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Illinois, NU losses costly

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If he knew what was going to happen, Illinois coach Ron Zook said he would not have punted late in the game against Michigan.


Illinois, which lost 67-65 to Michigan in triple overtime in the highest-scoring game in Big Ten history, and Northwestern, the 35-21 victim in Joe Paterno's 400th win, didn't simply lose games.

They also lost key selling points for their bowl resumes. That's especially significant because that quartet of teams is basically in the hunt for the same four bowls.

The Big Ten's four one-loss teams are in line for the league's top four bowl bids -- the Rose, Capital One and Outback bowls, plus a BCS at-large slot in the Sugar or Rose Bowl.

That leaves Illinois, NU, Michigan and Penn State to divvy up the Gator Bowl, Insight Bowl, (Houston) Texas Bowl and Dallas Football Classic.

At this point, the Gator and Insight, which have the fourth and fifth picks in the Big Ten bowl tie-in structure, probably would lean toward, in no particular order, Michigan and Penn State, a bowl source said. Both are tradition-laden programs that have huge fan bases and television allure.

And they just won those head-to-head matchups.

It wouldn't be surprising if the winner of the NU-Illinois game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 20 wound up in the Texas Bowl, which will be played Dec. 29 in Reliant Stadium, the home of the Houston Texans and site of the 2011 Final Four.

That would put the loser in the Dallas Football Classic, which will be played Jan. 1 at the Cotton Bowl Stadium. (The Cotton Bowl game has moved to Cowboys Stadium.)

The differences between the games are more a matter of taste:

*Houston vs. Dallas.

*A state-of-the-art facility (Reliant Stadium) vs. a historic venue (the Cotton Bowl).

*A better opponent vs. a more vulnerable opponent. The Texas Bowl has the fourth Big 12 pick, while the Dallas bowl has the sixth.

Nice to TCU

The parameters are narrowing.

With its 47-7 thumping of No. 5 Utah, TCU not only gave itself a virtually air-tight case as the top non-automatic qualifier ahead of Boise State. A rock-solid No. 3 in the BCS standings released Sunday, the Horned Frogs look like they might be strong enough to withstand a challenge from a one-loss team for a title-game slot if No. 1 Oregon or No. 2 Auburn falter.

That's partly because Alabama, the leading one-loss contender, no longer is in the hunt. After falling at LSU, the Crimson Tide is reduced to playing spoiler to its instate rival, Auburn.

Beyond Bama, the remaining one-loss teams aren't nearly as compelling. No. 5 LSU leads. But it would be an awkward title-game choice even if Alabama beats Auburn, which beat LSU and would still go to the SEC championship ahead of the Bayou Tigers.

And the other one-loss candidates such as Wisconsin, Stanford, Ohio State and Nebraska hardly seem threats to TCU.

In other words, if Oregon and Auburn stay unbeaten, the traditional powers should have a nice, tidy championship game. But if a one-loss team leapfrogs the Horned Frogs, the conspiracy theories and playoff clamor would be deafening.

When in doubt, punt

Leading 45-38 on fourth-and-one at the Illinois 42 with 5:54 left in the fourth quarter, Ron Zook decided to punt. Led by backup quarterback Tate Forcier, the Wolverines marched 80 yards in 12 plays, tying the game with 1:47 left in regulation and going on to win in triple overtime.

It was a very different call than the heroic fourth-down conversion that sealed Illinois' upset win at top-ranked Ohio State in 2007. It was also a different situation.

''Hindsight's 20-20. If I knew what was going to happen, I would have gone for it,'' Zook said. ''You take the information you have and you make the decision. In the same situation, I probably would have done the same thing.

''Knowing what I know now, I would have made a different decision, possibly. But I felt better without No. 16 [the injured Denard Robinson] in there. I felt like we could stop the pass. And we'd been punting pretty well.''

Still, Zook doesn't expect a hangover from the shootout against Minnesota on Saturday.

''They're embarrassed,'' Zook said of his players. ''They're hurt. It does give the offense some confidence. And the defense will get back on track. I'm not worried about that.''

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