Big Ten: Taylor Potts

Well, that was entertaining. Despite an exciting comeback, Northwestern couldn't draw even with Texas Tech and its bowl drought continues for at least another year.

Here's a quick look at the Wildcats' 45-38 loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.

How the game was won: Northwestern mounted a spirited second-half comeback behind true freshman quarterback Kain Colter, but it couldn't overcome season-long defensive woes against the powerful Texas Tech offense. The Wildcats rallied from a 31-9 third-quarter deficit to close within a touchdown, but they couldn't get the defensive stops they needed. Colter and the offense did enough to give the Wildcats a chance, but a defense that allowed 118 points in its final two regular-season games didn't make any strides during bowl practice.

Turning point: Northwestern twice cut its second-half deficit to seven points, but couldn't make a defensive stop to give the offense a chance to tie. After drawing to within 38-31 early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern let Texas Tech march 69 yards in 10 plays to the end zone. Then, after a pick-six by cornerback Jordan Mabin, the Wildcats couldn't get off of the field on third-and-short as Texas Tech bled the clock.

Player of the game: Texas Tech's Taylor Potts. The senior seemed locked in from the get-go and shredded Northwestern's defense with his complement of pass-catchers. Potts finished the game 43-for-56 passing for 369 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. He took advantage of holes in the Wildcats' secondary and, aside from one throw in the fourth quarter, made sound decisions.

Stat of the game: Northwestern ranked third in the Big Ten in pass offense in the regular season, averaging 242.6 yards per game. The Wildcats had just 145 pass yards against Texas Tech.

Unsung hero of the game: Colter made major strides during bowl practices and spurred Northwestern's second-half comeback. The true freshman eclipsed 100 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns, running mainly the option attack. He likely will challenge Evan Watkins for the backup quarterback job next fall.

What it means: Northwestern just can't get over the hump in a bowl game, although the Wildcats avoided what looked to be an embarrassing performance with the second-half rally. The defense simply had too many problems this season, from tackling to discipline to lack of leadership, and Texas Tech's offense posed a bad matchup. Things could have been different had starting quarerback Dan Persa remained healthy, but the warts on defense showed up all fall. Northwestern has high expectations for 2011 and returns a good core, but it needs to make major upgrades on defense. It's still hard for folks to see Northwestern as a legit program until it wins a bowl game.

TicketCity Bowl

December, 5, 2010
Northwestern Wildcats (7-5) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (7-5)

Jan. 1, noon ET (ESPNU)

Northwestern take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern’s season will officially end Jan. 1 in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl against Texas Tech. The bigger question: Did the Wildcats’ campaign already come to a close back on Nov. 13?

Northwestern has looked extremely shaky since losing star quarterback Dan Persa to a season-ending ruptured Achilles’ tendon in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats have struggled on offense as backup quarterback Evan Watkins goes through some growing pains. The more shocking backslide has come on defense, as Northwestern surrendered 118 points, 848 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in losses to Illinois and Wisconsin. Missed tackles became a big problem down the stretch, and Pat Fitzgerald’s crew needs to get things rectified against a Texas Tech squad that ranks among the top 20 in both passing and total yards.

Bowl practices will be valuable for Watkins, who had attempted only seven passes before taking over the starting job on Nov. 20. The redshirt freshman could use a boost from the ground game, although top running back Mike Trumpy is questionable for the game after fracturing his wrist against Illinois. Northwestern needs to find a way to establish an offensive rhythm and keep the high-powered Texas Tech attack on the sideline.

After two near misses in bowls the last two years, Northwestern aims for its first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. This one would qualify as an upset.

Texas Tech take by Big 12 blogger David Ubben: Early in the season, a bowl game was no guarantee for the Red Raiders. A loss to Oklahoma State landed them at 3-3 and 1-3 in conference play, but the transition year from Mike Leach to Tommy Tuberville didn't result in the end of the Big 12's longest bowl streak. Texas Tech is the only team to qualify for a bowl game in every year since the birth of the Big 12, and that wasn't going to end in the final year of its existence as a 12-team league.

The Red Raiders offense has been inconsistent this season, but it still boasts two experienced, senior quarterbacks in starter Taylor Potts and backup Steven Sheffield, who saw time this year and a start, despite losing a preseason quarterback battle. Receiver Lyle Leong is also a player to watch; his 17 touchdown catches are second only to Biletnikoff Award finalist Justin Blackmon.

The in-state Red Raiders should have the advantage in an atmosphere with a substantial amount of alumni not needing to leave the Dallas city limits to see Texas Tech play. They’ve already played in the Cotton Bowl once this season, facing Baylor back in October.
A shorthanded Michigan State team put forth a great effort, but made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball to beat Texas Tech. The Spartans blew a fourth-quarter lead and didn't have enough offense to rally in the end, losing 41-31. The Big Ten drops to 3-3 in bowls, so it all comes down to Iowa's performance Tuesday against Georgia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

How the game was won: Michigan State couldn't hold a 31-27 lead as Texas Tech backup quarterback Steven Sheffield led an impressive scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter. The Red Raiders were more aggressive with their decisions down the stretch, and it paid off. Sheffield and starting quarterback Taylor Potts flummoxed Michigan State's defense and outplayed Spartans signal caller Kirk Cousins, who completed just 13 of 27 passes for 220 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, and he imploded in the second half. Texas Tech too many times capitalized on a soft Spartans' secondary.

Turning point: After Michigan State played it safe and settled for a field goal, Texas Tech interim head coach Ruffin McNeill and receivers coach Lincoln Riley played it bold down the stretch. They went to Sheffield for the first time, and the backup led an eight-play, 77-yard scoring drive. The Red Raiders completely regained the momentum, and Cousins threw an interception on Michigan State's ensuing series. The Spartans never recovered.

Player of the game: For Texas Tech, it's got to go to Potts and Sheffield. For Michigan State, freshman running back Edwin Baker introduced himself to the college football world tonight. The heralded high school prospect had 12 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown. After being overshadowed by classmate Larry Caper for much of the fall, Baker showed that the Spartans have another solid option in the backfield.

Best call: Down 27-21 in the fourth quarter, Michigan State lined up for a 43-yard field-goal attempt, but ran an excellent fake, as punter Aaron Bates threw to tight end Charlie Gantt for an 18-yard gain. Then, on first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, wide receiver Keshawn Martin found fellow wideout Blair White in the end zone. Both Bates and Martin played quarterback in high school.

Second guessing: Michigan State led 28-27 and faced third-and-12 from the Tech 29-yard line, but called a simple run play that didn't gain much. The Spartans had been aggressive and innovative with their play-calling for much of the game, and playing it safe there seemed out of place, even with left tackle Rocco Cironi injured. Texas Tech responded with the go-ahead touchdown and reclaimed all the momentum. Lesson: you've got to go for touchdowns against Texas Tech.

What it means: Few thought a Spartans team playing without 14 players would hold a fourth-quarter lead against Texas Tech. The Spartans deserve credit for fighting hard, but a 6-7 record wasn't what anyone had in mind heading into this season. There's a very exciting young nucleus in East Lansing, but this program still hasn't turned a corner yet. Cousins and Keith Nichol will continue to compete at quarterback, but the talent at running back and wide receiver is very good. Head coach Mark Dantonio's biggest offseason priority will be a defense that must get tougher, especially in the secondary.

Valero Alamo Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
It's time for a quick look at arguably the most bizarre bowl game of the year, as Michigan State (6-6) takes on Texas Tech (8-4) on Saturday night in San Antonio (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).

WHO TO WATCH: Blair White and Keshawn Martin. Michigan State's wave of suspensions hit the wide receivers harder than any other position group. The Spartans will be without their No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts in B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell, who combined for 74 receptions and five touchdowns this season. White and Martin need to pick up the slack for the Big Ten's top passing offense in a game where Michigan State likely needs to score 28 points or more. Quarterback Kirk Cousins can rely on White, a first-team All-Big Ten selection who has a knack for finding the end zone. Martin also emerged as a difference maker down the stretch, especially on special teams. The Spartans need Martin to break off some nice returns to win the field-position edge.

WHAT TO WATCH: Michigan State's secondary. Head coach Mark Dantonio talked up this group in the preseason, but the secondary has fallen well short of expectations. Quarterbacks like Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen, Scott Tolzien and Adam Weber had their way with Michigan State's defensive backs, who face arguably their biggest challenge in Taylor Potts and the nation's No. 2 pass offense (380.7 ypg). The Spartans will be without starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker (suspension), so they need big performances from defensive backs Danny Fortener, Jeremy Ware, Trenton Robinson and others.

WHY TO WATCH: Do you really need an explanation here? You've got one team (Michigan State) missing 14 scholarship players because of one very troubling stretch on Nov. 22. You've got another team (Texas Tech) that learned Wednesday that its head coach had been fired after wide receiver Adam James filed a complaint. I'm about to make a prediction on this game, but who really knows what will happen? One team will come out of the game looking extremely resilient amid adversity. The other could end up looking like a train wreck.

PREDICTION: Mike Leach's shocking dismissal will impact Texas Tech early, as Michigan State takes a lead. But I don't have enough confidence in the Spartans' secondary to think they'll keep the Red Raiders in check for 60 minutes. Potts gets hot late and Texas Tech rallies to win, 31-27.
Michigan State made strides in Mark Dantonio's first two seasons as head coach, leading some to believe the program would truly get over the hump in 2009.

But after a rollercoaster of a season, it's clear Michigan State needs more time to become a consistent Big Ten title contender.

The Spartans weren't far away from doing big things this fall. They squandered second-half leads against Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Iowa and Minnesota, and recorded nice wins against both Northwestern and Purdue. But for a program that wants to join the Big Ten's upper crust, close enough simply isn't good enough.

Dantonio let his quarterback competition drag on well into the fall, even though sophomore Kirk Cousins clearly distinguished himself as the top signal caller. Cousins had some solid moments and should be one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks next year. Michigan State boasted the Big Ten's top passing attack, as wideout Blair White earned All-Big Ten honors and B.J. Cunningham emerged as a threat.

Greg Jones continued to show why he's one of the nation's elite linebackers, earning Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. But the Spartans secondary, billed as one of the team's deepest groups, fell well short of the mark against solid quarterbacks like Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen, Scott Tolzien and Daryll Clark.

The season ended on a down note, as Michigan State got thrashed 42-14 by Penn State in the finale. Barely 24 hours later, a fight at a residence hall led to the dismissal of two players and the suspensions of eight others, so Michigan State will be very shorthanded in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

Offensive MVP: Kirk Cousins. He had some first-year-starter moments, but Cousins performed very well overall. He ranked second in the league in pass efficiency (145.2) with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Spartans had a lot of youth at running back, but Cousins spearheaded the league's top passing attack. White also deserves a mention here.

Defensive MVP: Greg Jones. Jones has been a difference maker since the moment he arrived on campus, and he produced an All-America type season this fall. He ranked third nationally in total tackles (141) and led Big Ten linebackers with nine sacks. The junior is around the football on virtually every play.

Turning point: After a 1-3 start, Michigan State hosted a surging Michigan team and squandered a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. But the Spartans responded in overtime to notch a 26-20 win that sparked a three-game win streak. A second turning point came Oct. 24, as Michigan State saw a brilliant defensive performance go to waste as Iowa won on the final play.

What's next: The Spartans head to San Antonio to face a Texas Tech team that would have provided a formidable challenge even if Michigan State was at full strength. A shaky secondary will be put to the test against Taylor Potts and co. This is a big swing game for the Spartans before a crucial 2010 campaign.

Valero Alamo Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Valero Alamo Bowl: Texas Tech (8-4) vs. Michigan State (6-6)
Jan. 2, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

This could go one of two ways for Michigan State.

1. Things completely fall apart in San Antonio, as an undermanned Spartans squad gutted by suspensions and dismissals gets steamrolled by a Texas Tech team led by the nation's No. 2 passing offense (380.7 ypg). Taylor Potts becomes the latest quarterback to shred Michigan State's secondary, and fans raise some serious doubts about head coach Mark Dantonio just a year after the team reached the Capital One Bowl.

2. The Alamo Bowl becomes Michigan State's finest hour, as the team shows its newfound resolve in the wake of a "crisis," as Dantonio is calling it. Spartans receivers fill in for Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, and the secondary makes up for the loss of suspended cornerback Chris L. Rucker.

For the second scenario to take place, Dantonio will have to do his finest coaching in the coming weeks, as more suspensions could be on the way. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones needs a huge performance Jan. 2 in the Alamodome, and Michigan State's defensive backs will have to be at their best against Potts and his wideouts.

The Spartans offense also must step up in a game that should feature plenty of points. Quarterback Kirk Cousins and wideout Blair White must find gaps in the Red Raiders' defense.

The teams meet for the first time, and Michigan State makes its first trip to the Alamo Bowl since 2003.