NCF Nation: Papajohns.com Bowl
Instant analysis of the Papajohns.com Bowl, which Connecticut won 20-7 over South Carolina:
How the game was won: The Huskies were brutalized defensively in the final month of the regular season, but they played like an iron curtain against the offensively suspect Gamecocks. They shut down the run and got heavy pressure on South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia. UConn took advantage of the Gamecocks' many mistakes, controlled field position and did what it does best on offense: Run the ball and add a few shots downfield in the passing game.
Turning point: Garcia scrambled for a short gain but then coughed the football up while being hit late in the fourth quarter. UConn's Scott Lutrus recovered the loose ball. Eight Andre Dixon rushes later and the Huskies were in the end zone for an insurmountable 20-0 lead.
Stat of the game: While the Gamecocks kept shooting themselves in the foot with dropped passes and turnovers, Connecticut did not commit a penalty.
Player of the game: Dixon had 33 carries for 125 yards and a score. It's not a great per-carry average, but the senior went over 1,000 yards for the season (joining teammate Jordan Todman) and helped UConn control the clock against a pretty stout defense.
Unsung hero: Kendall Reyes. The defensive tackle was dominant up front against the South Carolina offensive line, leading the charge for a Huskies pass rush that overwhelmed Garcia and compared favorably to anything the Gamecocks saw in the SEC.
What it means: In the last Big East game of bowl season, UConn turned in the league's best performance. What a finish for a team that went through so much heartache throughout the middle of the season. The Huskies won their last four games and should go into 2010 receiving heavy consideration for the Top 25 since they return the bulk of their roster. After Cincinnati's terrible showing against Florida, UConn saved a little league face by beating an SEC team for the first time ever, albeit a mediocre one at best.
Jan. 2, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Connecticut take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: The reason why UConn is going bowling is because of its late-season offensive improvement.
The Huskies are known mostly for their running game, and backs Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards this season. More than that, though, the passing game finally started to develop late in the year with quarterback Zach Frazer at the helm. UConn scored 45 points against Cincinnati, 33 at Notre Dame, 56 against Syracuse and 29 in the snow against South Florida on Saturday, engineering a winning field goal drive with less than a minute to play.
Just how far has the Connecticut offense come? Playing South Carolina should provide a good measuring stick.
The Gamecocks had one of the SEC's toughest defenses this season, allowing just 20 points per game. They held Alabama to that number and Florida to 24.
It's funny, because South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is a legendary offensive guru, while UConn's Randy Edsall built his reputation on defense. But now Spurrier is relying on his defense, while Edsall is hoping to outscore people while covering up holes on the other side of the ball.
The Huskies are one of the best stories of the bowl season, having overcome the death of Jasper Howard in October to rally together and make the postseason. They should get the bulk of the support from the nonpartisan fans sitting in the Birmingham stands and watching this game on TV.
South Carolina take by SEC blogger Chris Low:South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the Gamecocks weren’t picky, that they’d go play wherever they were told to go. As it turns out, they were the last team picked in the SEC’s bowl pecking order and will square off against Connecticut in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.
The game will be played at Legion Field, where Spurrier won his first SEC championship game while coaching at Florida in 1993. Some 16 years later, he hopes to cap South Carolina’s season with a win for only the second time in his five years as the Gamecocks’ coach.
At one point this season, it looked like the Gamecocks might be teetering after one-sided losses at Tennessee and Arkansas. But they regrouped and lost to Florida in a game that went down to the fourth quarter, and after a bye week, whipped Clemson in the regular-season finale in their most complete effort of the season.
There’s a lot of young talent on this team, led by freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore, freshman receiver Alshon Jeffery, redshirt freshman defensive end Devin Taylor and sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia.
The Gamecocks could be one of the teams to watch next season in the Eastern Division. Getting to eight wins and playing well in Birmingham would be a good way to go into the offseason.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
A look back at the best and worst of the Big East bowl season:
|Dale Zanine/US Presswire|
|Pat White went out with a bang, passing for a career-high 332 yards.|
Best performance: Just when you thought Pat White had shown us everything in his bag of tricks, the West Virginia quarterback goes out and shreds a good North Carolina pass defense for a career-best 332 passing yards while completing 26 of 32 throws in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. White went out the only appropriate way: a winner.
Worst performance: Cincinnati and Pittsburgh's offenses combined for seven total points in the FedEx Orange and Brut Sun bowls, respectively, and zero points in either second half. It wasn't a great year for offense in the Big East, and the league's top two scoring teams proved it in the postseason.
Best closing statement: Connecticut running back Donald Brown was wrongly ignored during awards season but showed why he was the nation's leading runner with a career-high 261 yards in the International Bowl, finishing his season with more than 2,000 yards. Then, in his postgame news conference, Brown announced he was skipping his senior year to turn pro.
Best red zone play call: Rutgers dialed up a fake field goal from the NC State 6-yard line on its first possession of the Papajohns.com Bowl, and first-time holder Rob Cervini ran past the surprised Wolfpack defenders for a touchdown.
Worst red zone play call: Trailing 20-7 midway through the fourth quarter, Cincinnati had a fourth and goal on the 1-yard line. Never a great short-yardage team, the Bearcats got away from what they do best and called for quarterback Tony Pike to try and run it in off tackle. He was stuffed, and the game was effectively over.
Best feel-good bowl win: After what amounted to a lost season, South Florida went out on a high note by blasting Memphis 41-14 in the magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl, even allowing senior quarterback Grant Gregory to play the entire fourth quarter.
Worst feel-bad bowl loss: After a breakthrough year had Pitt thinking about a 2009 Top 10 preseason ranking, the Panthers produced an unparalleled stink bomb in their 3-0 loss to Oregon State. Out of 68 bowl teams, Pittsburgh was the only one that didn't score a point, and the performance raised questions about the program's future.
Best atmosphere: The Meineke Car Care Bowl drew a sellout crowd of 73,712, fueled both by the home-state Tar Heels fans and the traveling horde of Mountaineers supporters. The game had the second-highest attendance of all the non-BCS bowls, behind only the Cotton Bowl, and fans were treated to a highly entertaining game.
Worst atmosphere: The magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl should eventually develop into one of the Big East's best postseason slots, given the sunny Florida locale. But the inaugural game attracted an announced crowd of just 25,055 (an estimate that seems generous), making it the second-lowest turnout of bowl season. It doesn't help when Memphis claims only 1,000 of its 10,000-ticket allotment.
Best postgame quote: From West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, remarking on White's accomplishments and the state of his team: "Those people out there in the old gold and blue, they all love him," Stewart said of White. "About half of them would like to hang me. The other half would probably like to make me governor. But, I'm not mad at any of them. You know why? Because I'm one of them. They have such a passion in West Virginia for football. All they want is for us to be the best."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
We know what the ACC's best win was (Virginia Tech over Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl), and there shouldn't be much debate about the worst loss (Georgia Tech to LSU). But there were moments and plays within the games that defined the bowl season for the ACC. Here's a look at the best and worst the conference had to offer in its 10 games:
|AP Photo/Matt Cilley|
|Da'Rel Scott came off the bench in the second half, running for 174 yards and two TDs.|
BEST STORY: Breaking curfew and breaking tackles: Maryland running back Da'Rel Scott was benched for two-and-a-half quarters for breaking curfew (Boise must be more interesting than it sounds), but came in and rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries in the Terps' 42-35 win over Nevada.
BEST SOUVENIR: Sod. After beating Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, FSU punter Graham Gano cut a swatch of sod out from the 3-yard line near where two of his punts went out.
BEST QUOTE: "BCS -- finally, we got one!" -- Virginia Tech cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris.
BEST CATCH: Easily UNC's Hakeem Nicks' behind-the-back vs. West Virginia. Anyone who watched Nicks reach behind his back, grab the ball with his left hand and pass it to his right for an eight-yard gain had to think NFL. The remarkable catch set up T.J. Yates' 4-yard touchdown run to give North Carolina a 30-24 lead.
BEST STAT: 32. The Wake Forest seniors finished as the winningest class in school history with 32 victories after their win over Navy in the EagleBank Bowl.
BEST COACHING JOB: Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech. The entire ACC owes him a big "thank you" for breaking the league's eight-game losing streak in BCS bowls. Beamer had to have been feeling the pressure after last year's loss to Kansas, but he kept the team and the staff together and directed the Hokies to a 20-7 win over Cincinnati in the FedEx Orange Bowl.
WORST ENDING: Miami's fumble and botched two-minute offense against Cal. There was poor clock management on the Canes' final possession, and freshman quarterback Jacory Harris fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter as Miami squandered its chance to beat Cal in the Emerald Bowl.
WORST DECISION: Clemson's comeback gets sacked. Trailing 26-21 in the fourth quarter, the Tigers had crept as close as Nebraska's 10-yard line with under two minutes left to play. On second and goal from the 10, quarterback Cullen Harper was sacked for a loss of 16 yards. The veteran should have gotten rid of it.
WORST QUARTER: Second quarter of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. LSU outscored Georgia Tech 28-0. 'Nuff said.
WORST INJURY: NC State quarterback Russell Wilson's knee injury. While Wilson was sidelined for all of the second half against Rutgers in the Papajohns.com Bowl, his replacements combined to throw three interceptions. The Pack's 17-6 halftime edge quickly disappeared.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
The ACC took two steps forward this bowl season, winning two more games than it did a year ago, including the one that mattered most -- the FedEx Orange Bowl.
Virginia Tech represented as well as it possibly could with its 20-7 win over Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl, giving the ACC its first BCS bowl win since 1999. The ACC finished with a 4-6 bowl record, an NCAA-record 10 bowl-eligible teams, and a foundation to build upon.
Considering the ACC won less than half of its bowl games, there is still room for improvement (especially against the Big East), but it was definitely a postseason of progress.
What has to be frustrating for ACC fans is how painfully close the league was to being 9-1. With the exception of Georgia Tech's embarrassing 38-3 loss to LSU, nobody lost by more than a touchdown, and the average margin ACC teams lost by was a measly 4.2 points.
The problem with evaluating bowl performances is the intangibles each team brings. Boston College should have beaten Vanderbilt like Wake Forest and Duke did during the regular season, but the Eagles were disappointed they weren't in the Orange Bowl, and Vandy was just excited to be in its first bowl game since 1982. Who knows what would have happened in the Papajohns.com Bowl had NC State quarterback Russell Wilson not been injured.
While the ACC took care of business on the BCS stage, its reputation among the national pundits probably improved only marginally, considering it won just two bowl games against teams from BCS conferences (Wake's win came over Navy, and Maryland beat Nevada of the WAC).
You don't erase an eight-game losing streak with one win, but you can start an eight-game winning streak with one.
The Papajohns.com Bowl was like Rutgers' season in a nutshell. Shaky start, tremendous finish.
|Marvin Gentry/US Presswire|
|Mike Teel threw for 319 yards and two scores for the Scarlet Knights.|
The Scarlet Knights (8-5) outscored NC State 23-6 in the second half to win the game 29-23 at Birmingham's Legion Field. They ended the season with seven straight victories after a 1-5 start.
The biggest key to this in-game turnaround was an NC State injury. Freshman quarterback Russell Wilson had the Scarlet Knights' defense on its heels in the first half with his mobility and deft passing. The kid is really, really good and is going to be something special over the next couple of years. But Wilson injured his knee late in the first half and was not able to play after guiding his team to a 17-6 halftime lead.
No longer having to worry about the quarterback scramble, Rutgers brought pressure against replacement Harrison Beck in the third quarter, and the Wolfpack (6-7) barely moved the ball. Third-stringer Daniel Evans came in for the fourth quarter and led a touchdown drive, but Greg Schiano dialed up a change to a three-man front and zone coverage on a key third down. Evans didn't read it and threw an interception. Wilson was picked off only once all season; Beck and Evans combined to toss three interceptions in this game.
Mike Teel had 319 yards and two touchdowns for Rutgers, and like he did during the season, played much better in the second half. The senior quarterback was a touch off early in the game, thanks in large part to the pressure NC State's defense managed to apply. Teel's offensive line did a better job of giving him time in the second half, and the results were much the same as they were for the last several weeks.
Receiver Kenny Britt, playing perhaps his final game before declaring for the NFL draft, became the Big East's career leader in receiving yards with six catches for 119 yards. He caught the game-winning score from 42 yards out, less than a minute after NC State took its last lead.
Rutgers has now won three straight bowl games, which is really something since before this stretch the program had never won a single one in its 139-year history. The Scarlet Knights should be one of the favorites in the Big East next year, though they must fill huge voids that will be left by Teel, Tiquan Underwood, Britt (if he leaves) and others.
The Big East is now 3-0 in bowl play and 2-0 against the ACC (and the state of North Carolina). Cincinnati will try to give the league a clean sweep over the ACC in the FedEx Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech.
Should Rutgers be in the final Top 25? I think so. Few teams played better in the last two months.
Rutgers and NC State are mirror images heading into this afternoon's Papajohns.com Bowl, Aditi Kinkhabwala writes in the Bergen Record. Mike Teel set a good example for the players that will follow him as Scarlet Knights quarterback, Brendan Prunty says in the Star-Ledger.
• Cincinnati's defense, a unit of mix-and-match parts, has been the team's backbone all season, Bill Koch writes in the Cincinnati Enquirer. The Bearcats will end up selling 13,000 of their 17,500 allotted tickets to the FedEx Orange Bowl, Koch reports. That's not too great, but the same story says Virginia Tech has sold only 5,000. And a lot of fans no doubt have bought tickets outside of the schools because prices are so cheap in the scalpers' market.
• Pitt defensive lineman Rashaad Duncan, in talking up his own unit to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Paul Zeise, may have provided Oregon State a little bulletin board material for Wednesday's Brut Sun Bowl. Take a listen:
"[Oregon State's offensive line] is a tight unit and seem to know where they are at. But the thing I see when I watched them is that I don't think they have faced a defensive line like us. I mean, the last defensive line they played like us was Penn State and the results speak for themselves.
"Like [Southern California], for instance, they had some big [defensive linemen] guys, but they weren't as quick as us. They might have been as strong us, but they are not as quick as us. Like I said, I don't think [Oregon State] has faced anyone like us and that will be our plan, to surprise them [with athleticism]. If not, if they want to make it a fight, we'll strap it up like we do."
This might be the last time a Big East team plays in the Sun Bowl for a while.
• West Virginia cornerback Brandon Hogan's illness remains a secret, Mike Casazza writes in the Charleston Daily Mail. Bill Stewart has nothing to apologize for in his first season at the helm of the Mountaineers, Mickey Furfari says in the Times West Virginian.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Here's a look at what's going on in the league today:
For what is considered by many to be a "lower-tier bowl," officials at the Papajohns.com Bowl couldn't be more pleased with this year's matchup. NC State tight end Anthony Hill has lost a lot of playing time because of injuries during his career, but he never lost an ounce of leadership.
Miami coach Randy Shannon has enough on his mind to keep him awake at night, among them the undecided future of quarterback Robert Marve.
Nebraska's offense has some concerns about Clemson's defense, and it should.
Maryland linebacker Dave Philistin says the Boise field is "a really Smurfy blue," but he's cool with that. There's a story behind that field, you know.
Here is a good recap of Florida State's season.
A brief primer on today's Papajohns.com Bowl (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET):
What to watch: Rutgers was 1-5 at one point, while NC State stood at 2-6. Each made stunning turnarounds to get to this game and are among the hottest teams in the country. The Scarlet Knights have been piling up points through their deep passing attack. Watch today to see if their vastly improved offensive line can give quarterback Mike Teel time to find his targets downfield, and whether NC State's secondary -- which grabbed eight interceptions in its final three regular-season games -- will go after some of those long throws.
Who to watch: Teel and Kenny Britt. Teel put up astounding numbers in the second half of the season, throwing 13 touchdown passes in two games alone. His favorite target is junior wide receiver Britt, a nightmarish matchup for defensive backs who might be playing his final collegiate game.
Why to watch: This promises to be much more interesting than either team's record would indicate, with two red-hot quarterbacks matching up in Teel and NC State's Russell Wilson. The Big East will try to go 2-0 against the ACC in bowl season and 3-0 overall. And what else are you going to watch on a Monday afternoon?
It's time for our next round of bowl picks, which for the Big East means the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Saturday, the Papajohns.com Bowl on Monday and the Brut Sun Bowl on Wednesday. Away we go ...
North Carolina 23, West Virginia 16: Never bet against Pat White in a bowl game; he's 3-0 and nobody gave him or his team a shot at beating Georgia or Oklahoma. While the Tar Heels aren't nearly as imposing as those former BCS foes, they are the wrong kind of matchup for the Mountaineers: a fast, athletic defense that can choke off the option with special teams that can cause problems. West Virginia's offense really struggled in the last two weeks of the season against similarly tough defenses from Pittsburgh and South Florida. Despite White and Co.'s big-game experience, North Carolina will beat its third Big East team of the season before a pro-Heels crowd in Charlotte.
Rutgers 34, NC State 20: The two Team Turnarounds meet in Dixie in maybe the best bowl showdown ever between a 7-5 club and a 6-6 one. Both played extremely well down the stretch, and you could argue that the Wolfpack played a tougher slate in the final month than Rutgers did. But there's no doubting how dominant the Scarlet Knights have been, and of the two quarterbacks who did their own revolutions, I like the senior Mike Teel better than the freshman Russell Wilson. Teel and Kenny Britt go out in style in Birmingham.
Pittsburgh 31, Oregon State 27: With Jacquizz Rodgers questionable for the game, Oregon State will have to find other ways to score. As bad as the Beavers' defense played in the season finale against Oregon, you have to wonder how they'll stop the Big East's top scoring team and LeSean McCoy. My guess is they won't. And if you're into the motivation aspect, Pitt is thrilled to be in El Paso, while Oregon State had its sights set on the Rose Bowl. The Panthers get their 10th win and set themselves up for a high 2009 preseason ranking.
Last week: 1-0
Season record: 47-23 (67 percent)
Here's what to watch for in the next batch of Big East-related bowl games, which include Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl, Monday's Papajohns.com Bowl and Wednesday's Brut Sun Bowl.
1. ACC vs. Big East bragging rights: We've debated all season which league is better, and the ACC had the upper hand during the regular season with much better out-of-conference performances. But the two showdowns coming up should tell us a lot about the two leagues' relative strengths. North Carolina and West Virginia are both 8-4 teams who finished near the top of their conference standings, while Rutgers and NC State were their leagues' hottest teams after awful starts. A split might not say much, but a sweep by either conference would be a strong statement.
2. Pat White: "The best winner in college football," as head coach Bill Stewart calls him, will play his last game for West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Saturday. That alone is worth watching. But in this game especially, White needs to have a commanding finale. North Carolina's defense is athletic and well-schooled and will not give up too much easily. White, who hasn't committed a turnover in three previous bowl wins, will need to be sharp in the passing game and let free to run wild, too.
3. North Carolina's kickoff returns vs. West Virginia's coverage: The Tar Heels lost one of the most dangerous return men in the country when Brandon Tate went down with a knee injury. But Johnny White has been nearly as good in Tate's absence, averaging 25.7 yards per return. That's significant since West Virginia has one of the worst kickoff return defenses in the nation, ranking 117th out of 119 FBS teams. The Mountaineers are already playing on a virtual home field for the Tar Heels. They can't afford to give up short fields all day, too.
4. Where will the points come from? North Carolina's offense is not very explosive when the defense and special teams aren't helping it out. The Tar Heels scored only 15 points against Maryland and 10 versus NC State in two late losses that damaged their ACC title hopes. They've also been playing quarterback shuffle in an effort to jumpstart the dormant passing game. The most consistent force for West Virginia all season has been its defense. This could be a low-scoring game that comes down to a few key mistakes or big plays.
5. Mike Teel and Russell Wilson: The most intriguing aspect of the Papajohns.com Bowl is the quarterback play. Teel lit up the Big East over the last five weeks, throwing 20 touchdown passes in that span. Wilson, a freshman, turned NC State's season around when he got healthy, and he led the ACC in touchdown passes and passing efficiency. Whichever one has the better game probably will have his hands on the trophy at the end.
6. Turnovers: Perhaps Wilson's best attribute is his decision-making. He threw only one interception all season. Teel, on the other hand, has been prone to throwing picks much of his career. The Wolfpack defense had 17 interceptions this season, including seven in the final two games. They had a plus-12 turnover margin their final seven games, while Rutgers hasn't created a lot of takeaways all year. "Ball security has to be our No. 1 goal in this game," Teel said.
7. Kenny Britt: It may be the Rutgers receiver's final collegiate game, so get a load of this star junior while you can. Britt had 1,252 yards receiving this year and four games of at least 140 yards. He's tall, physical and fast and could well be the difference maker against a very sound NC State defense.
8. LeSean McCoy: The Brut Sun Bowl was supposed to be a matchup of the nation's top freshman tailback, Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, and the best sophomore runner, Pitt's McCoy. Rodgers almost certainly won't play, however, because of a broken bone in his left shoulder. So that leaves it to McCoy to, um, shoulder the star power burden in this game. He is the kind of player who lives for these challenges.
9. Pitt's secondary vs. the Oregon State passing game: Without Rodgers, the Beavers will have to look more to the air in this game. Quarterback Lyle Moevao threw for 374 yards and five touchdown passes -- but also two interceptions -- in the season finale against Oregon. Pitt's defensive backs have been burned at times this year by top-flight passing games. They're helped by the fact that James Rodgers -- Jacquizz's brothers and an electric receiving threat -- also won't play because of an injury. But they'll still have others to worry about, including Sammie Stroughter.
10. Pitt's offensive line: The Panthers have to do more up front than just spring gaps for McCoy. They have to give quarterback Bill Stull time to make plays downfield. Oregon State finished 10th in the FBS in sacks this season and eighth in tackles for loss. Pittsburgh's O-line has been a strength all season, even after C.J. Davis had to move from guard to center after an injury to starter Robb Houser earlier this year.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
A lot of my attention has been on the Mountain West Conference the last couple days since I'm in Las Vegas for its media days, but the Sun Belt Conference media days also are being held right now in New Orleans. So today's Morning Coffee comes from the Sun Belt.
The conference announced Tuesday that it will partner with the St. Petersburg Bowl, the Papajohns.com Bowl and the PetroSun Independence Bowl, which will give the Sun Belt more postseason opportunities.
The agreements will take effect this year and last through 2009.
"This is an excellent opportunity for our football league for many reasons," said Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters. "It will give our teams a chance to play in regional bowl games, show that we can compete with quality opponents and prove that this league can attract crowds to games and influence TV ratings."
The champion of the Sun Belt will still play in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
According to the news release, the St. Petersburg Bowl and Papajohns.com Bowl will take a Sun Belt team if the conferences the bowls are already linked to are not able to fulfill their obligations.