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NEW YORK -- Christian Hackenberg wasn't losing this game.

The sophomore quarterback rallied Penn State from a two-touchdown deficit in the second half Saturday to narrowly defeat Boston College in overtime, 31-30, in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Hackenberg drove his team downfield with a little over two minutes left in regulation to set up a 45-yard field goal that tied the score. He then found Kyle Carter for a 10-yard touchdown in the end zone in the first overtime to win the game.

Boston College shanked a PAT on its first overtime possession, so Penn State's Sam Ficken simply needed to make his to end the game.

Penn State ends the season at 7-6, while Boston College falls to 7-6.

Gameball goes to: Hackenberg. Just when it looked as if this team was once again set up to lose, trailing 21-7 late in the third, Hackenberg turned it up and played his best when the most was on the line. He finished 34-of-50 for 371 yards and four TDs, and he came away with a critical 16-yard scoring pass on second-and-goal to tie up the score at 21. Then he drove PSU downfield to tie the score at 24 in the closing seconds of regulation. Oh, then he had the game-winning TD. PSU wouldn't have won without him.

It was over when: Ficken nailed the extra point in overtime to hand PSU the 31-30 victory. Boston College's kicker simply shanked the PAT on the Eagles' previous overtime possession. BC led 30-24 after the first possession, but Hackenberg's TD to Carter -- and Ficken's PAT -- ended the game.

Stat of the game: 239. That was the number of rushing yards by Boston College at the end of the third quarter, against the nation's top-ranked rush defense. It was the most PSU allowed to a team all season. Ohio State previously recorded a season-high 219 rushing yards against PSU -- but that took four quarters and two overtimes to reach. Boston College was averaging 7.7 yards per rush.

Best play: The most impressive touchdown might have been the Nittany Lions' first. On third-and-12, following a false start, Hackenberg dropped back and threw a long pass to true freshman Chris Godwin -- who caught the ball in stride, shook off a tackle and sprinted another 35 yards or so to complete the 72-yard touchdown.

It was the second-longest TD pass of Hackenberg's career and the longest career reception of Godwin's.

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South Carolina jumped out to a first-half lead and held off Miami 24-21 in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl on Saturday in Shreveport, Louisiana.

How the game was won: After Miami settled for field goals on its first two drives, the game swung when South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson hit Pharoh Cooper with a 78-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter. Starting there, the Gamecocks outgained Miami 192 yards to 36 through halftime and scored 17 unanswered points. Miami twice closed within three points, but got no closer.

Game ball goes to: Thompson. Cooper (170 receiving yards) is a tempting option, but let’s go with Thompson, a fifth-year senior. He showed why he was the SEC’s leading passer in picking apart a Miami secondary that came in ranked 10th nationally in pass defense. Thompson finished 22-for-34 for 284 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for the clinching score.

What it means: After blowing several late leads during SEC play, the Gamecocks finally managed to carry a narrow lead into the final quarter and win the game. South Carolina (7-6) avoided its first losing record under Steve Spurrier and forced Miami (6-7) to finish the season with a sub-.500 record for the first time since 2007 and only the third time since 1979.

Best play: South Carolina’s Cooper scores the game’s first touchdown on a 78-yard pass in the second quarter:
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In a game fitting of its Wild West setting, Arizona State survived Duke's pesky upset attempt. The Sun Devils proved better than the Blue Devils in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, securing a 36-31 victory in El Paso. ASU has now posted consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1973, and Todd Graham has won more games in his first three years as coach than anyone else in program history. Meanwhile, Duke's long drought continues: The Blue Devils have not won a bowl game since 1961.

How the game was won: When ASU jumped out to a 20-3 lead midway through the second quarter, it looked as if they were going to run the other Devils out of the building. But Duke battled back using an array of screen passes to burn ASU's aggressive pressure defense, and two quick touchdowns cut the deficit to 20-17 by halftime. This flurry was indicative of how the second half would go: The Sun Devils seemed to have an overwhelming stockpile of explosive weapons on offense, but Duke simply would not die.

After the Blue Devils took a 31-30 lead on the fuel of two trick plays late in the fourth quarter, ASU freshman Kalen Ballage immediately responded with a 96-yard kickoff return. The Sun Devils regained the lead when fellow youngster Demario Richard scored on the next play, and their defense sealed the victory after that. This was a classic see-saw battle down the stretch, and ASU ultimately had more ammunition than Duke.

Game ball goes to: Veteran Jaelen Strong grabbed seven passes for 103 yards in his final ASU game before heading to the NFL, so he deserves acknowledgement here. But the game ball itself must go to the future of the Sun Devil program. Less than a month after turning 18 years old, Richard scored four touchdowns -- including the game winner. He was the dependable force that the Sun Devils turned to whenever they were in scoring range, and he ended up playing a perfect complement to Strong and DJ Foster (121 all-purpose yards)

It was over when: ASU defensive back Kweishi Brown intercepted Duke quarterback Anthony Boone in the corner of the end zone with 45 seconds remaining. The Blue Devils were driving at the time, and they were hungry to deliver a go-ahead score that would give the Sun Devils little time to rebut. But Brown's excellent defense on Boone's lofty fade pass finally stifled Duke's hopes. Prior to that play, the Blue Devils simply wouldn't go away; they had been a combined 14-for-23 on third- and fourth-down conversions.

Stat of the game: Plus-2. That was the turnover margin, and ASU fell on the positive side of it. It's ultimately the reason the Sun Devils prevailed in this football game, because Duke ended up outgaining ASU (400-392) and outperforming them on third and fourth down. Brown's interception, though, was the big play that stopped the bleeding elsewhere and secured a hard-fought win for Graham's club.
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Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer wasn’t on the sideline Saturday afternoon, but BeamerBall was in full effect during the Hokies' 33-17 win over Cincinnati in the Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman.

Beamer, who had throat surgery earlier this month, watched from the press box as his special teams and defense helped Virginia Tech (7-6) pull away from the Bearcats (9-4) starting late in the second quarter. A long kick return gave the Hokies a short field with 28 seconds remaining in the half. The offense moved it close enough for Joey Slye to hit a 49-yard field goal, giving the Hokies a 13-10 lead heading into the locker room.

Cincinnati doubled Virginia Tech’s total yardage in the first half, but trailed because of a few missed opportunities. The Bearcats missed a field goal on their opening drive and threw an interception in the end zone on their second drive.

After Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer's 1-yard pass to Ryan Malleck made it a 10-point game, a Hokies fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter put it out of reach at 27-10 and knocked Cincinnatti quarterback Gunner Kiel out of the game with a head injury. The American Conference leader in touchdown passes during the regular season finished with 244 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Brewer completed 14 of 24 passes for 94 yards. He also caught a pass on a trick play that set up the Hokies’ first touchdown.

Virginia Tech running back J.C. Coleman added a career-high 157 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.

Game ball goes to: Virginia Tech freshman Greg Stroman contributed to the Hokies' win in all three phases of the game. He scored a touchdown on defense, caught a pass and ran the ball twice on offense, and broke off two punt returns that went longer than 30 yards on special teams. He ended his day by breaking up a fourth-down pass attempt on Cincinnati's final possession of the game.

What it means: Virginia Tech managed to continue its streak of 22 seasons with a winning record despite a disappointing 6-6 regular season. The ACC got its bowl season off to a good start with the victory. Duke, Miami and Boston College all play Saturday as well.

Best play: The Hokies opened up a 27-10 lead thanks to a fumble return for a touchdown. Linebacker Deon Clarke started the play with a sack that pried the ball loose from Kiel. Defensive tackle Nigel Williams scooped up the loose ball near the 40-yard line and rumbled to the end zone’s doorstep before coughing it up. Stroman picked it up from there and plowed his way in for the score.

video What’s next: Cincinnati, which won a share of the American title this season, returns a good portion of its roster next season, including Kiel. The Hokies head into the offseason with positive momentum as they look to make a better run at the ACC Coastal Division.
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Brick by brick, Gary Patterson knows how to build a football program.

Not just figuratively, either.

Long before taking TCU to the cusp of the inaugural College Football Playoff this season, Patterson forged a coaching career working his way up through a series of small schools.

That included a lot of coaching. And a little construction work.

At Tennessee Tech, it was painting the walls of the football offices. At Sonoma State, it was hammering nails into the stadium's renovated press box. And at Utah State -- Patterson's first Division I job that came a full decade after he began coaching -- it was laying carpet for a new locker room.

Patterson put the tools down once he arrived at TCU 16 years ago. But every remote stop along the way equipped him with what he needed to raise TCU into a national power.

"It's one of those things -- not everybody has to pay his dues or work from the ground up," said Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, Patterson's closest friend in the profession. "But Gary had to work for everything he got, and his players reflect that. That's why his teams are so tough."

On New Year's Eve, TCU will meet Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a consolation prize for an 11-1 season that came oh-so close to a playoff berth. The Horned Frogs couldn't hold on to a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter at Baylor, which ultimately proved to be the difference in missing the playoff.

Still, the season was one more brick in the building of a program whose next rung could be a national championship.

[+] EnlargeGary Patterson
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsGary Patterson paid his dues before arriving at TCU 16 years ago. And then paid his dues again remaking the Horned Frogs.

"We're not there yet," said Patterson, who this week was voted The Associated Press' college football coach of the year, joining Alabama's Nick Saban as the only two-time winner.

"But we're closer than we were."

In many ways, the Horned Frogs' gradual ascension since the turn of the millennium has emulated the path of their coach.

Patterson grew up in Rozel, Kansas, which claimed a population of 156 in the latest census. Patterson learned the value of hard work in Rozel, spending long days helping his father level lands for the local farmers.

"Back there, everyone knows how to work hard," Patterson said. "You work Sundays in coaching, and you worked Sundays there."

That value would serve Patterson -- and ultimately TCU -- well later in life.

After high school and junior college, Patterson walked on at Kansas State. But his calling would be coaching, not playing. He got his first gig at Tennessee Tech making just a few hundred dollars a month. Then he went to UC Davis, which couldn't afford to send him a paycheck until after the season. Patterson also grinded out a living coaching at Cal Lutheran, Pittsburgh State and Sonoma State.

But he wasn't just a defensive assistant at those stops. He was a strength coach. An academic adviser. A financial aid consultant. And when the time called for it, he picked up a hammer or a saw and helped build whatever those programs needed.

"You have to wear a lot of hats at those places," Patterson said. "You always were learning something different."

That paid off when TCU looked to replace Dennis Franchione, who bolted for Alabama after the 2000 season. As Franchione's defensive coordinator, Patterson had whipped the Horned Frogs into the nation's top defense. But that alone wasn't what landed Patterson the head-coaching job.

William Koehler, the school's provost, had begun working out in the football weight room. There, he noticed how Patterson took charge of football academics. He saw Patterson head the strength and conditioning program. He witnessed Patterson be the disciplinarian. As other power brokers sought a splashy hire, Koehler and prominent booster Dick Lowe pushed for Patterson.

"Gary did everything except call the offense and talk to the media," Lowe said. "And he had this work ethic that was off the scale."

As head coach, Patterson's work ethic has remained firm, from the big items to the small.

He tirelessly spearheaded the fundraising effort that led to a series of state-of-the-art facility upgrades, including a $164 million renovation of Amon G. Carter Stadium in 2012. From 2008-11, TCU also won 47 games, which prompted the Big 12 to invite the Horned Frogs after a second round of realignment struck the conference.

"Gary has meant everything to TCU," said Victor J. Boschini Jr., the school's chancellor. "He is the school, and the school is him."

The tiny details, however, have stuck with Memphis head coach Justin Fuente, previously the Horned Frogs' offensive coordinator. That includes watching Patterson pick up trash anytime he spotted it in the halls.

"I watched Gary do that 400 times when I was there," said Fuente, who this season led the Tigers to their first conference title in more than 40 years. "I find myself now doing the same thing. But a lot of what we're trying to do [at Memphis] is modeled after him."

[+] EnlargeMoore/Hughes
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesPlayers like Jerry Hughes were identified and developed by Gary Patterson along TCU's rise back to prominence.

That includes finding recruits who might not have five recruiting stars but who share Patterson's inherent work ethic. In 2007, Jerry Hughes arrived at TCU with little fanfare as a running back. Patterson immediately turned Hughes into a defensive end. And before he left, Hughes worked his way into a unanimous All-American and first-round draft pick.

"Coach P has this keen eye for finding certain players that might be under the radar and getting the most out of them," said Hughes, now with the Buffalo Bills.

This TCU team is stocked with similar players.

All-American linebacker Paul Dawson was a lightly recruited wide receiver out of Dallas Skyline High School. All-Big 12 safety Sam Carter was a high school quarterback.

And Trevone Boykin, a two-star recruit who finished last season at receiver, turned himself into one of the top quarterbacks in the country.

"The whole football program embodies Gary," Fuente said. "He surrounds himself with those type of kids, who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and go to work."

While his work ethic has stayed as strong as ever, Patterson has found balance. Thanks to a similar affection for animals, he met his wife, Kelsey, who worked at the Fort Worth Zoo, in 2002. More than once, the Patterson family has gone scuba diving and taken African safaris. "Places where the phones don't work," Kelsey said, laughing.

Patterson also plays guitar and is a regular performer at local charity events. "He's the only guy I ever saw sing at his own wedding," said Kill, Patterson's best man.

Patterson has found satisfaction in the ride. But that doesn't mean he's finished building.

At just 54, relatively young in coaching years, Patterson is now the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the FBS. Other schools have knocked on his door. But Patterson has stuck with TCU.

"I've never found a place that was better," said Patterson, who follows almost 11,000 TCU fans and students on Twitter so he can interact with them through direct message. "I haven't found somewhere fit me better than TCU."

Together, over the years, TCU and Patterson have worked their way up. With the very top now in sight.

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.

Joe Adams, No. 41 in 2008 class

Adams was long considered a smart pick to sign with home state Arkansas coming out of Central Arkansas Christian in Little Rock, but the USC Trojans made quite the push before the playmaker announced for the Razorbacks on signing day in 2008 due to the offense of then head coach Bobby Petrino and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Adams was part of an Arkansas class that included quarterback Tyler Wilson and Greg Childs.

Adams was the third leading receiver for the Razorbacks in 2008 as a true freshman hauling in 31 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns.

As a sophomore, Adam was again the team's third leading receiver, but made the most of his opportunities catching 29 passes for 568 yards and seven scores.

Adams' junior campaign would be his best at Arkansas in terms of receiving yards recording a team-leading 813 yards and six touchdowns with 50 catches.

Adams flirted with the NFL following the season, but chose to return for his senior season. He delivered on the field in 2011 to the tune of 54 receptions for 652 yards and three scores. It was his all-around play that impressed the most. Adams totaled 1,112 all-purpose yards including four punt return touchdowns earning All-American and All-SEC first-team honors.

Adams finished his career at Arkansas with 3,352 all-purpose yards, 2,410 receiving, and 24 touchdowns.

Adams was selected in the fourth round, No. 104-overall, by the Carolina Panthers in the 2012 NFL draft but has struggled to stick in the league.

Honorable mention: Terrence Austin, No. 41 in 2006, and John Martinez, No. 41 in 2009 class. Austin was a multi-year starter for UCLA and was drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL draft. Martinez was a three-year starter at guard for the USC Trojans and is currently playing in the Arena League.
The reunion storyline has dominated the talk headed into the Russell Athletic Bowl between Oklahoma and Clemson.

But if Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had his way, he would have done anything he could to avoid facing his former team.

The relationships he developed in 13 seasons with Bob Stoops and the Sooners remain remarkably strong. There is no bitterness, no anger, just mutual admiration on both sides -- from players and coaches.

[+] EnlargeVenables
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables will face off against former employer Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Take Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard. Though he never played one down for Venables, the two spent countless hours together at Oklahoma while Shepard was growing up. As has been well-documented, Stoops invited Shepard to be a part of the football program with open arms following the death of his father, Derrick, a former Sooners great.

Shepard did not just hang out with Stoops, though. He grew close with all the coaches on staff, including Venables.

“As a young kid I just remember talking to him a lot,” Shepard said in a recent interview. “I had a pretty close relationship with all the coaches at that time, so throughout the years of me just being there and being around the facility we saw each other a lot of the time so we’d talk. ...

“I always loved how passionate he was for the game. You could tell his nose was in the book at all times. He knew the ins and outs of the defense. He’d be fired up every game day. That’s what I liked most about him.”

Shepard also grew into a high school standout, playing defensive back and receiver. Oklahoma initially recruited him to play defensive back, where he attended camps and got first-hand coaching from Venables. And that coaching was intense.

“If you didn’t do a drill right, you were going to go back and do it again until you got it right,” Shepard said. “His voice would be gone for sure ... his head beet-red sometimes from screaming so much but he definitely got the guys fired up. No doubt about it.”

But Shepard really wanted to play receiver, something that was fine with the Oklahoma staff. He signed in 2012, Venables’ first season at Clemson.

Despite a groin injury that kept him out or limited him in the final four games of the regular season, Shepard still leads the Sooners with 957 yards and five touchdowns. Shepard is expected to play Monday.

Venables will be ready and waiting.

“He grew up in the middle of our team breakdowns and practice and fall camp and football camps and sidelines on game days,” Venables said. “He’s a great ambassador for that program. I know his dad’s awfully proud as well as the rest of his family. He’s a terrific ball player. I feel terrible that he’s been banged up this year but knowing him and the fortitude that he has, he’ll find a way to get back out there on the field to finish the year off. Real proud of Sterling and how he’s grown up.”

Venables also built a close relationship with Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker during the recruiting process. Striker, who played high school football in Florida, chose Oklahoma in large part because of Venables.

But before he had a chance to sign in 2012, Venables was gone. Striker has not gone into much length or depth about having to face the man who recruited him to Oklahoma, telling local reporters earlier in December, “He's not here no more.”

Shepard said, “I know some of the guys he did recruit are fired up. Coaching changes happen all the time, we just know that he knows a lot about this program, and just guys are fired up to play him because he recruited them here.”

For his part, Venables has tried to put Oklahoma out of his mind. As he says, "You have to separate what your job is and what your past was. I'll be just fine. At the end of the day, it's all about those guys with the paw on their helmet."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The exact moment Michael Bennett's mentality changed is a bit too difficult to pin down more than a month later.

Figuring out what adjustment the Ohio State defensive lineman made on the field is pretty clear cut, though.

Those two tweaks overlapped at some point leading into a huge test on the road against Michigan State. And the combination between truly committing to become a more consistent practice player, being a better leader, adopting an empty-the-tank aggression on game days, along with the No. 4 Buckeyes sticking him at defensive tackle on a full-time basis certainly worked. It finally allowed Bennett to play like the All-American he was expected to be before the season instead of the sluggish player that played the first two months.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett, Joel Stave
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesMichael Bennett was a terror down the stretch for Ohio State, racking up five sacks in the last month of the season.
“I don’t really know what caused the change,” Bennett said. “I think it was Michigan State week, that was probably when it was the biggest difference. I think I played good football up until Michigan State week, but I think once they moved me to just straight three-technique and said, 'Go do what we know you can do,' I think that made me a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident than playing a new position.

“I don’t know, I was able to feed off my teammates and we just started gelling and things started working out.”

That’s something of an understatement considering the tear Bennett went on for the next five weeks, a binge of big plays and embarrassing moments for opposing blockers that arguably made him one of the most disruptive defenders in the nation down the stretch.

Starting with his breakout performance in the victory over the Spartans that put Ohio State firmly in control of Big Ten East Division, Bennett racked up five sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles over the next five weeks. In the process, a program that faded on defense late in the season in 2013 instead appeared to grow stronger as it bullied its way into the College Football Playoff and Thursday’s showdown with No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Bennett’s emergence coincided with some of the best defense the Buckeyes have played in years, most notably the 59-0 whitewash of Wisconsin that had the senior captain’s fingerprints all over it. And while the veteran is quick to deflect attention elsewhere and steadfastly refuses to take credit for Ohio State’s recent defensive rise, there is plenty of success that can be directly traced to Bennett.

“Any time that you are playing your best up front, especially right in the heart of your defense in the middle, it’s going to help the rest of the defense,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “Michael Bennett, about six weeks ago, he flipped the switch and something changed. ... Everybody else has fed off of that.

“He’s a senior up there, he’s one of our most talented players, one of our best playmakers. When people see him doing things the right way, the investment he’s made into the game of football to help himself get better has been impressive, everybody else is following his lead.”

Obviously the standard Bennett has set as a lead and a competitor has been a boost for the Buckeyes, but he’s also not alone on a long list of defenders who have improved during the season. Darron Lee has become a game-changer at linebacker, a secondary that was picked apart last season led the Big Ten in interceptions, and Joey Bosa has rapidly developed into one of the country’s top pass-rushing threats.

But give or take a few days, Ohio State can look back to the week of the Michigan State game and see a pretty definitive turning point -- not only for Bennett, but the rest of the unit as well.

“I think the defense is starting to gel at the right time of the year,” Bennett said. “I think everybody is starting to play less selfishly. I just think my success stems from everybody on the field doing better, so I’m more free to go do what I can do. My success comes from the team doing well, and the team doing well comes from my success just like it would coming from anybody else.

“I’m never going to take credit for something like that.”

A team-first captain never would anyway. But it wasn’t hard to see who was leading the charge for the Buckeyes over the last five games right into the playoff.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- From seventh grade to now, Biff Poggi has gotten to know Cyrus Jones well. So you'll have to pardon the long-time coach at Gilman High School in Baltimore if he wants to brag on his former player in ways you’re not accustomed to.

“He’s a very sweet kid,” Poggi said. “He’s a sensitive kid.”

Never mind that Jones once ran a 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds and leapt 33 inches from a standstill position. Forget the fact that he was once ESPN’s No. 20 overall prospect or that he fielded offers from dozens of Division I universities.

Jones played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, cornerback and safety for Poggi. He even punted, kicked off and served as the team’s leading return specialist. But Poggi thinks of Jones in different terms.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Jones
Brynn Anderson/Associated PressAfter struggling last season, junior cornerback Cyrus Jones has been a stabilizing presence in Alabama's secondary.
“He’s a kid with empathy,” he said. “He has a high emotional IQ.”

That is a build-up, of course. Poggi can talk about the kid for only so long before his voice drops ever so slightly and he begins talking about the athlete Jones grew up to be, the “freak” with “un-be-lieveable” hand-eye coordination that “could have eas-il-y been a Division I basketball player.”

“He was ridiculous,” he said, finally abandoning the emphasis of sounding out each syllable.

But what drives him? What makes Jones so good?

It isn’t being sweet or sensitive. It’s more raw than that.

“He does not want to fail,” Poggi said. “As a matter of fact, failing is just an unacceptable option for that kid.”

Take for instance, Oct. 7, 2011. Jones was a senior with his feet planted on the 35-yard line against Calvert Hall.

“We were losing a game we should have been winning,” Poggi recalled. “There were 3 minutes left to go, and he was not happy.

“The kid we were playing punted the ball to us -- which is maybe the dumbest thing you could do.”

But it was the best punt of the punter's life, Poggi said, and it sailed way over Jones’ head. The ball rolled all the way to the 1-yard line before Jones did the unthinkable and scooped it up.

“Time is running off the clock,” Poggi said. “He fields the ball after being told strictly to never field the ball inside the 10 ... and runs 99 and a half yards for a touchdown -- and I fired our special teams coach right after the game.”

And afterward Jones had a reason why.

“In our joy, he knew that he had to have an explanation, even though it was a touchdown because it was outside of our process,” Poggi said. “And he said, ‘There wasn’t enough time on the clock, our two-minute offense has struggled and our best chance for us to win as a team was the punt return.

“That’s the intellect, the competitiveness, the desire. Most kids would have said, ‘Hey, screw it, that ball’s on the half-yard line.’ Not Jones. Not Jones.”

------

Jones could have said, “Screw it” after his sophomore season at Alabama.

His move from receiver to cornerback had not paid immediate dividends. The kid who never accepted failure had been beaten time and time again.

“I was just thinking too much,” Jones said. “I wasn’t really all that comfortable.”

Opposing teams noticed. In his worry not to mess up, he was picked on. The worst moment of which came against Auburn when he abandoned wideout Sammie Coates on what looked like a sure-fire run by QB Nick Marshall. Pulling up abruptly at the line of scrimmage, Marshall found a wide-open Coates, Auburn scored the game-tying TD, and Alabama lost out on a trip to the BCS National Championship.

“Last year, everything happened so fast,” he said.

But instead of throwing in the towel, Jones stayed the course. He started paying more attention, said safety Landon Collins.

“He got as much film as we can,” he said.

With that came confidence.

“Sometimes you don’t have your safety,” Collins said. “You have to have that confidence that that’s your island, that’s your spot and nobody is going to mess with you.”

After starting five games as a sophomore, Jones hasn’t missed a start as a junior. He’s gone from 25 tackles to 44, from seven passes defended to 11, and in doing so he’s become what Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban described as the team’s “most consistent corner.”

Without Jones anchoring the secondary, it’s difficult to imagine where Alabama would be. After all, the cornerback spot opposite him has been a turnstile with Eddie Jackson, Bradley Sylve and Tony Brown all taking turns on the wheel. If Jones hadn’t been so steady, the whole unit might have cracked.

“I just matured a lot as a player, as a person,” Jones said. “I just approached it, I think, the right way this year. I did a lot of growing up.”

After seeing the ball sail over his head early in his career, Jones has recovered.

And this time it wasn’t by abandoning the playbook and doing it all on his own.

“Instead of panicking and all that nonsense and thinking about himself, he did what his coach asked him to do,” Poggi said. “He has taken the next steps forward. He’s not where he wants to be. He’s not where he should be. But he’s in the natural progression of that.”

The next step: Ohio State and the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Brian Kelly couldn’t answer it. Paul Johnson couldn’t answer it. Al Golden couldn’t answer it.

No one has been able to answer it. It’s a question that -- so far this season -- has stumped every coach who has been asked it: How do you stop a player whose best statistic is, simply, winning?

That’s exactly what FSU quarterback Jameis Winston is best at.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston (5) on the field before the game
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston is 26-0 in his collegiate career.
Winston hasn’t been a prolific passer this year. He has completed 65.4 percent while throwing 17 interceptions to 24 touchdowns. None of those numbers is as good as they were last year when he won the Heisman.

In most statistical categories Winston doesn’t even rank in the top 15 nationally.

But there’s one thing -- and really, it’s the only important thing -- that he has proven this season to be better at that any other quarterback: winning. And Oregon is hoping that by Thursday the Ducks will have the answer to the Jameis question.

“He’s a winner, no matter what anybody else says,” Oregon cornerback Troy Hill said of Winston. “He’s a winner -- that’s what I respect. I respect his ability to win and clench games and not feel that pressure.”

Five times this season, the Seminoles were tied or trailed an opponent going into the fourth quarter. Three times this season FSU has trailed by at least two touchdowns. By comparison, Oregon has trailed going into the fourth quarter only once and never has trailed by more than 10 points.

But each of the times that FSU has been down Winston has shown the ability to rally himself and his teammates from the deficit. Not only does he come up big for the Seminoles, he does it without fail.

  • Notre Dame: The Irish went up 27-24 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. On the ensuing drive Winston completed 5-of-6 passes for 64 yards and Karlos Williams scored from 1 yard (set up by Winston’s terrific passing).
  • Louisville: The Cardinals went up 21-7 at halftime. In the first half Winston averaged 5.1 yards per pass attempt. In the second half he completed 15-of-25 passes for 284 yards, averaging 11.4 yards per attempt -- more than twice his first-half average. The Seminoles outscored Louisville 35-10 in the second half.
  • Miami: With just over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter Florida State trailed 26-23. On the ensuing possession Winston completed 2-of-3 passes for 31 yards, setting up a 26-yard touchdown run from Dalvin Cook. Leading up to that drive, Winston had averaged 7 yards per pass attempt, on that drive he averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt.
  • Boston College: They were tied up at 17 leading into the fourth quarter. The Eagles got within field goal range but missed the field goal, giving FSU a chance to go up with just under five minutes remaining. On that possession Winston completed 3-of-3 passes for 33 yards. Leading up to that drive he averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt. On the game winning drive he averaged 11 yards per attempt.

His ability to win games is unmatched this season and certainly something that gives Oregon -- which saw its fair share of ups and downs at the beginning of the year -- some pause.

It has even garnered the recognition of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

“Whenever they’re down, he’s going to make that play for them to win that game,” Mariota said. “He’s that type of player.”

The Oregon defense respects Winston’s rare ability just as much as Mariota.

“It’s a different trait,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said of Winston’s winning abilities. “A lot of players play well in the clutch and he’s one of those guys who finds a way to win.”

So what’s the key?

“Throughout the game we have to find a way to finish toward the end of the game,” Armstead said. “Even if we jump out early or it’s a fight game going back and forth, we’ve got to find a way to finish at the end of the game.”

Easier said than done. But if the Ducks can do it, they not only will earn a spot in the national title game, they will be the first to answer that question in two years.
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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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