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Best and worst from Big Ten bowl season

1/13/2011

It's time to take a look back at the highlights (there were a few) and lowlights (more of these) from the 2010-11 Big Ten bowl season.

Best performance: Iowa running back Marcus Coker in the Insight Bowl. You can make good cases for Terrelle Pryor and Nathan Scheelhaase as well, but Coker's performance under tough circumstances was absolutely amazing. The true freshman entered the Insight Bowl as Iowa's only reliable option at running back after Adam Robinson's suspension. He proceeded to rush for 219 yards -- an Iowa bowl record -- and two touchdowns as the Hawkeyes beat Missouri.

Best save: Dane Sanzenbacher showed why his Ohio State teammates voted him MVP on the opening drive of the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Pryor neared the goal line on an electrifying run but fumbled the ball into the end zone. An Arkansas recovery would have turned momentum, but Sanzenbacher saved his quarterback by falling on the ball for his first career "rushing touchdown." Ohio State surged to a 28-7 lead and held on to win 31-26.

Worst defense: There are several nominees, as Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern combined to allow 146 points in bowl losses. It's a tough call between the Michigan schools, but I've got to go with the Wolverines, who suffered the worst bowl loss in team history and surrendered 52 points to a Mississippi State team with a good, but not great, offense. Michigan State didn't fare much better against Alabama, which pulled many of its starters early in the third quarter.

Best play: There might not have been a bigger play in the 2010-11 postseason than Micah Hyde's 72-yard interception return for a touchdown with 5:32 left in the Insight Bowl. Iowa's defense looked gassed and Missouri had limited the Hawkeyes' offense to three second-half points before Hyde picked off Blaine Gabbert and took it to the house. Solomon Thomas' interception to seal Ohio State's Sugar Bowl win also merits a mention here.

Worst strategic adjustment: It's hard to attach "worst" to this one, but we're dealing with extremes here. Wisconsin diverted ever so slightly from its season-long plan to pound away at defenses at TCU and paid the price in a 21-19 loss. The Horned Frogs never consistently stopped Wisconsin's backs on runs between the tackles, but the Badgers veered from their power game at inopportune times. Even though Wisconsin's potential 2-point conversion attempt nearly worked, it's still surprising the Badgers didn't go down with their bread-and-butter run game.

Best closing argument: Illinois in the Texas Bowl. The Illini came in at 6-6 and had displayed the maddening inconsistency to suit their record. But they put it all together against Baylor in a dominating victory. Vic Koenning's defense held Robert Griffin III in check and Scheelhaase showed significant progress from the end of the regular season to the bowl and provided the type of offensive balance Illinois needed.

Worst closing argument: Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Coach Mark Dantonio talked about the game as a chance to "measure up," but the Spartans flat-lined and provided fuel to their critics with a poor performance. Although Michigan State admittedly overachieved this season, a co-conference champion has to be more competitive in such a big setting. Not the type of ending Michigan State wanted for a breakthrough season.

Best quote: Wisconsin players stole the show at Rose Bowl media headquarters leading up to the game. Safety Jay Valai provided several gems, including this one about coming to Wisconsin from Texas. "No. 1 party school, No. 1 college sports town and No. 9 education. I said, 'Hey, you live once, why not Wisconsin?' It's been a great move, except dealing with that cold, cold weather. Not good for my African blood."

Best bowl atmosphere: The Rose Bowl isn't only the best Big Ten bowl atmosphere, but the best setting in all of college sports. Fans from both Wisconsin and TCU turned out in force, and the weather held up to create an unbelievable environment in Pasadena. Wisconsin fans did the "Jump Around" at the end of the third quarter, shaking the stadium and making California natives like me get a little nervous that the Big One had finally arrived.

Worst pre-bowl storyline: The annual Joe Paterno retirement rumors. These are really getting old, pun intended. I could seriously do a separate blog that only addressed the incessant buzz about the Penn State coach stepping aside. The JoePa retirement talk dominated the days leading up to the Outback Bowl, and along with the Urban Meyer situation, we didn't hear much about the game itself. The Ohio State suspension situation also dominated the talk leading up to the Sugar Bowl.