Big Ten: Alamo 0829

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern junior defensive end Corey Wootton likely will undergo knee surgery in the coming weeks after sustaining an injury in the fourth quarter of Monday's Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri

A team spokesman said Wootton, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, flew back home to New Jersey today and will undergo an MRI on his left knee, which he injured on a noncontact play. Northwestern expects to have a more detailed injury update on Wootton after the MRI results. 

After recording 10 sacks, an interception and seven quarterback hurries, Wootton had been mentioned as a candidate to enter the NFL draft a year early. His serious knee injury likely means he'll be back for the 2009 season. The 6-foot-7, 280-pound end was granted a medical hardship waiver in 2005 following a neck injury, so he might seek a sixth year of eligibility if he can't return in time for Northwestern's season opener Sept. 5 against Miami (Ohio). 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern had to like its chances with a 3-point lead entering the fourth quarter of the Valero Alamo Bowl against Missouri. And when the game went into overtime, the Wildcats' upset hopes surged.

Winning close games has been Northwestern's forte since the 2000 season. The Wildcats entered the Alamodome with a 17-4 record in their last 21 games decided by seven points or fewer. They also had an 8-1 mark in overtime, capturing their last five games that warranted an extra session. Senior quarterback C.J. Bacher owned an 8-3 record in games decided by eight points or fewer.

So why didn't the Wildcats come through in Tuesday's 30-23 overtime loss to Missouri?

Tigers stars Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman played key roles, but there are two primary reasons.

1. Special teams gaffes -- It's no coincidence that special teams played a role in Northwestern's only other overtime loss, a 48-45 double-overtime setback against TCU in 2004. In that game, the Wildcats missed five -- five! -- field goal attempts, including two in overtime. The kicking game also doomed Northwestern in its most recent postseason appearance, the 2005 Sun Bowl, as the Wildcats botched two extra-point attempts and had two onside kicks returned for touchdowns against UCLA. Monday night, Northwestern gave away 11 points on special teams, including a missed extra-point attempt that would have forced Missouri to score a touchdown in the clutch. Pat Fitzgerald has the program on track, but these special-teams errors are totally inexcusable.

2. Conservative play calling -- Northwestern built its record in close games through bold play calling, in part because its defense was so poor. Bacher has led game-winning drives before, particularly last season against Michigan State, Nevada and Indiana. But the Wildcats went conservative Monday after taking possession with the game tied at 23-23 and 2:49 left in regulation. Instead of attacking Missouri's woeful secondary with a hurry-up passing game, Northwestern played not to lose and tried to force overtime. A more assertive strategy could have set up a game-winning score in the closing seconds.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern outplayed Missouri for most of the Valero Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats had a tremendous game plan, made big plays on both sides of the ball and kept Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman from lighting up the Alamodome scoreboard, which seemed like a guarantee entering tonight's contest. As the biggest underdog of the 68 FBS bowl teams, Northwestern has nothing to be ashamed about after a 30-23 overtime loss to the Tigers in a thrilling contest.

But when you're a massive underdog and you face a more talented opponent, you need to execute the little things. Details matter more than ever. For Northwestern, the little things came on special teams, and in that area, Pat Fitzgerald's team failed miserably.

Northwestern had no business being tied with Missouri at halftime after dominating the opening 30 minutes. But a poorly executed punt, one that should have gone out of bounds, allowed Maclin to race 75 yards for the tying touchdown with a minute left before the break.

That's seven points right there. At worst, Northwestern should have been up 10-3 at the half.

The Wildcats then opened the second half with a brilliant scoring drive capped by a 46-yard Rasheed Ward touchdown catch. But in a scene Northwestern fans are all too familiar with, kicker Amado Villarreal missed on the extra point attempt. The conversion would have forced Missouri to score a touchdown in the closing minutes rather than settle for a field goal. Northwestern's defense did a great job of keeping Missouri out of the end zone, so a stop was likely.

Eight points on special teams likely doomed the Wildcats, and that's not even counting a missed field goal in the opening half. In a game where Northwestern did so many things right, the special teams details really stung.

The program's first bowl win since 1949 would have been huge, but Northwestern made a strong statement tonight, especially on the defensive side. The Wildcats held Missouri's offense to three first half points and picked off Daniel three times. Though Missouri ultimately made the plays when it mattered, Northwestern's defense was one of the bright spots in the Big Ten and should only improve in 2009.

Quarterback C.J. Bacher and wide receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Ward played arguably their best games of the season, and running back Tyrell Sutton came off a wrist injury to rush for 114 yards. Northwestern's problems along the offensive line came back to haunt the team late, and some questionable play-calling gave Missouri the time to rally and force overtime.

The 34-year-old Fitzgerald has Northwestern headed in the right direction. It's critical that this program sustains success, something it did not do after Fitzgerald finished playing in 1996. Those who dismiss Northwestern because of its pre-1995 history are simply uninformed, but the program still needs to get over the hump in bowl games.

Fine-tuning the details on special teams is a good place to start.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Years from now, Tyrell Sutton will return to Northwestern as a distinguished alum and reminisce with head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

There might also be a little smack talk.

"We'll have bragging rights just as much as he does," the senior running back said. "We can talk about our 10-win season compared to his 10-win season."

Sutton's team would have something extra to boast about if it reaches 10 wins, a mark matched by only one other Northwestern squad, the 1995 version led by Fitzgerald. An upset victory against Missouri tonight in the Valero Alamo Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) would mark Northwestern's first bowl win since 1949.

Not even Fitzgerald and his program-changing team hold claim to that feat.

Fitzgerald could always counter Sutton with the whole College Football Hall of Fame thing -- the former star linebacker was inducted Dec. 9 -- but he'd be more than happy to let his player have the last word.

"It's been a whirlwind," Fitzgerald said of the last few weeks. "It's been a lot of fun to represent my teammates and to represent our great university. But that will all pale in comparison to getting our seniors this 10th win, to send them out the right away and to get over this last mountain of getting a bowl victory."

(Read full post)

Valero Alamo Bowl preview

December, 29, 2008
12/29/08
9:15
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After an embarrassing start, the Big Ten resumes postseason play tonight as No. 23 Northwestern faces No. 21 Missouri in the Valero Alamo Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). Here's a quick look at the matchup.

WHO TO WATCH: Northwestern's offensive backfield of quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton plays its final game after three patchy seasons. Bacher has had several monster games in his career, and he might need another to keep pace with Missouri's high-powered offense. But the senior struggles with mistakes, throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions in each of the last two seasons. Sutton, the Wildcats' best all-around player, returns to the field for the first time since Oct. 25.

WHAT TO WATCH: A Wildcats defensive line that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) needs to put pressure on Missouri senior quarterback Chase Daniel, who ranks fifth nationally in total offense and completes 74 percent of his passes. Defense has been Northwestern's calling card this season, and standout end Corey Wootton has to step up for the Wildcats to have a shot at the upset.

WHY TO WATCH: A bowl victory is the one objective Northwestern hasn't achieved despite fielding a very respectable program since 1995 (three Big Ten titles, six bowl appearances). The Wildcats are heavy underdogs, but they've exceeded expectations this season and arguably have more to play for than a Missouri team that entered the fall with BCS bowl hopes. Tonight marks the final game for Daniel, tight end Chase Coffman and most likely dynamic wide receiver/return man Jeremy Maclin.

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