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NCAA College Football Bowl Recap — Dec. 31-Jan. 8

Arkansas' Jarius Wright celebrates a touchdown during the Razorbacks' Cotton Bowl victory.
Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

While we can argue about whether or not the right teams were playing, it was hard to argue with the excitement of the BCS bowl games so far. Three of the four were decided either in the last seconds of regulation (Rose Bowl) or in overtime (Fiesta and Sugar bowls), while the fourth (Orange Bowl) shattered virtually every bowl game record on the books for offensive statistics.

But the non-BCS games also gave us a lot of close games and great individual performances, as well. Here are the highlights from the final week of bowl season.

MEINEKE CAR CARE BOWL OF TEXAS: Texas A&M 33, Northwestern 22

Texas A&M scored 27 unanswered points in the second and third quarters to blow the game open, but then had to hold off a late Northwestern rally before securing the team’s final win as a member of the Big 12. With their top two running backs out with injuries, the Aggies managed just 80 rushing yards after averaging 199.2 yards per game this season. But A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill passed for 329 yards and a touchdown in the win.

This was Texas A&M’s first bowl win since 2001 while the Wildcats will have to wait a little longer. Northwestern has lost nine straight bowl games, with their last win dating all the way back to the 1949 Rose Bowl.

HYUNDAI SUN BOWL: Utah 30, Georgia Tech 27 (OT)

Utah quarterback Jon Hays only went 15/31 for 193 yards, but made the most of those passes. He threw three touchdown passes and led two touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Utes running back John White IV rushed for 115 yards and his only touchdown of the day was the game-winner in overtime. This was the first overtime game in the 77-year history of the Sun Bowl.

Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense rushed for 311 yards, but the Yellow Jackets were unable to make plays when they needed to. The offense managed just one touchdown and kicker David Scully missed a 48-yard field goal that would have won the game with two seconds left.

KRAFT FIGHT HUNGER BOWL: Illinois 20, UCLA 14

Illinois’ defense proved to be the deciding factor in the game, holding UCLA to just 18 rushing yards and scoring a touchdown on a 39-yard interception return late in the third quarter. UCLA actually led the game 7-3 late before the pick six and 10 straight fourth-quarter points by the Illini sealed the victory. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was a one-man offense for the Illini, accounting for 249 of Illinois’ 326 total yards. The sophomore went 18/30 for 149 yards and a touchdown while adding 110 rushing yards.

AUTOZONE LIBERTY BOWL: Cincinnati 31, Vanderbilt 24

After going 4-8 a year ago, Cincinnati completed one of the biggest turnarounds in college football with a bowl win to secure the school’s fourth ten-win season in the last five years. Bearcats quarterback Zach Collaros returned to action for the first time since suffering a broken ankle in early November, but was largely ineffective, going just 12/29 for 80 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. However, Cincinnati’s running game (Isaiah Pead rushed for 149 yards and a touchdown) gave them just enough offense to hold off the Commodores.

The game turned early in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati kicked a field goal to take a 17-14 lead, only to see Vandy answer with a 68-yard touchdown pass two plays later. However, the momentum shift was short-lived as Bearcats return man Ralph Abernathy returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to regain the lead. That play seemed to suck the wind out of the Commodores’ sails, and Vanderbilt managed just 11 total yards and had two turnovers in their next three possessions.

CHICK-FIL-A BOWL: Auburn 43, Virginia 24

While Auburn’s offense came into the game ranked 104th nationally in total offense and 86th in scoring, you never would have known it from the team’s bowl game performance. The Tigers rolled up 454 yards of total offense, more than 125 yards better than their season average. The Auburn running game didn’t miss a beat following the suspension of starting running back Michael Dyer, as backup Onterio McCalebb rushed for 162 yards and two touchdowns in the win. The Tigers special teams also got in on the action, blocking two Virginia punts that led to nine Auburn points.

Virginia’s offense was also able to move the ball effectively (435 total yards), but had two turnovers and saw two other drives of 60+ yards end without points on the board. The Cavaliers actually led 14-7 after 20 minutes of play before giving up touchdowns on four consecutive Auburn drives in the second and third quarters to see the game slip away.

TICKET CITY BOWL: #19 Houston 30, #22 Penn State 14

Houston quarterback Case Keenum threw for 532 yards and three touchdowns as Penn State’s nightmarish season came to an abrupt end. The Nittany Lions came into the game ranked fifth in the nation in pass defense, but had no answers for the Cougars’ signal caller, who extended his own NCAA record for career touchdown passes to 155. Keenum threw for 227 yards in the first quarter alone, a new record for any bowl game. He had 69 pass attempts compared to Penn State’s 71 total plays.

Penn State’s defense did stiffen in the second half, holding the Cougars to just two field goals. But by that point the damage was done. The Nittany Lions offense, playing without starting quarterback Matthew McGloin (injured in a practice fistfight with another PSU player), were never able to find any rhythm on offense, managing just 306 yards and turning the ball over three times. In Penn State’s eight first half possessions, they had six three-and-outs. Take away one 67-yard touchdown drive and the Nittany Lions managed just 45 yards in the first half.

CAPITAL ONE BOWL: #9 South Carolina 30, #20 Nebraska 13

For the first 15 minutes of play, Nebraska looked like they could be the team to beat, racking up 104 yards and leading 13-9 after the first period. But after that point, it was all South Carolina as the Gamecocks defense stiffened, shutting out the Cornhuskers over the final three periods, forcing two turnovers and sacking Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez six times. And they seemed to get better as the game wore on: Nebraska was held to just one total yard in the final 29 minutes of play and four of the Gamecocks’ six sacks came in the fourth quarter.

South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another as the Gamecocks blew the game open in the fourth quarter. Star receiver Alshon Jeffrey caught four passes for 148 yards and a Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half. He was named Player of the Game despite being ejected late in the third quarter for throwing a punch at Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was also thrown out. Nebraska’s do-it-all running back Rex Burkhead recorded 124 total yards (89 rushing, 35 receiving) to keep the Cornhuskers competitive, but was held out of the end zone for just the second time this season.

OUTBACK BOWL: #17 Michigan State 33, #16 Georgia 30 (3OT)

Michigan State recorded one of the more improbable bowl wins in history in a game that was decided on a blocked field goal in triple overtime. Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins was shaky much of the day, throwing three interceptions, But he was clutch when it mattered, driving the Spartans 85 yards in less than two minutes to score the tying touchdown with just 14 seconds left in regulation.

Special teams then doomed the Bulldogs in overtime. Michigan State started with the ball, but Kirk Cousins threw an interception on the Spartans’ third play from scrimmage. However, Georgia kicker Blair Walsh’s ensuing kick sailed wide right, sending the game to a second overtime period. Both teams traded field goals in the second overtime and the Spartans made a field goal to start the third period. However, Walsh’s attempt to match was blocked, giving Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio his first bowl win and the Spartans their first bowl victory since 2001.

The Bulldogs’ loss certainly can’t be pinned on star cornerback Brandon Boykin, who recorded a safety, ran a punt back 92 yards for a touchdown and scored on a 13 yard pass from quarterback Aaron Murray. Murray finished with 288 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw two interceptions, one of which resulted in a Spartans touchdown.

TAXSLAYER.COM GATOR BOWL: Florida 24, Ohio State 17

Florida’s offense, which came into the game ranked 102nd in the nation in total offense, continued to struggle, putting up just 263 yards of total offense. But fortunately for the Gators, their defense and special teams came through in a big way to hand the Buckeyes another SEC loss. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller did well under the circumstances (18/23 for 162 yards and two touchdowns), but faced a Florida defensive line that pressured him all day long and recorded a season-high six sacks. But the game’s biggest plays came on special teams, where the Gators scored on a blocked punt and a 99-yard kickoff return to take the game in hand. Running back Chris Rainey recorded 102 total yards and also blocked the punt to help the Gators avoid their first losing season since 1979.

For the Buckeyes, the loss brings a nightmarish year that started with NCAA investigations and the firing of coach Jim Tressel to an end. Including the Buckeyes’ vacated win over Arkansas in last year’s Sugar Bowl, this loss drops Ohio State to 0-10 all-time against the SEC. The Buckeyes closed the season with four straight losses to finish 6-7, their first losing record since 1988. It also marks Ohio State’s first seven-loss season since 1897.

AT&T COTTON BOWL: #6 Arkansas 29, #8 Kansas State 16

The bad news for Arkansas was they started slowly. The good news was that Kansas State was even slower. The Razorbacks managed just 19 yards on 14 plays in their first four possessions, but then flipped the switch to jump out to a 19-0 lead that proved to be too much for Kansas State to overcome. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson didn’t have one of his best games (just 20/31 for 216 yards) but threw two touchdown passes and didn’t turn the ball over. Receiver/returner Joe Adams recorded his fourth punt return touchdown of the year, tying an SEC record.

Kansas State apparently missed a memo on the start time of the game, as the offense was nonexistent for much of the first half. The Wildcats’ first seven possessions netted just 27yards on 28 plays, six punts and a fumble. Kansas State got its first points on a safety after returning a blocked extra point late in the second quarter. They then managed back-to-back touchdown drives to pull within 19-16. But the offense stalled out again after that, managing just 110 yards, a missed field goal and an interception over the final 25 minutes of the game. KSU quarterback Collin Klein rushed for his 27th touchdown of the season, tying the Big 12 record for rushing touchdowns held by Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams (1998) and the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback held by former Navy signal caller Ricky Dobbs (2009).

BBVA COMPASS BOWL: Southern Methodist 28, Pittsburgh 6

Pittsburgh’s post-Todd Graham era got off to a rocky start as the Panthers were held to just 205 total yards and 10 rushing yards on 30 carries in the game. Pitt had given up 54 sacks on the season coming in and quarterback Tino Sunseri was on the run much of the day against the Mustangs. SMU recorded six sacks of the Pitt quarterback, including three by defensive end Margus Hunt.  Of the Panthers’ 11 possessions, nine ended on three-and-outs or turnovers.

Playing without injured starting running back Zach Line, the Mustangs didn’t have their usually strong running game, managing just 61 rushing yards. But they made them count, as freshman tailback Rishad Wimbley scored twice and quarterback J.J. McDermott added a rushing touchdown to go along with his 239 yards and a score through the air. SMU jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and was then able to put it on cruise control from there.

GODADDY.COM BOWL: Northern Illinois 38, Arkansas State 20

Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish owns 20 different school records, but was hampered by a bad ankle (if you can call 274 yards and two touchdowns “hampered”). Fortunately for the Huskies, wide receiver Martel Moore was more than happy to pick up the slack, catching eight passes for 224 yards and a touchdown as Northern Illinois ended the season on a nine-game winning streak.

Arkansas State jumped out to an early 13-0 lead but was then unable to make anything happen on offense while Northern Illinois rolled off 31 unanswered points. Red Wolves quarterback was able to move the ball though the air (353 yards and a touchdown), but probably did more harm than good with four second half turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble) that led to 17 Northern Illinois points.

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