Big Ten: Jeremy Maclin

There are a few cowbells cropping up around Northwestern's football complex in recent weeks, but no monkeys.

The stuffed monkey Northwestern players carried around during last year's bowl preparation -- signifying 63 years of postseason futility -- was good for some laughs, some newsprint and some airtime during ESPN's broadcast of the Meineke Care Care Bowl of Texas. But it didn't bring any luck in the game, as Northwestern fell to Texas A&M, suffering its ninth consecutive bowl defeat.

There's no monkey business this year, and that's a good thing. Just because everyone else brings up the bowl losing streak doesn't mean the Wildcats have to belabor it. They're focused on the Mississippi State Bulldogs, all those cowbells and what it takes to walk off the field at the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl as a winner.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Rich Barnes/US PresswireCoach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats face Mississippi State in their latest attempt to end their bowl drought.
"Our goal is still in front of us," senior guard Brian Mulroe told ESPN.com, "and it's a big goal."

It's also a more realistic goal. A significant factor in Northwestern's bowl slide has been matchups. The Wildcats have been underdogs in each of their past nine bowl matchups -- in several cases, sizable underdogs.

Because of the Big Ten's tendency to send two teams to BCS bowls, Northwestern's recent ability to sell itself to better bowl games and other reasons, the Wildcats have been in several games that, on paper, look like mismatches. Last season, Northwestern leapfrogged two teams it had lost to -- Penn State, Illinois -- on the bowl pecking order and faced a Texas A&M squad led by a future NFL starting quarterback (Ryan Tanehill).

"We played some really darn good football teams, and we've gone toe-to-toe with them," Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "... I don't know, Jeremy Maclin's turned out to be a pretty damn good player [Maclin had a game-changing, 75-yard punt return touchdown for Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl]. And Auburn won a national championship the next year [after Northwestern played the Tigers]. I think I saw three All-Americans on this year’s team that were on A&M."

Northwestern once again is an underdog against Mississippi State, but a slight one. The Wildcats have two more wins than the Bulldogs and a stronger overall résumé. Although both teams started strong, Northwestern finished a bit better with wins in three of its final four games (Mississippi State dropped four of five).

Although many Northwestern fans were hoping for a Capital One Bowl invitation that never came, what they received is a long overdue even matchup in a bowl game. Mississippi State isn't vastly superior to Northwestern, like A&M was last year.

"We just haven't finished the job," Fitzgerald said. "That's what we need to do right now."

Fitzgerald, who played on Northwestern bowl teams that endured two-a-day practices in December ("We almost had a mutiny," he said), hopes to find the right balance of work and fun before kickoff. Northwestern is having a bowl week in Chicago -- the team attended Tuesday night's Bulls-Celtics game -- before the actual bowl week in Jacksonville, Fla.

But for fifth-year seniors like Mulroe, who made his first career start in the 2010 Outback Bowl and started the next two bowls, it's all about taking care of business.

"This is going to be a work bowl, definitely," he said. "It's been tough, but every time in the locker room after those games, those seniors, they're so appreciative of the season but you know deep down, they wanted that last win. So we're going to try to prepare everyone as if they're a senior. It is the last game as a team, and as a unit. Bowls are fun, but obviously there's one goal.

"The one goal is to win, and we're going to get that monkey off our back."

OK, so the monkey isn't totally dead in Evanston, but it could be Jan. 1. And though Fitzgerald still thinks the media places too much emphasis on bowls, win or lose, he acknowledges what a victory could do for a program that returns its core intact for 2013.

"Nine wins is a good season; 10 wins is great," he said. "Winning a bowl game is an exclamation point on this year. With the amount of guys we have coming back and the way our senior class graduates as the all-time winningest senior class, it's an exclamation point on as solid of a foundation of success as we've ever had in this program's history."
The Illinois-Missouri series goes on hiatus after Saturday's clash in St. Louis. For the men wearing orange helmets, it seems like the break can't come soon enough.

Illinois has opened its season against the rival Tigers five times since 2002, including each of the past three years. All five games have produced the same result for the Fighting Illini: 0-1.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Jason Miller/US PresswireRon Zook had a few surprisingly good recruiting classes in his first years at Illinois, but they haven't equaled wins for the Illini.
Many forecast another opening loss for Ron Zook's crew Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. Translation: there's no better time for the Illini to step up and get some revenge.

If Illinois wants to make a statement that things are turning around, the Missouri game provides the perfect platform.

"They're all important, but this one has an awful lot of importance on it," Zook told ESPN.com. "Obviously, we haven’t had a lot of success against them."

The Missouri game has been a buzzkill for Illinois in each of the past two seasons. After a run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, preseason No. 20 Illinois entered the dome to face No. 6 Missouri in one of the more anticipated matchups of the 2008 opening weekend.

Game result: Missouri 52, Illinois 42

Illinois season result: 5-7

Optimism had been restored by the time Illinois made the trip to St. Louis last year. Quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn had returned, linebacker Martez Wilson seemed on the brink of a huge season and the team had gone through a very successful preseason camp. Plus, Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin were no longer on Missouri's roster.

Game result: Missouri 37, Illinois 9

Illinois season result: 3-9

"We were healthy, we were fresh, no one was beat up, we put a big emphasis on it," Zook recalled. "And we get over there and the second play of the game, it was like somebody threw a blanket over us."

Benn and running back Jason Ford both went down with injuries. Wilson suffered a neck injury in the first quarter but remained in the game, only to learn days later that he needed season-ending surgery.

The team never fully recovered, plummeting to a 1-6 start.

As Zook prepares his team for another tough opener against Mizzou, he doesn't stiff-arm what has taken place the past few years.

“Traditionally, Missouri’s probably played if not their best, one of their best games of the year against us," Zook said. "That's the one thing we've tried to stress to our guys. You look at Missouri in the first game of the year, you look at them in the end, and they're not the same team.

"We've got to match the way they're playing."

Illinois isn't as healthy as it was a year ago, as two projected starters in the secondary, safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, will miss the game. Missouri will play without running back Derrick Washington, but the Tigers still have quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who torched the Illini for 319 pass yards and three touchdowns last year.

Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase makes his first career start for the Illini, who debut a new offense under coordinator Paul Petrino.

"I'm like everyone else, I want to see him play, too," Zook said. "I'm not going to say he’s going to be perfect, but he’ll learn from his mistakes and he'll do a great job."

After last year's loss, Zook and his players lamented that something happened on the bus ride from Champaign to St. Louis. No one could pinpoint the problem, but it zapped Illinois' mojo from a strong camp.

Saturday is a chance to get the momentum back.

"We all have something to prove," defensive end Clay Nurse said. "You can dwell on what your season was like last year, but I'm not one to dwell on that.

"I'm just ready to go out here and show people we can produce and be successful."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 7, 2010
5/07/10
3:30
PM ET
Enjoy the weekend.

Everett from Philadelphia writes: Adam, I know you have heard a lot about expansion, so what do you think the chances are that Maryland joins the Big Ten? Ok, hear me out. Maryland has no true rival in the ACC besides duke in basketball, and they could play that game OOC. Though one-sided, Penn State-Maryland had a rivalry that went 36 games. Unlike Pitt, they bring in a new media market and I think Penn State is better suited to have a rivalry with the flagship school of another state. The conference could go to 14, having the two 7 sided divisions, by adding Rutgers, Maryland, and Syracuse.

Adam Rittenberg: While I don't think Maryland is in the top tier of Big Ten expansion candidates, the Big Ten shouldn't dismiss the Turtle (and start fearing it, dammit). The Penn State rivalry certainly would heat up again, and Maryland brings a name basketball program to the Big Ten. What Maryland lacks is super strong football tradition, although the program has had its high points. And while the Washington market isn't New York in terms of size, there seems to be a stronger interest in college sports in the Maryland/DC/Virginia area. It's a good point to bring up, Everett.


Phil from NYC writes: Did you ever ask Coach why he doesn't try harder to recruit/replace Demos with a RELIABLE placekicker.He has cost us the last two Bowl games- 2010 being the most egregious. I don't understansd why Coach seems so enamored with him/his failures!!!When I watch Greatest Games (from 2000), Long was a key ingrediant in winning many iof those games (e.g., see MI game, which I was lucky enough to attend)

Adam Rittenberg: Tim Long's biggest kick in 2000 actually came at Wisconsin, as it sent the game to overtime and led to the first of several dramatic wins that year. I also remember writing a profile for the student paper on Long, headlined, "Kind of weird in the head." Ah, the college days ... Back to your question, Stefan Demos. I know the bowl struggles stand out, and Northwestern's special-teams woes always seem to surface at the worst possible times. Certainly punting the ball directly to Jeremy Maclin right before halftime at the Alamo Bowl was an egregious mistake. But overall, Demos did a really nice job last year. He kicked had game-winning field goals against Eastern Michigan and Indiana and made several other big kicks, including one at Iowa. He was a second-team All-Big Ten pick behind Brett Swenson. So there are some legitimate reasons behind Pat Fitzgerald's loyalty. Demos has done an above-average job overall, and he shouldn't have to handle the punting duties as well. Northwestern hasn't done a good job with the punting situation and needs to take that off Demos' plate this fall, if possible.


Pete from Chicago writes: I know you routinely denigrate Illinois for athletic acheivement but under any rating system you can name Illinois is head and shoulders better academically than Penn State and easily in your top four group. Try to be a little more objective next time. OK?

Adam Rittenberg: Always objective, Pete, but I do owe you and other Illinois fans an apology. Illinois is right up there academically with the best of the Big Ten. I should have included Illinois with Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan. It was an oversight, but no ill intent. Really, all the Big Ten schools are solid academically, which is why the league won't add an institution purely based on its athletic success or market value.


Evan from Atlanta and Cleveland writes: Hey Adam, Still lovin' the blog... From an economic and talent perspective, wouldn't the Big Ten benefit even more from "poaching" a team from both the Big 12 and Big East during Expansion? Everybody always talks about getting the Rutgers and Syracuse schools, which brings the NY television market, or perhaps the Nebraska and Missouri contingent, which brings a smaller market (who lives in Nebraska??), but a fertile recruiting area. Assuming Commissioner Delany can't attract Notre Dame, why wouldn't he try to get at least one school from each region? In doing this, the Big Ten has thousands more players to recruit and even thousands more homes to fill with the BT Network. ... The only reason I bring this to your attention is because I feel like most stories and opinions only discuss attracting one region or the other, as opposed to getting the best of both worlds.

Adam Rittenberg: Totally agree with you, Evan. If you're going to do a major expansion like five teams, why not go both East (Big East) and West (Big 12)? And I think ultimately, that's what the Big Ten will do if it becomes the Big Sixteen. In my view, there's no need to add more than two teams from the Big East. Provided Notre Dame isn't in the mix, that leaves at least one spot for a Big 12 school, or potentially three more spots to fill. The Big Ten should absolutely go after both Missouri and Nebraska -- really, really like the Nebraska addition -- if it wants to go to 16. As you say, it's the best of both worlds.


Seth from Baltimore writes: Re: "Penn State to pump up the volume in 2011"Adam - I think we all know that this move has nothing to do with noise and is all about money. As one matriculates at PSU, not only does your intellect improve but so do your seats at Beaver Stadium. The senior section of student seating is practically on the 50 yard line. By moving students to the south end zone, those prime seats are now available to be sold to alumni at exorbitant prices. The enthusiasm of the PSU student section has generated great interest (and revenue) for the football program in recent years. It is sad that this is how they are being repaid.

Adam Rittenberg: Seth, thanks to you and others for pointing this out. Sounds like the students are getting shafted a bit here, which isn't a major surprise. I wonder how this would go over if Penn State didn't have such a tremendous student section (best in the Big Ten with Wisconsin and Michigan). Now a lot of students don't get the best seats -- most of Wisconsin's students are behind the north end zone at Camp Randall -- but this certainly seems like a downgrade for the PSU students.


Alex from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, Can we expect another strong bowl performance from the Big Ten this year? Which non-conference games should we pay particular attention to for a good gauge as to where the Big Ten stacks among the other conferences?

Adam Rittenberg: Alex, it's way too soon to tell about the Big Ten's bowl performance, especially without seeing the matchups and locations for the games. But I can help you with top nonconference games to watch. Here are a few: Illinois vs. Missouri (Sept. 4), Connecticut at Michigan (Sept. 4), Miami at Ohio State (Sept. 11), Penn State at Alabama (Sept. 11), Iowa at Arizona (Sept. 18), USC at Minnesota (Sept. 18) and Arizona State at Wisconsin (Sept. 18). I'm not sure how good Notre Dame will be this year, but the three Big Ten games vs. ND -- Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue -- can sometimes provide a good gauge.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald wants you to believe he's an old guy.

 
  Tom Fluegge/US Presswire
  Pat Fitzgerald said that being consistent is the next big step his program needs to take.

"I'm going gray at 34," the Northwestern head coach often says.

The pressure of overseeing a Big Ten program might be taking a toll on Fitzgerald's follicles, but he's about as Gen-X as they come. While the Big Ten's oldest coach jokes about "Tweedle-dee" -- his term for Twitter -- the league's youngest head man has embraced technology, including the popular social networking Web sites.

Fitzgerald is active on both Twitter and Facebook, and finds both tools useful in communicating with recruits and fans. He finds Twitter a less-effective method to reach recruits, but it's a good way to keep fans informed. Facebook has been much more valuable in recruiting.

"E-mail is already a dinosaur," Fitzgerald said Wednesday. "That's the snail of technology. [Facebook is] where the young men are communicating, so you're able to communicate with them there. Our coaches are computer savvy and know how to do it."

In keeping with the communication theme, Fitzgerald took some time Wednesday to talk with me about the upcoming season and his expectations for Northwestern.

What are your top goals for training camp?

Pat Fitzgerald: First off, to solidify and identify our starters going into the opener. We do have this competitive depth, we do have the experience coming back. But as we get closer to game week, we'll start to finalize our approach. We're installing at a feverish pace. We're throwing a lot at the guys. They're handling it very well through the first two days, so identify the starters and then clean up our execution as you go into Year 2 with [coordinators Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz], clean up the concepts.

Were you not able to do as much of that last year since there were so many new things?

PF: There was so much teaching going on with Mike and Mick and myself, teaching and coaching, the expectations we want on this play or we want on that concept. It was never-ending. We never felt like we had our heads above water through camp last year. But our players did a great job in being diligent and studying the playbook. That's why we improved each week.

Does it feel any differently because of who you are and what you played here that this program is becoming more known for defense?

PF: I don't know. We're not trying to emphasize one [part]. We're trying to win. It's a little cyclical. We want to be the best in everything that we do, and a year ago, we were very successful as a team. We improved in all three phases as the season went along. We went 3-1 in November, the road wins. We went down to Duke and there was a hurricane. A bunch of guys were getting IVs during that game. We found a way to get that done. The wins at Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, in as bad a weather as you're ever going to play in, those are some big wins.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three predictions for each Big Ten team in 2009, starting with Illinois.

1. Arrelious Benn will double his career touchdown receptions total and then bolt for the NFL -- Benn's lack of touchdown receptions mystifies even him, but the odd trend will change this season. Illinois boasts the Big Ten's best receiving corps, and opponents will be unable to double-team Benn as much as they'd like. Jarred Fayson, Jeff Cumberland and others will open up more opportunities for Benn in the red zone. He'll catch 10-12 touchdown passes and then surprise no one by entering the NFL draft.

2. The Illini will finally beat Missouri -- After dropping four straight in the series, Illinois breaks through this fall behind a superior offense. Missouri's offense has lost key pieces like Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, while Illinois returns all of the key pieces around quarterback Juice Williams. Not surprisingly, the game will feature plenty of points, but the Illini prevail in the Edward Jones Dome.

3. Martez masters the middle, but the defense will take time to jell -- Martez Wilson's move to middle linebacker should be a catalyst to get consistent production out of the supremely talented junior. After a rough 2008 season both on and off the field, Wilson will show increased maturity and take a leadership role on defense. But without Brit Miller, Vontae Davis, Derek Walker, Will Davis and others, the unit will struggle early on, much like it did last season.

Big Ten special-teams snapshot

June, 19, 2009
6/19/09
10:45
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thanks to several of you for reminding me about special teams, a subject I had planned to tackle during spring ball but got bogged down with too many other things.

Here's a quick look at where each Big Ten team stands on special teams heading into the summer. A more comprehensive position-by-position ranking will come your way a little closer to the season.

GOOD SHAPE

Michigan State -- The Spartans return Lou Groza Award candidate Brett Swenson along with punter Aaron Bates, who averaged 42 yards per boot last season. Punt return man Otis Wiley is gone, but Mark Dell should step in nicely and the Spartans boast some exciting, young talent in Keshawn Martin, Jairus Jones and others.

Ohio State -- The Buckeyes don't have as many special teams certainties as most years, but history doesn't lie. Ohio State will always be strong on special teams under head coach Jim Tressel. Punter is a question mark, but Aaron Pettrey should be fine on field goals. Ray Small is one of the nation's best punt return men, and the kickoff return unit should be much more dynamic than it was last year.

Illinois -- The Illini return both of their starting specialists, and kicker Matt Eller looks like a keeper after connecting on 8 of 10 field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards last year. Illinois' return game also should be much improved as Florida transfer Jarred Fayson enters a mix that includes Arrelious Benn.

SO-SO

Penn State -- Jeremy Boone is one of the league's best punters, and odds are Penn State will be fine on special teams by the end of the season. But Kevin Kelly is a big loss at kicker, and the Nittany Lions will miss the dynamic Derrick Williams on punt and kickoff returns. Penn State will look to Chaz Powell to provide a spark on returns.

Iowa -- Ryan Donahue has established himself as a solid Big Ten punter, and the Hawkeyes have two options at kicker in Daniel Murray, the hero of the Penn State victory, and Trent Mossbrucker. The big loss comes at punt returner, as Andy Brodell was one of the best around. Iowa also might need a primary kick returner if Jewel Hampton moves into a starting spot at running back.

Minnesota -- The Gophers have the Big Ten's most dangerous return man in Troy Stoudermire, who averaged 25.8 yards on kickoff returns and racked up more than 1,000 return yards last year. Marcus Sherels is a very solid punt return man, but the Gophers must replace both of their starting specialists. Hopes are high for heralded freshman punter Dan Orseske.

Michigan -- Bad seasons usually equal a lot of work for the punter, and Zoltan Mesko came through in a big way for Michigan last fall. The Big Ten's best punter is back, and Michigan also boasts return men Martavious Odoms and Boubacar Cissoko. The situation at kicker looks a bit messy, and Rich Rodriguez will need some of his incoming freshmen to contribute right away.

Wisconsin -- Kicker Phillip Welch comes off a stellar freshman season in which he connected on 17 of 20 field goal attempts. Punter Brad Nortman also comes back, and David Gilreath remains a dangerous man on punt and kickoff returns.

A LITTLE SHAKY

Purdue -- From field goals to punt coverage, Purdue had its adventures on special teams last fall. But if Carson Wiggs continues to perform well on makeable kicks, the Boilers should be fine. Purdue loses Desmond Tardy, who led the Big Ten in kickoff returns (28.8 yards per return), as well as Kory Sheets. Hopes are high for Aaron Valentin on kickoff returns after the wideout averaged 25.7 yards per runback in 2008.

Indiana -- Austin Starr didn't have the senior season he envisioned, but the All-Big Ten kicker most certainly will be missed in Bloomington. Indiana also loses Marcus Thigpen, who made his mark as a kickoff returner. Punter Chris Hagerup looks like a keeper but comes off knee surgery, and the Hoosiers are looking for help on returns.

Northwestern -- The Wildcats need to reach a point where special teams no longer costs them games. It happened again in the Alamo Bowl, a game Northwestern should have won. Punter Stefan Demos did a lot of nice things last season but can't afford critical mistakes like the one he made in the bowl (kicking to Jeremy Maclin). The Wildcats bring in a scholarship kicker in Jeff Budzien, and they need some help on returns.

Early schedule snapshot: Illinois

February, 9, 2009
2/09/09
10:42
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The book is closed on 2008, and as part of our look ahead at 2009, it's time to take a team-by-team look at the schedules. The analysis begins with Illinois, one of two teams without a fully finalized nonconference slate. This marks the final Big Ten season without a bye week, which returns for good in 2010. 

Here's what we know right now about the Illini:

NONCONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Missouri (at St. Louis)
Sept. 12 Illinois State
Nov. 21
Fresno State
Nov. 28
TBA

My take: An Illinois spokesperson last week was unable to confirm a fourth nonconference game at Cincinnati on Nov. 28, but the two schools have been talking and could sign a contract soon. Should the Illini add the Bearcats, they would have a strong case for owning the Big Ten's toughest non-league slate. Missouri loses several key pieces (Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman) but always shows up to face the Illini, who haven't beaten the Tigers since 1994. A season-opening win would be huge for quarterback Juice Williams and Illinois, who don't have many sure things this fall.

BIG TEN SCHEDULE

Sept. 26 at Ohio State
Oct. 3 Penn State
Oct. 10
Michigan State
Oct. 17
at Indiana
Oct. 24
at Purdue
Oct. 31
Michigan
Nov. 7
at Minnesota
Nov. 14
Northwestern
Byes:
Iowa, Wisconsin

My take: The start to league play is brutal, making a 2-0 start to non-league play all the more important for Illinois. The good news is that Illinois has won in Columbus, and an upset Sept. 26 could set the stage for a major push. Illinois' road schedule other than Ohio State isn't too bad, so if it can defend the turf at Memorial Stadium and pick up a marquee win or two, a solid season certainly is within reach. The Illini could be 1-3 when Michigan State comes to town, but a 3-1 start will set them up for some pretty big things. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Before putting a sleepy Big Ten bowl season to bed, it's time to recognize some of the memorable moments from the last few weeks. Contrary to the 1-6 record, the Big Ten produced its share of highlights. And lowlights.

Here they are.

Best closing performance -- Iowa running back Shonn Greene capped a tremendous 2008 season in fitting fashion with his 13th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance. Greene punished South Carolina for 121 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the Outback Bowl. The junior then confirmed what many had believed for months and declared for the NFL draft.

 
  Scott A. Miller/US Presswire
  Shonn Greene punctuated his college career with a victory over South Carolina.

Best catch -- Ross Lane's leaping grab in the back of the end zone secured a 23-yard touchdown and gave Northwestern a 23-20 lead over Missouri entering the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl. Lane used his entire 6-foot-3 frame to make the reception and managed to get a foot down before tumbling beyond the end line. His catch would have been the signature image had Northwestern held on for the win.

Best catch by a quarterback -- OK, Terrelle Pryor is the only Big Ten signal caller who qualified, but he showed impressive athleticism to haul in a 5-yard fade pass from Todd Boeckman for a touchdown. Ohio State's use of Pryor and Boeckman together gave the offense a boost at times, and Pryor's leaping ability had some wondering whether he would be better used as a wide receiver.

Best preview of the future -- Michigan State backup quarterback Kirk Cousins continued to boost his stock for the 2009 season with a solid effort in limited action at the Capital One Bowl. Cousins spelled Brian Hoyer for a series and completed 4 of 5 pass attempts, leading Michigan State into Georgia territory and setting up a long field-goal attempt. Though he'll have to beat out Keith Nichol for the starting job in the offseason, Cousins looked game-ready this fall.

Best performance by a secondary -- Iowa's back four continued to cause problems in the Outback Bowl, as they did throughout the second half of the season. Safety Tyler Sash recorded two interceptions and cornerback Bradley Fletcher had an interception and a forced fumble. Cornerback Amari Spievey added a pass breakup as the Hawkeyes flustered South Carolina's Stephen Garcia.

Best comeback: Had Ohio State held on to beat Texas, Boeckman would have been the top story. After sitting on the bench for the final nine regular-season games, Boeckman returned to meaningful action and gave the Buckeyes' offense a much needed boost against Texas. He sparked the offense with a 48-yard pass to Brian Robiskie and hit Pryor for the team's first touchdown.

Worst quarter -- The Big Ten's second-quarter blues continued in BCS games as Penn State was outscored 24-0 in the second quarter of the Rose Bowl. Penn State had taken USC's first punch and mounted an impressive scoring drive, but the Nittany Lions committed out-of-character mistakes in the second quarter and couldn't stop Mark Sanchez and the Trojans, who took a 31-7 halftime lead.

Worst turnover -- It seems hard to fathom given the final score, but Wisconsin outplayed Florida State for the first quarter of the Champs Sports Bowl and had the ball inside the Noles' red zone early in the second quarter. Quarterback Dustin Sherer attempted a lateral that fell incomplete, and Florida State's Derek Nicholson wisely picked up the ball and raced 75 yards to the end zone. Wisconsin players thought Sherer had thrown an incomplete forward pass and didn't bother to chase Nicholson. They would never catch Florida State.

Worst tackle -- Safety Anderson Russell had been one of Ohio State's defensive standouts in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, recording an interception, a forced fumble and a pass breakup to go along with nine tackles. But unfortunately, Russell's lasting image will be a missed tackle on wide receiver Quan Cosby that allowed Texas to score the game-winning touchdown with 26 seconds left. Ohio State had tackled extremely well until the final minute, limiting big plays, but Cosby scooted by Russell and into the end zone.

Worst special teams play -- Northwestern's Stefan Demos was supposed to punt the ball out of bounds late in the first half, but his kick instead went high and short, right into the hands of dangerous return man Jeremy Maclin. The Missouri star raced 75 yards to the end zone with a minute left in the half, and Northwestern went to the locker room tied at 10-10 after dominating the first 30 minutes. A missed extra point in the third quarter also stung the Wildcats in their overtime loss.

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.

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.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As a defensive coordinator for the last quarter-century, Northwestern's Mike Hankwitz has a mad scientist quality about him.

If given enough time in the lab, he'll probably concoct something pretty powerful.

Hankwitz has had several weeks to form a plan for the Missouri Tigers, who Northwestern will face Monday in the Valero Alamo Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). But after spending hours watching Missouri's innovative offense in the lab, er, film room, Hankwitz admits it isn't easy to craft a formula for success.

"They do more than anybody we've played," Hankwitz said. "They give you more exotic formations, trick plays. ... There will be eight or 10 trick things or unique things [per game], and they don't always give them a big play, but it's just the threat of them.

"One or two of those things is not a big deal, but then you start adding that and this and this and this, pretty soon, it's a whole bunch of other crap that you're working on."

Hankwitz and the Wildcats have fared decently against other versions of the spread this season, and Missouri's offensive tempo won't be completely foreign to them. But the combination of a huge playbook and first-class personnel -- quarterback Chase Daniel, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, tight end Chase Coffman, running back Derrick Washington -- create some headaches.

"If we had to prepare for these guys in a week, holy cow," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "You can see why they're able to put up the numbers they do."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to forecast the first three Big Ten bowl games. I finished the regular season with a record of 71-17 (80.7 percent), but the bowls provide a much tougher challenge.

CHAMPS SPORTS BOWL -- Wisconsin 27, Florida State 25

This would constitute an upset, given Florida State's purported edge in speed and the game's Seminole-friendly location (Orlando, Fla.). Wisconsin will have its hands full trying to contain dominant pass rusher Everette Brown, star safety Myron Rolle and the Seminoles defense, and the Badgers' offensive line needs to play its best game of the season. But I liked the way Wisconsin's offense played down the stretch behind quarterback Dustin Sherer, and running backs P.J. Hill and John Clay could wear down Florida State. It certainly could go the other way, but I'm not sold on Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. The Badgers' secondary can make plays, and Ponder commits a key turnover that lifts Wisconsin to a much needed win.

VALERO ALAMO BOWL -- Missouri 38, Northwestern 27

Northwestern ended the season playing its best football and continued to make major strides on defense. But this just isn't a good matchup for the Wildcats, who haven't faced an offense resembling the high-powered unit led by Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman. Now there is a legitimate question about Missouri's mind-set. How motivated will the Tigers be after a fairly disappointing regular season? Northwestern will be prepared and if the Wildcats have the mental edge, they could pull off a significant upset. Senior quarterback C.J. Bacher has one final chance to recapture the form he showed midway through the 2007 season, when he racked up 990 passing yards in a two-week stretch against Michigan State and Minnesota. Missouri's secondary is a joke, but Bacher won't be able to avoid interceptions. The Wildcats come up short despite the return of running back Tyrell Sutton.

INSIGHT BOWL -- Kansas 41, Minnesota 24

Teams certainly can make progess during bowl preparation, but Minnesota will have to take a major leap forward after dropping its final four regular-season games. Wide receiver Eric Decker returns to the mix after knee surgery and will provide a nice boost, but Minnesota won't be able to mask its problems against a more experienced Kansas team. It'll be interesting to see how the offensive line responds to new coach Tim Davis, but Minnesota's inability to run the ball and its over-reliance on quarterback Adam Decker make it tough to see the Gophers keeping up with the Jayhawks. Minnesota's upset hopes hinge on a defense that led the Big Ten in takeaways (30). If a Gophers secondary filled with playmakers causes Todd Reesing to make mistakes, Minnesota should hang around in this one.

Ranking the Big Ten bowls

December, 8, 2008
12/08/08
3:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten wants more respect after being skewered nationally for much of the season. An exciting bowl lineup gives the conference a chance to get its wish.

In addition to having two BCS entries for the fourth straight year, the Big Ten faces the preseason No. 1 (Georgia), a preseason national title contender (Missouri) and two of the more successful head coaches in the southeast (Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier).

To piggyback off Mark Schlabach's national list, it's time to rank the Big Ten bowls.

1. Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi
No. 8 Penn State vs. No. 5 USC, 4:30 p.m. ET, Jan. 1 (ABC): Two powerhouse programs, a legendary head coach (Joe Paterno) and another well on his way there (Pete Carroll), and one of college football's greatest settings make the Rose Bowl a must-see. Both of these teams easily could have been in Miami on Jan. 8, and a win will only strengthen their arguments. It will be fun to watch the Spread HD offense match up with a ferocious USC defense.
2. Tostitos Fiesta Bowl
No. 10 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Texas, 8 p.m. ET, Jan. 5 (Fox): The teams clashed in 2005 and 2006 but have never met in the postseason. It will be fascinating to see how Texas responds from its BCS title game snub. Heisman Trophy candidate Colt McCoy will go against the best defense he's faced this season in Ohio State, which ranks seventh nationally in points allowed (13.1 ppg). The Buckeyes need a win to restore their national reputation and will need strong performances from quarterback Terrelle Pryor and running back Chris "Beanie" Wells.
3. Capital One Bowl
No. 15 Georgia vs. No. 18 Michigan State, 1 p.m. ET, Jan. 1 (ABC): Forget about those Big 12 quarterbacks and that Tebow fellow. This game is all about the running backs, as Doak Walker Award finalists Javon Ringer and Knowshon Moreno match up. Ringer has carried Michigan State to this point and could capitalize on a suspect Georgia defense, while Moreno is one of the nation's most exciting running backs and takes on a Michigan State defense that struggles to stop elite players.
4. Valero Alamo Bowl
No. 21 Missouri vs. No. 23 Northwestern, 8 p.m. ET, Dec. 29 (ESPN): An insane number of sports journalists will be tuning in for this one, and you should, too. Missouri boasts one of the nation's most dynamic passing combinations in quarterback Chase Daniel and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. Northwestern counters with a sack-happy defense led by end Corey Wootton. If Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher discovers his 2007 form against a woeful Mizzou secondary, this could become a shootout.
5. Champs Sports Bowl
Wisconsin vs. Florida State, 4:30 p.m. ET, Dec. 27 (ESPN): Both of these teams underachieved to a certain degree this fall, but the bowl game will provide an interesting match-up of power (Wisconsin) vs. speed (Florida State). The Wisconsin rushing attack came together late in the season, but P.J. Hill and John Clay face a tough task in a Florida State defense led by superstar end Everette Brown and linebacker Derek Nicholson.
6. Outback Bowl
South Carolina vs. Iowa, 11 a.m. ET, Jan. 1 (ESPN): I can't get enough of Shonn Greene, but aside from the powerful Iowa running back, this game doesn't provide many reasons to shake-off the New Year's Eve hangover. Iowa played excellent football down the stretch, and it will be interesting to see how the Hawkeyes match-up with an SEC team. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier returns to Florida amid increasing criticism. He needs to win this game.
7. Insight Bowl
Kansas vs. Minnesota, 5:30 p.m. ET, Dec. 31 (NFL Network): If Minnesota can get back to the disciplined and opportunistic play that spurred its 7-1 start, this game will be worth watching. But the Gophers didn't look like the same team down the stretch, and they'll need to make some major upgrades in the next few weeks to keep pace with a more experienced Kansas team led by quarterback Todd Reesing.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern got a raw deal or a great opportunity, depending on how you look at it.

Not only were the Wildcats snubbed by the Outback Bowl, but they face a very tough matchup in Missouri, a preseason national title contender that boasts one of the game's top passing combinations in quarterback Chase Daniel and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. Then again, a Valero Alamo Bowl victory would give Northwestern just the second 10-win season in school history and some national recognition.

A defense that improved 24 spots in the national rankings under first-year coordinator Mike Hankwitz faces arguably its toughest test of the season in Missouri, which is sixth in both scoring (43.2) and total offense (497.5 ypg). Defensive end Corey Wootton and a unit that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) must apply pressure on Daniel, who threw multiple touchdown passes in all but one game.

Wildcats running back Tyrell Sutton hopes to return from a dislocated wrist, but the spotlight will be on his Jekyll-and-Hyde backfield mate, quarterback C.J. Bacher. Missouri can't defend the pass (117th nationally), and for Northwestern to hang around, Bacher must attack down the field.

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Saturday, 12/20
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