NCAA Football News

USC Football: Trojans' Loaded Offense Will Help Them Contend for 2015 Playoff

SAN DIEGO — Fresh off winning Most Outstanding Offensive Player in No. 24 USC’s 45-42 Holiday Bowl victory Saturday over Nebraska, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler made it clear he’ll be back for 2015.

“I’m absolutely coming back,” Kessler said in the postgame press conference, though just minutes earlier during the trophy presentation, he mentioned coming back for a national championship next year.

In the meantime, Kessler’s three scores Saturday gave him 39 for the 2014 campaign, tying a single-season record that USC predecessor Matt Barkley set in 2011—even if he didn’t know it.

“What’s awesome is he had no idea [he tied the record],” head coach Steve Sarkisian said.

“The most important thing to me [is] winning games for [teammates],” Kessler elaborated. “If that happens to [mean] breaking a record because that’s what it takes to win a game, then so be it.”

Both individual records and wins should be in great supply for Kessler and USC in 2015. But the quarterback is just one instrumental piece in a veritable offensive machine USC has rolling out of this season and into next.

Offensive lineman Zach Banner probably summed it up best: “Got a lot of young dudes coming back.”

Nowhere is USC’s youth more apparent than on the offensive line. It’s a unit that virtually learned on the job in 2014.

Of the starters in Saturday’s Holiday Bowl, only center Max Tuerk made any career starts prior to this season. Three first-stringers—Damien Mama, Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao—couldn’t have, because all were high schoolers just a year ago.

From preps to lining up opposite future NFL draft pick Randy Gregory: That’s Lobendahn’s arc in the past year.

“They did a great job,” running back Javorius “Buck” Allen said. “[Offensive line coach Tim] Drevno does a great job with those guys every day.”

Allen took advantage of big holes the line paved in the second half, rushing for 152 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The redshirt junior running back may not be one of the players back in 2015—he said he’ll weigh his NFL draft decision in the days to come—but his success operating behind that young offensive line bodes well for the future of the Trojans’ ground attack.

Along with Allen, its top rushing weapon, USC may have to replace its leading receiver, Nelson Agholor.

Agholor said, “I’m in no hurry at all,” as far as an NFL draft decision is concerned.

If the Holiday Bowl was his collegiate farewell, he went out in a manner befitting his outstanding career with seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown.

He also played defense on Nebraska’s last gasp, Hail Mary attempt as time expired.

Should Sarkisian have to fill Agholor’s void in the passing game, the Trojans’ coach will have options.

Freshman John “JuJu” Smith’s stellar debut season finished with a three-catch, 66-yard night. Tight end Bryce Dixon also had arguably the best game of his young career with four receptions, including a touchdown.

Dixon and Smith could be two parts in a dynamic sophomore triumvirate—if Sarkisian gets his way with Adoree’ Jackson.

“I keep battling [defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox because I want [Jackson] on offense,” Sarkisian said. “He probably would have scored four touchdowns tonight.”

Sarkisian had to settle for Jackson scoring two. One was a Holiday Bowl-record 98-yard kickoff return, the other a 71-yard catch from Kessler.

The coaching staff will have an interesting decision with Jackson in the offseason, but Saturday’s showing gives Sarkisian and Co. plenty to mull over.

As the coaches decide how best to utilize Jackson, the rest of the USC offense already knows what it can build on for 2015—because, as Banner pointed out, they began taking those strides in 2014.

“You’ve got to do your part to the highest level,” he said. “And we learned that as a team over the [course of] the season.”

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of the Holiday Bowl.

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Holiday Bowl 2014: Game Grades, Analysis for Nebraska vs. USC

Steve Sarkisian and No. 24 USC withstood a furious rally from interim head coach Barney Cotton and Nebraska Saturday night, winning a 45-42 shootout in the Holiday Bowl.

Defense was optional as the Trojans (9-4) piled up 515 total yards, while the Cornhuskers (9-4) accounted for 525. Nebraska was able to whittle USC's 18-point second-half lead down to three, but the Trojans defense stood strong in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter to seal the victory.

Nebraska Cornhuskers Grade Analysis

Pass Offense: The Cornhuskers came out with guns blazing as Tommy Armstrong and the passing game set the tone early. Nebraska threw the ball 27 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone as De'Mornay Pierson-El and Kenny Bell had no problem getting open against the USC secondary.

Nebraska didn't slow down in the second half. Armstrong finished with a career-high 381 passing yards, completing 63.3 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and an interception.

Run Offense: Ameer Abdullah had a hard time finding lanes against USC’s incredible front seven, especially in the first half. The standout running back gained just 32 yards on 13 carries through two quarters, averaging 2.5 yards per carry. 

Things picked up in the third quarter when Armstrong got involved in the zone-read and option game. That opened lanes for Abdullah, who finished with 88 rushing yards, but the team finished with just 144 rushing yards on 43 carries. 

Pass Defense: Nebraska faced a stiff challenge in defending Cody Kessler and the high-flying USC Trojans, but it held up well on Saturday night.

The secondary did some good things in the first half, limiting Kessler to 169 passing yards and a touchdown (with one interception). The back end broke down big time in the third quarter, when the Trojans torched the Cornhuskers for 148 yards and two touchdowns through the air. They tightened up in the fourth quarter, though, forcing USC's defense into three consecutive three-and-outs to spark Nebraska's rally.

Run Defense: The Cornhuskers' run defense got off to a great start, limiting USC’s ground game to just six yards in the first quarter. Those fortunes changed in a big way in the second quarter, though, when USC running backs Javorius Allen and Justin Davis got going.

The Trojans ran for 101 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the second quarter. That set Kessler up for big things in the passing game because play action was so effective. The Trojans finished with 194 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per rush.

Special Teams: Nebraska's one firm advantage against USC came in the special teams department. Abdullah torched the Trojans with a trio of big kickoff returns in the first half, averaging 40 yards per return. Sam Foltz averaged 44.7 yards per punt, and Drew Brown was perfect on his two field goal attempts.

Nebraska even broke free to block a USC punt late in the third quarter, which helped the Cornhuskers stay close as the Trojans threatened to take control of the game.

Coaching: It appeared as though the Nebraska coaching staff was outsmarting itself with its offensive game plan in the first half. Instead of featuring Abdullah and the running game, the Cornhuskers threw at a much higher rate than they typically do. That strategy helped build a 17-10 lead, but Nebraska’s offense bogged down, going three-and-out on three consecutive possessions in the second half.

Barney Cotton mixed things up and called a few effective trick plays that caught USC off guard. But late in the fourth quarter, a questionable call to go for it on fourth down instead of attempting a game-tying field goal cost Nebraska a chance at overtime.

USC Trojans Grade Analysis

Pass Offense: Kessler and Nelson Agholor turned in solid performances against Nebraska’s 26th-ranked pass defense. Kessler only completed 58.9 percent of his passes, but he threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns. Agholor led the team with seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown. But Kessler spread the wealth around as eight different receivers caught passes against the Cornhuskers.

Run Offense: After a slow start, USC's rushing attack had its way with Nebraska's defense. Allen and Davis found big lanes against the Cornhuskers' defensive front, combining for 197 yards on just 30 carries. Allen finished with a game-high 152 rushing yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by a 44-yard touchdown jaunt midway through the third quarter. 

Pass Defense: USC’s secondary struggled in the first half, dropping a number of interceptions while allowing numerous big plays to Armstrong and the Nebraska offense. Su’a Cravens came up with a redeeming play in the closing moments of the second quarter, though, when he halted a Nebraska drive that had reached the red zone with an interception.

The Cornhuskers' first-half success translated to the second half as USC surrendered 381 passing yards to a quarterback whose previous career high was 273. 

Run Defense: USC’s front seven did an outstanding job of bottling up Nebraska’s dangerous rushing attack in the first half.

Abdullah and Co. managed just 27 yards on 18 attempts through two quarters, averaging a meager 1.5 yards per carry. Armstrong got more involved in the run game in the second half, which opened things up for the Cornhuskers down the stretch. Still, USC was able to limit Nebraska's explosive backfield to just 3.3 yards per carry. 

Special Teams: Adoree' Jackson got things going early for USC’s special teams when he took a first-quarter kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. But that play was countered by some horrific punting from Kris Albarado.

His first two punts set Nebraska up inside USC’s territory, which the Cornhuskers cashed in for touchdowns on both occasions. He averaged just 31.2 yards on seven punts, one of which was blocked by the Cornhuskers late in the third quarter. If not for Jackson's touchdown, USC's special teams could have cost the team a victory.

Coaching: It was clear that USC was unprepared for Nebraska's pass-heavy strategy to start the game, which helped the Cornhuskers build a seven-point first-quarter lead. The Trojans adjusted in the second quarter, though, scoring 14 unanswered points to close out the half. 

But Nebraska got creative in the second half, keeping USC off balance with its play-calling that freed Abdullah up on a number of big plays. That's when the Trojans' inability to close out games almost cost them. Fortunately for Sarkisian, the Cornhuskers had dug themselves in too deep a hole to recover from. 

 

All stats via NCAA.com.

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Nebraska Football: Huskers' Loss to USC a Fitting End to Bo Pelini Era

When time expired at the Holiday Bowl, it was official. The Bo Pelini era was over at Nebraska. It was a fitting ending, too.

That's not to say that the Huskers didn't put up a fight. They did. It just wasn't enough. And isn't that what feels the most familiar about Pelini's time at Nebraska?

During his tenure, Pelini never had less than four losses with the Huskers. On the other hand, he also never had less than nine wins. The struggle was that the former Nebraska head coach just couldn't get over the hump.

Against USC, Nebraska faced the same issue. That's why the 45-42 loss at the hands of USC stings so much. The Huskers could have won. The opportunities were there. It just didn't pan out.

You can blame some of it on the play calls. There were two opportunities where Nebraska left two field goals on the field in favor of going for it on fourth down. Neither time resulted in what the Huskers wanted.

It could also be blamed on the mentality of the Nebraska team. After a rocky month, it was clear there was a lot of emotions on the field. At one point, 93.7 The Ticket's John Gaskins noted that Nebraska coaches were fighting on the sidelines while interim head coach Barney Cotton broke them up.

However, it seems like Pelini's memory is what put the fight in the Nebraska players. From an empty bus seat in his honor, to his name placed on helmet decals and towels, Pelini was everywhere with the Huskers. In this final game before the new coaching staff takes over, it felt like Pelini's staff could finally pull it off.

Against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Nebraska was unable to overcome the hump in 2014. The Huskers got close against Michigan State and Minnesota, rallying late to keep the hope alive. It just wasn't enough in either game.

That's always been the challenge for Nebraska under Pelini. Defeating ranked opponents and winning in the national spotlight have plagued the Huskers and it became clear that Pelini wasn't sure how to fix the problem.

Nebraska can still be proud of the performance against the Trojans, though. The Huskers finished with 525 total offensive yards and some strong showings from the Blackshirts.

Senior I-back Ameer Abdullah increased his career rushing total to 4,588 yards, which was only 192 yards shy of Mike Rozier’s Nebraska record of 4,780 career rushing yards. Freshman wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El had a career-high eight receptions, which also set a Nebraska bowl record and freshman safety Kieron Williams blocked two USC punts in the game. And those are just to name a few of those who made big plays for Nebraska.

Yet, it still wasn't enough and it feels oddly similar. Even the one second that was added back on the clock (by Big 12 referees) at the end felt familiar to a certain moment in Big 12 history. It was enough to even get former Texas head coach Mack Brown talking.

After the game, Cotton answered a question about the final attempt to go for it on fourth down.

"I was very proud of them. ... We just came up a little short at the end," he said.

Yet, that comment about one play felt like it could sum up much more. After all, Pelini came up short many times during his tenure, especially in big games. He was 9-17 against ranked opponents for the Huskers (he was 9-14 to start the season, per The Wall Street Journal)which left many fans hoping for more.

The Holiday Bowl was the end of one era for Nebraska, but it's also the beginning of another. Will things be different?

Only time, and a fair chance to Mike Riley, will tell.

 

All quotes obtained via the Huskers post-game press conference, unless otherwise noted.

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Fantastic Slate of Games Shows That Lesser College Football Bowls Still Matter

Nebraska had plenty of times to call it a night. 

The Cornhuskers could have given up when they fell behind by 14 points in the third quarter to USC in the Holiday Bowl. They could have given up the second time they fell behind by 14 points, or when they fell behind by 18 points—all in the third quarter. 

Nebraska didn't have to show up at all, really. Every year, there are a handful of bowl games where it's evident one team didn't want to be there. With players still visibly upset about the firing of head coach Bo Pelini, it could have been easy to mail it in—especially for future pros like running back Ameer Abdullah.

But Nebraska battled back from each deficit. Its efforts ultimately came up short in a 45-42 loss, but this game should be viewed as anything but a disappointment. It was wildly entertaining late-night television with plenty of momentum swings and big plays. 

It was everything a bowl game should be. All but one of Saturday's games were. From Penn State's come-from-behind 31-30 overtime victory against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl to the 36-31 shootout in the Sun Bowl between Arizona State and Duke, four of Saturday's five bowls were decided by five points or fewer. 

It was a day that gave us trick plays from the Blue Devils, who converted a fake punt and a wide receiver pass on the same drive. 

It was a day that saw one kicker, Boston College's Mike Knoll, brutally miss an extra point in overtime. Meanwhile, Penn State's Sam Ficken, who once missed four field goals in a one-point loss to Virginia in 2012, had a moment of vindication by winning the game on the following possession. 

It was a day that came agonizingly close to giving us a fat guy touchdown (but was called back for an ineligible-receiver penalty). 

Bowl season thus far has silenced any remaining doubters who claim that there are too many postseason games. Not all of them are created equal, of course. With 38 bowls plus the College Football Playoff championship game, some are bound to be stinkers. 

However, for every Hawaii Bowl (Rice 30, Fresno State 6), there's a Bahamas Bowl waiting to give the gift of a Hail Mary with three laterals. 

Even the Miami Beach Bowl, which went into two overtimes and ended with BYU and Memphis players brawling on the field, was memorable. It just wasn't the memory the inaugural game wanted to make. 

In that vein, however, bowl season has been unforgettable this year. That's not always the case. Furthermore, early bowl games provide an escape from the playoff conversation. From Week 1 to "Selection Sunday," anything and everything is about the playoff. It's exciting and novel, but it also gets redundant.

When USC and Nebraska played, there were no playoff implications other than a possible look-ahead conversation to 2015. When South Carolina held off Miami 24-21 in the Independence Bowl, there was no evaluation about what it meant for the Gamecocks' strength of schedule. 

The playoff semifinals and major bowls are approaching in earnest on New Year's Eve/Day. There will be more than enough time then to dissect the matchups and bigger-picture storylines. 

The games on Saturday? They were just games—ones that mostly came down to the final play. That's more than good enough for all of us as spectators. The sentiment of the day was captured by Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian, per Josh Webb:

On Saturday, that description applied to more than just one team. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. 

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Cody Kessler Will Return to USC for 2015-16 Season: Latest Details and Reaction

Cody Kessler's in no rush to get to the NFL.

The junior quarterback announced following USC's 45-42 Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska that he'll return to Los Angeles for his senior season, per ESPN's Joe Schad:

Kessler added that he wants to help the Trojans win a national title, per Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News:

Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke praised Kessler for remaining patient and not trying to cash in on his strong performance—he threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday night:

Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com is already putting Kessler on his list of early Heisman Trophy candidates for 2015:

The decision doesn't come as a major surprise. The Trojans star wasn't considered one of the top QBs in the 2015 draft class, and it's unlikely that a strong scouting combine and pro day would've made him jump ahead of guys like Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley.

Before the game, Bleacher Report's NFL draft expert Matt Miller, despite being high on the player, said that he never classified Kessler as a 2015 prospect:

Kessler has a lot to gain by sticking around. The 2016 draft class doesn't really have a can't-miss QB. Some are high on Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg, but it's not exactly a consensus.

There's both time and opportunity for Kessler to climb up draft boards and become the top-rated quarterback this time next year.

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Nebraska vs. USC: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2014 Holiday Bowl

They may call it the Holiday Bowl, but it was no vacation for the two teams involved.

USC earned a hard-fought, 45-42, win over Nebraska in the 2014 National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

The Cornhuskers made interim head coach Barney Cotton proud with their indelible performance. Cotton, coaching in place of Bo Pelini, whom Nebraska fired on Nov. 30, was temporarily in charge of the team before former Oregon State head coach Mike Reilly takes over the squad.

Freshman cornerback Adoree' Jackson put in a superlative performance for the Trojans. He made plays in all three phases of the game, scoring on a 98-yard kickoff return on special teams, reeling in three catches for 73 yards and another score on offense, while also putting in a strong night on defense.

Nebraska sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. played the game of his life, racking up 371 yards passing, another 41 on the ground and four total touchdowns against just one interception.

Rivals.com's Sean Callahan noted Armstrong hit an important career milestone in this game:

Despite the state of flux in the coaching ranks, Cotton was impressed with the way the Nebraska players prepped for this game.

"The way they attacked this bowl preparation, I couldn't ask for anything more," Cotton said Friday, via the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein. "They've been first-class. They've been high energy. I hope we play that way."

Players on both squads came out with plenty of energy and emotion, and the game was an enthralling back-and-forth affair right from the start. 

Nebraska drove for a field goal on its second possession of the game. Jackson followed that up with his first highlight of the game, a searing kickoff return complete with a front flip into the end zone that fired up the USC fans who made the trek down to San Diego. InsideUSC noted his return set a Holiday Bowl record:

Armstrong had a bit of a wild first half where he was lucky to not get picked off on a smattering of errant throws. He was mostly effective, however, and drove the Cornhuskers down the field on a 53-yard drive that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass to a diving Kenny Bell in the back corner of the end zone.

USC signal-caller Cody Kessler, who had thrown for 36 touchdowns and four interceptions coming into the game, did well enough on the next drive to get the Trojans into field-goal range, and Andre Heidari knocked the ball through the uprights from 42 yards out to tie the game at 10 points apiece.

After an exchange of punts, Nebraska recaptured the lead with an Armstrong pass to De'Mornay Pierson-El from nine yards out, but USC came roaring back on the next possession and tied up the game at 17-17 on a TD pass from Kessler to Nelson Agholor just under two minutes into the second quarter.

Agholor, who finished with seven receptions for 90 yards, was a difference-maker in the first half, per the Omaha World-Herald's Samuel McKewon:

The USC defense shone brightly on the next couple of possessions, as Cornhuskers running back Ameer Abdullah struggled to gain much traction on the ground at times and Armstrong lost his touch for a bit. Despite Abdullah's difficulties in the second quarter, the newly hired Reilly couldn't help but wish the senior had another year in him, via BTN.com's Brent Yarina:

The Trojans capitalized during Nebraska's lull, mixing passes from Kessler and runs from Justin Davis and Javorius Allen on the next drive, with the latter back giving USC a 24-17 lead on a two-yard scoring plunge.

Neither team had made many costly errors up to this point, but the half ended with an exchange of interceptions instead of punts. Nebraska corner Josh Mitchell snatched up a rare Kessler pick near midfield and set up his team with excellent field position and plenty of time to put points on the board before halftime. 

Alas, Armstrong's gunslinger mentality doomed the Cornhuskers' chances, as he threw a costly pick deep in the red zone to Su'a Cravens. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had seen enough of Armstrong's shenanigans:

Jackson kicked off the second-half scoring with a blazing run on a 71-yard scoring reception. It was a stunning display of his versatility, as he lined up in the backfield on the play. ESPN College Football provided a look at Jackson's speed:

USC was in the driver's seat with a 31-17 lead, but Nebraska would prove to be difficult to shake in this one. Abdullah answered right back with a 20-yard touchdown run, only to have USC's Allen trump him on the ensuing drive with a 44-yard burst up the middle of his own for another Trojans score.

After a Nebraska field goal cut the Trojans' lead to 38-27, Kessler came right back with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Dixon to extend the advantage to 45-27.

The Orange County Register's Michael Lev noted USC's underclassmen were thriving in this contest:

With the way the Cornhuskers defense was playing, that lead might have been insurmountable heading into the fourth quarter, but Armstrong dialed up some magic and hit Jordan Westerkamp for a 65-yard touchdown just before the end of the third quarter. 

ESPN provided a look at the play, showing Westerkamp doing an incredible job of stepping in front of a pair of USC defenders to snatch the ball out of the air and turn upfield for the touchdown:

USC held tough for much of the fourth quarter, but it couldn't hope to completely contain Armstrong and the shifty Abdullah. Armstrong went into hero mode on a nine-play, 77-yard scoring drive, which ended with a 15-yard run from the quarterback. He then tossed a neat little pass to Bell for the two-point conversion, making it a one-score game.

Nebraska got the stop it needed on USC's next drive, and the offense immediately went to work. The Cornhuskers were able to move just into field-goal range, but Cotton elected to go for it on 4th-and-3 from USC's 31-yard line. However, the Trojans would stop Pierson-El on the pitch play at the 30-yard line and take over the ball on downs.

The Huskers would get one final chance at the very end of the game, but Armstrong's Hail Mary heave was well short of the end zone and fell harmlessly to the turf, securing the win for the Trojans.

The Holiday Bowl victory caps a successful season for head coach Steve Sarkisian in his first season in Los Angeles. He managed to guide this team to nine wins with an abundance of underclassmen playing key roles on the team. This Trojans squad could very well be the class of the Pac-12 South next season.

Nebraska's program is clearly in a state of limbo, but the game afforded Reilly an extended look at all the talent that is available to him. The Cornhuskers' fanbase demands success every year, and Reilly will have to work quickly to improve upon Nebraska's results from this campaign.

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Penn State's Future Bright, Bowl Win Helps Nittany Lions Leave Sanctions Behind

When Penn State kicker Sam Ficken bolted down the field at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, celebrating the walk-off extra point that gave his Nittany Lions a 31-30 win over Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, it seemed to mean more than a simple celebration. 

It looked as though Ficken was running away. Running away from the darkest hours of Penn State's history. 

He was running to the light that now illuminates Penn State's future, which is as bright as it's ever been since the NCAA levied sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky investigation back in July 2012, keeping Penn State out of the postseason. 

It was announced in September of this season that the scholarship and postseason sanctions had been lifted. 

So, the game on Saturday night in The City That Never Sleeps gave the State College faithful a moment of peace. A moment of recovery. A weight was finally lifted. 

Is the Pinstripe Bowl the standard the Nittany Lions tradition dictates? Of course not. 

But it's not just better than nothing. For a program as rich in tradition as Penn State, it's much more than that. 

Bill O'Brien kept this program on life support and laid the foundation for a resurrection. But now, it's James Franklin's job to inject new life. 

He's the face of the program now, and after years of turmoil and instability, he'll deliver a trophy to Pennsylvania. 

After the bowl victory, Franklin talked about the program's struggles up to that point, per James Kratch of NJ.com. 

I think we've been fractured in the last three years. But I think experiences and games like this has restored the hope. I believe when Penn State is together and we're all pulling the rope in the same direction, and doing what's best for the students and the players, and what's best for the community as a whole, than the sky is very high at Penn State.

The Nittany Lions didn't just win a pity bowl against a lesser opponent either. No, they beat a feisty Boston College team that, had it possessed a decent kicker on its roster, might have upended Penn State. The Eagles also hung with Florida State earlier this year, and the Seminoles are in the playoffs. 

Make no mistake. Penn State beat a good football team to win the Pinstripe Bowl. 

But more importantly, the Nittany Lions established that they are still a good football team. That's something worth bragging about considering the dire circumstances. 

It wasn't too long ago that the phrases "death penalty" and "Penn State" were synonymous. 

But Penn State survived, and now it's ready to thrive again. 

The Nittany Lions finished with seven wins this year—not a groundbreaking mark but certainly a strong building block. 

They have quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a sophomore who threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College and will return next year. 

Hackenberg was mostly inconsistent this season, throwing 15 picks. But the progress he made in the bowl practices certainly has a chance to be replicated this summer. If he keeps on this pace, he'll be one of the most feared quarterbacks in the Big Ten. 

Josh Moyer of ESPN pointed out Franklin's comments regarding Hackenberg after the game: 

Franklin's also reeled in the ninth-best recruiting class for 2015, according to 247Sports. That list includes four 4-star offensive linemen and a loaded class of defensive backs, both of which are positions that play huge roles in the Big Ten, where quarterbacks love to move in methodical fashion. 

Ultimately, it was Ficken's sprint down the field that said it all. Penn State can finally put its sanctions behind and run toward the future. 

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Pinstripe Bowl 2014: Game Grades, Analysis for Boston College vs. Penn State

The Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Boston College Golden Eagles on Saturday evening in overtime in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City.

Christian Hackenberg was sensational for the Nittany Lions, completing 34 of his 50 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.

Both teams struggled on offense until the second half, with each team trading only a single touchdown through the first and second quarters. Boston College held a 21-7 lead late in the fourth quarter before Penn State rallied under Hackenberg to tie it up and force overtime.

The Golden Eagles relied heavily on their rushing game, with running back Jon Hilliman and quarterback Tyler Murphy combining for more than 250 yards on the ground. 

However, Murphy's passing left much to be desired. Despite passing for two touchdowns, he couldn't move the Eagles down the field with his arm, throwing for only 97 yards and 11 completions.

Both teams were evenly matched throughout the night, and Penn State's win came off a missed extra point in overtime.

Here are games grades for both teams using statistics obtained from NCAA.com.

 

Penn State Game Grades

Position UnitHalf-Time GradesFinal Grades Passing Offense B A Pass Defense A A Rushing Offense D D Rush Defense D D Special Teams C C Coaching C B

 

Passing Offense

Although Hackenberg struggled during the middle of the game, his excellent first-quarter, fourth-quarter and overtime performances more than made up for it. With nearly 400 yards passing and four touchdowns, Hackenberg almost singlehandedly led the Nittany Lions to victory.

Penn State's wide receivers also played well under pressure, and despite a few dropped passes, they came down with contested balls late in the game that turned the matchup in their favor. 

 

Pass Defense

Penn State kept Boston College's passing offense in check throughout the game, allowing Tyler Murphy to pass for only 97 yards. 

By making the Golden Eagles one-dimensional, Penn State was able to quickly get back in the game after falling behind two scores late in the third quarter. 

 

Rushing Offense

The Nittany Lions rushing attack left much to be desired, accounting for just 82 total yards of offense. 

However, Akeel Lynch's 35-yard run helped put the Lions in scoring position and allowed them to even it up.

 

Rushing Defense

As good as Penn State's passing defense was, the rushing defense was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

Boston College ran the ball at will, especially in the first quarter, when Hilliman racked up more than 100 yards. Murphy also added more than 100 yards on the ground, and the Nittany Lions simply had no answer for the Eagles' ground game. 

 

Special Teams

Penn State's special teams were fairly uneventful in this matchup. Kicker Sam Ficken's 45-yard field goal sent the game to overtime, while his extra-point attempt ended up giving the Lions the win in overtime.

Punting was a bit of a concern for Penn State, however, with Daniel Pasquariello averaging just 34.5 yards per punt and a long of 42 yards. 

 

Coaching

Credit head coach James Franklin and his staff for keeping the Lions in the game when they fell behind 14 points with just a few minutes left in the third quarter.

The offense also executed well in overtime after falling behind by a touchdown and being placed in a do-or-die situation. Franklin's coaching acumen is what landed him the Penn State job in the first place, and he didn't disappoint in his first postseason game with the Nittany Lions.

 

Boston College Game Grades

Position UnitFirst-Half GradesFinal Grades Passing Offense F D Pass Defense C D Rushing Offense A A Rush Defense A A Special Teams B F Coaching B C

 

Passing Offense

Boston College just never got into rhythm in the passing game, with Tyler Murphy overthrowing, underthrowing, and flat-out missing wide-open receivers all night. His two touchdown passes help keep his performance from being a total loss, but the Eagles needed more than that to put away the Nittany Lions when they got a 14-point lead late in the third quarter. 

 

Pass Defense

The Eagles managed to stop Hackenberg through most of the second and third quarters, but he shredded Boston College's defense in the fourth quarter, which proved to be the turning point of the game.

Overall, Hackenberg's nearly 400 yards had Boston College on its heels when the game was truly on the line, and the Golden Eagles never recovered once he got back into rhythm with his receivers. 

 

Rushing Offense

Jon Hilliman and Tyler Murphy's rushing attack was one of the sole bright spots for Boston College, and it was nearly enough to win the game. The running back and quarterback duo went for more than 250 yards on the ground and two touchdowns, and both had runs of at least 40 yards. 

 

Rush Defense

Like the rushing offense, Boston College excelled in its rush defense against Penn State. 

The Nittany Lions have a weak offensive line, but the Golden Eagles held them to less than 100 yards on the ground. A 35-yard gain is the only thing separating Penn State's dismal rushing attack on Saturday from being truly one of the worst in bowl history. 

 

Special Teams

One play was the difference between a win and loss for Boston College, and it ended up being a missed extra point in overtime.

With so much riding on what should be an automatic play, it's hard to give the Golden Eagles anything other than an F overall. 

 

Coaching

Head coach Steve Addazio did well to make up for his quarterback's deficiencies by relying so heavily on the ground game. But the defensive staff dropped the ball by allowing Penn State to score two touchdowns and a field goal late in the game to tie it up and send it to overtime. 

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Baylor Bears: Kendal Briles Well-Deserving of Offensive Coordinator Promotion

One of college football’s most productive offenses got a new leader on Saturday, when the Baylor Bears promoted Kendal Briles to offensive coordinator.  Briles, son of Baylor head coach Art Briles, will immediately take over those duties, as he will be the coordinator in the Bear’s Cotton Bowl matchup against Michigan State.

This move is not overly surprising, as they needed someone to replace former offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, who accepted the Tulsa head coaching position on December 11.

The 32-year-old Briles is in his seventh season on the Baylor staff, where he coaches the wide receiving corps.  He has also served as the team’s passing game coordinator and is the team’s offensive recruiting coordinator.

Briles has made a name for himself in two key areas: grooming wide receivers and being a tenacious recruiter.

Baylor has become ‘Wide Receiver U’ under Briles’ watch, as he has repeatedly developed players who were not highly recruited into NFL draft picks.

Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams, Josh Gordon, Tevin Reese and Antwan Goodley were all three-star recruits or less coming out of high school, according to Rivals, but they have all thrived under Briles’ tutelage.

And as the Bear receivers have improved and the team has gotten better overall, Briles has been even more effective on the recruiting trail.  He coaxed four-star receivers Casey Coleman and K.D. Cannon to Waco, and he has assembled some pretty impressive classes as well.

Briles has been rewarded for his recruiting efforts.  He was named the Big 12 Recruiter of the Year in 2013 and 2014, and is ranked as the 13th-best recruiter in all of college football, according to 247Sports “Recruiter Rankings.”

Maybe a signal that the recruiting is on the verge of going from good to great is the recent commitment of dual-threat quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who chose the Bears after decommiting from Texas Tech.

The Bears are already one of the best teams in the country, and if the younger Briles can have a little more sway with recruits now that he is a coordinator instead of a position coach, the potential is limitless.

However, there is going to be a bit of a learning curve for the new coordinator.  The Briles duo will eventually become a well-oiled machine, but Montgomery has been with Art Briles ever since the two were coaching Texas high school football at Stephenville in the late 1990s , and there could be a layer of rust in the Cotton Bowl.

Either way, the Bears are going to be fine on offense going forward.  Art Briles is one of the brightest offensive minds in the country and has built Baylor into an offensive monster, and he has undoubtedly rubbed off some of his wisdom on his son.  Kendal Briles starred as a wide receiver for his dad at the University of Houston when Art was the head coach.

Expect Baylor to continue flummoxing defenses with its fast-paced style of play, sending boatloads of athletes to the NFL and winning big games.  The Bears have a plethora of young, speedy skill position players who will contribute for years to come, and Baylor has a good chance to qualify for the College Football Playoff in the near future after missing out this year.

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Boston College vs. Penn State: Score, Twitter Reaction for 2014 Pinstripe Bowl

Penn State went from not being eligible for a bowl game at all earlier in the year to Pinstripe Bowl champions on Saturday night, beating Boston College, 31-30, in overtime at Yankee Stadium.

In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Nittany Lions had been banned from a postseason bowl when the 2014 season began. Then, in September, the NCAA overturned that sanction.

Head coach James Franklin said before the game that the Pinstripe Bowl not only served as a reward for those who stuck around but could also help get the team back on the path toward prominence.

"You want to end on a real positive note," he said, per Audrey Snyder of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "[Also] laying the foundation for the expectation moving forward."

Franklin and his players can go home happy, especially since the Penn State senior class hadn't won a bowl game entering Saturday night. The dramatic nature of the victory will only serve to sweeten the moment.

BC kicker Mike Knoll banged home his only field-goal attempt of the night, putting the Eagles ahead, 24-21, with two minutes, 10 seconds left in the game.

That left a lot of time on the clock for Christian Hackenberg and the Penn State offense to at the very least get into field-goal position. The sophomore quarterback engineered a great drive down to the Eagles 27-yard line. Sam Ficken tied the game at 24 with 20 seconds remaining.

Despite having three timeouts and 16 seconds with which to work, Boston College head coach Steve Addazio decided to take a knee following the kickoff, sending the game into overtime.

BC running back David Dudeck drew first blood in OT with a 21-yard touchdown catch. Knoll put Eagles fans on edge after he hooked the ensuing extra-point attempt wide right. USA Today's Dan Wolken was almost apoplectic after the miss:

Nittany Lions tight end Kyle Carter tied the game with a 10-yard touchdown reception. That left the game at the feet of Ficken, whose extra point split the uprights and gave the win to Penn State.

Hackenberg had his best showing of the season, throwing for 371 yards and four touchdowns. His 34 completions set a school record for a bowl game. Michael Robinson owned the previous mark, per OnwardState.com:

Sports on Earth's Matt Brown thinks the sophomore built some great momentum heading into 2015:

This game featured a battle of strengths between the 13th-best rushing offense (BC) and the top run defense (PSU) in the country. In that respect, Boston College owned a significant advantage. Eagles running back Jon Hilliman went for 148 yards and a touchdown, with quarterback Tyler Murphy right behind him with 105 rushing yards and a TD.

It was the first time BC had two players run for at least 100 yards in a bowl game, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Penn State did well limiting Murphy through the air, as the senior threw for 97 yards and two touchdowns.

Defense was the overarching theme of the first half, with the two teams combining for 14 points. Boston College really struggled, moving eight yards or fewer on four of its seven drives. Penn State, meanwhile, stagnated upon crossing the 50, either punting or fumbling three times after entering Eagles territory.

The only two first-half scores came within a minute of one another in the opening frame.

With a little under six-and-a-half minutes left in the first quarter, Murphy threw an incomplete pass on fourth down, turning the ball over to the Nittany Lions on the Penn State 30-yard line. A few plays later, Penn State looked at a 3rd-and-12 on its own 28-yard line.

Rather than play it safe and then punt, Franklin decided to gamble. That decision paid off in spades as Hackenberg floated a ball perfectly over the top of the secondary and into the arms of wideout Chris Godwin for a 72-yard touchdown.

Grantland's Matt Hinton joked that Hackenberg would use tape of the pass in his NFL draft highlight video:

Tom Fornelli of CBSSports.com wondered where the Nittany Lions had been hiding that play all year:

Sensing an opportunity, Franklin opted for an onside kick immediately after the TD. Unfortunately for him and Penn State, this gamble backfired in a big way. A Nittany Lions player recovered, but he was out of bounds when he touched the ball, drawing a penalty that gave Boston College possession at its 48-yard line.

Two plays later, Hilliman broke free and scampered 49 yards into the end zone to tie the game at 7 with 4:39 remaining in the first quarter.

That concluded the scoring until halftime. Penn State had a great chance to put some points on the board until Hackenberg fumbled at the BC 21-yard line early in the second quarter. The Nittany Lions QB had an otherwise strong half. He and Hilliman accounted for 277 of the 358 yards between the two teams, per Bob Flounders of PennLive.com:

Having been hemmed in for the majority of the first 30 minutes of the game, the two offenses exploded for 21 points in the third quarter, with Boston College jumping ahead, 21-14.

Murphy was responsible for the two Eagles scores, first hitting Shakim Phillips with a 19-yard touchdown pass and then keeping the ball on a designed option play and scampering for a 40-yard touchdown run.

Boston College's first touchdown illustrated the difference in the offense between the first and second halves. The Eagles ate up nearly seven minutes off the clock to begin the third quarter, converting on a 4th-and-3 three plays before Phillips' TD.

Mark Wogenrich of the The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, highlighted how well BC also performed on third downs during the drive:

Another fumble from Hackenberg set up the Eagles' second TD of the quarter. Boston College started with the ball on its own 37-yard line, and the offense only needed four plays for Murphy to find the end zone and take a 21-7 lead with 2:12 until the fourth quarter.

ESPN Stats & Info pointed out the Nittany Lions' uncharacteristic struggles stopping the run:

Penn State answered back as the third quarter closed. Hackenberg looked for a quick slant over the middle at the BC 7-yard line. Eagles defensive back Justin Simmons got his fingertips on the ball and knocked it into the air. Luckily for Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions, the pass fell right into the arms of wide receiver Geno Lewis after the deflection, closing the deficit to seven points, 21-14.

Penn State then tied the game with 6:48 left in the fourth quarter. Hackenberg got his third touchdown of the night, hitting wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton over the middle from 16 yards out. Hackenberg threaded the needle with the throw, as Eagles DB Ty-Meer Brown nearly got his hands on the ball, per Mark Brennan of FightOnState.com:

That TD pass set the stage for a fantastic finish. It was a bit of a shame, though, that a missed extra-point attempt was the deciding factor.

Penn State won't care how it won the game. The Nittany Lions are still a few years away from potentially being a national power again, but Franklin has the school on the way back.

For Boston College, it's another heartbreaking loss. Four of the Eagles' defeats this year came by four points or fewer.

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Independence Bowl 2014: Game Grades, Analysis for Miami vs. South Carolina

The South Carolina Gamecocks outlasted the Miami Hurricanes to manage a 24-21 victory in the 2014 Duck Commander Independence Bowl.

Steve Spurrier's team finished the year 7-6, and Spurrier avoided his first losing season since 1987—his first season as an FBS-level head coach. Miami dropped to 6-7 and still hasn't won a bowl game since 2006.

Pass Offense: Though Brad Kaaya completed eight of nine attempts to open the game, the freshman started to get rattled during the second quarter. Kaaya struggled without Clive Walford, the 'Canes' leading receiver during the regular season, finishing 19-of-33 for 236 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Run Offense: Duke Johnson racked up 110 yards during the first and third quarters combined but was limited to 22 throughout the second and fourth frames. Gus Edwards powered his way to a three-yard touchdown, but Johnson's fumble with five minutes, 24 seconds remaining proved costly.

Pass Defense: Miami defenders missed a handful of near-interceptions, and the secondary couldn't handle Pharoh Cooper. South Carolina picked up five first downs through the air when facing 3rd-and-6 or longer.

Run Defense: The Hurricanes front seven was strong against Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds, allowing just 58 yards on 15 carries to the talented duo. In an otherwise disappointing game, the run defense was a bright spot for Al Golden's team.

Special Teams: While Michael Badgley connected on two field goals and one extra point, he wasn't close on a 51-yard attempt. Justin Vogel managed a season-low 28.3 yards per punt but drew a flag for running into the kicker.

Coaching: James Coley formulated an excellent first-quarter game plan, but effective adjustments were once again nonexistent. Defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio called too many slow-developing stunts for Miami's athletically limited defensive line to handle.

 

Pass Offense: Although Dylan Thompson forced a couple passes, the senior quarterback was never burned. His most impressive throw was on 3rd-and-goal from the Miami 15-yard line, where he evaded a free-rushing blitzer and found Mike Davis for the touchdown. Cooper shredded the 'Canes secondary for nine receptions and 170 yards.

Run Offense: Davis and Wilds found little running room, and the Gamecocks tallied a mere five first downs on the ground. With that being said, Thompson provided the eventual game-winning touchdown with a 3-yard score, and Davis managed the victory-sealing first down.

Pass Defense: The Gamecocks refused to allow Miami speedster Phillip Dorsett to beat them over the top, holding the nation's top yards-per-catch receiver to only 45 on five receptions. Jonathan Walton snagged a tipped pass for an interception, which led to a Gamecocks field goal.

Run Defense: The nation's No. 109 rush defense allowed 186 yards, but the Gamecocks surrendered just 34 yards during the final frame and forced a pivotal fumble. Sophomore lineman Gerald Dixon came up huge for Spurrier's team when it mattered the most.

Special Teams: Elliott Fry pushed a 40-yard field goal wide right before redeeming himself with a 32-yarder, and he added three extra points. Fry missed a borderline-unmakeable 58-yarder before the half, but that didn't affect the grade. Tyler Hull averaged 44.8 yards per punt, consistently flipping field position for South Carolina.

Coaching: Spurrier moved Cooper into the slot, something to which Miami failed to properly adjust and created the Gamecocks' first touchdown. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward didn't call a perfect game but successfully shook Kaaya after a hot start and shut down Johnson during the final frame.

 

Follow Bleacher Report college football writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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Todd Graham Has Arizona State on the Verge of Elite Status Heading into 2015

They're almost there.

With Saturday's 36-31 win over the Duke Blue Devils in the Sun Bowl, the Arizona State Sun Devils are one step closer to being among the elite in college football.

And it's all thanks to Todd Graham.

Graham took over a program that went 6-7 in 2011, which included a five-game losing streak to end the season, and has turned it into one of the Pac-12's most dangerous teams.

With a 28-12 record, Graham now has the second-highest winning percentage (.700) in school history of any coach with at least three years at ASU. He trails only Dan Devine—Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger's senior year head coach at Notre Dame—who won 27 games and lost just three in three seasons.

Expect the trend to keep heading upward.

Arizona State's 2015 recruiting class ranks 22nd in the nation, according to 247sports. Its 2014 class ranked 23rd, while the 2013 class (Graham's first) was ranked just 39th.

Clearly, the respect for the Sun Devils program is on the rise, and the proof is in the pudding. Graham is pulling down bigger and better recruits who should keep Arizona State's success at a sustainable level.

On Saturday, the program's future was on full display as freshman running back Demario Richard accounted for all four touchdowns against Duke, rushing for two and catching two more.

The biggest question mark for Arizona State will be how it replaces senior gunslinger Taylor Kelly.

But the Sun Devils already found that answer earlier this season: Mike Bercovici, who famously connected with Jaelen Strong on the Hail Mary that beat USC.

Bercovici is no one-hit wonder, though. He completed nearly 62 percent of his 186 pass attempts, threw for 12 touchdowns and only had four interceptions this year despite not being considered the bona fide starter.

His best performance was without a doubt the USC contest, where he racked up five touchdowns and 510 yards through the air—with no picks.

Had Arizona State not fallen into the trap against Oregon State, or had its late rally against Arizona come to fruition, the Sun Devils might have won their second straight Pac-12 South title and could have played spoiler to the Oregon Ducks.

For now, the Sun Devils will settle for a Sun Bowl victory. 

But they'll also take that bowl win knowing they're on the cusp of greatness. With several teams in the Pac-12 facing severe question marks in 2015 (Oregon without Marcus Mariota, UCLA without Brett Hundley, etc.), ASU could become the toast of the West next year. 

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Steve Spurrier, South Carolina Take Step Back to Relevance with Win over Miami

South Carolina's defense was the punch line to a depressing joke for the better part of the 2014 season, but it saved one of its best performances for last.

The Gamecocks defense had its best performance since the first 55 minutes of the loss to Missouri in a 24-21 win over Miami in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Saturday afternoon. 

Was it sloppy? Yes. Was it well-played? Not really.

Was it a statement for head coach Steve Spurrier and his crew? Absolutely.

This is exactly the game Spurrier needed to see from his defense and his defensive coaching staff if South Carolina wants to get back to SEC East relevance.

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward's much-maligned unit was all over Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya, sacking him twice, picking him off once and generally making life miserable for the true freshman signal-caller on the sloppy Shreveport field.

More importantly, the impact players for South Carolina's defense were all youngsters. "Spur" Jordan Diggs and defensive lineman Gerald Dixon Jr. each sacked Kaaya. Linebacker Jonathan Walton picked him off, and Diggs, Dixon and half-brother Gerald Dixon were routinely involved in game-changing plays, including Miami running back Duke Johnson's critical fourth-quarter fumble that led to a Gamecocks touchdown, which put them up 24-14 at the time.

South Carolina needed this performance for some much-needed offseason confidence. Spurrier said as much to David Caraviello of the Charleston Post and Courier:

Miami came into this game tops in the ACC in yards per play (6.77), yet managed just 5.78 against a front seven that was explosive, disruptive and winning consistently at the point of attack.

On top of the good play up front, defensive coordinator Ward pressed the right buttons, which routinely resulted in defenders unblocked in the Hurricanes backfield.

It was the football equivalent to spotting Sasquatch, as Matt Connolly of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal noted:

When former Florida head coach Will Muschamp was a free agent, there was talk that typical performances from the 2014 season wouldn't be tolerated much longer. But the Gamecocks' performance on Saturday was far above typical.

It wasn't just the defense that made a statement. The South Carolina offense also stepped up—wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, in particular.

He hauled in nine passes for 170 yards and a touchdown, including this circus catch that set up South Carolina for the touchdown that put it up 24-14 in the fourth quarter.

As one of the best all-around players in college football, Cooper's 170-yard performance gave him 1,146 for the season—the second-most in a season in program history. 

There's more where that came from.

With quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis moving on, the 2015 Gamecocks will depend even more on Cooper if they want to jump back into the discussion for the SEC East.

Is the mountain South Carolina has to climb big? Yes.

But it's not like the SEC East is a terrifying gauntlet that is impossible to conquer.

The defense has momentum for the first time since the national anthem of the season opener. A star has been established in Cooper, and impact players are coming back.

After a brief stint of anonymity, there's at least a glimmer of hope for the 2015 season.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee

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Sun Bowl 2014: Game Grades, Analysis for Arizona State, Duke

The Arizona State Sun Devils hung on to narrowly defeat the Duke Blue Devils by a score of 36-31. True freshman Demario Richard tied a Sun Bowl record with four total touchdowns. The ASU youngster caught two touchdowns and ran for two more. 

It was a valiant effort by the Blue Devils. The two-man show on offense featured running back Shaq Powell and wide receiver Jamison Crowder. Powell accounted for more than 160 yards of total offense, and Crowder was by far the most dynamic player on the field Saturday afternoon. 

This piece will provide game grades for both teams, as well as analysis for each position unit. A full box score can be found here, courtesy of NCAA.com.

 

Arizona State Sun Devils Analysis

Passing Offense

Much of Taylor Kelly's success early came off play-action throws to Jaelen Strong on the perimeter. Once Duke started to press Strong close to the line of scrimmage, Kelly took a shot deep and hit Strong for a 49-yard gain. 

With ASU having productivity running the football, Kelly wasn't asked to drop back and sling the ball down the field a ton. With that said, he was efficient in his final game as ASU's quarterback. He finished 24-of-34 for 240 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdown tosses came on short throws to Richard out of the backfield. 

 

Pass Defense

Credit ASU for defending against the pass well. The defensive backs pressed Duke's wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, and safeties Jordan Simone and Damarious Randall did particularly well in coverage down the field. 

In the second half, Crowder began to gain his footing. He was able to elude defenders in space and also made a big play down the field for 43 yards. Crowder did finish with more than 100 yards receiving, but the Sun Devils also held him without a receiving score. 

The interception in the end zone by Kweishi Brown with less than a minute remaining sealed the victory for ASU. 

 

Rushing Offense

Both Richard and D.J. Foster were able to gash the Blue Devils offense. The line in particular did a nice job of setting the tone up front by opening holes for the stable of ASU running backs. Foster led the team with 79 yards on only 11 carries. The unit also helped to spring Richard for two rushing touchdowns of his own. 

From a protection standpoint, the line did well in terms of giving Kelly time to throw the ball down the field. Rarely was he pressured by Duke's front seven. As a result, the ASU gunslinger completed passes at a high clip. 

 

Run Defense

The run defense had a solid effort. It wasn't able to attack Duke quarterback Anthony Boone much from a pressure standpoint, but it did a nice job of containing the big play. Duke's longest run only went for 14 yards, and ASU held the Blue Devils to a 3.8 yards-per-carry average. 

Truthfully, the biggest problem was Boone's ability to scramble for yardage. He picked up three first downs using his legs on both draws and broken plays.

 

Special Teams

Kicker Zane Gonzalez converted on all of his attempts. Despite this, the unit was abhorrent on the afternoon. Crowder's 68-yard punt return for a score gave Duke considerable momentum heading into halftime. 

The 30-yard throw on the fake punt was also a huge turning point for the Blue Devils. Duke ultimately went ahead late in the game after the conversion. 

Had it not been for Kalen Ballage's immense 96-yard return to set up the game-winning touchdown, ASU would have received an "F" in the special teams department. 

 

Coaching

Arizona State got outcoached in this game, plain and simple. 

From a defensive standpoint, the Sun Devils got burned multiple times on quarterback draws and runs by Boone. After the first two occurrences, there were questions as to why a spy wasn't inserted to account for the signal-caller.

Head coach Todd Graham also took responsibility for calling a punt block on the fake punt conversion by Duke punter Will Monday. 

 

Offensively, Mike Norvell called a strange game. The fourth-down call in the second half was bad, and it was perplexing as to why he went away from running the football. ASU is at its best when it runs the ball to set up the play-action pass game. The Sun Devils had success doing that. However, Norvell's play-calling was a bit choppy throughout the contest. 

Credit ASU for winning, but it was not by any means the cleanest game from the coaching staff.

 

Duke Blue Devils Analysis

Passing Offense

Boone struggled immensely in the early portion of the game. He missed open receivers, bounced throws and even had one slip out of his hands. Nerves definitely got the better of him in the first half. 

He settled down considerably in the second half. Boone started to connect with Crowder on both short and deep throws, and he also utilized Powell in the screen game effectively. Unfortunately for the signal-caller, an interception with less than a minute remaining in the end zone ended any hopes for the comeback win. 

Boone finished the game 15-of-31 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. 

Crowder was fantastic with his agility and pure, unadulterated speed. He led the team with 102 receiving yards on seven grabs. On the other side of the proverbial coin, Issac Blakeney had a rough afternoon. He did catch a touchdown pass (from Crowder) but also dropped what would have been a big play; in addition, he was stripped of the ball at the ASU 7-yard line. 

 

Pass Defense

ASU hit the Duke secondary for two big plays, which included the 49-yard pass to Strong and then a 28-yard pass to Foster out of the backfield. Beyond that, Duke did a nice job of keeping everything in front. 

Credit the Blue Devils for tackling well in space. The unit did a nice job of blowing up quick throws to the perimeter. Secondary members were able to get off blocks and not allow the Arizona State receivers to accrue yardage after the catch. 

 

Rushing Offense

Duke stood steadfast with its running game. It wasn't garnering a ton of success earlier in the contest, but the Blue Devils started to open up some holes in the second half. 

Powell was an absolute workhorse on the afternoon. The Las Vegas native had a career high in both rushing yards (117) and receiving yards (52). He picked up the tough yardage and got the Blue Devils in manageable situations. 

Most impressively, the offensive line kept Boone upright. He was sacked only once on the day, which is a considerable feat when taking into account the propensity in which ASU blitzes. 

 

Run Defense

The defensive front didn't generate much pressure on Kelly and the ASU offense. At times, the front seven was stymied by ASU's efforts up front. The likes of Foster and Richard did pick up chunks on the ground, and Kelly was also able to impact the game on zone-read situations running the football. 

As a whole, it wasn't a poor effort. The unit held ASU to 152 yards on 35 carries, which equates to a respectable 4.3 yards-per-carry average. 

 

Special Teams

Duke nearly received a perfect grade in this department. 

The individual effort on the punt return for a touchdown by Crowder was brilliant. Executing the fake punt pass from Monday to Johnell Barnes was also exceptional. 

However, the breakdown on coverage late in the fourth quarter on Ballage's 96-yard return led to the eventual game-winning touchdown for the Sun Devils. This one play prevented an "A-plus" for the Dukies. 

 

Coaching

Yes, Duke lost the game. Normally speaking, the winning coach would have an upper hand on the losing one. 

However, there needs to be some context when speaking about this game. Compared to ASU, Duke is undermanned from both a depth and talent standpoint. The Sun Devils were clearly the more physically talented football team. Down 20-3 in the second quarter, it would have been easy for Duke to fold up and get blown out (especially considering the bowl history of the program). 

However, the Blue Devils never quit. David Cutcliffe made great calls on offense with misdirection on throws, and he also dialed up the terrific fake punt call. The pass from Crowder to Blakeney was simply outstanding.

Defensively, the unit struggled early to keep up with the pace of ASU's offense. As the game progressed, it was able to adjust accordingly and did force ASU to settle for three field goals inside the red zone. 

Alas, Duke is still searching for its first bowl win since 1961.

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Miami vs. South Carolina: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2014 Independence Bowl

The South Carolina Gamecocks (7-6) finished off a tough season Saturday with a 24-21 win over the Miami Hurricanes (6-7) in the 2014 Duck Commander Independence Bowl at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana.

South Carolina sophomore wideout Pharoh Cooper was the standout player in the game, reeling in nine catches for 170 yards and picking up another 12 on the ground.

Miami running back Duke Johnson also played well, carrying the ball 24 times for 132 yards in a losing effort.

The contest, which could've been called the Don't Finish Below .500 Bowl, did little to stoke the imagination of college football fans tuning in and filling the stands through three quarters, although the final frame had a few noteworthy twists.

Here is a look at the quarter-by-quarter score from the Independence Bowl: 

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said prior to the game that he understood if fans of both teams found the Independence Bowl tough to swallow after difficult seasons for both esteemed programs, per Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald

It’s tough for both schools. We’ve been 11-2 the last three years. I don’t know if you knew that or not. But this year, we’re 6-6. Miami used to play for national championships. They’re 6-6. This is where life is. Fans, once you’ve been up there and your team is having sort of an average year, it’s hard to sell tickets.

Indeed, the start of the game probably had fans who stayed at home thankful they didn't make a financial investment in this contest.

The Gamecocks struggled to gain any traction on offense in the first quarter, punting once and having another drive end in a missed field goal by Elliott Fry. Miami put together two long drives to start out the game, but it managed to convert 23 plays and 134 yards of offense into just six points from the swinging boot of kicker Michael Badgley.

The second quarter would be all Gamecocks, however, as quarterback Dylan Thompson got into a fine rhythm against Miami's fierce pass defense. Thompson found Cooper wide open for the game's first real highlight, a 78-yard catch-and-run that gave South Carolina a 7-6 lead midway through the second quarter. 

ESPN College Football provided a look at the play: 

The State's Josh Kendall noted Cooper topped 1,000 yards receiving on the season on that play:

Brad Kaaya struggled mightily to keep the 'Canes moving in the second quarter and had UpstateToday.com's Robbie Tinsley questioning his credentials:

South Carolina would extend the lead to 14-6 on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to running back Mike Davis. SEC video director Justin King noted it was a beautiful throw and provided a look at the play:

Linebacker Jonathan Walton then picked off Kaaya on Miami's ensuing drive, setting up a short field for the Gamecocks. They cashed in with a 32-yard field goal from Fry.

The Gamecocks had to be feeling pretty good about the 11-point halftime lead, which could've been 14 had Fry not missed a 58-yard field goal just before time expired in the second quarter. The Spartanburg Herald-Journal's Matt Connolly noted Thompson had acquitted himself well against the 'Canes defense:

Miami and South Carolina traded punts to start off the third quarter, and it looked like the Hurricanes would have little chance of getting back into this contest without more efficient play from Kaaya. Johnson was putting in a workmanlike performance on the ground, but it hadn't been enough to put points on the board. ESPN Stats & Info noted the school record he tied by passing the century mark in this game:

However, the Hurricanes put together a huge drive late in the third quarter to cut the Gamecocks' lead to three. Miami dialed up the run game nine times on the 10-play touchdown drive.

The renewed commitment to the run worked, although it was a short pass from Kaaya that proved to be the key play on the drive. Malcolm Lewis took the ball and made a wicked spin move en route to a 48-yard gain that set up a short-yardage scoring plunge from Gus Edwards to make the score 17-12.

Miami made it a three-point game with a nifty two-point conversion on a pass from Kaaya to Lewis. 

With the start of the fourth quarter came the real intrigue in the game. The Miami defense got a huge stop on a 4th-and-1, but Badgley missed a 51-yard field goal on the ensuing possession.

Thompson, who was hugely reliant on Cooper's brilliance throughout the game, couldn't keep the Gamecocks' next drive alive, as Miami's Tyriq McCord came up with a huge sack on 3rd-and-15 to force a punt.

Disaster struck the Hurricanes, however, as Johnson would fumble on his own 29-yard line on the second play of the drive with just over five minutes left. South Carolina recovered and had a chance to essentially put the game away with great field position.

Cooper made a stunning 25-yard catch that set up a two-yard scoring run from Thompson and extended South Carolina's advantage to 24-14 with just four minutes left in the game. ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff found humor in the scoring play:

Kaaya finally came alive on the next drive and gave Miami a fighting chance. He completed five of six passes, including an 11-yard strike to Phillip Dorsett that cut the Gamecocks' lead back to three points.

There would be no last chance for Miami, however, as South Carolina would mix in runs from Thompson and Davis to run down the clock and hold on for the win.

Finishing with a losing record—the worst of head coach Al Golden's tenure—is a disappointing for a Miami program steeped in history. The team's level of talent is nowhere close to the squads of the 1990s and early 2000s. Kaaya's freshman status makes him a bright spot for the squad, but Golden will have plenty of work to do if his team is to work its way back to the top of the ACC.

South Carolina struggled to keep up in a deep SEC this season. The Gamecocks were ranked No. 9 by the Associated Press heading into the season and started off 3-1, but they eventually went 3-5 against conference opponents and were afterthoughts by early October.

Spurrier is an excellent head coach, but there is little margin for error in this conference with resurgent programs such as Ole Miss and Mississippi State to go along with the usual powerhouses like Alabama and Auburn.

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Holiday Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Nebraska vs. USC

Can Nebraska rally after the firing of head coach Bo Pelini, or will No. 24 USC cap its first season under Steve Sarkisian with a bowl victory?

We’ll find out tonight when the Cornhuskers (9-3) take on the Trojans (8-4) in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

Two of the country’s offensive stars will take center stage tonight. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah ranks 12th nationally in rushing yards, and USC quarterback Cody Kessler ranks 10th in passing yards. Both are the main cog in their offenses and will be key in tonight’s matchup.

The game is set to kick off at 8:00 p.m. ET and will be televised nationally by ESPN.

We’ll be watching the matchup, providing live analysis as the action unfolds:

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Arizona State vs. Duke: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2014 Sun Bowl

In one of the most exciting bowl games of the season thus far, Arizona State held on for a 36-31 victory over Duke in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. 

The day before the game, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham talked about how special this 2014 team is, via Amrith Ramkumar of The Chronicle:

It is a very special football team to me. In 28 years, this is probably the best team I've ever coached from a character standpoint, from a work ethic standpoint. We haven't had any minimum standard issues. This group of [11] seniors have meant a lot to me and have helped us tremendously to be able to change the culture. I love these kids and I love this football team.

The Sun Devils rewarded Graham's praise with a win, though it was not without drama. 

Early on, this game looked like Arizona State was going to roll towards a victory. The Sun Devils were up 20-3 midway through the second quarter, but their shaky defense and special teams gave up two quick touchdowns before the half to keep Duke in the game. 

One of those Blue Devils scores was a 68-yard punt return touchdown from Jamison Crowder with less than two minutes to play in the first half, making it a 20-17 game. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Crowder's touchdown also set a new Duke record:

Doug Haller of AZCentral.com noted Graham had a discussion with his punter about the execution on that punt return:

That wasn't the last time special teams would come into play for Arizona State. There were three big plays on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter that seemed to put Duke in the driver's seat.

The first came courtesy of Blue Devils quarterback Anthony Boone, who took the snap and appeared as if he was going to run before dumping the ball off to Johnell Barnes for a 14-yard touchdown, via The Chronicle on Twitter:

On the next Arizona State drive, Graham went for it on a short fourth down that Duke stopped to regain possession at its own 40-yard line. 

On Duke's ensuing possession, head coach David Cutcliffe decided to get tricky. On a fourth down at the 50, the Blue Devils faked a punt with Will Monday completing a 30-yard pass to Barnes that had Duke's football Twitter account on edge:

Zac Ellis of Sports Illustrated proclaimed his admiration for Cutcliffe's gutsy call in that big spot:

Duke's final magic act came on another fourth down play from the Arizona State 12-yard line. Crowder took a handoff on a sweep, but stopped and threw a touchdown pass to Issac Blankley to give the Blue Devils a 31-30 lead with five minutes to play. 

As Bleacher Report's Dan Hope noted on Twitter, Duke was trying to end its bowl drought in a blaze of glory:

However, the good feelings wouldn't last. On the ensuing kickoff, Ballage atoned for the failed fourth-down opportunity with a 96-yard return to Duke's four-yard line to set up a Demario Richard touchdown. Arizona State missed a two-point conversion, so the lead was 36-31. 

Richard's touchdown was his fourth of the day (two rushing, two receiving), tying the Sun Bowl record, per Dr. Saturday of Yahoo Sports:

Duke did drive down the field, getting to Arizona State's 14-yard line, but Kweishi Brown intercepted an Anthony Boone pass in the end zone with 45 seconds left to seal the victory. 

For Boone, the bowl-game heartbreak will unfortunately overshadow what has been a terrific career. He threw two picks in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M last year in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to help ignite the Aggies' comeback. 

Even though the Blue Devils are still searching for their first bowl win since 1960, this does mark the first time in school history they've played in three consecutive postseason games. 

In his final college game, Arizona State wideout Jaelen Strong went out as you would expect. The junior had 103 yards on seven receptions, including a 49-yarder to set up a field goal in the second quarter. 

According to Haller, Strong ends his Arizona State career with at least 100 receiving yards in nearly half of his games played:

The win sends Strong into the NFL on a high note and provides history for Arizona State. This marks the first time since 1973 that the Sun Devils have won at least 10 games in consecutive seasons. Graham won his second bowl game with the program and he'll get more recruiting momentum heading into the offseason. 

Duke's still got work to do before becoming a consistent presence in the Top 25 rankings, but Cutcliffe has done a masterful job with this program in seven years. The Blue Devils' 19 wins since 2013 are the most in a two-year stretch for the school.

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Virginia Tech Must Make More Exciting Offense a Part of Beamer Ball in 2015

Maybe it was the bowl atmosphere, or the defensively challenged opponent, or the rare change in sideline coaching makeup, or some combination of all three. Whatever it was, Virginia Tech played Saturday's Military Bowl with a flair that we haven't seen all season, maybe in a couple of years.

And we liked it. And we need to see more of it, especially if Beamer Ball is going to evolve into a modern college football team that can continue to compete.

As Beamer spent the final game of his 28th season at the helm of the Hokies in the press box at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium—the result of the 68-year-old still recuperating from throat surgery earlier this month—the on-field coaching duties were handled by his son, Shane.

And Virginia Tech responded to this change from the outset, showing a fire in its belly that was almost non-existent throughout a season in which the Hokies are set to finish in the bottom half of offense in FBS for the third consecutive year.

Tech only managed 334 yards in the 33-17 win over Cincinnati, below its paltry season average of 367.9 yards per game coming in, but there was a sense before each play of anxious excitement about what would get called by Shane Beamer in conjunction with offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.

Loeffler gave the go-ahead for a halfback pass from Isaiah Ford to quarterback Michael Brewer late in the first quarter. It resulted in a 30-yard gain, getting Virginia Tech down to the two-yard line, and set up J.C. Coleman's one-yard touchdown run three plays later.

Yes, it took the Hokies three plays to get two yards against a Cincinnati defense that came in ranked 103rd in the country in total defense, basically running the same belly play three times in a row after a momentum-boosting trick play.

It was the kind of play-calling pattern Tech fans have come to expect from Loeffler in his two seasons as offensive coordinator. Just when you think things are moving in the right direction, the Hokies take a few steps back.

Injuries and quarterback accuracy issues haven't helped this season, but Virginia Tech's players also haven't been consistently put in a good position to make big plays on offense. That's not just on Loeffler, but also both Beamers, Frank in particular.

Tech has never been a flashy team on offense—and with Bud Foster running a perennially stout defense and Beamer always having one of the nation's best special teams game plans, it doesn't need to be—but being a unit that random people in the bleachers can predict the plays of won't cut it in 2015.

The Hokies just completed a 22nd-straight winning season in spite of its offense, not because of it, but that's not a formula for future success.

It's how they shocked Ohio State in Columbus and knocked Duke out of the ACC Coastal Division title, yet also why they lost four times at home and also in double overtime at listless Wake Forest, in arguably the ugliest college football game of the season.

With a defense that's set to finish in the top 20 in yards allowed for the fourth year in a row, only minimal offensive input was needed in 2014, and that's about all it could muster.

The Military Bowl win was textbook old-school Beamer Ball, with Tech scoring a defensive touchdown and forcing three turnovers while Joey Slye made all four field-goal attempts, and the return game produced a 37-yard punt return and a 46-yard kickoff return.

Those are areas that need to remain strong, but cannot be the only parts that work, not when Tech isn't automatically getting the top local recruits like in the past. Tech has commitments from only five of the top 20 players in Virginia, according to 247Sports, but its top in-state defensive pledge is three-star defensive end Trevon Hill.

The state's best defensive prospects are headed to Florida State, Oklahoma, Clemson, Penn State and rival Virginia, led by No. 1 overall recruit Josh Sweat.

Instead, Tech needs to have more players like freshman Greg Stroman, a cornerback who ran the final 12 yards of a fumble return touchdown but also had a reception, two rushes and had a big punt return.

The Hokies have plenty of offensive pieces to work with, even more if injured running backs are able to return healthy. Freshmen Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams both tore knee ligaments, while sophomore Trey Edmunds and Jerome Wright also missed time. Sophomore Sam Rogers, the fullback, fractured his elbow in Saturday's game, but junior Coleman continued his late-season push by going for 157 yards on 25 carries.

Brewer—who only threw for 94 yards with a touchdown and an interception on 14-of-24 passing—will be a senior in 2015, and his top three receivers (Ford, Cam Phillips and tight end Bucky Hodges) are all freshmen. That means next year, the Hokies would have a veteran quarterback working with a youthful but experienced group of skill players, all wanted to make a major improvement from this season.

It's a perfect recipe for excitement and potentially explosive offense. It's just up to the Hokies' offensive staff to make that possible.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer Dances in Locker Room After Military Bowl Win

The Virginia Tech Hokies got a 33-17 win over the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Military Bowl on Saturday, and head coach Frank Beamer was pumped up after the game.

While celebrating the win in the locker room, the 68-year-old head coach started to get down with all of his players huddled around him. The dance moves were a bit questionable, but Beamer gets a pass since his team played so well.

[Vine, h/t SB Nation]

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Military Bowl 2014: Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech Game Grades and Analysis

The Virginia Tech Hokies defeated the Cincinnati Bearcats, 33-17, in the Military Bowl on Saturday. It's Tech's second bowl victory over Cincinnati in the last six years, as Tech beat Cincinnati in the 2008-09 Orange Bowl. 

The Hokies relied on a strong performance by their special teams, defense and running game. Tech forced three turnovers, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Freshman kicker Joey Slye hit all four field-goal attempts, including attempts from 45 and 49 yards.

Junior running back J.C. Coleman led Tech's rushing attack with 157 yards on 25 carries, his fourth straight game of at least 90 yards or more. 

Head coach Frank Beamer watched this one from the press box, while son Shane coached the team from the sideline. It was only the second time in Beamer's 28 years as head coach of the Hokies where he's been forced to coach from the box. 

Here are the grades and analysis from both Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in the Hokies' Military Bowl victory.

 

Cincinnati Game Grades Analysis:

Pass Offense: Gunner Kiel was terrific, even with two interceptions. His absence changed things in the second half. Michael Colosimo gave them a spark late, but it wasn't enough. 

Run Offense: Colosimo led the team in rushing, mainly because the score forced Cincy to pass the ball, and Tech's defenders were dropped deep, leaving open running lanes for Cincy's passer in the second half. 

Pass Defense: Tech passed for just 124 yards. The Bearcats were strong in coverage and pressured Michael Brewer the entire game.

Run Defense: Cincinnati allowed 200 yards rushing to a team ranked No. 91 in rushing entering the game. That's unacceptable, especially with Tech being one-dimensional.

Special Teams: The Bearcats missed an early field goal and gave up a big return at the end of the half that led to points for the Hokies. 

Coaching: Tommy Tuberville inexplicably brought Colosimo in on obvious passing situations in the second half. He would use Shaq Washington or Mike Boone as the Wildcat QB. It led to two wasted possessions as Colosimo proved he could throw the ball. 

 

Virginia Tech Game Grades Analysis:

Pass Offense: Brewer wasn't great. However, he played with toughness and made a couple of very good throws under pressure. His first-half interception cost the Hokies points.

Run Offense: JC Coleman was terrific. He had several longer runs and also proved he could pound it between the tackles for tough yards. 

Pass Defense: The Hokies gave up several big plays in the passing game, especially in the first half. The Hokies did record two interceptions and forced a Kiel fumble that led to a touchdown. 

Run Defense: The numbers indicate Tech gave up 160 yards on the ground. That's deceiving. Colosimo ran for 54 yards in the fourth quarter with Tech playing with six defensive backs. Cincy struggled to run the ball when the game was close. 

Special Teams: Beamerball returned, it appeared, on Saturday. Slye was 4-of-4 on field goals, and Der'Woun Greene gave the return game a lift. Special teams was responsible for the majority of VT's points. 

Coaching: Frank Beamer will get the win on his coaching record. However, his son, Shane, did an outstanding job preparing the Hokies. Tech looked strong in all phases, specifically on special teams, in the win over Cincinnati. 

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