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NC State secured its best season since 2011 after a 34-27 win over UCF in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl on Friday night. Here is how the Wolfpack won:

It was over when: Tyler Purvis recovered the onside kick with 1:42 to go after UCF cut the lead to 34-27. NC State had built a 31-13 lead on Matt Dayes' second touchdown of the third quarter. But in typical UCF fashion, the Knights started chipping away at the lead, scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the game a little too close for comfort for the Wolfpack. Justin Holman threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Josh Reese that cut the gap to a touchdown, but Purvis ended up saving the day.

Game ball goes to: NC State QB Jacoby Brissett. Taking a sack to close the second quarter and miss a chance at a short field goal attempt was one of the few mistakes Brissett made in the game. NC State showed terrific balance in running and throwing. Brissett had 262 yards passing and 31 yards on the ground, and kept countless plays alive with his feet. He looked confident and comfortable as the leader of the NC State offense, a player who has grown into the job after one year behind center. A few of his passes were dropped, and NC State called a few option passes for other players, otherwise Brissett may have had 300 yards passing himself. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he became the first quarterback in NC State history to finish the season with at least 20 touchdown passes and 5 or fewer interceptions.

Stat of the game: 187. The biggest reason why the Wolfpack were so effective was because NC State completely dominated the line of scrimmage, opening big holes in the run game. UCF went into the game ranked No. 5 in the nation in run defense, allowing an average of 97.4 yards per game. When it was tough to run in the first half, Brissett found wide-open receivers in the pass game. That helped open up the run game, especially in the second half. Dayes ended up with 78 yards rushing, Shadrach Thornton had 96 and the Wolfpack finished with 187 total yards rushing.

What it means: NC State made big, big strides in Year 2 under Dave Doeren, finishing 8-5 -- five more victories than a year ago. This program has clearly surpassed rival North Carolina. If the head-to-head win to close the season was not evidence enough, then check the bowl scores after the Tar Heels had a miserable showing in a Quick Lane Bowl loss to Rutgers. The 2015 schedule is a piece of cake in the nonconference, and the Wolfpack get Clemson and Louisville at home. NC State's second Coastal opponent is Virginia Tech. So there may very well be an opportunity for even more with a much more experienced team returning.
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Rutgers cruised to a 40-21 win over North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl on Friday at Ford Field in Detroit, giving third-year head coach Kyle Flood his first bowl win. Let's take a glance at what happened:

How the game was won: Rutgers was dominant offensively and had a strong defensive effort for three quarters, jumping out to a 23-0 halftime lead and taking a commanding 40-7 lead at one point in the fourth quarter. North Carolina picked up a couple of late touchdowns and two late onside kick recoveries, but the performance of Rutgers' running game, offensive line and quarterback Gary Nova was too much to overcome for the Tar Heels. Rutgers piled up 524 offensive yards and controlled the game with a dominant performance from its offensive line.

Game balls go to: Plenty of deserving parties here. Freshman running back Josh Hicks finished the day with 202 rushing yards and a touchdown. The Rutgers offensive line paved the way for that with its stellar work as the Scarlet Knights racked up 340 rushing yards, the most Rutgers has posted in a bowl game. And let's not forget senior defensive back Lorenzo Waters, who recovered two first-half fumbles, blocked a field goal and finished with 14 tackles.

It was over when: Rutgers running back Robert Martin cut back and sprinted 28 yards for a touchdown to give the Scarlet Knights a 37-7 lead with 14:11 left in the game. It was a microcosm of the kind of day Rutgers had offensively and North Carolina had defensively and put the game well out of reach with almost a full quarter to go.

Stat of the game: Rutgers had plenty of success rushing the ball, perhaps best illustrated by this gem -- Hicks and Robert Martin (100 rushing yards) each reached the century mark in rushing yards, making it the first time in eight years that the Scarlet Knights have had two 100-yard rushers in the same game. The two who did it last time? Ray Rice and Brian Leonard vs. Syracuse on Nov. 25, 2006.

Best play: Moments after North Carolina scored its first points of the day to narrow a 23-0 lead to 23-7, Rutgers answered with a touchdown of its own. Quarterback Gary Nova launched a picturesque pass to Andrew Turzilli for a 34-yard score and a 30-7 lead. The pass hit Turzilli perfectly in stride after Nova sold a play-action fake and received great protection from his offensive line. Turzilli incurred a puzzling unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, despite simply tossing the football into the stands and chest bumping with a teammate. Nonetheless, the whole sequence was a thing of beauty.
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Some things to watch between USC and Nebraska in the National University Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego (8 p.m. ET, ESPN, Saturday).
  1. Nebraska must stop the rush: When Nebraska loses, it’s usually because it is having trouble stopping the run. In the Cornhuskers’ three losses this year, they’ve allowed an average of 350 yards on the ground. Giving up 408 yards to Melvin Gordon didn’t exactly help that average, either. But when they allow their opponent to average more than 4 yards per carry, they are 0-3. USC’s Buck Allen was third in the Pac-12 with 111.4 yards per game.
  2. Let Kessler be Kessler: USC quarterback Cody Kessler has a plus-32 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season (36-4). That's the third highest in FBS this season. And when he looks to Nelson Agholor, Kessler finds him better than three of every four tries (76.4 percent). That's the best completion percentage for a QB/WR duo among Power 5 schools. When he looks to Agholor beyond 15 yards, Kessler is 18-of-25 with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
  3. Ameer versus the world: When Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah faces seven or fewer defenders in the box, he’s averaging 7.2 yards per rush. However, when teams stack the box with eight or more defenders, that number drops drastically to 3.4 yards per carry. This presents the game-within-the-game chess match, because Abdullah has 791 yards rushing between the tackles and 731 yards when he hits the edge. USC had one of the top rush defenses in the Pac-12, allowing 3.9 yards per carry and 132.5 yards per game. The Trojans did, however, yield 18 touchdowns on the ground, which ranked in the bottom half of the conference.
  4. Who is motivated? Always a popular topic in bowl season. Despite the surprise hire of Mike Riley, Bo Pelini continued to leave chaos in his wake. Plus, interim coach Barney Cotton might already have one foot out the door on his way to joining Tony Sanchez at UNLV. USC, by all accounts, had an up-and-down season with a couple of "what if?" moments. Are they happy to be in a bowl under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, or are key players already eyeballing the NFL combine?

Viewer's Guide: New Era Pinstripe Bowl

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
5:30
PM ET
Three things to watch between Boston College and Penn State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, which kicks off 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN) Saturday:

Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy vs. Penn State's rush defense: The Eagles' dual-threat quarterback boasts more rushing carries than pass completions this season, and he is the X-factor of this offense. He leads Boston College in rushing (1,079 yards) and heads a team that is ranked No. 13 nationally in rushing yards per game.

That is good news and bad news for Penn State. On one hand, the Nittany Lions boast the top-ranked rush defense in the country -- and only four teams in the FBS have thrown for fewer yards per game than BC. On the other hand, Penn State really hasn’t had to deal with a running quarterback of Murphy's caliber often this season. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett found some success against PSU and rushed for 75 yards and two touchdowns, so it can be done. But Murphy is no Barrett. If Murphy can run on this team, it’s difficult envisioning a Penn State win. If he can’t? Chalk up another personal victory for PSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.

Can Penn State generate any kind of offense? During the Big Ten season, the Lions were unable to once score 20 points in regulation. And that includes games against defenses such as Indiana (No. 100 scoring defense) and Illinois (No. 107). The Lions haven’t even been able to generate multiple touchdowns in four of their past five games.

The patchwork offensive line is the big reason for that, but it’s not going to get any easier against Boston College. Statistically, the Eagles will be the third-best defense Penn State has faced all season. (Michigan State and Michigan are the other two; BC is No. 12 in total defense.) PSU has struggled in finding the big offensive plays this season; Boston College has done pretty well in limiting them.

Two freshman offensive standouts: There are obviously a few strong vets with NFL futures -- like Penn State linebacker Mike Hull -- who are worth watching. But each team also has a great rookie with a bright future that’s worth keeping an eye on.

Boston College running back Jon Hilliman made third-team All-ACC and is second on his team with 712 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was instrumental in the Eagles’ upset win against USC, as he finished with 89 yards and two scores. Penn State’s lone bright spot on offense has also come from a freshman, in second-team All-B1G wideout DaeSean Hamilton. The Virginia native set Penn State freshman records for catches (75) and receiving yards (848) this season, and he’s been the primary weapon of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Hamilton is a redshirt freshman, and Hilliman is a true freshman.
South Carolina (6-6) and Miami (6-6) will meet for the first time since 1987 when they square off in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Here are a few items to watch in Saturday afternoon’s game:

Farewell to Duke, Davis? This may be the final college game for the star running backs on both teams, although only South Carolina’s Mike Davis has announced a decision.

Miami’s Duke Johnson is the headliner here after rushing for 1,520 yards and averaging 7.0 yards per carry as a junior. ESPN lists the speedster as the No. 5 running back and No. 44 overall prospect in the 2015 draft, and he figures to become an early-round pick should he declare.

Davis already confirmed that he will jump to the NFL, although his draft prospects are a bit cloudier. Davis rushed for 927 yards and nine touchdowns this season, and ESPN lists him as the No. 7 running back and No. 80 overall prospect.

Staying above .500: The loser of this game will finish the season with a losing record -- an unfortunate historical footnote that would be unusual for Miami or for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.

The Hurricanes haven’t had a losing season since 2007 and have had just three since 1979, when Howard Schnellenberger went 5-6 in his first season before building the program into a national championship contender.

In a quarter century as a college coach, Spurrier has finished with a losing record just once: in 1987, when he went 5-6 in his first season at Duke. South Carolina hasn’t posted a losing record since going 5-7 in 2003, and the Gamecocks won 11 games in each of the past three seasons before falling off this fall.

Passing matchup: One of the more intriguing matchups Saturday will be one of the SEC’s top passing offenses against one of the ACC’s best at defending the pass.

Led by fifth-year senior quarterback Dylan Thompson (3,280 yards, 24 TDs, 11 INTs) and receiver Pharoh Cooper (966 receiving yards, 8 TDs), South Carolina ranked second in the SEC and 20th nationally with 281.4 passing yards per game.

Miami’s defense has been tough overall, and particularly so against the pass. The Hurricanes are allowing 184.1 passing yards per game, which ranks ninth nationally and second in the ACC. They are No. 14 in total defense at 327.6 ypg.
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Illinois couldn't overcome early mistakes -- and it couldn't stop Louisiana Tech and the big play during Friday afternoon's Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.

The Bulldogs scored three of the first four touchdowns thanks to an 80-yard pass, a 69-yard interception return and a 70-yard pass that set up a short run. And Illinois couldn't keep up with two missed field goals and a missed extra point in just the first half, as Louisiana Tech outmuscled the Illini 35-18.

It was the first bowl win for Louisiana Tech (9-5) since 2008, and the loss cemented the third straight losing season for Illinois (6-7).

Game ball goes to: Louisiana Tech defensive lineman Houston Bates. That's right, the game ball goes to the player who competed for Illinois last season before transferring to be closer to home. He wreaked havoc on the Illinois line all day, and he was a big reason Illini QB Reilly O'Toole wasn't overly comfortable in the pocket. He finished with 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. (Coming into the game, he led the Bulldogs with just 5.5 sacks on the season.) He didn't score two TDs like Kenneth Dixon and he didn't return an interception for a TD like Xavier Woods -- but he was consistent all game. No player deserves this more.

It was over when: Louisiana Tech capitalized on a crucial Illinois mistake midway through the fourth quarter. Illinois forced a fumble on a quarterback hit but then, during the fumble return, fumbled itself -- and Louisiana Tech recovered. The Bulldogs capitalized by completing a 70-yard pass just three plays later, which set up a short TD run. That gave Louisiana Tech a 10-point advantage.

Stat of the game: 0-for-16. Those were the two teams' total third-down conversion numbers into the third quarter; both teams were 0-for-8. Illinois stopped the trend by completing a 19-yard pass on third-and-13 on its second drive of the second half. The teams finished a combined 6-of-28.

Best play: Midway through the second quarter, O’Toole overthrew a pass that landed right in the waiting arms of Louisiana Tech defensive back Xavier Woods. The sophomore took a few steps to his right, then sprinted left and ran 69 yards for the touchdown -- complete with a dive at the end, which barely got him into the end zone.

That interception return changed the face of the game. Illinois trailed 14-9 and was driving downfield; Woods’ play put the score at 21-9.

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Viewer's Guide: Hyundai Sun Bowl

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
4:30
PM ET
Which Devils are better, the Blue ones or the ones that come from the Sun? We'll find out Saturday when 9-3 Duke meets 9-3 Arizona State in El Paso for the Hyundai Sun Bowl. This is a chance for both teams to reach that coveted 10-win mark. Here are three storylines to watch in the battle between David Cutcliffe and Todd Graham:

1. Who will best shake off disappointment?

The 2014 trajectories of these teams mirrored each other. Both Arizona State and Duke entered Nov. 15 with identical 8-1 records. The Sun Devils dreamed of a berth in the College Football Playoff, while the Blue Devils were on track for a spot in the ACC championship game. The November chill was not kind for either squad of Devils, as each group lost two of three games in a critical stretch that month. Arizona State dropped bitter decisions to Oregon State and archrival Arizona, while Duke lost a close one to Virginia Tech before being pulverized 45-20 at home by hated North Carolina. It's time to shake off the "what could have been" syndrome, and the team that does this best will be in line for that 10th win.

2. Can the Blue Devils take the next step?

Arizona State is the favorite here, so it is expected to win. But Duke's program stands to gain more with a victory. In fact, the Blue Devils have not won a bowl game since the 1961 Cotton Bowl, and they haven't defeated a Top 25 team from outside the ACC since 1971, when they took down Stanford. Those are streaks of 53 and 43 years, respectively, that Cutcliffe's program can break with a win in El Paso against an explosive Sun Devils team. Such a victory would certainly represent progress for Duke after it finished last season with a heartbreaking 52-48 bowl loss to Texas A&M.

3. Duke's Crowder versus ASU's Strong

The Sun Bowl is a chance to see two talented receivers square off. Jamison Crowder's 276 career receptions and 5,402 all-purpose yards are both third among active FBS players. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound speedster had 78 catches this season, three more than his aptly named 6-3 counterpart Jaelen Strong, who announced earlier this week that he'll be entering the 2015 NFL draft. Though Crowder and Strong feature distinctly contrasting styles, both receivers are potential game-changers with the ability to make up-and-down quarterback play look spectacular. Even if their contributions don't mark the difference in this game, they'll certainly be worth a watch.
Virginia Tech and Cincinnati meet for the 11th time Saturday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the Military Bowl near Navy’s campus in Annapolis, Maryland. Here are a few things to watch during this weekend’s ACC-American Athletic Conference matchup.

Strength in the trenches: The best battle on the field Saturday will be between Virginia Tech’s aggressive defensive front and the sturdy offensive line of Cincinnati. The Hokies (6-6) arrived in Annapolis thanks to their trademark aggressive defense. Led by defensive ends Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem, Virginia Tech finished the year second among FBS teams in both sacks per game (3.83) and tackles for loss per game (8.75). The Bearcats (9-3) are the second-best team in the country at not allowing tackles for loss this season. A veteran offensive line that includes two first-team all-conference players (Parker Ehinger and Eric Lefeld) has quietly been a large part of Cincinnati’s success on offense this season.

QB transplants: Both teams feature first-year starters at quarterback who began their careers at different schools. Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel transferred from Notre Dame before showing this year why he was once considered the best high school quarterback prospect in the country. Kiel completed 60 percent of his throws in a pass-heavy offense this season while picking up 3,010 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes.

Michael Brewer joined the Hokies' roster last spring after graduating from Texas Tech and leaving in search of playing time. Brewer has been a bright spot for a Virginia Tech offense that has struggled this season. He’s thrown 14 interceptions along with his 17 touchdown passes. Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville should have no problem scouting Brewer, who played in nine games at Texas Tech in 2012 when Tuberville was the Red Raiders’ head coach.

Streaking into bowl season: Virginia Tech’s rough year on offense meant the team’s streak of 22 consecutive bowl trips came down to beating Virginia in the regular-season finale. Florida State is the only team that has gone longer without missing the postseason. Cincinnati enters the weekend on a streak of its own. The Bearcats won seven straight to close out the season with a share of the American title. Their last loss was to Miami on Oct. 11.

A common thread: Both teams faced No. 4 Ohio State early in the season with notable results. Virginia Tech pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the year by beating the Buckeyes in Columbus during the second week of the season. The Hokies won 35-21 in their most productive offensive performance of the year (although one of the scores came on a late, game-clinching interception return). Three weeks later, Ohio State and a more confident J.T. Barrett took out some frustrations on Cincinnati’s defense. The Bearcats lost to the Big Ten champs 50-28, despite Kiel’s 352 yards and four touchdowns. That game started a three-game losing streak for Cincinnati.
As he left the meeting, Kevin White wasn’t exactly happy with what he’d just heard.

After an up-and-down junior campaign, the West Virginia receiver had just sat down for a postseason chat with Mountaineers receivers coach Lonnie Galloway. It wasn’t all good, it wasn’t all bad but it was exactly what White needed to hear.

“Coach Galloway told me I have all the aspects to be great, but I only show flashes of it,” White said. “I took it personal.”

White had solid work habits and focus as a junior but something needed to change. He’d combined for 14 receptions for 210 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma and Baylor then combined for three receptions for 61 yards against TCU and Kansas State in 2013 as inconsistency became his trademark. All told he finished with 35 receptions on 83 targets for 507 yards and five touchdowns during his first season as a junior college transfer from Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania.

[+] EnlargeKevin White
Scott Clarke/ESPN Images"I wanted to be a dominant receiver," Kevin White said. "Not the best receiver on the team, the best receiver in college."
Thus Galloway’s message was simple.

“[We talked about] attacking each day,” Galloway said. “Each day is a different work day. [It was about] not getting in your own way. Coming out being focused, working hard, being a leader, setting a good example. “

White left the meeting with renewed focus and it started to show. In winter workouts, in spring football and in summer workouts, White brought a different energy to the table.

“The focus and work habit were there in his junior year but they intensified in winter workouts to spring ball to his senior year,” Galloway said. “[He was] finishing first in just about everything. His attitude in the weight room, his attitude in spring ball [changed] and he was being a dominant player in spring ball.”

During the times when nobody was watching was when the light turned on for the Biletnikoff Award Finalist. Preparing for his senior season became his only focus.

“This is my last year, I wanted to put everything aside and focus in 110 percent,” White said. “Whatever happens, happens, as long as I’ve done the best I can.”

White’s senior year was his last chance to show himself, teammates, coaches, fans, NFL scouts and anyone else who doubted his ability to be a dominant receiver.

“I wanted to be a dominant receiver,” White said. “Not the best receiver on the team, the best receiver in college.”

He didn’t earn that honor, as Alabama’s Amari Cooper beat him out for the Biletnikoff, which is awarded to college football’s top receiver. But, he did become a consistent, game-changing threat for the Mountaineers as WVU returned to bowl eligibility after a one-year hiatus.

White’s final season featured 102 receptions in 151 targets for 1,318 yards and nine touchdowns including a seven-game stretch to start the season which included seven straight games of 100 receiving yards or more. He torched Alabama’s secondary for nine receptions for 143 yards and one touchdown while his 13-reception, 216-yard performance against Maryland two weeks later set the tone that his dominance was going to become commonplace in 2014. Heading into WVU’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup with Texas A&M on Dec. 29, White has cemented his name among the nation’s best receivers.

“We knew he had it in him,” Galloway said. “You knew that he was going to have a special year. The stuff he’s accomplished is all due to the work he put in.”

In the process he’s gone from fringe NFL prospect to a likely Day 1 or Day 2 selection as one of the nation’s best receiving prospects. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has White as the No. 3-ranked receiver in 2015 NFL draft class and ESPN draft expert Todd McShay has the Mountaineers’ top pass-catcher as the No. 14 prospect overall.

Thanks in part to one offseason meeting followed by a business-like approach that defined his senior season, White has gone from pondering his future to steps away from fulfilling his dream.

“It changed dramatically,” White said of his future. “I knew if I focused in I would be able to play on Sundays despite how my junior season went.

“I always knew I could do it … but the world didn’t know.”
In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and count down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

William Gholston, No. 42 in 2010 class

Gholston played in high school at both Mumford High and Southeastern High in Detroit, Michigan. He ultimately chose Michigan State after in June of 2009 after considering offers from Michigan, USC, Ohio State, Alabama and Florida. He was part of a Michigan State class that included NFL first round selection Darqueze Dennard, running back Le’Veon Bell and linebacker Max Bullough.

Gholston’s career at Michigan State got off to a slow start recording 13 tackles in 2010 in 10 games before a shoulder injury cut short his season.

His sophomore season would prove to be the exact opposite of his freshman campaign. He became a full-time starter for the Spartans and recorded 70 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and five sacks earning All-Big 10 second team honors.

Gholston would again take home All-Big 10 second team honors in 2012 recording 59 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gholston wrapped up his career at Michigan State with 142 tackles, 30 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 36 games, including 24 starts.

Gholston chose to forgo his final year of eligibility in East Lansing and was selected in the fourth round, No. 126 overall, in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Honorable mention: Michael Brewster, No. 42 in 2008 class. Brewster was a huge win for Ohio State over Florida out of Orlando (Fla.) Edgewater High. After a standout career in Columbus, Brewster went undrafted in 2012, but signed a free agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon knew that keeping quarterback Marcus Mariota healthy this season was a must if it wanted to make the College Football Playoff.

The Ducks needed to look no further than last season to see how a diminished (even a mildly diminished) Mariota could affect their game plan and alter how defenses attacked the Ducks.

So from that perspective, this season has been successful. Mariota has been -- for the most part -- healthy.

[+] EnlargeCayleb Jones
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe Ducks have been able to overcome a multitude of injuries, but losing Ifo Ekpre-Olomu presents the biggest challenge yet.
It’s just everyone else that hasn’t been able to stay healthy.

First Bralon Addison, Mariota's leading returning receiver, went down in the spring with a torn ACL. Then the injuries to the offensive line started to pile up (and they really haven’t stopped since). Running back Thomas Tyner, defensive lineman Arik Armstead and wide receivers Keanon Lowe and Dwayne Stanford have all missed game time.

And then most recently, the Ducks lost cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu for the rest of the season.

With each injury Oregon’s mantra has stayed the same, as it has with every other college football team in the country: Next man up.

And it's been the same with Ekpre-Olomu. Despite losing the three-time All-Pac-12 selection, defensive coordinator Don Pellum said that the “game plan stays the same.”

“It’s been kind of the theme of our team, I’d say, this year,” Armstead said. “Just persevering through injuries and down times in the year.”

However, despite the multitude of injuries the Ducks have suffered and how good they’ve become at overcoming this type of adversity, the injury to Ekpre-Olomu strikes at the foundation of the team.

With the offensive line suffering injuries and readjusting, the Ducks suffered their one and only loss of the season. But still, that was something that they were able to overcome. And with every offensive line injury and shift, the group became more versatile and able to adjust to a new position and lineup nearly every game.

Ekpre-Olomu’s injury strikes a secondary that had seemed to finally hit its stride. In the final four games of the regular season, Oregon allowed just 32.9 percent of completions to go for more than 10 yards, the fifth-best percentage nationally during that period.

During that same time, Oregon allowed just 44.3 percent of completions to go for 10 yards or a first down, fourth-best nationally.

Now, rather than a player who has been picking up reps throughout the season stepping into a starting spot (like has been the case for the offensive line), it’ll be an inexperienced player, redshirt freshman Chris Seisay, taking over for the Jim Thorpe Award finalist Ekpre-Olomu.

Earlier last week defensive coordinator Don Pellum was asked if Seisay, who has only accounted for 20 tackles (Ekpre-Olomu had tallied 63), was ready for this kind of a challenge in the Rose Bowl.

“I don’t think there’s any question -- we have to go play,” Pellum said. “We have one game. We have to go play, right? That’s the bottom line.”

That is the bottom line.

But the biggest question at that line is whether the Ducks can continue to withstand the onslaught of injuries. Will this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

Mariota has stayed healthy. Not everyone else has. Will that still be enough to beat Florida State?
Ohio StateAP Photo/Carlos OsorioOhio State overcame the early loss of two of its star players to win a Big Ten title and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If Ohio State were counting solely on the brightest stars to light a path to the College Football Playoff, it never would have found it.

The presumptive centerpiece of the offense, Braxton Miller, was lost during training camp and never took a snap at quarterback this season. Arguably the most touted returning defender, Noah Spence, never played a down, either, because of what turned into a permanent suspension.

Those weren't the only holes the No. 4 Buckeyes would have to fill after losing a handful of significant contributors from last year's roster. Any chance of developing into a contender was always going to include contributions from fresh faces and new leaders. Even without what appeared to be Ohio State's most important players on both sides of the ball, as it stormed to a conference title and into the Allstate Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Alabama, it morphed into the most dangerous kind of team: a complete constellation.

"Incredible year, a year that if you would have told me back in August when I saw our starting quarterback go down that this would happen, I would have said, 'Not yet,'" coach Urban Meyer said. "You just never can devalue the chemistry on a team, the closeness of a team. And then when you deal with tragedy and other things that our team has experienced throughout the year, it was a learning experience.

"I learned more from our players maybe this year than in a long time."

Those lessons were working in both directions between the coaching staff and a roster long on talent but short on experience. The trust that was cultivated clearly helped forge a strong bond among the Buckeyes as they dealt with all kinds of on-the-field adversity and the death of teammate Kosta Karageorge.

From a football perspective, the hits started coming even before the season opened. Losing Miller, a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, to a second shoulder injury seemed like enough to knock Ohio State out of the Big Ten running. The loss forced the Buckeyes to reload the entire attack on short notice. They were already breaking in four new offensive linemen and trying to replace their leading rusher and receiver.

On defense, Ohio State was also seeking to replace a pair of first-round draft picks who left early for the NFL. On top of that, the Buckeyes would soon be without another future pro when Spence failed a second drug test and was ruled permanently ineligible. This left them without the piece that was supposed to give them potentially the best overall unit in the country up front.

Difficulty filling these spots became painfully apparent in Week 2, when Virginia Tech stunned the Buckeyes by beating them in the Horseshoe. But it also proved to be an opportunity for Ohio State to rally together, close ranks and establish an us-against-the-world mentality that would fuel its rapid rise.

"I think it's the closeness of our family," running back Ezekiel Elliott said. "We're truly a family, we've been through so much together, and I mean, it's going to take a lot to tear us apart.

"We've been underdogs this season; a lot of people haven't believed in us. If it was losing Braxton or losing J.T. [Barrett], a lot of people have lost faith in us. All we have is each other, and we're going to keep this whole brotherhood together, keep grinding and keep pushing."

Singling out any one member as the engine behind Ohio State's success is almost impossible -- which is perhaps the primary reason the team is headed to the semifinal to face the Crimson Tide.

Barrett set a Big Ten record for touchdowns after replacing Miller, but he suffered his own injury. That thrust Cardale Jones into the lineup at quarterback, and the offense didn't miss a beat in a 59-0 destruction of Wisconsin.

Joey Bosa did become a bona fide star in his own right at defensive end as a finalist for a couple of major awards. Bosa had a prolific campaign that included 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He more than eased the loss of Spence. But he also wasn't working alone, with tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington raising their games as the season progressed, combining for 21.5 tackles for loss and making it increasingly difficult for opponents to focus solely on Bosa.

And whether it was Elliott in the backfield, Michael Thomas at wide receiver or sophomore safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell taking over and revitalizing the secondary, the list of young Buckeyes who stepped out of the shadows and into critical roles could keep on going.

All of them along the way turned a cliché into a simple fact for Ohio State: The team was the star.

"I think that's why this team has survived and even continued to improve and flourish through the adversity we've had," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "It's the high-character people on this team, the leadership of this team and then the leadership of our head coach and our staff.

"We have all those ingredients. That's what makes a team, and that's why we are where we are."

They're on the path to a possible national title, two games away, stepping into the brightest lights the game has to offer -- as a unit.
NC State has used the hashtag #PacktheBay to get its fans to support the Wolfpack in St. Petersburg, Florida, over the holidays. Given where their opponent is from, they are hoping for all the support they can get.

UCF only had to take a bus a few hours west to make its bowl trip, and its fans are sure to be out in full force -- the way they were in taking over Raymond James Stadium when they played USF in Tampa to close the season.

Here are three key storylines to watch when the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl kicks off at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

1. NC State run game vs. UCF run defense. It's a matchup of strength against strength in the trenches. NC State has posted consecutive 300-yard rushing games and is averaging 206 yards per game on the ground behind the collective efforts of quarterback Jacoby Brissett and running backs Shadrach Thornton, Matt Dayes and Tony Creecy. UCF, meanwhile, ranks No. 5 in the nation in rush defense and is only allowing 97.4 yards per game. UCF's past three opponents had a combined 85 yards rushing and averaged 1.2 yards per carry. How NC State runs could very well determine the outcome. Not surprisely, its five losses featured its five lowest rushing totals of the season.

2. Holman to Perriman. Justin Holman and Breshad Perriman have developed quite a connection, especially on the deep ball. Nine of Holman's 13 longest throws this season have gone to Perriman, including the classic 51-yard Hail Mary to beat East Carolina. Of Perriman's 41 receptions this year, 17 have gone for 20 or more yards. Perriman ranks No. 4 in the nation in receiving yards per game (22.1) and has caught a touchdown pass in seven straight games. The NC State secondary must find a way to limit big plays, or it could be a long night.

3. Brissett vs. Jacoby Glenn. NC State has only thrown six interceptions this season. That's the fewest picks for a Wolfpack offense since 1967. Five of them belong to Brissett, who played his best game of the season in the regular-season finale against North Carolina. But what awaits him is a veteran secondary starring Co-AAC Defensive Player of the Year Jacoby Glenn, one of the best cornerbacks in the country. Glenn ranks third in the nation with seven interceptions and tied for fourth with 18 passes defended. The UCF starting secondary has played in a combined 171 games and should have a matchup edge on the relatively young NC State receiving group.

Viewer's Guide: Quick Lane Bowl

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
9:30
AM ET
After a college football-less Christmas Day, the action gets going again Friday with three bowl games for your enjoyment, the second of which pits Rutgers versus North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl at 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN) at Ford Field in Detroit. The first week of bowl season has been eventful and this game looks like a potential fun one. Let’s take a glance at what’s in store:

What’s at stake: North Carolina (6-6) is looking for a win to secure its seventh consecutive season with a winning record and second straight bowl win. The back-to-back bowl wins would be a first for the Tar Heels since 1996 to 1998, when they won three straight. Rutgers (7-5) is looking to finish with eight wins for the seventh time in nine years. A victory would be Kyle Flood’s first bowl win as the Scarlet Knights’ head coach and move the program to 6-4 all time in bowl games.

Players to watch: Rutgers junior receiver Leonte Carroo was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media after turning in an impressive 53-catch, 1,043-yard, 10-touchdown season. His 10 touchdown catches tied the Scarlet Knights’ single-season record and was second in the Big Ten. Though Flood listed him on the injury report with an upper body injury, Carroo is probable and according to Flood likely to be 100 percent by game time. North Carolina junior quarterback Marquise Williams, a second-team All-ACC media pick, led the Tar Heels in passing yards (2,870) and rushing yards (737) and has 32 combined touchdowns (20 passing, 12 receiving). His 3,607 yards of total offense is a single-season school record and he is responsible for five of the 12 highest UNC single-game totals for total offense.

Comeback kids: North Carolina trailed in the second half in five of its six wins this season and four of those wins required a big play in the game’s final five minutes to secure victory. The Tar Heels’ closest call in a winning effort came against Georgia Tech, when T.J. Logan scored on a 2-yard run with 11 seconds left to complete a 48-43 victory. Rutgers can come from behind, too, and quarterback Gary Nova has shown a knack for rallying. He has led Rutgers to seven fourth-quarter or overtime comeback wins in his career, tied for the most of any active player in the country. He did it twice this season, rallying the Scarlet Knights to wins over Washington State and Maryland.

Piling up the points?: With both teams featuring gifted quarterbacks in Nova and Williams and neither having what anyone would call a shutdown defense (North Carolina allows 38.9 points per game, 119th in the country; while Rutgers allows 30.9 points per game, 92nd nationally), this game could become a shootout in short order. Plus, North Carolina let go of associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning earlier this month (Dan Disch is running the Tar Heels' defense for the game). That should provide plenty of day-after-Christmas entertainment for those looking for it.
Four things to watch in Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, which kicks off at 1 p.m. ET (ESPN) Friday and features Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech:

Big Ten transfers versus Illinois: Two of Louisiana Tech's better players -- quarterback Cody Sokol and defensive end Houston Bates -- both competed in the B1G before transferring earlier this year to the Conference USA school. Bates actually played for Illinois before announcing in February he was moving to Louisiana Tech to be closer to his family. He was an All-B1G honorable mention last season, and he currently leads the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks this season. Sokol played for Iowa last season but decided to move on after finding himself third on the depth chart, behind Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard. Iowa confirmed his departure in March, and he didn’t need to sit out a year since he graduated in May. Sokol has thrown for 3,189 yards and passed for 29 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. He was named the Conference USA Newcomer of the Year.

Can Louisiana Tech’s offense be slowed down?: The Bulldogs’ offense didn’t crack the top 40 in rushing or passing, but it is ranked highly where it counts the most -- scoring. Louisiana Tech is No. 12 nationally by averaging 37.5 points per game, nearly twice what it scored last season (19.2 ppg). With an efficient red-zone offense -- Kenneth Dixon has 21 rushing touchdowns -- Louisiana Tech has also been scoring touchdowns at a greater percentage (71.7 percent of trips) than Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State.

That’s not great news for Illinois, which struggles in just about every statistical category on defense. The Illini have the No. 115 red zone defense (89.6 percent), No. 112 total defense (464.3 ypg) and the No. 107 scoring defense (33.9 ppg). Plus, Louisiana Tech hasn’t lost a game all season when it scores 30 points. Its record stands at 7-0 when scoring 30 or more, and 1-5 when scoring less.

Two young, overlooked all-conference wideouts: Louisiana Tech sophomore Trent Taylor and Illinois freshman Mike Dudek each had just one FBS scholarship offer -- and they’re making quite a few teams regret not taking a closer look. (Fortunately for the Bulldogs and Illini, it just so happened that Taylor played high school football in Louisiana, and Dudek was from Illinois.)

Dudek was a first-team All-B1G selection and led the team with 65 catches, 965 yards and six touchdowns. He had 439 more receiving yards than the No. 2 target. Taylor found a spot on the second-team All-Conference USA and had 62 catches, 814 yards and nine touchdowns -- 338 more yards than the No. 2. You’re likely going to hear a lot more from these two receivers over the next few seasons, so it’s worth keeping an eye on them here.

Turnover battle: No team in the nation has forced more turnovers than Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have caused 25 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries this season -- more than twice as many forced turnovers as Illinois -- and that opportunistic defense could pose problems for Tim Beckman’s squad.

Two Louisiana Tech defensive backs -- Xavier Woods and Adairius Barnes -- have five interceptions apiece. Illinois has forced just seven interceptions total. And, when it comes to turnover margin, there’s also obviously a big gap between these two teams. The Bulldogs are fifth nationally (plus-1.15 per game); Illinois is 75th (minus-0.17 per game).

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