Wednesday, January 9, 2013
What we learned in the Big Ten bowls
By Brian Bennett
What we learned from the seven Big Ten bowl games:
1. Need for speed (and skill): The narrative about the Big Ten being slow is tiresome and oversimplified. But the bowls showed it's not entirely inaccurate. Whether it was Michigan struggling to contain South Carolina's Ace Sanders, Minnesota getting burned by Texas Tech's passing game, Wisconsin desperately lacking a game-breaker versus Stanford or whatever it was Purdue attempted to do against Oklahoma State, the bowl games exposed a need for several teams to increase their overall athleticism at the skill positions. Big Ten teams came close to winning in four of the league's five postseason losses. The difference in those games often comes down to one or two playmakers, and the league could use a few more.
Is there more success in store for Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald ? He said he'll have his fastest team ever in 2013.
2. Northwestern has become a complete team: The Wildcats have often brought good offenses into their bowl games. They usually have not been as good on defense or suffered from special-teams problems. Northwestern won its first bowl game since 1949 because Pat Fitzgerald finally crafted a complete team this season. The defense limited Mississippi State to just 106 passing yards and intercepted Tyler Russell four times in a 34-20 victory in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. The offense featured a balanced attack between its rushing and passing games, and Northwestern had one of the best punt returners (Venric Mark) and field goal kickers (Jeff Budzien) in the business. In a season when many Big Ten teams lacked essential elements (defense at Nebraska, running game at Michigan, passing game at Michigan State, etc.), the Wildcats managed to put it all together for the league's best bowl win.
3. Quarterback competitions are on for Spartans, Badgers: The biggest surprise of the league's bowl season might have been that Connor Cook led Michigan State's game-winning drive against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Cook, a redshirt freshman, hadn't played since Week 2, and it appeared that Andrew Maxwell had the quarterback job locked down despite an inconsistent season. But after a poor performance by Maxwell and the spark provided by Cook, the Spartans now have an open competition at quarterback that will be fascinating to watch this offseason. The competition is also on at Wisconsin, where Curt Phillips is expected to get a sixth year from the NCAA and battle with sophomore Joel Stave, who appeared for two plays in the Rose Bowl after breaking his collarbone against Michigan State. Stave is a better passer, while Phillips showed some good wheels versus Stanford. There's a new coaching staff in place to give each a clean slate. Who wins at each school is important, because both the Spartans and Badgers need to improve their passing attacks to contend for division titles in 2013.
4. Minnesota is on the way up: The Gophers suffered a heartbreaking loss against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, where they led 31-24 with less than 90 seconds to play but somehow lost 34-31. Yet the overall takeaway remains a positive one for Jerry Kill's team. After struggling mightily to move the ball down the stretch of the Big Ten season, Minnesota pounded the Red Raiders for 222 rushing yards, while freshman Philip Nelson threw two touchdown passes. Kill must find and develop more wide receivers, but Minnesota showed the physical style the team is capable of when its offensive line is healthy. The Legends Division will be deep in 2013, but the Gophers should continue to make gains.
5. Darrell Hazell and Bo Pelini need to focus on defense: New Purdue coach Hazell saw just how much work awaits him in the Boilermakers' 58-14 thrashing by Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Purdue gave up at least 34 points seven times in 2012 and loses its best player in defensive tackle Kawann Short. There's no doubt where Hazell's focus must be in his first spring in West Lafayette. The same goes for Nebraska, which surrendered 115 points in its final two games and a staggering average of 53.5 points in its four losses. Pelini will replace eight defensive starters and is optimistic that some young, athletic players will step into those roles and restore the Blackshirts' honor. The Huskers -- which scored 31 points in a little more than three quarters against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl -- should again field one of the most prolific offenses in the country next season. It won't matter if that defense doesn't figure out some answers.