- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.
Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.
The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.
Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.
Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.
Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.
Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).
A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.
It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.
Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.
The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.
The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.