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Thursday, January 10, 2013
Best and worst of Big Ten bowl season

By Brian Bennett

As we continue to put a bow on the Big Ten's bowl season, here are some superlatives from the league's seven postseason contests:

Best game: I picked the Outback Bowl as my favorite matchup before the postseason began, and Michigan and South Carolina showed why. The game featured all kinds of big plays and four lead changes in the final 15:02. The Gamecocks won 33-28 thanks to a 32-yard pass from their backup quarterback with 11 seconds to go. And Jadeveon Clowney made the play of bowl season with his thundering hit on Vincent Smith and one-handed grab of the loose ball.

Worst game: Purdue insisted it would be ready to surprise Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Instead, the only surprise was just how badly the Boilermakers played. They fell behind 45-0 before eventually losing 58-14, turning the ball over five times and allowing 524 yards. It was the largest margin of defeat in any bowl game.

Best moment: They should have called it the Curseslayer.com Gator Bowl. Seeing Northwestern break its 63-year bowl drought was emotional for its fans, players and head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "This was the one last negative we needed to erase," Fitzgerald said on the field after his Wildcats defeated Mississippi State in Jacksonville.

Jadeveon Clowney
Michigan, South Carolina and especially Jadeveon Clowney put on a show in the Outback Bowl.
Best finish: Michigan State spent most of the season coming up short at the end of close games. So it was good to see the Spartans reverse that against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Backup quarterback Connor Cook drove the team down the field for Dan Conroy's game-winning 47-yard field goal with 1:01 left, a nice redemption for Conroy's shaky season. And the defense held on in the final seconds to preserve the 17-16 victory.

Worst finish: Minnesota led Texas Tech 31-24 with a little more than 70 seconds left in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. But Seth Doege hit Eric Ward for a 35-yard touchdown pass to tie the game. The Gophers' Philip Nelson then threw an interception on a deep ball on third-and-7 from his own 33 that D.J. Johnson returned 41 yards. That set up the Red Raiders' winning field goal on the game's final play. Should Minnesota simply have played for overtime after Texas Tech's touchdown pass? Jerry Kill defended his aggressiveness. "We were in a two-minute offense and trying to win the game," Kill said. "We had a minute left on the clock, we were indoors, our kicker [Jordan Wettstein] has a chance to kick 50 yards and we were on the 35-yard line. We make two or three passes and kick a field goal and win the game."

Craziest sequence: The Capital One Bowl between Nebraska and Georgia provided plenty of points and entertainment value, especially during a wild first quarter. Midway through the quarter, the teams combined for three touchdowns on four plays from scrimmage (not counting PATs). After a Taylor Martinez touchdown strike to Jamal Turner, Nebraska's Will Compton picked off a second-down pass from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and returned the ball 24 yards for a touchdown. Murray responded on the next Georgia play, finding Tavarres King for a 75-yard touchdown pass. The teams combined for 30 first-quarter points.

Best quarterback impersonation: As if Le'Veon Bell hadn't done enough for Michigan State this season, he completed a 29-yard pass from the Wildcat on third-and-2 in the third quarter to set up the Spartans' first score. He finished with more passing yards than starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell. That was enough for us to forgive his awful attempt at a throwback pass to Maxwell early in the game on a terrible-looking trick play.

Best running back impersonation: What position will Denard Robinson play in the NFL? Who knows? But we wouldn't bet against him at whatever he tries. In his final collegiate game, Robinson ran 23 times for 100 yards while lining up primarily at tailback. In doing so, he set the FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback, even though he technically didn't play the position in his final few games. No one ever said Robinson was conventional.

Best season microcosm: (Tie) Wisconsin and Nebraska. Sometimes, teams can reverse their tendencies in bowls after a month-long layoff. Not so much for the Badgers and Cornhuskers. Wisconsin showed that the Big Ten title game win was the aberration in their season, as their 20-14 Rose Bowl loss to Stanford was a near carbon-copy of their previous five defeats in 2012. The lack of a strong passing game and the inability to close out games once again cost them. It was a similar story for Nebraska, which showed the ability to score points and move the ball at will against a talented Georgia defense. But the Huskers' problems with ball security (three turnovers) and defensive lapses turned a 31-31 game into a 45-31 Capital One Bowl loss.

Strangest moment: Michigan gambled on a fake field goal on a fourth-and-4 in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, and Floyd Simmons appeared to come up just short. The officials called for a measurement, and the ball was clearly short of the first down marker by a full chain length. Yet referee Jeff Maconaghy signaled first down for the Wolverines, sending Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier into a rage. "We felt like he was pointing the wrong way," Spurrier said later. "I asked if he meant that way. He wasn't going to change his mind." After one of the oddest calls we've ever seen, Clowney exacted his own form of justice with the hit of the year on Smith.

Goofiest moment: You knew Stanford's irreverent band wouldn't miss an opportunity to make a big splash at the Rose Bowl. At halftime, the Cardinal band presented an ode to cheese in deference -- or mockery -- of one of Wisconsin's chief products. The show was full of often painful cheese puns, with the band spelling out "Homage" on the field and then changing it to "Fromage," and a voice over the P.A. system saying things like "Leave us prov-alone." Wisconsin fans didn't like it very much and booed the performance. I thought it was pretty funny, or "punny" as the band spelled out at one point.