Five B1G players who delivered key bowl performances heading into 2016
Bowl season was a chance for teams to end 2015 on a high note. And for B1G returners, it was a chance to set the tone for 2016.
Here are the five B1G players that got the biggest 2016 boost from their bowl performances.
Trace McSorley, Penn State QB — The redshirt freshman came into the game after Christian Hackenberg went down and it didn’t look so promising. In fact, the PSU offense looked even worse with McSorley under center up until the fourth quarter. But then it all clicked. He converted clutch fourth downs, he used his legs to keep plays alive, and he had pocket presence. Maybe that last thing was most important.
With Christian Hackenberg gone, Joe Moorhead is going to have his pick of young quarterbacks to run his spread-option offense. McSorley will compete with Tommy Stevens and true freshman Jake Zembeic, none of whom have a career start. But McSorley has his fourth-quarter performance, which will hold plenty of weight when PSU settles on its Hackenberg replacement.
Sam Hubbard, Ohio State DE — The bookends of Hubbard’s freshman season were replacing Joey Bosa. In the Fiesta Bowl, Hubbard came in after the future first-round draft pick was ejected for targeting. All things considered, he looked good once again. The freshman All-American finished the day with four tackles and a key sack late that showed off his relentless pursuit.
Hubbard, who actually finished the season with more sacks than his All-American predecessor, will obviously be filling some of the biggest shoes of anybody in the country. For a guy that was playing safety two years ago, that might seem like a daunting task. But he still has a motor like a defensive back coupled with his increasing size. That combination, like it did in the Fiesta Bowl, will make him a key piece of the OSU defense in 2016.
Jack Cichy, Wisconsin LB — Nobody did what Cichy did all bowl season. I’m not sure if anybody did what Cichy did all regular season, either. He came into the game after sitting out for a regular-season targeting ejection and recorded sacks on three straight plays. No sequence better displayed Dave Aranda’s skills as a defensive coordinator than that. The sophomore only had two sacks all season before Aranda cut him loose.
But without Aranda and All-American linebacker Joe Schobert next year, Wisconsin wouldn’t mind a guy like Cichy stepping into an even bigger role. The Badgers return arguably the best linebacking core in the B1G with Vince Biegel, T.J. Edwards and Chris Orr. If Cichy can emerge like Schobert did — that’s saying a lot — this unit won’t have much drop off at all.
Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska QB — I know what you’re thinking. We already know the third-year Nebraska starter by now. What could one bowl game have possibly shown us? Well, he showed us that he was willing to use his legs instead of his arm to bail himself out of trouble. Armstrong admitted coming into the Foster Farms Bowl that there were too many instances in 2015 in which he threw it when he should’ve kept it and gotten some yards with his legs.
Armstrong finished the game with less than 20 passes for the first time all year under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. More importantly, there were zero head-scratching throws made after he had four interceptions against Iowa. I’m not convinced Armstrong was a guarantee to be the outright starter heading into spring camp. But with what he showed against UCLA, Nebraska might’ve finally found the best way to use him.
De’Veon Smith, Michigan RB — Every since he rattled off that incredible 60-yard touchdown run against BYU, Michigan’s leading rusher had been relatively quiet. He was dealing with an ankle injury and other bumps and bruises. But he looked plenty healthy in plowing over Florida’s vaunted defense en route to 109 rushing yards. Jim Harbaugh said he hadn’t seen a back break that many tackles since Frank Gore. That’s high praise.
Smith needs Harbaugh in his corner because he’s got a ton of company returning in the backfield. Derrick Green and Ty Isaac are former five-star recruits, Drake Johnson carved out a role and oh yeah, Kareem Walker is the No. 1 2016 running back in the country. Smith is the most experienced guy of anybody on that list, so he would likely be the favorite to be at the top of the depth chart. But after being banged up most of conference play, Smith needed to close the season with a different kind of bang. That he did.