Big Ten: Alshon Jeffery

Five lessons from a historic 10-pack of Big Ten bowl games this year.

1. Michigan State has taken the next step: The Spartans had the exact same wins total (11) as they did in 2010 as well as one more loss, but this was undoubtedly a better team than its predecessor. Michigan State got over its bowl game bugaboo with a dramatic rally against Georgia in regulation and several big plays during the third overtime of the Outback Bowl. The team has reached several historic milestones the past two seasons and could enter 2012 as the Big Ten favorite, mainly because of a talent-stocked defense that flexed its muscles in Tampa. Although Spartans fans remain miffed that their team didn't reach BCS bowl games in either of the past two seasons, they have to be thrilled with the program's direction under coach Mark Dantonio.

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
AP Photo/Jae C. HongWisconsin had their chances to beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl but came up short a number of times.
2. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good: The Big Ten's two BCS bowl appearances underscored this statement. Wisconsin once again experienced heartbreak at the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO as time ran out on Russell Wilson and the offense as it tried to rally from a 7-point deficit. The Badgers saw five leads evaporate, including one in the second half, and committed just enough mistakes, both on the field and on the sideline, to lose for the third time this season. This was far too talented a team to drop three contests. Michigan, meanwhile, outlasted Virginia Tech in overtime at the Allstate Sugar Bowl despite significant deficits in total yards (377-184), first downs (22-12) and possession time (36:50-23:10). Michigan struggled mightily on offense and didn't have its sharpest defensive performance, but it made enough big plays in all three phases to win and cap an excellent first season under coach Brady Hoke.

3. Special teams play is magnified in bowls: Big Ten bowl season featured both highlights and lowlights in the kicking game, although more of the latter. Ohio State lost the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl primarily because of special-teams breakdowns, as Florida scored two of its three touchdowns on a kickoff return and a blocked punt return. Nebraska's normally reliable kicking game struggled mightily in the Capital One Bowl, and Michigan State allowed a punt return touchdown. On the flip side, Purdue won the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl primarily because of special teams, as the Boilers recovered two onsides kicks and returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Western Michigan. The kicking game was a mess for Michigan in 2010, but thanks to brunette girls, Brendan Gibbons went 3-for-3 on field goals in the Sugar Bowl, including the game-winner in overtime. Michigan State also sealed its bowl win by blocking a field-goal attempt.

4. Erratic Huskers still not elite: The Capital One Bowl is often seen as the best postseason platform outside the BCS games. Nebraska had a chance to put an exclamation point on its first season as a Big Ten member as it faced South Carolina from the dreaded SEC. Instead, the Huskers' final performance left a bunch of question marks. An excellent first-half performance ended in disaster as Nebraska allowed a Hail Mary touchdown pass to South Carolina star Alshon Jeffery with no time left. The second half was filled with mistakes, both physical and mental, as Nebraska unraveled in a 30-13 defeat. The Huskers' third lopsided loss of the season left fans wondering about coach Bo Pelini and the team's fragile nature at times. Although Pelini recorded nine or more wins for the third consecutive season, it's clear Nebraska has to take a step or two to be elite again.

5. The Big Ten's bowl lineup isn't working: The league finished with a losing bowl record (4-6) for the second consecutive season and for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. While this underscores some bigger-picture issues with Big Ten teams, it also points to a lineup that is by far the nation's most challenging when location and opponents are factored in. For the most part, the Big Ten continues to play higher-ranked teams in virtual road games. The results really aren't that surprising. Leagues really don't get credit for degree of difficulty with their bowl lineups, but they do get slammed for losing bowl records nearly every year. It's clear that the Big Ten could play a more manageable lineup, win more games and avoid much backlash, if any. You'll see changes in 2014. Oh, and it would also help to win the Rose Bowl more often, as Big Ten teams have dropped eight of their last nine games in Pasadena.
The gift baskets should be sent to East Lansing, Mich., care of Mark Dantonio.

The sender: commissioner Jim Delany and the rest of the Big Ten Conference.

Michigan State's electric triple-overtime win against Georgia in the Outback Bowl prevented the Big Ten from going 0-for-5 on college football's version of New Year's Day for the second consecutive season. The Spartans erased a 16-point halftime deficit and a 7-point deficit in the final moments of regulation to force overtime. Defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White blocked a Blair Walsh field-goal attempt in the third overtime to seal a 33-30 win, the team's first postseason victory under Dantonio.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Kirk Cousins
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWith Robert Griffin III on the roster, one has to wonder about Kirk Cousins' future in Washington.
You had to be happy for senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who led the tying drive in the fourth quarter and survived an interception in overtime. The Spartans' defense was brilliant for most of the day, particularly defensive end William Gholston, who had five tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery.

Just a great moment for Dantonio and the Spartans.

The rest of the league? Not so much.

Nebraska and Ohio State melted down in the second half, Penn State melted down in the first quarter and Wisconsin committed two second-half turnovers to lose a lead against Oregon. The result is a 1-4 ledger for the Big Ten, dropping its bowl record to 3-6 overall.

For the second straight year, Wisconsin lost the Rose Bowl in heart-breaking fashion, as a handful of plays and decisions led to Oregon's victory. Bret Bielema's timeout early in the third quarter when he thought Oregon had crossed the end line before downing the ball in the end zone came back to haunt Wisconsin in the final seconds. The timeout certainly wasn't Bielema's friend in losses to Oregon and Michigan State.

In the fourth quarter, Wisconsin's offense finally recaptured its big-play ability on a long pass to receiver Jared Abbrederis, who fumbled the ball away, the lone blemish on his otherwise masterful day.

The game ended with a questionable decision to spike the ball with only 2 seconds left and a winding clock. Very hard to do. And a hard way to lose.

The Big Ten now has won only one Rose Bowl since Wisconsin's back-to-back wins in the 1999 and 2000 games.

The league's bowl season wraps up Tuesday with Michigan going against Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

A few thoughts on the day:

  • Special teams played a huge role for Big Ten teams. While Michigan State blocked a field goal to win its game, the all-important third phase hurt the Big Ten teams more than it helped. Ohio State's kicking-game breakdowns led to two Florida touchdowns, a kickoff return and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Nebraska, arguably the Big Ten's top special-teams squad during the season, had a miserable day in the kicking game, as South Carolina returned a blocked extra-point try for two points and Huskers' All-Big Ten kicker Brett Maher missed a short field-goal attempt early in the third quarter. Even Michigan State had a special-teams breakdown in its win, as Georgia's Brandon Boykin scooted 92 yards for a touchdown on a kick return late in the first half. Wisconsin had a strong special teams performance against Oregon.
  • Penalties also were a theme for the five Big Ten squads. Nebraska drew 10 flags in its loss and star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was ejected for fighting with Gamecocks receiver Alshon Jeffery (also ejected). Michigan State received eight penalties in its win against Georgia, and Penn State drew six penalties, one above its season average.
  • Nebraska thoroughly outplayed South Carolina in the first half and had to be beside itself following the Hail Mary touchdown pass from Connor Shaw to Jeffery with no time left. After a good drive to begin the second half ended in the Maher missed field-goal try, the Huskers were done. They melted down in the final 25 minutes, drawing seven penalties. This is a mostly young team that should improve in some areas for 2012, although the Legends Division figures to be tough once again.
  • Penn State's performance wasn't a huge surprise, although I thought the Lions defense would fare better against Case Keenum. Penn State missed Matthew McGloin at quarterback, and the offensive line didn't impose its will against a Houston team that hasn't stopped the run all season.
  • For both Penn State and Ohio State, it's good to get these bowls in the rear-view mirror. Both teams need to move forward after rough years with new coaches (Penn State's has yet to be named).

Video: Jeffery named Capital One MVP

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
5:32
PM ET


Capital One Bowl MVP Alshon Jeffrey talks about South Carolina's win over Nebraska.

South Carolina stopped a three-game losing streak in bowl games Monday with a 30-13 victory against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.

Here’s an instant analysis from the game:

How the game was won: South Carolina’s defense clamped down in the second half. In fact, Nebraska went scoreless the last three quarters after putting up 13 points in the first quarter. South Carolina was able to run it just enough (121 yards) to keep the Nebraska defense honest, and sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw kept the Huskers off balance with his ability to run. The Gamecocks also didn't turn it over, while the Huskers had two turnovers.

Turning point: The Gamecocks looked like they had mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half, leaving Shaw with just one play. He heaved it toward the end zone, and the 6-foot-4, 229-pound Alshon Jeffery went up over everybody to catch it and lunge across the goal line for a 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown with no time remaining in the first half. So instead of going into the locker room trailing 13-9, the Gamecocks went in with a 16-13 lead and all the momentum.

Turning point II: The Huskers took the second-half kickoff and drove the ball down to the Gamecocks’ 8-yard line and had it first-and-goal. A motion penalty and a couple of big plays by South Carolina’s defense forced Nebraska to kick a field goal, and Brett Maher’s 35-yard attempt was no good.

Player of the game: Shaw finished 11-of-17 for 230 yards passing with a pair of touchdown passes, and he also rushed for 42 yards and a touchdown.

Unsung hero: Despite being kicked out of the game in the third quarter for fighting with Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, Jeffery caught four passes for 148 yards, including the 51-yard touchdown pass right before the half, in what was likely his final game in a South Carolina uniform. He’s expected to enter the NFL draft.

Stat of the game: Nebraska was held to minus-15 yards in the fourth quarter.

Stat of the game II: South Carolina sacked Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez six times, and four of those sacks came in the fourth quarter.

Record performance: Jeffery had his 12th 100-yard receiving game, breaking the South Carolina school record. He also caught his 23rd career touchdown pass, tying Sidney Rice’s school record.

What it means: South Carolina (11-2) won 11 games in a season for the first time in school history and will likely be a top 10 or top 15 team nationally to start next season. Nebraska (9-4) ended the season by losing three of its last five games. It was also the Huskers’ second straight bowl loss.
Halftime has arrived in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.

Let's take a look at how the Big Ten teams are faring in the Florida bowls so far.

Nebraska-South Carolina, Capital One: A really good half for Nebraska ended in disaster, as the Huskers allowed a 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery on the final play. Rather than leading 13-9, the Huskers go to the locker room down 16-13 -- and Bo Pelini has to be beside himself. His defense simply couldn't let a star like Jeffery get in position to make a play. Nebraska should have been leading by more had Ameer Abdullah not fumbled in the South Carolina red zone. Credit Nebraska's defense for preventing disaster after a long Jeffery reception set South Carolina up to completely change the game. The Huskers' defense forced a field goal try inside their own 10-yard line, and South Carolina missed. The offense has been balanced so far and has found some room against a very good South Carolina defense. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead both are making plays, and until the final seconds, the Blackshirts did a decent job against Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks' passing attack.

Michigan State-Georgia, Outback: The Spartans' defense actually played a phenomenal half but had little to show for it, as an anemic offense has hurt Michigan State against an SEC opponent in a bowl for the second straight year. A special-teams breakdown capped a horrendous second quarter, as Georgia leads 16-0 at the break. Michigan State fell behind 2-0 after a questionable swing pass from inside its own end zone resulted in a safety. The defense kept the score that way until late in the half, when Georgia's Tavarres King beat Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson for an 80-yard touchdown. After the offense stalled yet again, Michigan State allowed a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown. Kirk Cousins and the Spartans' offense must get something going soon after recording only two first downs and 72 total yards in the opening half. Georgia's defense looks faster and more physical, and Michigan State's play calling has been unimpressive. The Spartans are staring at another humbling bowl performance.

Ohio State-Florida, TaxSlayer.com Gator: Buckeyes fans won't be sorry to see offensive coordinator Jim Bollman go. Ohio State didn't pass the ball in the first quarter -- it took one sack -- even though freshman quarterback Braxton Miller threw the ball well in a Nov. 26 loss at Michigan. Things opened up a bit in the second quarter, and Miller finished the half 4-for-6 passing for 53 yards and a touchdown. Florida leads 14-10 thanks to a 99-yard kick return touchdown by Andre Debose. Ohio State entered the game ranked 10th nationally in kick coverage. The Buckeyes' defense has been so-so, letting Florida quarterback John Brantley get a bit too comfortable but forcing a pair of turnovers. Ohio State must get better on third down, as Florida has converted 4 of 6 opportunities. These teams are evenly matched, and Ohio State should have a shot to win if it can limit the major breakdowns.
Let's look at three keys for Nebraska as it takes on South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.

1. Establish tempo on offense: When Nebraska's offense operates in high tempo, it's extremely tough to stop. The key is finding that rhythm, and the Huskers will need to be effective with first- and second-down runs. Junior I-back Rex Burkhead needs to pick up positive yards to prevent obvious passing situations, when Gamecocks standout pass-rushers Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney can pin their ears back and go. South Carolina's defense is outstanding against the pass, but the Huskers can attack the Gamecocks on the ground with Burkhead, quarterback Taylor Martinez and others. Nebraska's offensive line has dealt with inexperience and injuries all season. This is the time for the unit to step up.

2. Alfonzo Dennard vs. Alshon Jeffery: The game's best one-on-one matchup pits Nebraska's top cornerback (Dennard) against South Carolina's star wideout (Jeffery). Dennard has shut down standout receivers like Iowa's Marvin McNutt, and he'll need a strong effort against another NFL prospect in Jeffery, who holds South Carolina's career receiving record. Opposing teams often shy away from throwing in Dennard's direction, but South Carolina's Connor Shaw will be looking for Jeffery on Monday. Which Nebraska defense shows up will go a long way toward determining the game's outcome, and the Huskers will lean heavily on Dennard.

3. Win the turnover battle: South Carolina has struggled with giveaways in its bowl losses, while Nebraska committed eight turnovers in its three defeats and just nine others in its other nine contests. If the Huskers can hang onto the football and force a mistake or two from Shaw and the Gamecocks' ball-carriers, they'll be in good shape to pull off the victory. Nebraska senior linebacker Lavonte David has been the defense's top playmaker, recording two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Look for David to set the tone and have a strong performance in his final game as a Husker.

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