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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“[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.”