B1G Bowl Thud: Buckeyes, Badgers Let Glory Slip Through Their Fingers

Herb Gould

While we’re waiting. . . and waiting. . . and waiting. . . for the latest (in every sense of the word) season-ending Grits Bowl—um, College Football Championship game—some thoughts about the recently concluded bowl season.

First, if you’re one of those people who say the rest of the bowls are meaningless now that there’s a playoff, you’re way too existential.

And second, if you’re one of those people who say there are too many bowl games, and that a bowl trip should be a reward for a good season, not a 6-6 or maybe even 7-5 season, I understand your point.

But the world has changed. Players like to play in bowls. And fans like to watch them. Just ask ESPN. And bowl games aren’t nearly as lame as NFL exhibition games.

Gotta love Jim Harbaugh still trying to score in the final seconds of Michigan’s 35-16 loss to Alabama. How many snaps do the Aaron Rodgers of the world take in the ``pre-season?’’

Whenever I dialed up a bowl game, which was pretty often, I saw entertaining games that were enjoyed by the teams and their fans.

Kentucky-Virginia Tech, in which the Wildcats, trailing 30-24, took a 31-30 lead with 15 seconds left and then added a fumble-recovery TD for a 37-30 win certainly comes to mind. Navy’s 20-17 win over Kansas State was another fun adventure.

And those are bowls where I didn’t have a dog in the hunt.

Obviously, as your humble Big Ten/Notre Dame correspondent, those 10 bowls were of special interest to me.

The defining games, of course, are the Ohio State and Wisconsin meltdowns.

All credit to Clemson and Oregon for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

But behind every inspirational, heroic comeback win, there’s a defeated team gnashing its teeth and hitting itself upside the head with an anguished hand. In those two cases, from the Big Ten.

I have already ruminated, along with the rest of the college-football world, on the circumstances that led to Ohio State, after building a 16-0 lead that coulda/shoulda/woulda have been a lot more, losing to Clemson 29-23.

That topic will linger. . . until the Buckeyes get it right in a future playoff.

Ohio State had a chance to turn the National Championship into something more than aanother South Regional Final. But the Buckeyes came up short, their disappointment greased by an inadvertent-but-undeniable targeting ejection and an unpalatable replay reversal of an apparent fumble-recovery-returned-for-a-touchdown.

With two waves of the Zebra’s wand, the Buckeyes are chumps and the Clemsons have a chance to be champs.

To which I say, Ohio State violated that cardinal rule: Do not put yourself in that Twilight Zone where you allow the referees to decide the game.

The Badgers might be even more frustrated. They will rail a bit about The Offensive-Interference Penalty From the Black Lagoon. But mostly, the Badgers just dropped the ball.

Remember the Wisconsin-Ohio State game, where a deer-in-the-headlights punter gave the Buckeyes a gift touchdown and momentum? Wisconsin did it again against Oregon, although that punting fiasco was aided by faulty punt-blocking.

Throw in some wrenching lost fumbles, and you have Oregon picking up 21 points off four turnovers. And winning 28-27 in a game where the Ducks rushed for 66 yards and were outgained by more than 100 yards, 322 to 204.

And yes, there was also that perplexing offensive pass-interference call, which also violated the Twilight Zone Rule: Do not put yourself in a postion to let the referees decide the game.

In other words, this Oregon victory will be celebrated wherever Nikes are sold, except for places where Cheeseheads also are sold. From Kenosha to Minocqua, from Beloit to Gills Rock, this failed effort to break the Badgers’ 20-year Rose Bowl losing streak (now 0-4) will be long remembered.

And that’s the point: Even though this Rose Bowl was not part of the College Football Playoff presented by Waffle House, it was a terrific bowl game, and a memorable experience.

So don’t let anybody tell you the playoff is the only thing that matters, and that the bowl system has been destroyed.

And while there are too many bowls, and while many of them are lame, there are also plenty of bowls that are rewarding or wrenching, depending on the outcome—but worth playing.

Take Notre Dame’s Camping World Bowl, for example. In thrashing Iowa State 33-9, the Irish not only dispelled the notion that they wouldn’t show up because it was a ``minor’’ bowl. They also gave a sign that this team has already started caring about 2020.

Or that Holiday Bowl. Yes, it was a miserable 49-24 end to an angst-ridden season for USC fans, who wanted Clay Helton gone. But the Trojans were in that game 28-24 until their quarterback, Kedon Slovis, went down. Stuff happens. And Iowa, which had struggled offensively for most of the season, showed that it’s not as lame with the ball was we thought.

Michigan was, as expected, over-matched against Alabama. Not a great game. But ``not-great’’ games pop up wherever sports are played.

Penn State, which put on a really fun show in outlasting Memphis 53-39, gave hope to people looking for an alternative to Ohio State in 2020. Yes, the Nittany Lions have enough coming back that they will be a team of great expectations.

And then there was Minnesota’s rousing 31-24 upset of Auburn, giving the Gophers their first 11-win season since 1905. And Tennessee’s terrific comeback against Indiana.

It all added up to a 4-5 bowl season for the Big Ten. Hardly the best of the times. But a big chunk of it was very watchable.

You can’t win ’em all. But if you like college football, there was a lot to like this bowl season. And if Ohio State and Wisconsin didn’t like their outcomes, they left the door open for those disappointments.


Herb Gould