NCF Nation: 2011 TicketCity Bowl

TicketCity Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Houston Cougars (12-1) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (9-3)

Jan. 2, noon ET (ESPNU)

Houston take from Nation blogger Andrea Adelson: It was all right there for Houston.

All the Cougars had to do was beat Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game to make the first BCS appearance in school history. But they had their worst performance of the season, losing 49-28, dashing any hopes of getting up on the big stage. Now they have to settle for a lower-tier bowl game as they wonder about what could have been.

The loss puts a damper on what has been a special season. The 12 wins are the most in school history, and quarterback Case Keenum shattered virtually every NCAA passing mark -- career yards, career touchdown passes and total offense came tumbling down in a torrent of scoreboards that were lit up every single week. He threw for more than 5,000 yards for the third time in his career, along with a career-high 45 touchdown passes. Patrick Edwards had a terrific season as well, with more than 1,500 yards receiving. Linebacker Sammy Brown anchored the defense with his standout play. But this has been a program with a reputation of dropping a game it is favored to win every season. Just go back to 2009. After beating Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to open the season 3-0, Houston lost to UTEP. Later that season, the Cougars lost to UCF and in the Conference USA championship game. They managed to make it through this season unscathed until the very moment it mattered most. Perhaps the gravity of the situation overwhelmed the players. Perhaps distractions surrounding coach Kevin Sumlin and future coaching destinations were too much to bear. In any case, what has been one of the best seasons in school history may not be remembered that way.

Penn State take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: Penn State's players deserve a bigger bowl game than this.

The Nittany Lions finished 9-3, tied for a share of the Big Ten Leaders Division lead and are ranked in the Top 25. In any other year, that would all but guarantee a spot in Florida or some other traditional locale.

But this was far from any other year at Penn State. The Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal enveloped the entire university in November and led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno. Bowls do not like negative publicity, so the Nittany Lions tumbled down the Big Ten postseason pecking order -- all the way to the second-year TicketCity Bowl in Dallas against a non-AQ team.

At least it's an intriguing battle of offense versus defense. Penn State, led by Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still, finished fifth nationally in scoring defense and 10th in yards allowed. That defense will get a major challenge from record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum and a Houston offense that averaged an FBS-best 50.8 points per game this season.

Both teams could have new head coaches by the time the game kicks off, as the Lions are being led by interim coach Tom Bradley, while Houston coach Kevin Sumlin is a candidate for several current openings. We already know at least one winner from this bowl: Penn State has pledged to donate $1.5 million of its postseason proceeds to sex-crime advocacy organizations.
The Big 12 got off to a good start on New Year's Day, moving to 2-4 in postseason play with Texas Tech's 45-38 win over Northwestern in the TicketCity Bowl.

How the game was won: Texas Tech's offense put up big points like most expected them to, but only played one quarterback for most of the game. Taylor Potts played well and the Red Raiders' offense rolled for most of the game. Instead, it was the Wildcats who went with a two-quarterback attack, rotating Evan Watkins and Kain Colter often but neither found a rhythm to help Northwestern's offense until the Wildcats trailed by 22. Colter ran the ball well late in the game, but it wasn't enough to make up for Texas Tech's early cushion.

Turning point: Texas Tech led 24-6 at halftime, but fumbled the opening kickoff, handing the ball back to the Wildcats deep in Red Raiders territory for the game's first turnover. The Wildcats couldn't capitalize, botching a quarterback sneak and settling for an 18-yard field goal. On the next play from scrimmage, Texas Tech running back Eric Stephens broke an 86-yard touchdown run to take a 31-9 lead, the Red Raiders' biggest of the day. Northwestern got to within seven late, but the early lead was enough for the Red Raiders to hold on.

Stat of the game: Texas Tech notched its second 45-38 win of the season in the Cotton Bowl stadium. Back in October, the Red Raiders beat Baylor on the neutral field, 45-38.

Player of the game: Potts. He finished with an impressive 369 yards and four touchdowns on 43-of-56 passing, pacing the Red Raiders' offense that struggled to run the ball for most of the day. He also caught a pass and ran it in for a touchdown, but it was later reversed to a run after officials determined the pass went backward. Northwestern took away the run game, opening up short underneath routes, and Potts capitalized. He had lots and lots of time to throw, a credit to the offensive line, but he was as accurate as he's been all year. Without that, it would have been a very different game.

Best call: Potts threw Austin Zouzalik what looked like a routine screen to the sideline, but Zouzalik tossed it back to Potts, who was escorted into the end zone by a trio of offensive linemen, helping the Red Raiders take a 24-6 lead at halftime. Tommy Tuberville didn't want to run it, but told ESPN heading into halftime that he got outvoted by his fellow coaches.

Second-guessing: Texas Tech strung together an impressive 82-yard drive in 12 plays to take a 38-17 lead, but tried for the onside kick and a possible knockout punch against a Northwestern defense that hadn't stopped them from reaching the end zone on the last four drives. The Red Raiders were offside, however, and gave Northwestern the ball at the 36-yard line. The Wildcats needed just two plays to score and cut the lead to 14, keeping the game still somewhat in doubt. Texas Tech had to punt on its next possession, and Northwestern scored a touchdown to bring the game to within 38-31.

There was a little bit of upside to the curious decision, but with Northwestern's offensive inconsistency throughout, it seemed pretty unnecessary, and cost the Red Raiders momentum.

Record performance: Matt Williams' booming 24-yard field goal that opened scoring is the longest in the history of the TicketCity Bowl. Gotta love inaugural bowl games.

What it means: The exit of Texas Tech defensive coordinator James Willis from the program days before the game didn't hurt them badly enough for a loss. The Red Raiders looked good early, and though Northwestern's quarterbacks struggled to complete passes with consistency, Texas Tech didn't make it very easy on them. The way the offense played, the defense didn't need a big performance, but they got one for long enough in the first half, and as a result, the Red Raiders held on. They entered Saturday's game ranked 116th nationally in total offense, giving up over 460 yards a game. Northwestern's undermanned offense without quarterback Dan Persa managed just 374 yards.

Well, that was entertaining. Despite an exciting comeback, Northwestern couldn't draw even with Texas Tech and its bowl drought continues for at least another year.

Here's a quick look at the Wildcats' 45-38 loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.

How the game was won: Northwestern mounted a spirited second-half comeback behind true freshman quarterback Kain Colter, but it couldn't overcome season-long defensive woes against the powerful Texas Tech offense. The Wildcats rallied from a 31-9 third-quarter deficit to close within a touchdown, but they couldn't get the defensive stops they needed. Colter and the offense did enough to give the Wildcats a chance, but a defense that allowed 118 points in its final two regular-season games didn't make any strides during bowl practice.

Turning point: Northwestern twice cut its second-half deficit to seven points, but couldn't make a defensive stop to give the offense a chance to tie. After drawing to within 38-31 early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern let Texas Tech march 69 yards in 10 plays to the end zone. Then, after a pick-six by cornerback Jordan Mabin, the Wildcats couldn't get off of the field on third-and-short as Texas Tech bled the clock.

Player of the game: Texas Tech's Taylor Potts. The senior seemed locked in from the get-go and shredded Northwestern's defense with his complement of pass-catchers. Potts finished the game 43-for-56 passing for 369 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. He took advantage of holes in the Wildcats' secondary and, aside from one throw in the fourth quarter, made sound decisions.

Stat of the game: Northwestern ranked third in the Big Ten in pass offense in the regular season, averaging 242.6 yards per game. The Wildcats had just 145 pass yards against Texas Tech.

Unsung hero of the game: Colter made major strides during bowl practices and spurred Northwestern's second-half comeback. The true freshman eclipsed 100 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns, running mainly the option attack. He likely will challenge Evan Watkins for the backup quarterback job next fall.

What it means: Northwestern just can't get over the hump in a bowl game, although the Wildcats avoided what looked to be an embarrassing performance with the second-half rally. The defense simply had too many problems this season, from tackling to discipline to lack of leadership, and Texas Tech's offense posed a bad matchup. Things could have been different had starting quarerback Dan Persa remained healthy, but the warts on defense showed up all fall. Northwestern has high expectations for 2011 and returns a good core, but it needs to make major upgrades on defense. It's still hard for folks to see Northwestern as a legit program until it wins a bowl game.
Texas Tech and Northwestern will kick off the New Year's Day bowls from Dallas in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl from the Cotton Bowl at the State Fair of Texas. With the appearance, Texas Tech stretches its streak of no losing seasons to a Big 12-best 18 years.

Here's a look at the matchup.

WHO TO WATCH: Quarterbacks Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield. These two have been intertwined all season, and it won't change on Saturday. Coach Tommy Tuberville says both will play, which isn't necessarily anything new for the Red Raiders. In fact, both played during Texas Tech's best win of the season. Steven Sheffield got his only start of the season against Missouri, but struggled and was replaced by Potts. He rallied his team from a double-digit deficit and helped Texas Tech win three of its final four games to reach bowl eligibility.

WHAT TO WATCH: Texas Tech's defense. The Red Raiders struggled for most of the year defending everything, but especially the pass, where they rank last in the Big 12. Texas Tech is at the bottom in total defense, too. Northwestern will be starting Evan Watkins in place of injured, do-everything quarterback Dan Persa, but if the Red Raiders can right the ship against the inexperienced Watkins, they could win easily. Northwestern was blown out by Illinois and Wisconsin in its final two games. Complicating matters for Texas Tech is its situation at defensive coordinator. Defensive line coach Sam McElroy will take over for this game after James Willis left the program on Sunday.

WHY WATCH: There should be plenty of what fans like to see: offense. Even though Northwestern was blown out in those two games, it scored 27 and 23 points, giving up 48 and 70. Texas Tech's offense hasn't been consistent all year, but against the Wildcats defense, the Red Raiders should have some success. Potts has a pair of 800-yard receivers in Detron Lewis and Lyle Leong, and an 800-yard rusher in experienced senior Baron Batch.

PREDICTION: Texas Tech 38, Northwestern 27. I have my doubts about Watkins' ability to make plays in big spots like Persa did this year, and against a playmaking offense like the Red Raiders have, converting a few of those inevitable third-and-longs is necessary. Texas Tech should be able to do it. Northwestern won't.

TicketCity Bowl: Keys for Texas Tech

December, 31, 2010
1. Get one quarterback into a rhythm. If Texas Tech doesn't have success throwing the ball, it's not very good. If it does, it can beat a lot of good teams. The Red Raiders plan to play both Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield at quarterback, which isn't bad in itself, but they have to figure out early who has the hot hand and who they plan on riding late in the game if it's close. The Red Raiders have struggled to run the ball all season, and need to get it done through the air to put up enough points for the win. That won't happen if Potts and Sheffield are uncomfortable or both have off days. Potts will likely be the guy for most of the game, but a couple bad drives early has the potential to throw the whole offense out of whack. If Northwestern capitalizes, a slow start by Tech could also produce some forced plays from whoever is under center for the Red Raiders, creating a deeper hole.

2. Stay grounded early. Texas Tech's defense has been unimpressive for most of the year, and now they'll be listening to a new voice in defensive coordinator Sam McElroy. It's been a year of transition for the Red Raiders, and this game is no exception. Early on, you might see some confusion. Maybe a costly delay on getting a play relayed to the players on the field. Whatever happens, Texas Tech will have to shake it off and get ready for the next possession. This game should have plenty of points, and the defense can't let an early miscue that can be easily fixed affect them later in the game.

3. Force Evan Watkins to make mistakes. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound freshman has lots of size, but not much experience. He'll be making his third career start, and in his last game against Wisconsin, he completed just under 60 percent of his passes and had three interceptions. He's also thrown for just 258 yards in those two starts combined. Texas Tech loved to blitz under former coordinator James Willis, but with the quality of quarterback play in the Big 12, that can come with a ton of risk. Against Watkins, that risk isn't quite as high. Come after him for 60 minutes, dare him to make a play downfield over the top of the defense, and there's a pretty good chance his mistakes will be more frequent than his big plays.