by Robert Weintraub
What a fantastic bowl season it's been. Who could forget Slingin' Sammy Baugh leading a plucky bunch of Horned Frogs past the far bigger Wisconsin Badgers, led by Alan Ameche? Hopalong Cassidy and the Ohio State Buckeyes squeaking past a spirited Arkansas team and its graceful receiver Lance Alworth? J.C. Watts and Oklahoma whipping, uh, Tate George's UConn Huskies?
OK, the point has been belabored beyond measure -- the gap between the end of the regular season and the meaningful bowl games is far too big for Evel Knievel to jump, even with a rocket cycle. It will be an astonishing 37 days between the time Auburn and Oregon clinched spots in the BCS title game and the actual kickoff tonight. And even when the margin wasn't pushing a month and a half, it sure seemed like every game required a re-introduction of the main actors.
Still, we'll remember this bowl season for several reasons, mainly the heaping helping of crow Big Ten President Jim Delany had for breakfast on January 2. The Big Ten's 0-5 to ring in the new year was an epic pratfall, only minimally helped by the Buckeyes' survival in the Sugar Bowl. Among the Leaders and Legends' wreckage were the two Michigan schools getting slaughtered by the SEC West. Northwestern did what it seemingly always does -- lose despite an entertaining comeback. And Florida not only beat Penn State, but covered the spread in about the greatest fashion possible, the late game pick-six (someone told Joe Paterno about the loss three days later).
But it was TCU taking down Wisconsin 21-19 in the Rose Bowl that spoke the loudest. Sporting a size advantage up front not seen since the Valley of Elah Bowl, the Badgers should have rolled to victory. But somehow, even with 19 weeks to prepare, Bret Bielema and his staff failed to account for the lone way the speedy Frogs defense could slow Wisconsin -- with backside pursuit. Linebacker Tank Carder lived in the backfield, chasing down backs from behind, forcing the Badgers into unwanted passing situations.
Meanwhile, TCU quarterback Andy Dalton had a terrific game, running and throwing with aplomb, making zone reads and deciphering the Badgers' schemes with ease. Yet for all the good play by Gary Patterson's bunch, Wisconsin should have at least sent it to overtime. After a sledge-hammering drive in which the Badgers finally seemed to wear down TCU, Montee Ball scored on a short touchdown run to close the score to two points. But for reasons passing understanding (pun intended), Bielema decided to abandon the run game his team is built upon and spread the field, trying to throw for two. Carder made a great play to swat it down at the line, TCU recovered the onside kick, and that was it.
Yes, the receiver was open -- had Carder not timed it right, the Badgers would have tied it. I don't even mind a pass play in that situation. But spreading the field and taking the run option completely out of the play not only makes it easier for the defense but spits in the face of Wisconsin's identity -- especially after the team had just powered right down the field (nine runs and one pass covering 77 yards). Alan Ameche can't be happy, wherever he is.
Big ups to TCU and the program that has emerged from the Fort Worth stockyards to become a dominant force in college football. Woe to the Big East when the Frogs join up in 2012 -- that will be a most unpleasant road trip for the likes of UConn, Pitt, and -- gulp -- my Syracuse Orange.
Meanwhile, Ohio State's Tattoo You Tour had a semi-successful stop in New Orleans, escaping with a 31-26 win over Arkansas followed by the team bus crashing through a cyclone fence and escaping across state lines with the robbery.
The Hogs hardly deserved the crystal, bobbling and fumbling away the ball as though it was covered in hog fat. The worst moment came right at the end, when a spectacular blocked punt woulda-shoulda-coulda been returned for the game-winning touchdown. Instead, five or six Arkansas players failed to scoop and score. Ryan Mallet was picked off two plays later by Solomon Thomas, one of the Columbus Five, and the Buckeyes ran out the clock. In a blocked punt situation, of course, there is no scenario that Arkansas would not have gotten the ball, so you have to do everything possible to pick it up and score -- you don't worry about fumbling it back to the opponent. Didn't happen.
That set up an interesting postgame interview with Terrelle Pryor. He answered a couple of questions about the game lucidly enough, but when asked whether he was actually returning to school, as he promised in the wake of TattooGate, Pryor responded with a unintelligible "Feeeeeehhhhhhhhhmeeeeeeenchhhhhhhhh." For those of you that don't speak Yiddish, that means "Depends on whether I can play quarterback in the pros."
- Let's get this out of the way -- I am just fine with the call that clinched the Pinstripe Bowl for the 'Cuse. In case you didn't see it, Syracuse and Kansas State lit up the new Yankee Stadium with an entertaining display (when both teams hit flea-flickers, you know you're watching a fun game). Syracuse led 36-28 when KSU scored with 1:13 left to close it to two points. The guy who scored, Adrian Hilburn, tossed an innocuous little salute to the crowd, and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
- Now, I've railed against these inane calls forever. As Bob Watson and Cesar Cedeno once said, "Hey, let the kids play!" But I'm here to tell you -- you want to throw a salute, play in the Military Bowl. As it happened, the penalty made the two-point conversion an impossibility, and when the 'Cuse fell on the onside kick, it was all over. When your school hasn't won a bowl game since Jim Brown was in the backfield (right?), you take any pennies from heaven that drop your way.
- Derek Dooley is living on the other side of that fortune line. In an ending reminiscent of the game against LSU, the Volunteers lost the Music City Bowl despite North Carolina having 15 or so guys on the pitch. The Tarheels were trying for a desperation field goal in the dying seconds, but the regular offense was still on the field in a moment of confusion worthy of Jim Ignatowski from Taxi. Quarterback T.J. Yates wisely spiked the ball with a second left, and the Tarheels were rewarded. They were penalized five yards but also got the second, allowing a field goal that tied the game. Sure enough, they won in double overtime.
- That's a rule that needs altering -- North Carolina benefited from screwing up royally. The NFL would have run off 10 seconds there, ending the game. The schoolboys need to adopt that rule, too.
- New Miami coach Al Golden watched his charges get waxed by Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl from the comfort of the broadcast booth. One decision was made easy for him -- Jacory Harris was atrocious, paving the way for Stephen Morris to become the starting quarterback in Coral Gables.
- While Golden checked in to the ACC coaching fraternity, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen checked out. He went out in style: The Terrapins pummeled East Carolina 51-20, and he followed the win with an emotional farewell speech. His replacement, Randy Edsall, pulled a Parcells and didn't even fly back with his UConn team after they were slapped around in the Orange Bowl by Oklahoma.
- Florida State's Greg Reid had one of the best games of any player during the bowl season, starring in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl win against South Carolina. He had two fumble recoveries, several pass defenses, two or three big punt returns, and a kill shot on the Gamecocks stud running back, Marcus Lattimore, that took the freshman out of the game early. That Reid did it while his father watched from the stands for the first time since being released from prison made the performance that much more poignant.
- Florida International won the best game of first week, a pulsating 34-32 thriller over Toledo in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (it pains me to type that). Toledo went up 21-7, only to have FIU take a 28-24 lead in the fourth quarter. The Rockets came back with a late drive, capped by the spectacular Terrance Owens running in a touchdown, then tossing the two-point conversion. Toledo, 32-31. But FIU pulled a Boise, converting a fourth-and-17 with a hook-and-ladder play to T.Y. Hilton. "Converted" is one description -- "failed to convert" may be another way to put it. Hilton barely scraped across the marker, and several replays were inconclusive. It seems the refs wanted the hook-and-ladder to succeed as much as the rest of us. Naturally, the Panthers buried the field goal to win it as time expired.
- Every bowl season has a tight race for the Postal Award, given to the school that mails in its performance. Nebraska is a strong contender, getting whomped by a Washington team in the Holiday Bowl after beating the Huskies by five touchdowns earlier in the season (a perfect way to warm up for Big Ten membership). Miami is in the mix as well for its no-show in El Paso.
- But I have to go with my home Bulldogs. Georgia conjured a way to lose to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl, 10-6, a nice win for the Knights but an epic fail for the Athenians. Head coach Mark Richt refused to accept the runner-up trophy, apparently holding out for the third-place hardware. His 6-7 finish puts Richt squarely on the waiting-to-be-canned throne for 2011. As if things weren't bad enough, new mascot UGA VIII missed the Liberty Bowl and has lymphoma. Even when Jim Donnan was coach, Bulldog Nation could count on UGA.
On to the championship game, at long last!