Assessing Another Poor Bowl Season for Big Ten Football

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Assessing Another Poor Bowl Season for Big Ten Football

Well, that wasn't great. After a January 1 bowl slate that featured five Big Ten teams in six bowls, the Big Ten's season is now officially over. And with the Big Ten winning just one of those five New Year's Day bowls and two overall, the Big Ten has limped to yet another losing postseason.

The results weren't exactly a surprise. Michigan State and Northwestern had the strongest chances to win their respective bowl games, and that's what they (and only they) did. The Big Ten wasn't favored in any of the bowl games, so if anything's a surprise, it's actually how well the conference did as a whole.

Now, we can't mention the Big Ten's performance without mentioning the Heart of Dallas Bowl and Purdue.

Ohhh, Purdue.

The Boilermakers were throttled by Oklahoma State, trailing by scores of 45-0 and 58-7 before coming up just short in their comeback attempt at 58-14.

USA TODAY Sports
This is definitely not Purdue.

In Purdue's defense,* the Boilermakers were going into the game with both a distinct talent disadvantage and an interim head coach after Danny Hope was axed following the regular season. It was a bad situation made worse by the fact that two better teams in the Leaders Division were bowl ineligible.

Still, that's the aberration. Every other Big Ten bowl game was either highly competitive or a win. That's more than we expected coming into the postseason slate, even if 2-5 (which, yes, is dismal) was right at where we figured the Big Ten would be.  

One of the most disappointing losses was Minnesota bowing 34-31 to Texas Tech in a game that looked to be the Gophers' for most of the fourth quarter.

Texas Tech was substantially favored coming into the game, but with a month of bowl preparation for a competent head coach like Jerry Kill (especially with Texas Tech dealing with the loss of its head coach, Tommy Tuberville), the Gophers were able to put in place a solid game plan.

Some will obviously point to the late touchdown given up by Minnesota, followed by a pick and a long return with under a minute left, then a game-winning field goal as time expired for Texas Tech. And yes, teams should endeavor not to give up 10 points in the last 70 seconds of games if they hope to win. Glad we got that cleared up.

But the seeds of this loss were sown earlier in the fourth quarter. Jump one hour, eight minutes and 15 seconds into this video of the second half of the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Minnesota is facing 3rd-and-7 on its own 41, and senior quarterback MarQueis Gray is here to help the Gophers salt away the lead with just under eight minutes left.

Minnesota calls a pass for Gray, and he promptly air-mails it several feet over his open receiver's head. Minnesota's forced to punt the ball away, and Gray would not be seen under center for the rest of the game.

That meant his freshman counterpart Philip Nelson was pressed into duty to preserve the win, and Nelson absolutely crumbled, going three and out on the next possession before throwing the crippling interception.

Not having a reliable senior quarterback is what lost the game for Minnesota, and Coach Kill must be praying that Nelson gets rid of his freshman jitters as quickly as possible; Minnesota can't afford yet another lousy year of quarterback play when the rest of the team is improving so much.

Michigan State's nail-biter of a win over TCU secured a winning record for the Spartans, which is not what many people expected after the team came into the year riding two straight 11-win seasons and returned most of a dominant defense. And sure enough, the defense did exactly what it was supposed to this season: It terrorized a conference full of weak offenses, to the tune of a top-five finish in yards allowed nationally.

That defense is what kept Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and its performance after the half is what allowed the offense to complete the rally and bring home the win. 

Part of what makes it easy for a defense to shut down an offense is if the special teams are able to pin the opposing team deep, forcing longer drives for scores. But in the second half, TCU's average starting field position was about the 32.2-yard line.

Michigan State's, meanwhile, was the 30.6—and that includes a one-play drive that started on TCU's 4-yard line. So one possession aside, there was no real advantage in field position for the Spartans.

Thus, it was completely on the Spartan defense to shut down TCU's attack after going into the second half down 13-0, and that's exactly what it did. The Horned Frogs managed all of 74 yards on offense and three points in the second half, while being forced to punt on its first five possessions of the half. Or, in a handy graph from ESPN.com, this:

via ESPN.com

That is pure defensive dominance—even without top corner Johnny Adams, who was out with injury. We'll see if Michigan State can keep that up into 2013.

A similarly admirable defensive performance came from Northwestern in its win over Mississippi State. In securing its first bowl win in 64 years, Northwestern shut down Mississippi State in the second half, allowing just one drive of over 24 yards while putting up 21 points in their 34-20 victory Tuesday.

The real shocker came in Northwestern's secondary play, however.

Northwestern came in ranked 43rd nationally in defensive pass efficiency. That sounds decent, but the Wildcats were also ninth in the Big Ten in the same stat, so you see that the high national ranking was as much about the Big Ten's bad passing play as it was about the Wildcats secondary. Indeed, Northwestern had only nine picks on the year, and four came from linebackers David Nwabuisi and Chi Chi Ariguzo.

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports
This was an actual pass thrown by Mississippi State QB Tyler Russell.

Against Mississippi State, though, that Northwestern defense picked off four Tyler Russell passes, including three in the first 20 minutes of the game. They were not insignificant picks, either.

  • The first interception was returned for a touchdown by Quentin Williams, putting Mississippi State down very early.
  • The next interception came at the end of a sustained drive deep into Northwestern territory by the Bulldogs, preserving the seven-point lead. 
  • The third interception came on the first play from scrimmage of a drive that started at Northwestern's 15-yard-line after a horrific pick thrown by Kain Colter was returned deep into Wildcat territory. Again, that interception took at least three points off the board for the Bulldogs, and probably seven.

Buoyed by that early advantage in the turnover war, Northwestern was able to pull away in the second half and secure its historic victory in the Gator Bowl.

There's no surprise, no lurking explanation for Michigan's last-minute loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, however.

The entire game turned on two plays.

The first was a hit that was as widely disseminated as it was devastating, as Jadeveon Clowney burst into the Michigan backfield untouched and demolished tailback Vincent Smith on a handoff, then recovered the fumble. South Carolina scored on the very next play to take a 27-22 lead with 8:06 left in the game.

Michigan would fight back with a 17-yard strike from Devin Gardner to Jeremy Gallon late in the game, but with 11 seconds remaining and starting QB Connor Shaw out due to injury, Dylan Thompson connected with star receiver Bruce Ellington for a 32-yard winning score with 11 seconds left:

NOTE TO MICHIGAN FANS: Do not watch this.

Sometimes, the keys to victory are obvious, singular plays just like that. South Carolina made one more of them than Michigan, and that's all it took to secure the Outback Bowl.

Don't listen to Taylor Martinez's (via the Lincoln Journal Star) and Ameer Abdullah's silly comments (via the Omaha World-Herald) about how Nebraska didn't struggle on offense against Georgia. Sure, Nebraska scored 31 points on the Georgia defense, but as Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com points out, this was one of Nebraska's worst performances of the year in terms of being able to move the football:

The 5.6 yards gained per-play by the Huskers was their fourth-worst mark of the season, and two of the three lower numbers were in blowouts vs. offense-deficient opponents (Minnesota and a Michigan team playing third-stringer Russell Bellomy at quarterback) where Nebraska took its proverbial foot off the pedal.

In fact, Nebraska's performance actually suggested the opposite of what Martinez does, in terms of the SEC-Big Ten comparison. Despite its lofty preseason expectations, Georgia was a middle-of-the pack SEC defense in 2012, finishing a clear sixth in total defense behind No. 5 Vanderbilt. But against the Huskers, in yards-per-play, the Bulldogs outperformed the Big Ten's No. 1 (Michigan State), No. 3 (Wisconsin, twice), No. 4 (Penn State) and, yes, No. 6 (Ohio State) defenses.

Yes, Nebraska racked up 24 points before the half, and that's thanks to great offensive play. Nobody's taking that away from the Huskers. And if the Capital One Bowl gave out trophies for winning at halftime, Nebraska could proudly display that trophy back home in Lincoln for its efforts.

Nebraska lost a lot of offensive momentum in the second half, however, and while part of that can be chalked up to Georgia's defensive adjustments, there was also one key play where Nebraska could have retaken control of the game and instead lost its composure for the rest of the contest.

At 1:52:55 of the following video, Taylor Martinez has just rushed for a decent gain to set up 3rd-and-1 inside Georgia's 40-yard line. It's 3rd-and-1 with under six minutes left in the game, and Nebraska is sustaining yet another long drive after starting at its own 12.

The ABC crew does no favors by still being on a rather insignificant replay when Nebraska snaps the ball, but you can see the confusion that immediately ensues.

With the officials blowing the play dead and flags all over the field, Rex Burkhead is running untouched through the Georgia secondary for a gigantic run, and Martinez can't believe the play was stopped. Georgia was unprepared on defense even getting its players on and off the field, and Nebraska tried to take advantage with a quick snap.

Georgia gets its timeout, much to the chagrin of Nebraska fans, and on the very next play, Ameer Abdullah fumbles the ball away for roughly the 97th time this season. Roughly.

Nebraska doesn't score another point for the rest of the game, going three and out on its next two possessions while Georgia jumps out to the 45-31 lead, and that score would hold, as Nebraska's ensuing offensive urgency does it no favors.

One has to wonder what happens if the officials don't notice Georgia's timeout or don't blow that play dead. Nebraska had caught the Bulldogs napping on a crucial third-down play, and instead of being rewarded, they coughed the ball—and the game—up.

Finally, in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin fans should rue this game for a long time, because the Badgers had opportunity after opportunity to make a run at it in the second half, and they took advantage of none of them.

As we noted earlier, Wisconsin ran two plays inside Stanford territory—neither of them inside the 45—in the entire second half. One was a four-yard loss that resulted in a punt shortly thereafter, and the last was the killer interception that doomed the Badgers.

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Stanford deserves credit for holding Montee Ball to 12 yards rushing in the final two quarters, a constrictive performance that choked out any hope for a Wisconsin rally.

However, it certainly didn't help matters that Wisconsin only called Ball's number seven times in the entire second half. Curt Phillips, meanwhile, went 3-of-8 passing with one interception (the one we mentioned earlier)...for 15 yards. 

Wisconsin didn't have to play hurry-up ball until the very last possession of the contest—and even then the Badgers had time to stick to the run and get a pair of first downs out of it. Then Phillips started throwing again, and yeah.

There's no way around it: Wisconsin needed to feed Ball the, um, ball on a more consistent basis in the second half. Keep the offensive line chugging forward, and Stanford's defense probably wears down a little bit more down the stretch.

Curt Phillips dropping back to pass was consistently a win for the Cardinal defense, and it translated to a win on the hallowed turf of Pasadena.

 

*This is the only time the phrase "Purdue's defense" will be used without "was terrible" immediately following it.

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