NCF Nation: Rasheed Ward

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten probably wants to forget this postseason after going 1-6 in bowls. But several players stood out, even in defeat, and they deserve recognition. Let's hand out helmet stickers for the final time this season, beginning with the one Big Ten team (Iowa) that actually won its bowl.

Iowa running back Shonn Greene -- Playing in what would be his final collegiate game, the Hawkeyes' junior went out with a flourish, racking up 121 rushing yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Greene eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 13 games and set a single-season school rushing record with 1,850 yards.

Iowa strong safety Tyler Sash -- South Carolina was in a giving mood (five turnovers), and Sash capitalized with two interceptions, raising his season total to five. Sash, a redshirt freshman who became one of the team's top playmakers, picked off Stephen Garcia's first pass of the game and had interception returns of 45 and 29 yards.

Iowa cornerback Bradley Fletcher -- The senior recorded an interception and a forced fumble in his final game in a Hawkeyes uniform. With Iowa up 14-0, Fletcher squashed any chance of a South Carolina rally by intercepting a Garcia pass in the end zone for a touchback. He also forced a fumble on South Carolina's first play of the second half.

Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman -- He hadn't taken significant snaps since September but gave Ohio State a big lift in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Texas. The offense was sputtering until Boeckman found Brian Robiskie for a 48-yard completion on the first play of the fourth quarter. Boeckman later threw a touchdown to fellow quarterback Terrelle Pryor and nearly helped Ohio State to a big upset.

Ohio State's defense -- Colt McCoy and Quan Cosby had the final word in Glendale, but Ohio State held the high-powered Texas offense well below its season scoring average. The Buckeyes racked up three sacks and nine tackles for loss and limited big plays until Cosby's 26-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left.

Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher -- Bacher ended an up-and-down senior season with arguably his best performance in the Valero Alamo Bowl. He threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri in a 30-23 overtime loss. Bacher threw only one interception and spread the ball well to his veteran targets.

Northwestern's senior wide receivers -- Rasheed Ward, Ross Lane and Eric Peterman combined for 19 receptions, 261 yards and three touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl. All three had scoring receptions of 20 yards or longer, highlighted by Lane's circus catch in the back of the end zone late in the third quarter.

Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman -- The Rose Bowl was a rough one for Penn State's defense, but Bowman certainly did his part with five tackles for loss and a sack. Bowman finished the season with 106 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss. Next season he'll form the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem with Sean Lee.

Michigan State safety Otis Wiley -- Wiley and his fellow defenders held Georgia to three first-half points in the Capital One Bowl and gave the Spartans offense a chance to create some distance on the scoreboard. Michigan State eventually caved against Matthew Stafford, but Wiley had a forced fumble and seven tackles to go along with 87 return yards in his final collegiate game.

Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- Decker returned from knee surgery and an ankle injury to boost the Gophers in the Insight Bowl with eight receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown. The junior set Minnesota bowl records for receptions and receiving yards and will return in 2009 as one of the Big Ten's top targets.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern outplayed Missouri for most of the Valero Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats had a tremendous game plan, made big plays on both sides of the ball and kept Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman from lighting up the Alamodome scoreboard, which seemed like a guarantee entering tonight's contest. As the biggest underdog of the 68 FBS bowl teams, Northwestern has nothing to be ashamed about after a 30-23 overtime loss to the Tigers in a thrilling contest.

But when you're a massive underdog and you face a more talented opponent, you need to execute the little things. Details matter more than ever. For Northwestern, the little things came on special teams, and in that area, Pat Fitzgerald's team failed.

Northwestern had no business being tied with Missouri at halftime after dominating the opening 30 minutes. But a poorly executed punt, one that should have gone out of bounds, allowed Maclin to race 75 yards for the tying touchdown with a minute left before the break.

That's seven points right there. At worst, Northwestern should have been up 10-3 at the half.

The Wildcats then opened the second half with a brilliant scoring drive capped by a 46-yard Rasheed Ward touchdown catch. But in a scene Northwestern fans are all too familiar with, kicker Amado Villarreal missed on the extra point attempt. The conversion would have forced Missouri to score a touchdown in the closing minutes rather than settle for a field goal. Northwestern's defense did a great job of keeping Missouri out of the end zone, so the chances for a stop were likely.

Eight points on special teams likely doomed the Wildcats, and that's not even counting a missed field goal in the opening half. In a game where Northwestern did so many things right, the special teams details really stung.

The program's first bowl win since 1949 would have been huge, but Northwestern made a strong statement tonight, especially on the defensive side. The Wildcats held Missouri's offense to three first half points and picked off Daniel three times. Though Missouri ultimately made the plays when it mattered, Northwestern's defense was one of the bright spots in the Big Ten and should only improve in 2009.

Quarterback C.J. Bacher and wide receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Ward played arguably their best games of the season, and running back Tyrell Sutton came off a wrist injury to rush for 114 yards. Northwestern's problems along the offensive line came back to haunt the team late, and some questionable play-calling gave Missouri the time to rally and force overtime.

The 34-year-old Fitzgerald has Northwestern headed in the right direction. It's critical that this program sustains success, something it did not do after Fitzgerald finished playing in 1996. Those who dismiss Northwestern because of its pre-1995 history are simply uninformed, but the program still needs to get over the hump in bowl games.

Fine-tuning the details on special teams is a good place to start.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 C.J. Bacher threw for 3,656 yards a year ago, but he isn't afraid to run with the ball.

It was a weird 2007 for Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher. He led the Big Ten and set a school record with 3,656 passing yards. He had an insane two weeks during which he combined for 990 passing yards and nine touchdowns in wins against Michigan State and Minnesota.

But the gaudy numbers were a bit hollow as Bacher ranked seventh in the Big Ten in pass efficiency and tied with Minnesota's Adam Weber for the league lead in interceptions. He finished with as many touchdowns (19) as picks, a fitting stat for a Wildcats team that ended up 6-6 and missed a bowl game.

Bacher heads into his senior season hoping to lead a talented Northwestern offense back to the postseason. The skill positions are well-stocked, but he's dealing with his third offensive coordinator (Mick McCall) in four seasons and a rebuilding line. I caught up with Bacher on Thursday afternoon.

What has been your mental preparation heading into your senior season?

C.J. Bacher: We have a new offense now, so things have changed a little bit. I'm trying to get really comfortable with the offense and make sure my teammates are getting comfortable. That's the biggest focus right now, working to get better with the intricacies of the offense.

How has the offense changed?

CB: It's a lot like what we ran before. It's just the terminology's different and the routes are different. Small things have changed. We just have to learn those little things and get used to each other in the offense.

At Bowling Green (McCall's former school), they ran their quarterbacks quite a bit. Do you expect to be on the move a lot more this fall?

CB: Coach McCall's all about plays. He's had Josh Harris, who was a good runner and he ran with him. And he had Omar Jacobs, who was a great passer and he threw the ball a lot with him. We'll see what he thinks of me, and we'll find out when the season starts.

What do you think of yourself as a runner?

CB: I think I can run. I like running. I'd rather be back there throwing the ball, but I enjoy running, too. If I can pick up 5-10 yards on a run, I'll be happy to get ready for the next play.

This is your third coordinator in four years. How does Mick compare, personality-wise, with Garrick McGee and Mike Dunbar?

CB: It's been interesting. You start to get comfortable with an OC and then you have a new one the next year. It's a little tough to adjust. Coach McCall has done a great job making us feel comfortable with the offense and with him. He's got a real live personality. He's one of those guys who's happy-go-lucky and then he has the ability to really bear down and be a disciplinarian as well. We really enjoy being around him. It's been a lot of fun so far.

Has he incorporated plays that you guys ran in the past?

CB: There's a lot of both. We have a lot of plays we're running now that we haven't run before, and we have a lot of plays that are very similar to plays that we've run before, maybe details that are a little different. That's what we're trying to get used to. It's going to be a little different, but we're still a spread offense. We're still doing the same things that we were recruited here to do. It should be a smooth transition.

Who has had the toughest adjustment?

CB: I'd like to say the quarterback (laughs). I'm sure the receivers would say the receivers and the running backs would say the running backs. It's a lot to learn, it's a lot to digest, but we're all smart kids at Northwestern. We're going to figure it out.

Speaking of the receivers, how confident are you with that group? You've got familiarity with guys like Eric Peterman and Ross Lane. Is that the strongest group you've worked with?

CB: I think we've got the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. Top to bottom, we have a lot of guys that can make plays, both running routes and making plays after the catch. I'm really excited. We've got speed guys, we've got possession guys, but everybody in our receiving corps can make plays. The four guys that are looking like the frontrunners to get most of the playing time -- Eric, Ross, (Andrew) Brewer and Rasheed (Ward) -- are really doing a good job this summer. I'm excited. It makes my job that much easier when I've got those guys around me.

Andrew has only caught one pass in college, but he's a guy that creates a lot of excitement with his speed as a former quarterback. What does he bring to that group?

CB: The biggest thing about him is he's bigger than anybody on the perimeter and he's faster than anybody inside. He's a mismatch for us inside. I don't know how defenses are going to be able to defend him. I'm just excited to be able to throw him the ball, see him juke a corner or run past a linebacker. We're all excited to see what he can do in game situations. He's had this amount of time at receiver under his belt, and he's picked up the route-running a lot. He really knows what he's doing as a receiver.

When you look at your season last year, did it mirror the team's?

CB: Last year was, obviously, a very up-and-down season for us and, personally, I felt it was kind of the same way. The main focus for me to stay more consistent is to take care of the football and really not take as many shots. In a lot of games last year, I was trying to do too much. Coach McCall has really pounded it into my head that we can compete with anybody. I don't have to make the spectacular play, just the smart one.

Pat Fitzgerald has talked about sometimes the best throw is in the fourth row. Is that hard for you because you want to make plays?

CB: A couple years ago, we were a little overmatched against some of these teams. I've just got to realize that our team is so stacked on the perimeter, there's so many guys that can make big plays after they catch it, so a 2-yard pass might turn into a 50-yard gain, whereas a 50-yard pass is pretty hard to complete.

Most of the concerns with your offense are about the line, wh
ich loses three starters. What have you seen from that group so far?

CB: I'm really excited about our additions to the offensive line. Keegan Kennedy's moved over from defensive tackle to offensive guard. He's been looking really good. I'm really excited about his progress. Ben Burkett, who was injured last year and redshirted, he's looking really good, too. And then we added Al Netter over at left tackle. It's a process to get these guys to mesh, but Coach (Bret) Ingalls is doing a good job so far. I expected improvement from last year. With Ben, Keegan and Al, as soon as they can come together and mesh, they're going to do a great job protecting me and opening up holes.

Do you take on an even greater leadership role as a senior quarterback?

CB: As a senior, you do feel a bit of a sense of entitlement just because you've been here so long. We've got so many seniors now. It's pretty easy to get those guys to help us out with the leadership. When you get older and you've been on the field, people really look up to you. We have a lot of young guys who can help us this year, so it's definitely made it easier having more seniors.

What have you sensed from running back Tyrell Sutton after an injury-plagued 2007 season?

CB: He feels a bit of a sense of urgency just because it's his last year. These last couple of years have been tough for him because of injuries. You can expect for him to be back and be stronger than ever. I'm excited to see what he can do on the field. It was such a layoff from being actually healthy. Now we've got him healthy and, hopefully, we can keep him that way. If he can stay healthy, I think he's the best running back in the Big Ten.

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