NCF Nation: gator 0901

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Clemson survived just about everything a team possibly could this season -- everything, that is, but the final two minutes.

 
 Daniel Plassmann/US Presswire
 Coach Dabo Swinney's mistake-prone offense cost Clemson in the Gator Bowl.

The Tigers endured a faceplant after being elevated to unrealistic expectations in the preseason polls, a midseason coaching change, and the loss of both their offensive and defensive coordinators. Their offensive woes came back to haunt them, though, on their final possession of the season in a 26-21 loss to Nebraska.

Instead of throwing the ball away as efficiently as he did for much of the first half, quarterback Cullen Harper was sacked for a loss of 16 yards to set up third-and-goal from the 26. Clemson had no timeouts and the playclock was running. Amid confusion on the final play, Harper took the snap with only three seconds left on the play clock, and for some reason, Aaron Kelly, Clemson's record-setting receiver, wasn't involved in the play.

The disorganization continued when the defense was penalized for having 12 players on the field, and Clemson looked more like a 4-4 ACC team than say, a certain 5-3 ACC team that won nine games this year.

Florida State, Maryland and Wake Forest -- all Atlantic Division teams -- are the only ACC winners in the nine bowl games that have been played so far. Tonight's FedEx Orange Bowl, featuring ACC champ Virginia Tech, is the conference's final chance to improve its bowl record.

Clemson has plenty of chances to do it, but was inept on offense (four yards rushing, three of 16 on third-down conversions) against a rather inviting pass defense. Harper threw two costly interceptions, and all three of Clemson's scores came off turnovers. In addition to adding a defensive coordinator to his staff, coach Dabo Swinney might also want to think long and hard about an offensive coordinator. The Tigers were also hurt by a blocked punt and a blocked field goal.

It all overshadowed a gutsy effort by the Tigers' defense, which forced Nebraska to score on four field goals, and scored the first touchdown of the game. Clemson can't knock good teams off the ball, and the Tigers struggle against veteran defenses that are well coached. And Bo Pelini is a defensive kind of guy.

What has to be frustrating for Clemson fans is watching this offense at its finest, like on a critical fourth-and-4 in the fourth quarter when Harper threw a beautiful pass to Jacoby Ford to extend the drive, or the 41-yard touchdown pass over the top to Ford that showcased his blazing speed. Those were the kinds of plays fans hungered for as the Tigers mucked their way through the first half of the season with former coach Tommy Bowden.

Instead, it was the dropped balls, the inconsistency at quarterback, the offensive line, the coaching changes and the play calling that defined their season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Joe Ganz and Nebraska showed a lot of grit and determination Thursday, storming back from early misfortune to cap the season with triumph.

 
 Marvin Gentry/US Presswire
 Joe Ganz overcame injuries to direct Nebraska's final scoring drive.

Ganz overcame a shaky start to direct Nebraska to a 26-21 victory over Clemson in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl.

The biggest reason was Ganz, who shook off a gimpy knee in the first half to throw two touchdowns and help Nebraska reclaim the lead in the third quarter. Earlier, Ganz's botched option pitch was returned for a Clemson touchdown and his interception late in first half led to another Tigers score.

But Ganz saved his biggest comeback for last after he appeared to be dazed by another hit early in the fourth quarter.

After sitting on the bench for several minutes, Ganz coolly returned to the game and directed Nebraska's final scoring drive, culminated by Alex Henery's fourth field goal.

Nebraska's defenders did the rest, playing like they deserved the Blackshirts that coach Bo Pelini gave them midway through the season to signify their emergence as a unit.

A punishing Nebraska defensive front dominated the game throughout, notching four sacks and harassing Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper from the opening snap. Nose tackle Ndamukong Suh produced two sacks and blocked a field goal and defensive tackle Ty Steinkuhler produced another sack.

The Tigers were presumed to have the advantage in speed and athleticism, but Nebraska limited them to 90 total yards in the second half and shackled Clemson's vaunted running combo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller. The Tigers also converted only 3 of 16 third-down plays, misfiring on nine straight third-down conversions at one point in the second half.

The biggest series came after Clemson had marched to the Nebraska 10-yard line with less than 2 minutes remaining. Nebraska twice gambled on cornerback blitzes by sophomore Eric Hagg, leading to an incompletion and a pivotal 16-yard sack on second down.

Two incompletions later, the Cornhuskers were jubilant and dancing after Pelini had wrapped up his second bowl victory in two tries.

The late defensive stand was clearly the shining moment for the Big 12 so far in the bowl season. It might not change many attitudes about the conference's overall defensive prowess, but was still good enough to lead to the Nebraska triumph.

The Cornhuskers (9-4) finished the season with a four-game winning streak and won six of their final seven games. They should finish the season ranked in the Top 25 and will likely enter the 2009 season as a preseason favorite in the Big 12 North.

After Marlon Lucky and Roy Helu Jr. struggled early, backup I-back Quentin Castille stepped up to provide rushing consistency that helped wrap up the victory. Castille finished with a game-high 125 rushing yards, including a key 58-yard rumble early in the third quarter.

In the process the Cornhuskers continued a tradition of comebacks in bowl games. It was the seventh time Nebraska has overcome a halftime deficit to win a bowl game. The Cornhuskers' 11-point halftime deficit was the largest the team has ever overcome in the school's 45-game bowl history.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Who to watch: Joe Ganz has quietly developed into the most prolific quarterback in Nebraska history, breaking the school passing record and leading Nebraska to at least 30 points in 13 of his 15 career starts. That explosiveness has been the key to the Cornhuskers' 8-4 season and a big reason for their fast finish in Bo Pelini's first season. Ganz has one more big statistical achievement in front of him, as the school's career and single-season marks for touchdown passes currently held by Zac Taylor are breakable if he can throw four TD strikes today. But he'll be challenged by a salty Clemson defense that ranks 10th nationally against the pass and ninth in scoring defense this season.

What to watch: It will be important for the Cornhuskers to utilize the same formula that helped them down the stretch to finish the season with five victories in their final six games. Nebraska did a nice job of dictating time of possession to keep its defense off the field when it was most successful. The same strategy will be important today against a Clemson team that will challenge them with a fast and experienced defense and an opportunistic secondary that produced 18 interceptions.

Why to watch: The Cornhuskers are back playing on New Year's Day and will be facing an old-school opponent in a bowl matchup that settled a national championship in the 1982 Orange Bowl. The two teams aren't quite at that level -- yet -- but could be poised for a big return under new coaches Bo Pelini and Dabo Swinney in the future. Today might serve to kick-start both teams' hopes of contending for a conference championship next season and beyond.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

WHO TO WATCH: Clemson's coordinators. Coach Dabo Swinney, who will be coaching in his first bowl game, will also be calling the plays. And the Tigers will depend on linebackers coaches David Blackwell and Ron West to coordinate the defense. How the defense -- particularly the secondary -- responds to its first game without former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will be important against Nebraska's productive offense.

WHAT TO WATCH: The clock. Nebraska is No. 2 in the nation in time of possession, controlling the clock for 33:60. In order for Clemson to have a chance at winning, they've got to have their playmakers on the field. Clemson's defense should match up well against quarterback Joe Ganz, but it can't be on the field all day.

WHY TO WATCH: It's a matchup reminiscent of the 1982 Orange Bowl, when Clemson beat Nebraska 22-15 for the school's only national title. It's the first bowl game since 2006 that will feature two first-year FBS head coaches. It's also the final game for one of the most talented groups of seniors to come through the program.

Picking the Big 12 bowl games

December, 31, 2008
12/31/08
2:12
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are my picks for the second round of Big 12 bowl games, beginning with Thursday's Konica Minolta Gator Bowl

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl -- Clemson 31, Nebraska 28
Dabo Swinney has energized the Clemson program after taking over as interim coach -- a little like Bo Pelini's job with the Cornhuskers from earlier this season. Both of these teams are playing their best football of the season. But I expect Clemson to beat Nebraska with a taste of its own medicine by controlling the clock thanks to a heavy dose of tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller. If the Tigers can do this and keep quarterback Cullen Harper out of too many long-yardage situations, I expect them to nose past the Cornhuskers and fulfill a little of their early promise expected of them. It just took a different coach to get them there.

AT&T Cotton Bowl -- Texas Tech 34, Mississippi 20
It will be good for the Red Raiders to get back to football after some of the travails of the last several weeks. But Graham Harrell's surgery and Mike Leach's contract squabbles should be long forgotten by the team that many forgot still earned a share of the Big 12 South Division title. Look for a healthy Michael Crabtree to be the difference in this game, if the Red Raiders can keep a salty defensive front from pressuring Harrell. And even if the Rebels get ahead early, remember that Harrell has directed two wild bowl comebacks in the last two seasons, rallying the Red Raiders from a 31-point deficit to win the 2006 Insight Bowl over Minnesota and a 17-point deficit in the final four minutes to direct a comeback in last season's Gator Bowl over Virginia. Houston Nutt has directed a nice renaissance with the Rebels this season, leading them to victories over the last two national championship teams. But the chore of beating Texas Tech will prove too much for them on Friday.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- Texas 41, Ohio State 20
After being snubbed for the Big 12 title game, the Longhorns will approach this game with a chip on their shoulder. That's not a pretty proposition for an Ohio State team that has been blown out of its last two BCS bowl games by a combined score of 79-38. The key for the game will be the play of streaky Ohio State freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the return of tailback Chris Wells. I expect Texas' defensive front keyed by Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller to exert enough pressure to keep Pryor discombobulated most of the game. And if Texas can get receivers Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby open against a tough Ohio State secondary keyed by Malcolm Jenkins, the Longhorns should have the edge on offense, too. This game will be close at the half, before the Longhorns pull away in the second half.


My bowl picks last week: 1-1* (50.0 percent)
My picks for the season: 85-14 (85.9 percent)

* Not including Wednesday's Kansas-Minnesota game

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are 10 things I'm looking forward to watching in Big 12 bowl games that start on Thursday.

1. Clemson's defense performs with new leadership: Heralded defensive coordinator Vic Koenning left Clemson before the Tigers' matchup in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl against Nebraska for a new job at his alma mater at Kansas State. It will leave Clemson linebackers coaches David Blackwell and Ron West calling defenses in an interim capacity in the bowl game against Nebraska. It won't be an easy chore considering that the Cornhuskers rank in the top 20 nationally in passing yards, yards per game and points.

2. Joe Ganz's final game: Nebraska's senior starting quarterback has quietly led a resurgence of the Cornhuskers' offense, directing them to at least 30 points in 10 of 12 games this season and at least 41 points and an average of 504 total yards in their last three games. Ganz needs four touchdown passes to break Nebraska's single-season and career marks. Considering the way he has played down the stretch, those marks might not be out of the question with a big day against the Tigers.

3. Pelini's mark on history: First-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini will be gunning for his ninth victory of the season against Clemson, which would enable him to join Frank Solich, Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney as the only Nebraska coaches to win nine games in their first full season with the Cornhuskers.

4. Texas Tech finally returns to football: The Red Raiders have endured a long month since the end of the season as Graham Harrell has recovered from delicate surgery on his non-throwing hand and Mike Leach has been involved in continued contact negotiations with school officials. It will almost be a relief to get back to football -- particularly with the return to health of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was hobbled much of the season with a sprained ankle. A victory against Mississippi in the AT&T Cotton Bowl would boost the Red Raiders to a school-record 12 victories in a single season.

5. Say goodbye to the Cotton Bowl -- in Fair Park: Thursday's game between Texas Tech and Mississippi will be the final AT&T Cotton Bowl game played in its historic facility near downtown Dallas before moving to the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington next season. The bowl has been one of the more tradition-steeped games in college football, beginning at its current location in 1937. Memories of that rich 73-year history will be especially vivid on Friday.

6. Harrell's remarkable legacy: Texas Tech's senior quarterback Graham Harrell will finish his career Friday as the clear best to ever play at his position in school history. He can punctuate his college career by staking two significant statistical claims. With 253 passing yards he can become the first player in NCAA history to pass for 5,000 yards in multiple seasons. And he needs two touchdown passes to surpass Hawaii's Colt Brennan's career record of 131 touchdown passes for the most in FBS history.

7. The Rebels' defense put to a test: Mississippi is allowing only 123.3 yards per game in their last three contests and have held opponents to less than 215 total yards in five games this season. They will be supremely challenged against an explosive Red Raider offense that ranks first nationally in passing and fourth in total offense and scoring. Tech erupted for at least 538 yards of total offense in eight of its first 10 games this season, but has been progressively limited to its lowest offensive totals in each of the last two games against Oklahoma and Baylor.

8. Will Ohio State's success against Big 12 teams continue against Texas? The Buckeyes have compiled a remarkable 28-4 record against Big 12 teams, including a 5-0 mark in bowl games. But they will be facing a Texas squad in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl that is hungry after being snubbed for a shot at the Big 12 title game and the FedEx BCS National Championship Game if it would have won there. The Longhorns are one of four programs nationally that are undefeated in BCS games.

9. Colt McCoy's retribution against the Buckeyes: Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was making only the second start of his career early in the 2006 season when he directed the Longhorns to a 24-7 home loss to Ohio State in his second career start. Since then, McCoy has claimed 30 of his 36 career starts to become the winningest starting quarterback in school history (31-7, .838 winning percentage.) Included in that streak have been both his bowl games.

10. Ohio State's trickeration on offense: The Buckeyes have spent much of their early bowl practices tinkering with a package where quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Todd Boeckman are in the lineup at the same time. They will try that offense against a Texas defense familiar with such a philosophy for chunk plays after early work this season with McCoy and Texas backup quarterback John Chiles playing at the same time. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel can only hope his gadgetry is more fruitful than Texas' ended up being.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Happy New Year's Eve! Before partaking in the daylong feast of football tomorrow, here are a few links to get you ready.

  • Lincoln Journal-Star columnist Steve Sipple writes that Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was overcome with emotion when asked about coaching quarterback Joe Ganz's final game Thursday in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl against Clemson.
  • A more mature Texas quarterback Colt McCoy prepares for Ohio State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Dallas Morning News Big 12 columnist Chuck Carlton writes.
  • Texas Tech coach Mike Leach related his favorite Cotton Bowl memory as the Red Raiders prepare for the Jan. 2 game against Mississippi. Jackson Clarion-Ledger columnist Rick Cleveland told of how Leach left a dummy set of plays when he was an assistant at Oklahoma, hoping a Texas coach or player would stumble upon them and believe he had found the Rosetta Stone as far as cracking his spread offense.
  • Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops will collect a $3 million bonus on New Year's Day, pushing his 2008 compensation over $6 million, the Tulsa World's John Hoover reports.
  • With Dez Bryant playing on one gimpy leg and Zac Robinson struggling with a bum shoulder, Oklahoma State was stripped of many of its offensive weapons in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl. But the Oklahoman's John Rohde writes that OSU coach Mike Gundy refused to use injuries as an excuse for his team's 42-31 loss to Oregon.
  • Kansas is poised for big things next season with the return of most of its major offensive skill-position players and both starting tackles. But Kansas City Star reporter J. Brady McCollough writes that the most important returning item could be offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, who guides the team into tonight's Insight Bowl game against Minnesota.

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