- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's time to look back and recognize some of the highlights and lowlights from the Big Ten bowl season:
Best performance: Michigan State. After falling behind 16-0 to Georgia, the Spartans rallied back to take the lead in the second half. When they needed to drive the field for a tying touchdown with only 1:55 left, they did just that. When Kirk Cousins threw an interception on the first overtime possession, they responded by holding tough on defense. Michigan State had 17 tackles for loss against the Bulldogs, including five by defensive end William Gholston. Darqueze Dennard grabbed two interceptions, and the special teams came up with a blocked kick to win the game. The 33-30 triple-overtime victory was yet another milestone for the program under Mark Dantonio.
Worst performance: Penn State clearly didn't want to go to the TicketCity Bowl, and it showed right away. Houston quarterback Case Keenum made a mockery of the Nittany Lions' defense, throwing for 227 yards in the first quarter alone. Penn State had allowed that many yards passing in an entire game only once all season. He'd finish with 532 yards passing as the Cougars breezed to a 30-14 victory.
Best new mascot: Northwestern brought a stuffed monkey with a No. 63 jersey to its Meineke Car Care Bowl game against Texas A&M, symbolizing its quest to end a 63-year bowl victory drought. Alas, the Wildcats will have to order a No. 64 uniform after losing 33-22. Better make it a big jersey, because this postseason curse is more like an 800-pound gorilla at this point.
Worst near-death experience: Near the end of Iowa's Insight Bowl loss to Oklahoma, star Hawkeyes receiver Marvin McNutt was nearly taken out by ESPN's skycam, which fell to the field from its cables. The heavy camera almost hit McNutt off the bounce, and he got caught up in its wiring as he left the Iowa huddle. The skycam was unceremoniously escorted off the field, kind of like how Iowa's season ended in a 31-14 loss.
Worst ball security: Purdue and Western Michigan combined for 11 turnovers in a wild Little Caesars Bowl. On two separate occasions, the Boilermakers forced a turnover only to give the ball right back to the Broncos as defenders coughed it up trying to go the other way. Ultimately, Purdue got the upper hand by creating seven takeaways and holding on for a 37-32 victory.
Best clock management: Michigan State trailed Georgia 27-20 late in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl when the Spartans were called for pass interference on third-and-3 from the Bulldogs' 37. The officials ruled that Georgia had completed the pass on the play even though receiver Malcolm Mitchell clearly dropped the ball. Dantonio challenged the ruling, despite the fact that Georgia was going to get a first down either way. Dantonio's successful challenge meant that instead of the clock running down toward three minutes, the clock was stopped and reset to 3:43. That extra time proved enormous, as the Spartans tied the game with 14 seconds left in regulation.
Worst clock management: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was unsure if he could challenge the ruling when Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas hesitated and nearly left the end zone before kneeling down for kick-return touchback. As Bielema asked the sideline official for a clarification, he was charged with a timeout. That was the second timeout burned by the Badgers early in the second half. They dearly could have used the stoppages when the offense ended the game at the Oregon 25-yard line. Russell Wilson hurried to the line and was instructed to spike the ball with two seconds left, but officials ruled there was no time left.
Best impersonation of a wide receiver: Michigan's fake field goal attempt late in the first half of the Allstate Sugar Bowl went awry when holder Drew Dileo's intended receiving target, tight end Kevin Koger, didn't know the fake was on. So Dileo threw the ball into a crowd, and Virginia Tech deflected it. But long snapper Jareth Glanda saved the day by hauling it in for an 11-yard gain. The Wolverines ended up with a field goal on the play, and they needed every point in an overtime victory.
Best use of the kicking game: Purdue coach Danny Hope turned into a riverboat gambler in the Little Caesars Bowl, calling for two consecutive onside kicks in the first half. Both worked and led to points. Raheem Mostert also returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score.
Worst use of the kicking game: Ohio State had a punt blocked for a touchdown and allowed a 99-yard kickoff return by Florida. The Buckeyes lost by seven points in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
Worst loss of composure: Nebraska star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery let their emotions get the best of them in the third quarter of the Capital One Bowl. Dennard took a coupLe of swings at Jeffery, who pushed Dennard's helmet back. Both players were rightly ejected. Amazingly, Jeffery was still named MVP of South Carolina's 30-13 win.
Best crisis management: We saw what happened to Penn State and Ohio State as they played for lame-duck head coaches. Illinois not only had to deal with that but also a six-game losing streak and a group of assistants threatening to boycott the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl hours before the game. Somehow, interim head coach Vic Koenning managed to hold things together to help the Illini win 20-14 over UCLA.
Best inspiration: As Michigan's Brendan Gibbons lined up for the 37-yard kick to win the game in overtime, he had one thing on his mind. "Brunette girls,” Gibbons said. “Every time we were like struggling in kicking, coach tells me to think about girls on a beach or brunette girls," Gibbons told reporters. "So that's what we did. Made the kick." And they say blondes have more fun.