Big Ten hopes a record number of teams will produce a record number of wins

Jonah Rosenblum

Northwestern is hardly the only Big Ten team bowling this winter. The Wildcats will be joined by nine of their closest friends, as a conference-record 10 teams will compete in bowl games to cap off an exciting 2011-2012 season.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl

Purdue (6-6) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)

December 27, 2011, 3:30 p.m., ESPN

With a tight win over Indiana on the final weekend of the regular season, Purdue earned the Big Ten’s final bowl berth. The Boilermakers will head to Detroit to take on Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Both teams will be playing rather close to home, and both will be looking to end considerable bowl droughts. The Broncos have never won a bowl game despite making consecutive postseason appearances in 2007 and 2008, while the Boilermakers haven’t played in a bowl game since 2007. Purdue put together some impressive wins during the season, defeating then-No. 23 Illinois and Ohio State, but also suffered a questionable loss to Rice. Boilermakers quarterback Caleb TerBush stepped up his game as the regular season rolled on, tossing just four interceptions during Big Ten play and completing 61.7 percent of his passes. Purdue also averaged an impressive 174.7 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, Western Michigan thrived through the air, as the combination of quarterback Alex Carder and wide receiver Jordan White proved unstoppable. Carder ranked seventh in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense, while White led the FBS with 1,646 receiving yards.

Prediction: The Broncos lost their two matchups against Big Ten teams this season, and their defense is too susceptible. Carder and White will find that Purdue’s defense is a slight step up from Akron’s.

Purdue 31 – Western Michigan 24

Insight Bowl

Iowa (7-5) vs. No. 14 Oklahoma (9-3)

December 30, 2011, 9:00 p.m., ESPN

Seventeen bowl games will have been played and 34 teams will have suited up before the Big Ten sends its second representative, Iowa, out to face Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl. It was a letdown season for both the Hawkeyes and the Sooners. Following quarterback Ricky Stanzi’s departure, it figured that Iowa would struggle with its passing game. Instead, James Vandenberg proved a more than adequate replacement; he tossed 23 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. Yet, even with Vandenberg’s stellar season, and a long overdue victory over Northwestern, Iowa finished just 7-5, after suffering stunning losses to both Minnesota and Iowa State. Vandenberg struggled against top defenses like that of Nebraska and Penn State, while the Hawkeyes’ defense limped along all season, finishing dead last in the Big Ten in pass defense. Meanwhile, No. 14 Oklahoma failed to capitalize on an impressive 6-0 start, dropping three of its last six, including a stunning home loss to Texas Tech and an embarrassing rout at the hands of in-state rival Oklahoma State. The Sooners will certainly be hungry for revenge after their 44-10 loss to the Cowboys, and will rely on their top-10 offense to help end their season on the right note. Quarterback Landry Jones threw for 4,302 yards and finished with 28 touchdowns, actually representing a slight statistical letdown from his stellar 2010 campaign, and he will be playing without star receiver Ryan Broyles, who missed the last three games of the regular season with a season-ending ACL injury.

Prediction: No Broyles, no problem. Iowa proves incapable of stopping Oklahoma. The Sooners will score early and often, as they come out motivated following a frustrating end to their regular season.

Oklahoma 42 – Iowa 35

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7)

December 31, 2011, 2:30 p.m., ESPN

One would be hard-pressed to find a postseason team colder than the Fighting Illini. Illinois lost its final six games of the regular season, after beginning the year with a perfect 6-0 record. Fighting Illini coach Ron Zook lost his job as a result of the team’s struggles, and will be replaced by defensive coordinator Vic Koenning for their bowl matchup in San Francisco. Their contest with the Bruins will mark Koenning’s sole game as head coach of the Fighting Illini before he departs Champaign, Ill., for greener pastures. While Koenning led an adept defense in 2011, the Illinois offense performed dreadfully in the final weeks of the season. The Fighting Illini were held to 17 points or less in each of their last six games, and were limited to just a touchdown in three of those games. Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins led the Big Ten in receptions, but turnovers proved Illinois’ undoing, as the Fighting Illini finished last in the conference with 27 giveaways. UCLA is certainly relieved to face Illinois’ paltry offense, after struggling against Oregon’s high-octane attack in the Pac-12 Championship. The Bruins surrendered 99 points in their final two games of the season, and finished ninth in the Pac 12 in scoring defense. They recorded just 13 sacks all season. UCLA’s offense wasn’t all that good either, as the Bruins struggled mightily in the passing game, even though quarterback Kevin Prince did heat up towards the end of the regular season.

Prediction: Illinois continues to struggle on offense, while UCLA is able to score just enough to record the victory.

UCLA 21 – Illinois 17

TicketCity Bowl

No. 22 Penn State (9-3) vs. No. 19 Houston (12-1)

January 2, 2012, 11:00 a.m., ESPNU

The Nittany Lions were living the dream, after jettisoning their way to an 8-1 start. Then, Penn State really stunned the nation, as coach Joe Paterno was fired in the midst of a messy child molestation scandal. Penn State went on to lose two of its last three games, with both of its losses coming to top-20 teams. As a result of their late-season tumble, the Nittany Lions fell to the TicketCity Bowl, where they will take on No. 19 Houston. It will be a fascinating matchup, as the Big Ten’s top defense takes on the nation’s top offense. The Cougars averaged more than 50 points per game en route to a 12-1 record in 2011. Quarterback Case Keenum led the top passing attack in the nation, completing 71.7 percent of his passes for 5099 yards and 45 touchdowns, against just five interceptions. However, two of those five picks came in the Cougars’ final game of the season, a dispiriting 49-28 loss to Southern Mississippi. With a chance to complete a perfect season, and defeat its first ranked opponent of the season, Houston fell flat on its face in the Conference USA Championship game, surrendering four touchdowns to Golden Eagles quarterback Austin Davis. That loss has raised doubts as to how good the Cougars really are, especially when faced with elite opposition. Whether they can continue their prolific offensive season against the Nittany Lions’ tenacious defense is anyone’s guess.

Prediction: Houston is fun to watch, but the Cougars will flop against a major conference foe. The Nittany Lions’ defense is simply too good, and Silas Redd will provide enough offense to give Penn State a much-needed victory.

Penn State 3
1 – Houston 28

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

Ohio State (6-6) vs. Florida (6-6)

January 2, 2012, Noon, ESPN 2

The last time Ohio State and Florida played, it was for a national championship. This time, both teams are simply competing for a victory in the middle-tier TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. After impressive wins over then-No. 16 Illinois and then-No. 15 Wisconsin, the Buckeyes cooled off considerably, dropping their final three games of the 2011 season. Still, all but one of Ohio State’s six losses came by a touchdown or less, and the Buckeyes were always competitive despite having the worst pass offense in the Big Ten. Ohio State’s aerial attack was hampered, in part, by its susceptibility to the pass rush. The Buckeyes struggled against the pass rush all season, surrendering a conference-worst 40 sacks in 12 games. The Buckeyes also struggled to convert on third down, which could prove problematic against a Gators’ defense that allowed their opponents to convert on just 27.7 percent of their third-down opportunities. Florida had similar issues, converting on just 30.6 percent of its third-down opportunities en route to a 6-6 finish. After jumping out to a 4-0 start, the Gators lost six of their last eight, including a streak of four straight losses, all to ranked teams, during the middle of the season. Quarterback John Brantley continued to struggle to measure up to former Florida signal caller Tim Tebow’s success, completing just 58.9 percent of his passes in 2011.

Prediction: Who would dare pick against the Gators in the Gator Bowl? The answer: me. Ohio State is the better team, and with a little help from former Gators coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes should do just fine.

Ohio State 24 – Florida 17

Outback Bowl

No. 17 Michigan State vs. No. 16 Georgia

January 2, 2012, Noon, ABC

The last time Michigan State took on Georgia, the Spartans fell 24-12 in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, as part of the Big Ten’s disastrous 1-6 performance in bowl games that season. Michigan State will be looking to settle another score on Jan. 2, however, as the Spartans look to prove that they were worthy of a BCS bowl game. They were left out of the picture despite a 10-2 record and a Big Ten Championship berth. Michigan State fell to then-No. 15 Wisconsin in a dazzling inaugural conference title game, but losses to then-No. 14 Nebraska and unranked Notre Dame didn’t help its resume. Still, the Spartans displayed a highly impressive defense in 2011, finishing ninth among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense, while leading the Big Ten with 41 sacks. Michigan State’s defense also led the conference by allowing opponents to convert on only 33.7 percent of their third-down opportunities, and finished second in the conference in pass efficiency. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was impressive as usual behind center, tossing just seven picks against 24 touchdowns. The Bulldogs compiled a similar story to that of the Spartans, making it all the way to their conference’s title game, where they fell short. After two straight losses to open the season, Georgia rattled off an impressive 10-game win streak, an impressive run that could only be broken by top-ranked LSU. The Bulldogs’ offense, led by quarterback Aaron Murray’s 33 touchdown passes, soared, but their defense struggled at times, surrendering 132 points in Georgia’s only three losses of the season. Murray was picked off twice in the Bulldogs’ SEC Championship game loss to the Tigers.

Prediction: Few teams were hotter than the Bulldogs towards the end of the 2011 season. Georgia will regain its winning ways against Michigan State, as a Spartans’ defense that looks better on paper than it is in reality, comes up short.

Georgia 31 – Michigan State 28

Capital One Bowl

No. 20 Nebraska vs. No. 9 South Carolina

January 2, 2011, Noon, ESPN

Both South Carolina and Nebraska enter their Capital One Bowl matchup with major question marks. Despite their top-20 rankings, both teams suffered troubling losses at home, as Nebraska fell to unranked Northwestern, and South Carolina fell to unranked Auburn. Neither team did particularly well against top competition, combining for a 3-3 record against Top 25 teams. Nebraska did compile nine wins, however, riding the shoulders of Rex Burkhead to an impressive first year of Big Ten competition. The junior running back finished the regular season with 1,268 yards on the ground and 15 rushing touchdowns. South Carolina, on the other hand, racked up 10 wins, relying on its success rushing the ball and defending against the pass. The Gamecocks ranked third in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 198 yards per game on the ground. On defense, South Carolina tied for the conference lead with 18 interceptions, while allowing a meager 133.0 passing yards per game, which was good for second in the SEC. The Gamecocks held opposing quarterbacks to an exceedingly low passer rating of 92.4.

Prediction: The Cornhuskers’ loss to the Wildcats exposed severe weaknesses, and I expect South Carolina’s stingy defense to stick close to its 18.8 points per game surrendered average.

South Carolina 21 – Nebraska 17

Rose Bowl Game

No. 10 Wisconsin (11-2) vs. No. 5 Oregon (11-2)

January 2, 2011, 3:30 p.m., ESPN

Last year, the question entering the Rose Bowl was: Can anyone stop Wisconsin’s devastatingly good offense? Now, the question is: Can Wisconsin stop Oregon’s devastatingly good offense? The Ducks averaged 46.2 points and 515.2 total yards of offense per game this season. Oregon also led the Pac 12 with 295.7 rushing yards per game, spurred on by the spectacular play of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, who combined for 2,555 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground. The Ducks’ problems lay with their defense, as Oregon surrendered 40 and 38 points, respectively, in losses to LSU and USC. Wisconsin’s defense also suffered a few slipups, surrendering 70 points combined in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. Otherwise, the Badgers’ defense was sterling, surrendering just 17 points per game, good for sixth in the nation among FBS teams. Their offense could provide a real challenge for the Ducks’ suspect defense, as they boast a lethal dual-threat offense, led by Russell Wilson through the air and Montee Ball on the ground. The quarterback finished with 31 touchdown passes and a 72.5 completion percentage, while the running back finished with 1,759 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground.

Prediction: Wisconsin’s two losses in 2011 came by a combined 10 points. The Badgers’ offense will overwhelm the Ducks, as dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson goes haywire on Oregon to avenge Wisconsin’s devastating loss to Texas Christian University.

Wisconsin 42 – Oregon 35

Allstate Sugar Bowl

No. 13 Michigan (10-2) vs. No. 11 Virginia Tech (11-2)

January 3, 2011, 7:30 p.m., ESPN

Michigan unearthed a new weapon this season. Everyone knew about Denard Robinson, but the Wolverines’ star quarterback disappointed this season, tossing 14 interceptions while completing only 56.1 percent of his passes. While Robinson put up some lofty numbers on the ground early on, he recorded 100-plus rushing yards just once in Michigan’s final six games of the season, perhaps a reflection of the tougher defenses he faced during the meat of the Wolverines’ Big Ten schedule. Instead, the new weapon in Ann Arbor, Mich., was Fitzgerald Toussaint, who ran for 1,011 yards after receiving just eight carries last season. Whether or not Michigan’s vaunted rushing attack can continue its season-lo
ng dominance against a Virginia Tech team that surrendered just 107.8 rushing yards per game this season is anyone’s guess. The Hokies lived by their defense in 2011, finishing second in the ACC in both scoring defense and total defense. Although they received a generous boost by playing in a weaker football conference, it’s worth noting that the only team to defeat Virginia Tech all season was Clemson — twice.

Prediction: Michigan will struggle to run the ball against Virginia Tech, but the real secret to this game is the Wolverines’ much-improved defense. I’m not convinced the Hokies will be able to put points on the scoreboard. This one goes to the maize and blue.

Michigan 24 – Virginia Tech 14

This article is the fourth in our 15-part Road to Meineke series. We will be posting an article every night, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas, to help prepare you for Northwestern’s matchup with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Join us again tomorrow night as football beat writer and deputy sports editor Josh Walfish profiles Wildcats linebacker Damien Proby.