There were no almosts, no what ifs at a sun-drenched EverBank Field. Capping a serpentine 9-3 season, Northwestern edged Mississippi State 34-20 and claimed its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
In a back-and-forth affair that featured seven interceptions, things certainly weren’t pretty. And, in front of half-filled stands, knocking off a Bulldogs team that had stumbled into Tuesday with losses in four of its last five games was far from glamorous. But for a program that has grappled with heartbreak and struggled to stay relevant for decades, a Gator Bowl win means everything.
The Wildcats picked off quarterback Tyler Russell four times, converted 10-of-19 third downs, and scooped up rushing touchdowns from sophomore Trevor Siemian, junior Venric Mark and senior Tyris Jones. After blowing three late-game leads in the regular season, Northwestern entered the fourth quarter up 14 and never looked back.
“I don’t know if there’s been a better team in Northwestern history” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald in a post-game raspy cheer. “This was the one last negative that we needed to erase...this is just the beginning.”
By the numbers
Interceptions thrown by MSU’s Tyler Russell during the regular season. The junior touted one of the best quarterback efficiency ratings in SEC history, yet threw four picks Tuesday. Russell’s midfield reads were questionable at best, and he consistently overthrew receivers.
Third down conversion by the Bulldogs offense. Northwestern’s front seven was aggressive, and lineman Tyler Scott broke the pocket all afternoon long with two sacks. Mississippi State’s offense had no vertical game, and No. 1 wideout Chad Bumphis was held to a paltry 18 receiving yards.
Yards per carry from junior quarterback Kain Colter. Hobbled by upper-body injuries for the second half of the season, Colter rediscovered his scramble Tuesday, picking up two third downs in the Wildcats’ opening series and finishing with 75 rushing yards. With Colter under center, MSU’s pass rush was forced to honor the option, and the Wildcats won the battle up front.
Years since the Wildcats last won a bowl game. Northwestern snaps one of the longest losing streaks in college sports with its Gator Bowl win.
Players of the game
TE Dan Vitale
The true freshman superback churned out a career day, catching seven passes for a team-high 82 yards. Vitale got open at the mid level all game, and set up Venric Mark’s touchdown with a 34-yard reception in the third quarter.
DE Quentin Williams
Portending a big day for the Northwestern defense, Williams took Russell’s first pass of the game for a “pick six,” reading the flat and returning 29 yards down the sideline. Williams also stayed busy in the pass rush, sacking Russell in the fourth quarter.
DT Tyler Scott
Scott had a huge game in the middle, recording two sacks and continuously hurrying Russell.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald
It’s corny, but Fitz deserves his props here.
After a dangerously conservative second quarter that featured consecutive gut runs by senior ‘back Mike Trumpy, Fitzgerald switched up the game plan and stayed aggressive after halftime. Fitz effectively utilized Mark, Colter and Vitale, and drew up a pressure-heavy defensive game plan that blanketed Mississippi State’s passing game.