Wha Happened? Big Ten Bowl Game Edition

Wha Happened? is the weekly round-up of the rest of the games that were in the Big Ten -- you know, the ones that were going on while you were shotgunning that beer, or watching Iowa, or sleeping off that early-morning tailgating.  Who won?  Who lost?  Who made us quiver with fear?  Who made us laugh hysterically?  In short... Wha Happened?  Now with new-and-improved performance ranking system!

Yeah, there's still one more Big Ten team to go (Ohio State in Tuesday's Sugar Bowl), but I don't feel like waiting until then to talk about these games.  

WIN
Rose Bowl -- #3 TCU 21, #5 WISCONSIN 19 (coverage)
Well, this category name is a bit ironic... but I'll be damned if I'm giving Illinois the honors here.  Of all the losses that a Big Ten team suffered on New Year's Day, this loss is probably the one that will haunt its coach and players the most -- because it was by far the most winnable of the bunch, as well as the game that probably should have been won if the team had just played to its strengths.  Wisconsin ran the ball on 20 of 28 first downs, with most of the pass plays coming in the second half.  Only six of those twenty first-down runs went for less than at least four yards (and one of those was a 1-yard TD, so it was still successful).  When Wisconsin fully committed to the no-frills, straight-ahead rushing attack that was their bread and butter this season, they looked unstoppable: see their first and last drives of the game.  That success running the ball also set up the play-action that was so successful on their second scoring drive, too.  Or put another way: Montee Ball had over 100 yards rushing early in the second quarter; he ended the game with just 130 yards.

I understand the need to throw in a few change-ups to keep a defense from completely loading up to stop things, but running stretch plays simply played to the strengths of TCU's speedy defense and calling so many deep passing routes did the same (and emphasized the weaknesses of Scott Tolzien and his receivers, particularly since they were drop-happy in this game).  There's nothing particularly sexy about pounding the ball up the gut over and over and over -- but if the other team can't reliably stop it (and TCU couldn't), why go away from it?  Wisconsin spent most of the second half going away from their identity on offense and they paid the price for it.  The Badger defense played well enough to win -- they buckled down after allowing touchdowns on TCU's first two drives and only gave up one more score the rest of the way and forced multiple TCU punts -- but the offense couldn't do their part and while the TCU defense played well (TCU LB Tank Carder made a ton of plays in the game), the Wisconsin offense made it easier on them by getting cute on offense.  Hayden Fry was at the game yesterday to be enshrined in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame and while he's not exactly the go-to coach when it comes to Rose Bowl success, even he could told Bielema what to do yesterday: "scratch where it itches, you idiot."  It itched between the tackles yesterday, but Bielema and OC Paul Chryst decided it made more sense to scratch around the edges and downfield -- and that's why TCU is celebrating a Rose Bowl win today.

PLACE
Outback Bowl -- FLORIDA 37, PENN STATE 24 (coverage)
This was the game I watched the most from the Big Ten's early slate and not because I have any particular affection for either program or any of the players (in fact, these are probably two of the least talented outfits these programs have rolled out in years).  No, it was simply the only game that was still actually competitive after the midpoint of the second quarter.  The emergence of Penn State's offense under walk-on-turned-ginger-avenger Matt McGloin was one of the better stories of the season and early on it seemed destined to have a happy ending: he led the PSU offense down the field and looked good doing it.  Unfortunately, then he remembered that he was (and still is) a former walk-on and he proceeded to throw five of the most mind-numbingly bad interceptions you'll ever see -- along with a handful of other passes that could have (probably should have) been intercepted, too.  

His 5-INT day (and the generally schizophrenic nature of his performance) drew some comparisons to the Americanzi and, in particular, his own 5-INT day against Indiana in 2009 -- but many of Stanzi's passes were good throws that died in a brutal wind that day.  Granted, he deserves some scorn for so doggedly throwing deep balls into the wind, but the wind still had a huge impact on that day.  There was no such wind tunnel in effect in Tampa yesterday; McGloin's decisions - and throws - were just hilariously, absurdly off the mark much of the time.  Why JoePa stuck so doggedly with McGloin rather than give young Bob Bolden a shot (it's not like he could have been any worse, right?) will go down as an odd mystery (people wondered the same about Vandenberg in the Indiana game, but at least Stanzi was a two-year starter at that point with a rep for pulling himself out of self-made holes and Vandenberg was a totally untested freshman; McGloin is a shaky half-season starter and Bolden started for over a month himself).  Florida didn't play particularly well on offense all day (many of their scorers were set up by short fields from McGloin giveaways), but it's also hard to lose when the other team throws five interceptions and lets you block a punt for a touchdown.  Florida scored 28 points off of those miscues.

SHOW
Formerly Known As The Citrus Bowl -- #16 ALABAMA 49, #9 MICHIGAN STATE 7 (coverage)
PROTIP: If you want to prove that you were wrongly passed over for a BCS slot and that you deserved to be in a better bowl, it's a good idea to NOT lay a gigantic egg in the game you are playing.  Michigan State looked woefully out of their depth in this game, almost from the opening snap.  The game was 28-0 at halftime and 49-0 early in the fourth quarter... and it could have been worse if Nick Saban hadn't been merciful enough to yank his offensive starters fairly early.  Not that it mattered much: Alabama's third or fourth-string running back (Eddie Lacy) had two touchdowns and 86 yards in this game.  Look, any time you have to punt from fourth and goal because the possession has been such a disaster... well, it's probably a sign the game is not going your way.  

Sure, it didn't help that Sparty was without their leading receiver (B.J. Cunningham) and that their #2 WR went down with an injury (Mark Dell), but they were utterly overmatched in this game.  Alabama looked bigger, stronger, faster, and better-coached across the board.  Michigan State had a nice season and they've got a Big Ten Championship trophy to show for it, but they were the beneficiaries of good luck and a fortuitous schedule -- they avoided Ohio State entirely and played Wisconsin early, before the Badgers got their juggernaut of an offense humming.  Any team that dances on the edge as much as the 2010 Sparty team did is bound to get a reality check at some point, and Sparty got that and more in both of their losses this year.  They also had the misfortune of drawing an Alabama team that may have been one of the best 3-loss teams in recent memory.  Still, it would have been nice if the Spartans had at least showed up for this game and given it a glimmer of respectability.

Gator Bowl -- #21 MISSISSIPPI STATE 52, MICHIGAN 14 (coverage)
It's not often that you can say that the Michigan defense wasn't the most disappointing unit in a game (unless you're singling out the Michigan special teams for scorn), but there's not much surprise in them being terrible.  Granted, conceding 52 points was a bit excessive even by their rock-bottom standards (35.2 ppg, 108th in the NCAA), especially against an offense as unassuming as Mississippi State (29 ppg, 47th in the NCAA).  Hell, it was the most points Mississippi State had scored in any game since putting up 61 on Middle Tennessee State in 2000.  So, yes, the Michigan defense was bad -- very, very bad.  But everyone expected that, so it's silly to be surprised that they were simply a bit worse than we were already expecting.

No, the real shocker was the the vanishing act pulled off by the Michigan offense.  After scoring a quick 14 points in the first quarter they simply... disappeared.  From a numbers standpoint, The Denard appeared to have a decent day passing -- 27/41, 254 yards, 2/1 TD/INT -- but the problem is that he had to pass that much.  While he had some pinpoint accurate passes early, he's simply not a good enough passer to throw that much all game and certainly not when he becomes a de facto pocket passer, which Michigan's playcalling did to him at times.  The Michigan running game, one of the best in the nation for most of the year (238.5 ypg, 13th best), amassed just 88 yards on 25 carries.  59 of those came from Robinson, which means that his running backs chipped in for a whopping 29 yards combined.  Then again, they only got 14 total carries, so it's not as though they had much of an opportunity to get into a rhythm.  But when the only unit that Michigan could hang its hat on pulls a no-show act against a defense that was good but not all-world, well... Au revoir, RichRod.  It's been fun.

 

Texas Bowl -- ILLINOIS 38, BAYLOR 14 (coverage)

Hell didn't totally freeze over (jNW didn't win a bowl game), but there must be a little frost on the plains of eternal torment: how else do you explain a Ron Zook-coached team coming out of the gate looking prepared and disciplined?  (Maybe coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koening just tied Zook up and locked him in a closet for bowl prep.)  Illinois jumped out to a 24-0 lead early in the fourth quarter that could have been even more lopsided if they'd been able to convert any of the three Derek Dimke field goals that started their scoring into touchdowns.  But eventually the touchdowns did start flowing (Mikel LeShoure had three by himself) and Baylor's goose was cooked. Baylor had a glimmer of hope when they chopped the lead to 24-14 early in the fourth quarter and it looked like another patented Zooker meltdown was in the works -- but after forcing a stop, Baylor's offense went three and out, and Illinois' offense drove the length of the field to punch in the game-icing score.  

 

There was no shortage of heroes for Illinois on the day.  Nathan Scheelhaase started the game 13/13 and ended the day 18/23 for 242 yards with nary a turnover -- and added 53 yards and a score on the ground, too.  Mikel LeShoure was an absolute monster yet again (29 carries, 184 yards, 3 TD); if he was auditioning for the NFL, I'd guess he made one hell of an impression.  If he decides to come back, he should be a heavy favorite to be All-Big Ten.  The Illini got some help from the defensive side of the ball, too, as some of their heavily-hyped players (Martez Wilson, Corey Liuget) delivered on their promise.  Liuget, in particular, was a force and barely blockable by Baylor. For once, the future actually looks kind of bright for Illinois football -- although NFL defections by guys like LeShoure and Liuget would be a big blow to their hopes of building off this season.

TicketCity Bowl -- TEXAS TECH 45, just NORTHWESTERN 38 (coverage)
For the sixty-first straight year (and the eight consecutive bowl game), our purple friends again failed to win a bowl game.  And, lo, the earth keeps spinning and the apocalypse was delayed another year.  Still, give Northwestern this: they don't play boring bowl games.  Even after digging themselves a seemingly insurmountable 31-9 hole early in the third quarter and convincing the rest of the world that the game was over, they kept fighting and managed to make it just a one-score game at multiple points late in the game.  They even had a chance to tie it on the game's final possession, although moving almost 80 yards in under a minute was always going to be tricky.  And it's not like anyone expected much from jNW in this game: their defense was sketchy all season (and their defense is always M.I.A. in bowl games -- they haven't conceded less than 30 points in a bowl since the 2003 Motor City Bowl) and their offense was non-existent after losing Dan Persa.  If anything, the fact they were able to score 38 points and keep this game as close as they did is impressive.  

Northwestern went with the dual-quarterback system in Persa's absence and while freshman Kain Colter did a more-than-passable Persa impression on the ground (18 carries, 105 yards, 2 TD), neither Colter nor fellow back-up Evan Watkins could do much in the passing game (combined 13/27, 114 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT).  Production like that isn't going to win many games, particularly if you find yourself in a shootout.  But them's the breaks when you put so much of the offensive burden on one player and then lost that player without having any kind of Plan B: with Persa, jNW has a very good shot to win that game (at least until whatever vengeful deity refuses to let them win bowl games intervenes and causes Stefan Demos' leg to shatter into a million pieces on a potential game-winning FG attempt), but without Persa, jNW isn't even a bowl team this year.

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