SAN DIEGO -- During the postgame news conference at Qualcomm Stadium following USC’s 45-42 win over Nebraska in the National University Holiday Bowl, Nebraska interim head coach Barney Cotton was asked to comment on the play of USC true freshman Adoree' Jackson.
“What’s the number?” Cotton asked. “I’m not a name guy.”
After Saturday night, here’s guessing Cotton will remember the name.
Whether he was returning kicks, catching touchdowns or making plays in the secondary, Jackson was one of the most exciting and dynamic players on the field Saturday.
“I keep battling [defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox because I want him on offense,” Sarkisian said. “He would have had four touchdowns if he was playing on offense.”
That drew a “yep” from Kessler and a playful head shake from Williams.
USC will likely lose two of its marquee offensive players to the 2015 NFL draft. No one will be shocked when running back Buck Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor make their believed intentions official. If the Holiday Bowl was in fact their respective swan songs, then they exited nicely. Allen rushed for a game-high 152 yards and two touchdowns, while Agholor hauled in seven balls for 90 yards and a score.
But USC’s up-and-comers showed the offense is going to be just fine if -- or when -- those guys leave. Jackson opened the USC scoring with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter. He added three catches for 73 yards, including a jaw-dropping 71-yard touchdown from Kessler. Actually, it was a 1-yard pass from Kessler. Jackson did the other 70 on his own.
But it wasn’t just Jackson making plays. JuJu Smith had three catches for 66 yards. Bryce Dixon caught four balls for 44 yards and a touchdown. The Trojans used 11 true freshmen in significant roles this season, including eight who have combined for 58 starts. Consider that number, with the fact that USC suited up just 50 scholarship players for its bowl game, and it’s not unreasonable to think USC should contend for the Pac-12 South Division next season.
“Our future -- and I’ll say it again -- is ridiculously bright,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to continue to get better and continue to recruit. We’re going to recruit great players. We’re going to develop the players that we have in our program. We’re going to compete for championships. That’s why you come to USC. Get ready for 2015.”
As for the game itself, it was typical Holiday Bowl: High-scoring and high on drama. Even when the Trojans went up 45-27 near the end of the third quarter, there weren’t many who felt the issue was resolved.
Sure enough, Nebraska scored at the end of the third and midway through the fourth to cut the game to 45-42. It wasn’t until Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s Hail Mary with one second left on the clock was harmlessly batted away by Agholor that the Trojans could celebrate. Some might recall Arizona State's topping USC earlier this season on a last-second Hail Mary.
“We’ve been through it,” Sarkisian said, which drew a laugh from the room. “We got JuJu and Nelson on the field. Nelson made a heck of a play to go attack the football. At the end of the day, I mean, you can only get burned so many times, I guess. You know? So let’s just get the ball on the ground. That’s kind of what I was hoping for.”
The game was accented by one big play after another, as the teams combined for 1,040 yards of offense -- including a bowl-record 38 points in the third quarter. Armstrong threw three touchdown passes and ran for another in a contest that felt more like a Pac-12 conference game than a Pac-12/Big Ten bowl.
“I was proud of them and the way they responded offensively because we didn’t totally chuck our game plan [when trailing],” Cotton said. “I’m glad we stuck with doing what we had done to get there, and we just came up a little short at the end.”
Well, after that photo went viral, people started calling it awesome, and then fake. Posts about it being photoshopped littered the Internet, and then Arkansas radio host Bo Mattingly tweeted that he talked to Bielema after practice about the "Horns down" move. Bielema denied doing it.
Ran into Bret Bielema at practice and he says he did not do the "horns down" in photo with Charlie Strong. Appears to have been photoshopped— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) December 27, 2014
OK, case closed ... right?
Here we have more evidence about the hand gesture through this Vine:
Right at the end you can clearly see Bielema move his fingers into the shape of the "Horns down" sign. Now, whether this was intentional or not, we don't know. Maybe, he had no clue what he was doing. Maybe, it was a brilliant troll move by a coach who isn't new to having fun or throwing a little shade toward his opponents.
Regardless, it's fun water-cooler talk before the Razorbacks take on the Longhorns in the Texas Bowl on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET.
How the game was won: On big plays -- because it was the Holiday Bowl. Defenses need not apply. The Trojans were the faster, more athletic team (though not by much), and it showed in the form of explosive plays. Adoree' Jackson scored on a kickoff return and a long touchdown reception. Buck Allen turned 4-yard runs into long touchdowns. Four of USC's touchdowns were 20 yards or longer. That's not to say Nebraska didn't have some explosive moments of its own, as the teams combined for more than 1,000 yards offense.
Turning point: Trailing 45-42 with 2:31 remaining, Nebraska went for it on fourth-and 3 at the USC 31 but was turned away. The Trojans took over and were able to milk down enough clock to preserve the three-point win. A last-second Hail Mary effort from Nebraska fell short as time expired.
Game ball goes to: Jackson, a true freshman, was the most dynamic player on the field. His 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave the Trojans a 7-3 lead after Nebraska jumped ahead on a field goal. Then he took a Cody Kessler pass 71 yards that stretched USC's lead to 31-17 in the third quarter. Oh yeah, he also added six tackles on defense.
Key stat: The teams combined for 38 points in the third quarter, a Holiday Bowl record. Considering the Holiday Bowl's penchant for crazy, that's pretty impressive.
Play of the game: The Jackson kickoff return takes top honors in a game with a lot of big plays.
What's next: Nebraska begins life anew with Riley running the show. Some Trojans -- namely, Leonard Williams, Nelson Agholor and Allen -- have some decisions to make about the NFL draft.
There was a time when even the loyalist Penn State fan discounted Sam Ficken. There was a time when even the wisest sports pundit believed the Nittany Lions wouldn’t survive past 2014.
In the midst of unprecedented sanctions, the Nittany Lions (7-6) clinched their third straight winning season with a 31-30 overtime victory against Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. After a poor kicking start in 2012 -- so bad it led to death threats -- Ficken became all-conference and ended his career with a game-winning kick. The moral of the story? Don’t underestimate Penn State or its players.
This game was a microcosm of the past three seasons all rolled into one. Penn State wasn’t supposed to win; it trailed 21-7 late in the third quarter. It wasn’t supposed to rally; PSU didn’t score 20 points in regulation all season against a Power 5 team.
But just as fans might have wanted to turn away, just as the hope of something good clung to its last thread, this team bounced back. Christian Hackenberg -- the struggling player whom some PSU fans labeled a bust -- rallied the Lions offense with one of the best games of his career. He threw for 371 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. He marched PSU downfield with two minutes in regulation to tie the game. Then he led PSU to a touchdown in overtime.
This game seemed lost, but Penn State won. The program seemed on the verge of death two years ago, but Penn State survived.
“There’s a lot of similarities in this game, compared to our whole careers,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “It’s only fitting we get a win in Yankee Stadium in overtime after the roller-coaster career we had. It’s pretty crazy how that works. It just goes to show we’re never going to give up. That’s what this program is all about.”
On Sept. 8, 2012, Ficken missed 4-of-5 field goals and a PAT against Virginia in a 17-16 loss. On Saturday night, he knotted the game at 24 in the closing seconds with a 45-yard field goal -- then he nailed the game-winning extra point after the Boston College kicker missed his.
“It’s a storybook ending, really,” Ficken said. “I couldn’t have written a better way to go. This team has worked so hard and fought so hard. And to say we went to a bowl, first of all, and then won that bowl. It’s just really incredible.”
The Nittany Lions didn’t expect to have great moments during the past three seasons, not when the sanctions were initially handed down. Some of those players, such as Hull and Ficken, still remember the eerie silence in the players’ lounge while awaiting the sanctions announcement of NCAA President Mark Emmert. Hull nearly transferred to Pittsburgh -- he informed Bill O’Brien he was moving on before reconsidering -- and most believed Ficken never deserved a scholarship in the first place.
They endured five different head coaches -- two interim, three full-time -- during their careers. They never thought they’d see the postseason, as Penn State was set to miss four years worth of bowls before the ban was rescinded three months ago.
This team lingered on the field after the game, and it seemed as if most fans clad in blue and white didn’t budge from their seats. Franklin took the microphone, thanked the seniors and boomed that this was Penn State culture. Fans’ screams drowned out the Frank Sinatra tune played through the PA system.
This wasn’t just a bowl win for Penn State. It rang in the end of the worst of the sanctions. PSU was the second-youngest team in the FBS this season and had just 64 recruited scholarship players on the roster. It had seven seniors compared to 31 freshmen.
Safety Malik Golden tweeted from the locker room, “Right back like we never left #NewEra.” Running back Akeel Lynch told reporters, “The sanction era is definitely over.”
Penn State was never supposed to make it to this point. It was never supposed to win this game, and it was never supposed to boast three winning seasons and a bowl victory this early. But Penn State has made it a habit these past three years of proving the prognosticators wrong. Saturday night was just them getting the last word.
“You can’t take us away,” Lynch said. “They tried to. They tried to talk about culture. But this is Penn State, man. This is what we do."
NEW YORK -- Christian Hackenberg wasn't losing this game.
The sophomore quarterback rallied Penn State from a two-touchdown, second-half deficit Saturday to narrowly defeat Boston College 31-30 in overtime 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, which won 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.
Game ball goes to: Hackenberg. Just when it looked as if this team were 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 the score at 21. Then he drove PSU downfield to tie the score at 24 in the closing seconds of regulation. 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 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 Boston College's rushing yardage 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. 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.