It’s the one blemish on an otherwise stellar résumé for Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald: The Wildcats are 0–4 in bowl games in his six-plus seasons as the boss at his alma mater. The former All-America linebacker, named to the top job at Northwestern in 2006 after Randy Walker passed away, is 49–39 overall and a more-than-respectable 26–30 in Big Ten games. But he has yet to break through in the postseason, losing to Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl, Auburn in the 2009 Outback Bowl, Texas Tech in the 2010 TicketCity Bowl and Texas A&M in the 2011 Texas Bowl. To be fair, Northwestern’s bowl struggles pre-date Fitzgerald’s tenure as the head coach. The Wildcats are 1–9 all-time in bowl games, with their lone win coming over California in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1949.
The Cats have a great opportunity to snap that streak in the Gator Bowl against a Mississippi State team that limps to Jacksonville having lost four of its last five games. The Bulldogs went 8–4 overall, but none of their eight wins came against teams that are playing in a bowl game. Northwestern, on the other hand, defeated four bowl teams.
Gator Bowl — Northwestern (9–3) vs. Mississippi State (8–4)
Date and Time: Jan. 1 at Noon EST
Location: Jacksonville, Fla.
When Northwestern has the ball:
Northwestern is one of the few teams nationally that won at a high level while playing two quarterbacks on a consistent basis. Both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian played in all 12 games (though Colter did not attempt a pass in the loss at Penn State), with Colter serving as a true dual-threat and Siemian operating as a pro-style quarterback. Colter, who completed just under 70 percent of his passes and rushed for 820 yards and 12 touchdowns, was the primary quarterback down the stretch and figures to get the bulk of the snaps in the bowl game. The strong-armed Siemian, however, will be more than ready in relief if Colter struggles.
For the first time since Tyrell Sutton graduated in 2008, Northwestern featured a legitimate Big Ten-caliber threat at the tailback position. Venric Mark, who carried the ball 15 times in his first two seasons on campus, emerged as one of the most dangerous offensive weapons — both as a running back and return specialist — in the nation. Mark, a 5-8, 175-pound Texas native, ranked third in the league in rushing with 1,310 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. He broke through with 123 yards in a key Week 2 win over Vanderbilt and topped the 100-yard mark seven more times the rest of the season.
Mississippi State struggled to stop the run for most of the season. The Bulldogs rank 58th in the nation in rushing defense and gave up 200 yards or more four times in 2012 — 230 to Troy, 213 to Tennessee, 361 to Texas A&M and 248 to Ole Miss. This is not a good matchup for the Dogs.
When Mississippi State has the ball:
Mississippi State changed its identity in 2012, morphing from a run-based attack in the first three years in the Dan Mullen era into an offense that was better — at least statistically — throwing the ball (50th in the nation) than running (85th). The reason for the new-look was the emergence of junior Tyler Russell as a quality drop-back quarterback. Russell, one of Mullen’s key early recruits, threw for 2,791 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. One of the benefactors of State’s newfound passing attack was senior wide receiver Chad Bumphis, who set career highs in catches (55), yards (904) and touchdowns (12).
Junior LaDarius Perkins stepped into the role as primary tailback that was handled quite well the previous two seasons by current Indianapolis Colt Vick Ballard. Perkins, considered by some to be too small to be an every down back, carried the ball 186 times for 940 yard and eight touchdowns. He had 100 yards or more in four of the first seven games, but wasn’t quite as effective down the stretch as the schedule became more difficult.
The Bulldogs’ offense feasted on a soft early schedule, averaging 416.9 yards en route to a 7–0 start. State however, was held to under 360 yards in four of the final five games, including 333 in a season-ending 41–24 loss to rival Ole Miss.
Northwestern won nine games and held double-digit second-half leads in all three of its losses yet finds itself as a two-point underdog to a Mississippi State team whose best win was either against Middle Tennessee or Tennessee — both at home. Yes, the SEC is better than the Big Ten, but the Wildcats aren’t getting enough credit for what they accomplished in 2012. Northwestern should have plenty of success running the ball and will do a better job than most expect of slowing down the Mississippi State offense. Only four teams scored more than 20 points against the Cats in 2012.
Prediction: Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 17
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