NCF Nation: Champs Sports 2009 bowls

1. Remember the crisp, accurate, confident Jacory Harris that began the season for Miami? Yeah, neither do I. The Hurricane sophomore quarterback finished the season beat up, limping and largely ineffective in the Champs Sports Bowl against Wisconsin on Tuesday night. Until Miami coach Randy Shannon assembles a competent offensive line, Harris will remain a maddeningly inconsistent quarterback.

2. Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli on his 5-8 teammate, freshman tailback LaMichael James, and his ability to flummox hulking defensive linemen: “There were a couple of times where (a lineman) would be about to tackle LaMichael. He would go right underneath his arms and pop through to the other side and get about 15 more yards. His stature helps out a lot.”

3. Sure, if Temple tailback Bernard Pierce had been available, UCLA might not have shut the Owls out after halftime. But give the Bruins credit. The last bowl team to qualify, playing 2,500 miles away from home in freezing, very un-SoCal weather, UCLA came back from a 21-7 deficit to win 30-21. Coach Rick Neuheisel’s team had every opportunity to mail it in, and chose not to do so.
The Big Ten has already matched last year's bowl victories total, and there are six more games to go. The final score doesn't show it, but Wisconsin dominated No. 15 Miami in this game. The Badgers looked like a totally different team than the one that stumbled over itself last year against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

How the game was won: Miami dominated the first 23 seconds. Wisconsin dominated the next 57 minutes, as a balanced offense and an aggressive defense cemented the victory. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren deserves a ton of credit for an excellent game plan, as his group made Jacory Harris look horrible until the closing minutes. Defensive end J.J. Watt was constantly in Harris' face, and linebacker Chris Borland came on strong. Badgers running back John Clay did his thing, but quarterback Scott Tolzien and tight end Lance Kendricks proved to be bigger factors. Wisconsin also won the field-position battle.

Player of the game: Badgers tight end Lance Kendricks. He plays second fiddle to Garrett Graham and entered the bowl with only 22 receptions for 228 yards on the season. But Kendricks proved to be Wisconsin's top playmaker, recording career highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (128). He also threw a key block on Clay's second touchdown run.

Turning point: Wisconsin opened the door for Miami early in the fourth quarter when Graham fumbled into the end zone for a Hurricanes touchback. But Wisconsin forced a three-and-out and then a Harris fumble on the next possession. By the time Miami's offense found a rhythm, it was far too late.

Stat of the game: 39:22. That's how long Wisconsin held the football, as the power run game and an excellent defensive performance kept Miami's offense off the field.

Unsung hero of the game: Tolzien. Watt. Punter Brad Nortman. Wisconsin received so many solid performances tonight. Tolzien didn't have a touchdown pass but looked extremely efficient all night, threading the needle several times to Kendricks and others. Watt batted down two passes and recorded a late sack and Nortman consistently pinned Miami deep in its own end.

What it means: Wisconsin recorded another 10-win season and likely will finish in the nation's top 20. The Badgers lacked a signature win before tonight but dominated a team most picked to beat them. This program found itself at a crossroads a year ago, but head coach Bret Bielema and his staff have turned things around. Wisconsin returns a chunk of its core players and will enter 2010 as a top 20 team (possibly top 15) and a contender for the Big Ten title.
Here's a quick look at Wisconsin's 20-14 upset of the Hurricanes:

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
Fernando Medina/US PresswireWisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien completed 19 of 26 passes for 260 yards during the Champs Sports Bowl.
How the game was won: Wisconsin established the run early and made great use of its tight ends, and Miami’s safeties couldn’t do much about it. Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien was very efficient, and made timely key throws for four quarters. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris, on the other hand, was out of sync the whole game, overthrew balls, and didn’t get the protection he needed to get comfortable. He limped through the game and spent much of it on the ground. The Canes couldn’t get their ground game going, and it didn’t help that leading rusher Graig Cooper was injured late in the first half. Wisconsin played a complete game in all four phases, while Miami was on its heels the whole time. The Badgers put pressure on Harris through the Canes very last drive, which is why winning the onside kick in the final two minutes couldn't help.

Turning point: With 7:49 left in the fourth quarter, Harris was sacked and lost the ball, and defensive tackle J.J. Watt recovered it. The Badgers were able to get a field goal on the ensuing possession, taking a 20-7 lead and making it a two-touchdown game. It was Miami’s first and only turnover of the game, but it was costly, as the Canes' final score of the game wasn't enough.

Stat of the game: Of the 19 passes Tolzien completed, 13 of them went to tight ends. Wisconsin was labeled as a power running team heading into this game – and it was – but the pinpoint accuracy off of Tolzien off of play-action to wide open tight ends Lance Kendricks and Garrett Graham proved to be the difference.

Co-Players of the game: Call it a cop-out if you must, but it was too tough to choose between Tolzien and his tight end, Lance Kendricks. Tolzien made some impressive throws to sustain drives and finished with 260 yards and one interception on 19 of 26 completions. Kendricks had seven catches for 128 yards.

What it means: Miami has now lost back-to-back bowl games and will have to earn its way into the national spotlight again next year instead of starting the 2010 season there. The Hurricanes looked unimpressive in their loss, and unable to generate the offense they needed, even with their combination of speed and athleticism and multitude of options. The offensive line will miss Jason Fox next year, and has to learn to play without him.

Champs Sports Bowl preview

December, 28, 2009
The Big Ten finally joins the postseason party Tuesday as Wisconsin gets the first crack at repairing the league's national reputation. The 25th-ranked Badgers head back to Orlando to face No. 15 Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

Here's a quick look at the game:

WHO TO WATCH: John Clay. The Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year could be the difference maker in this game. The ACC has some good running backs, but few possess the size-power-speed combination of the 6-1, 248-pound Clay. When Clay stays on the field and holds onto the football, Wisconsin is extremely tough to beat. Running behind a typically huge offensive line, Clay has racked up 100 rushing yards or more in each of his last five games. He has scored three touchdowns in three separate games but faces a stout Miami defense ranked 28th nationally against the run. Clay needs 104 rush yards in the bowl to become just the second sophomore in team history to reach 1,500 rush yards.

WHAT TO WATCH: Wisconsin defensive end O'Brien Schofield facing Miami left tackle Orlando Franklin. No one has consistently slowed down Schofield, who is tied for second nationally in tackles for loss (22.5) to go along with 10 sacks. Franklin is filling in for team MVP Jason Fox, and while the junior has all the tools to transition well, he could struggle to contain Schofield's speed. Schofield is your standard speed rusher, and his ability to pressure Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris will set the tone for the Badgers' defense.

WHY TO WATCH: As Big Ten fans, you've waited longer than anyone else for the bowl season to begin. Also, it's a chance to see how much Wisconsin has improved in a year. The Badgers stumbled over themselves in an ugly loss to Florida State in the 2008 Champs Sports Bowl. Players and coaches insist this is a different team, and the improved record (9-3) bears that out. Still, Wisconsin lacks a signature win and could gain a huge boost for 2010 by beating Miami.

PREDICTION: Miami's team speed will be a challenge, but Wisconsin should be able to generate pressure with Schofield and J.J. Watt. The Badgers strike a balance on offense with Clay's power running and the play-action passing game, and rally in the second half for the upset. Wisconsin wins, 27-24.

Champs Sports Bowl preview

December, 28, 2009
Here's a quick breakdown of Tuesday night's matchup between Miami and Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Miami left tackle Orlando Franklin versus Wisconsin defensive end O’Brien Schofield. Without injured veteran starter Jason Fox, Miami will turn to Franklin to help contain Schofield, who is leading the Badgers in sacks (10.0), tackles for a loss (22.5 for 116 yards) and quarterback hurries (8). Franklin, who moved from guard to tackle, played well in the season finale against South Florida, when he replaced Fox who was out with an illness.

WHAT TO WATCH: Miami’s run defense. The key to the Canes’ chances at a win will be slowing down Wisconsin’s top option, John Clay, whose 1,396 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground this year led the Big Ten. The Badgers are committed to the run, so it will be up to Miami’s leading linebackers, Colin McCarthy and Darryl Sharpton, to shed their blocks and make the stops. Miami is allowing 118.33 rushing yards per game, while Wisconsin averages 206.67 rushing yards.

WHY WATCH: A win over Wisconsin would give Miami its first double-digit win season since finishing 11-2 in 2003, and solidify a three-win improvement from last year under coach Randy Shannon. Earlier this season, Miami was in a position to earn an at-large BCS bid, and the Canes were able to defeat all of their nonconference opponents. This could be an important stepping stone for a young program looking to work its way back into national title contention.

PREDICTION: Miami’s speed, athleticism and multiple offensive options will be too much for Wisconsin to overcome. Clay will get his yards, and Wisconsin’s defense will force Jacory Harris to hang on to the ball longer than he would like at times, but Harris will have one of his calm-under-pressure fourth-quarter performances and lead Miami to a 31-28 win.