broke, the team then lost its legendary coach and face of the program, two of its last three games and was passed over by other bowls until it was matched up with a high-powered Houston offense in the TicketCity Bowl.  Of course, then there was a locker room fight that sidelined the Nittany Lions' starting quarterback.

    Even so, confidence in the team was high going into the game on Jan. 2.  It would all be gone after each team had touched the ball just once.  Houston scored on a 76-yard touchdown march in all of six plays.  Penn State then punted after three.  By the end of the first quarter Penn State had run fewer plays on four drives (12) than Houston had points on the scoreboard (17).

    The raw numbers are sufficient to describe the carnage.  Houston totaled 600 yards of offense with 532 coming in the passing game.  Penn State managed to get just over half of that yardage (306).

    Penn State failed in every aspect of the game and looked overmatched against a C-USA team.  Even in light of the turmoil and Matt McGloin's injury, this was an unacceptable result. 

    Grade: F Gator Bowl: Ohio State 17, Florida 24

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    It is a tasty little bit of schadenfreude that the SEC team that would deliver the final blow to Ohio State's 2011 season would be the same one that haunts the dreams of Buckeyes to this day, and the one Ohio State is now trying its best to emulate with the hire of Urban Meyer.

    As for the game itself, Ohio State wasted opportunities all over the field.  The Buckeyes out-gained Florida by almost 40 yards, but a dismal two third-down conversions on 10 tries largely kept the offense from sustaining much of anything. The defense was generally solid and only allowed Florida's offense 10 points while forcing three turnovers.

    Sounds like a recipe for a classic Tressel-ball win, right?  It would've been had the special teams unit shown up.  Ohio State ultimately fell victim to two separate special teams gaffes that netted the Gators 14 points and proved to be huge momentum swings.  First, after Ohio State tied the score at 7-7 in the second quarter, a long kick return touchdown put Florida back in the lead.  Second, following Ohio State's first possession of the second half, Florida blocked the punt in Ohio State territory and took the ball back for a touchdown, essentially sealing the win.

    Rarely do two plays so clearly change the course of a game.  Usually there is some debate over just how much this turnover or that fourth-down stop mattered.  Not here.  Two plays, independent of everything else, netted Florida with 14 points it looked incapable of scoring otherwise and squandering an otherwise solid effort by Ohio State. 

    Grade: C

Capital One Bowl: Nebraska 13, South Carolina 30

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    In terms of debate over one or two plays affecting the game as a whole, the end of the first half of the Nebraska game certainly gives plenty for discussion.

    Up to that point, the Huskers had played a solid game and still had a 13-9 lead.  Nebraska had put together two solid touchdown drives to start the game and, despite turnover problems in the second quarter, they were moving the ball fairly well.

    Then an interception deep in South Carolina territory gave the Gamecocks the ball with one minute left, and after a few plays, with six seconds to go, Connor Shaw found Alshon Jeffery open for a 51-yard touchdown pass as time expired.  Nebraska wouldn't score for the rest of the game or gain more than 50 yards combined over the second half.

    Can one play swing momentum so far in a team's favor that it influences the other side of the ball, or did South Carolina's defense just find a way to adjust at halftime to stop Nebraska?  Were the Huskers too beat down after a dismal second quarter that saw a lead evaporate on that final play, or was it simply the team's continued inability to sustain drives that finally caught up to it?

    Either way, Nebraska put in 30 minutes of football before taking the rest of the afternoon off.  At least Orlando is nice this time of year. 

    Grade: D-

Outback Bowl: Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 (3OT)

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    The Big Ten's lone bright spot on Jan. 2 looked for a long time like it would be the sorest spot of them all.

    The Spartans' first play from scrimmage ended in a safety (seriously, why call the bubble screen with two defenders on two receivers from your own 2-yard line?  If you play with fire you're going to get burned), and by halftime Michigan State had punted seven times on six three-and-outs.

    However, something clicked after halftime and the Spartans woke up.  The defense clamped down for long stretches, allowing the offense time to build some rhythm and move the ball down the field.  By the end of the third quarter it was a two-point game, and after a back-and-forth final quarter, a Le'Veon Bell touchdown run with 22 second left knotted the score at 27.

    Then the first overtime happened.  Michigan State took all of two plays before throwing an interception and all but sealing its fate.  Georgia only needed a field goal.  Unfortunately, someone clued Mark Richt into this and instead of trying to do much of anything to score, he simply settled for a long field goal.  Naturally, this angered the football gods and the field goal was missed.  Overtime No. 2 saw the teams trade field goals, and overtime No. 3 looked to be about the same, but the Spartans blocked the kick to hang on for a three-point win.

    It certainly wasn't pretty, nor anywhere near a complete win, but Michigan State was able to hang on, clamp down and take advantage of Georgia's mistakes.

    Grade: B+

Rose Bowl: Wisconsin 38, Oregon 45

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    Wisconsin's second straight Rose Bowl turned into someone else's feel-good story.  Oregon, which hadn't won a Rose Bowl in 95 years, finally broke the streak, and broke a couple scoring records on the way.

    Wisconsin, for what it's worth, played a nearly flawless offensive game.  The Badgers put up 508 yards of total offense on 4.6 yards per rush and 11.4 yards per pass while putting together three touchdown drives of more than 70 yards.  Russell Wilson was every bit the game-changer he has been all season.  He completed 19 of his 25 pass attempts for 296 yards and two touchdowns while running for another score.  Montee Ball added 164 yards and a touchdown.

    Unfortunately, Oregon's offense was simply too much to handle.  The Ducks had an absolute field day rushing the ball against the Badger defense.  Oregon ended the day with 345 yards rushing at an astounding 8.6 yards per carry—largely thanks to De'Anthony Thomas' two carries for 155 yards and two touchdowns.

    Even going against an Oregon offense that fell just 12 yards short of the total yardage record (633, set by USC in 2008), the Badgers were a couple seconds short of a potential game-tying touchdown attempt, but time expired before Wilson could spike the ball to stop the clock.

    Wisconsin came as close as anyone has all season of outscoring the mighty Ducks offense, but fell short because of a defense that was simply outmatched. 

    Grade: C+

Allstate Sugar Bowl: Michigan 23, Virginia Tech 20 (OT)

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    The Big Ten saved the strangest game for last as Michigan put together a MacGyver-like effort to beat Virginia Tech and keep the conference at .500 in the BCS.

    Virginia Tech moved the ball at will all game long until it got into the red zone, and that was ultimately the difference.  The Hokies put together 377 yards of offense and had little trouble converting long third-down attempts, but on six trips deep into Michigan territory during the first four quarters, the Hokies were forced to settle for four field goals while scoring one touchdown and being stopped once on a fourth-down attempt in the red zone.

    Michigan's offense, on the other hand, was MIA almost the entire game.  The run game was bottled up for the first time since a meeting with Michigan State in October, and the Wolverines averaged less than two yards per carry, with sacks included.  Unfortunately the passing game wasn't much better; half of Denard Robinson's pass yards came on his two throws to Junior Hemingway, and both went for touchdowns.

    Outside of Michigan's uncanny ability to bend but not break, the reason the Wolverines were able to escape with a win was because of a series of unbelievable special teams mistakes by Virginia Tech.  The Hokies fumbled a kick return, failed on a fake punt, couldn't stop a wild Wolverine fake field goal and made a critical roughing the punter penalty to keep an eventual-touchdown drive alive.

    Michigan's victory was less lucky than it was proof that a few key plays can have a huge impact on a game.  If Virginia Tech were able to score a touchdown instead of a field goal, or Michigan ddidn't force three turnovers, the game would end in painful fashion for the Wolverines.

    Sure, Michigan caught breaks, but when it comes to football, you make your own luck.  Brady Hoke should know—he's been making his own luck all year. 

    Grade: B+