DALLAS – In all probability, Taylor Potts won’t play another game in the Cotton Bowl Stadium. That is a shame for those who like to see a quarterback sling it and fling it.
The Texas Tech senior quarterback was the difference in the Red Raiders’ 45-38 victory Saturday over a spunky Northwestern (7-6) team in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl (attendance: 40,121) played at the historic venue.
"The Cotton Bowl treats me pretty well," Potts said. "It’s nice going out with a win."
On Oct. 9 in a neutral site Big 12 Conference game played at the Cotton Bowl, Texas Tech defeated Baylor by the same score. The Red Raiders piled up 635 yards in total offense in that victory with Potts completing 42 of 59 passes for 462 yards and three touchdowns. Plus, he had a career-best 43-yard run.
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The performance in his final bowl game was eerily similar. Potts completed 43 of 56 passes for 369 yards and four TDs. He also scored on a 13-yard run after catching a cross-field throw-back lateral from wide receiver Adam Zouzalik.
Not surprisingly, the media selected Potts as the TicketCity Bowl most valuable player. He was also selected as the MVP in last season’s Alamo Bowl.
"That’s pretty cool, but I had some pretty good protection," said Potts, who connected with 11 different receivers. "Playing behind those five (offensive linemen) was really a privilege. In the first game of the year against SMU, I got hit eight or nine times and I thought it would be a long year. Today, I didn’t get touched one time."
Apparently, Northwestern’s pass rush didn’t make the trip from Chicago. The Wildcats entered the game with 17 sacks on 410 opponent pass attempts. Based on that ratio of one sack for about every 24 attempts, Northwestern should have had had least two sacks.
"I don’t think we touched his flag once," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "A senior quarterback like Potts who has won a lot of games, you can’t give him that kind of time. We wanted to get him out of rhythm. Our pass rush tailed off as the season went on. We’ve got to get better at getting pressure with four guys."
The pass protection was even more impressive considering that starting left tackle LaAdroian Waddle went out with a sprained knee on Texas Tech’s second possession. Additionally, the Red Raiders lost four defensive starters. The loss of middle linebacker Bront Bird, the defensive signal caller, led to some confusion in the second half.
"We had guys going down all over the place," said Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville, whose team was without defensive coordinator James Willis, who stepped down less than a week before the game. "With Bront out, we had to figure some stuff out. The good thing was we didn’t panic."
Tuberville lamented the fact his team could never land a knockout punch but Texas Tech (8-5) did not deal well with prosperity in the second half.
With senior running back Baron Batch injured, Eric Stephens became the main back. That meant he was replaced on kickoff returns by freshman Ben McRoy. Northwestern’s 32-point second half was jump started when McRoy fumbled the second-half kickoff. The Wildcats, though, only got a field goal out of that possession.
"That fumble recovery was a big catalyst," Fitzgerald said. "We’re typically pretty entertaining. We just needed to find a way to get one more stop."
Following the Northwestern field goal, Stephens (126 yards on 14 carries) broke loose for an 86-yard touchdown run on Tech’s first snap of the second half gave the Red Raiders a 31-9 lead.
After the Red Raiders went up 38-17 late in the third quarter, Tuberville went for that elusive haymaker. He dialed up an onside kick. It backfired when Texas Tech was offsides and Northwestern recovered. Two plays later, the Wildcats scored to make it 38-24.
"We wanted to make our guys play harder," Tuberville joked. "I had been wanting to call it all year. We had it set up like we wanted and I thought we could get it. I can’t blame it on anyone, I made the call."
That set up a back and forth fourth quarter that kept Texas Tech fans on the edge of their seats but likely kept the ESPNU audience interested.
"In the first half, we couldn’t get off the field and in the second half we came up a yard short a couple of times," said Northwestern defensive back Jordan Mabin, whose 39-yard interception return for a TD pulled the Wildcats to within 45-38 with 5:37 remaining.
Stephens had two clutch third-and-short runs – both times, a measurement was required - to allow Texas Tech to run off all but the last 34 seconds before having to punt.
"In the middle of the season, people wondered if we’d win three or four," Tuberville said after completing his first season in Lubbock. "Winning eight games is a good start, particularly considering the injuries and adversity this team had to overcome. When we win a championship a few years from now, it will be because of the leadership and the resolve of this senior class."