Wildcats vie for first bowl win since 1949 in Gator Bowl

    Northwestern’s 9-3 2012 campaign has been a season of almosts.

    The No. 22-ranked ‘Cats almost beat conference rivals Nebraska and Michigan, which would have propelled them into the Big Ten Championship game. Northwestern was almost placed in the high-profile Capital One Bowl (formerly known as the Florida Citrus Bowl) before conference commissioner Jim Delany allegedly intervened in the selection process. 

    Staring at a 64-year winless streak in bowl games, the Wildcats know that “almost” means nothing in their final matchup of the year. NU travels to Jacksonville for a clash with SEC foe Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

    After starting the season 7-0, the Bulldogs have dropped four of their last five games, including a blowout loss to Ole Miss to close out conference play. With over a month to prepare for Northwestern’s potent offense, however, slumping Mississippi State will still be a tough play for Pat Fitzgerald & Co.

    Key matchups

    DLs Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams vs. Mississippi State’s offensive line 

    Northwestern’s premier pass-rushers, junior end Tyler Scott and senior end Quentin Williams, will have their work cut out for them against a sturdy Mississippi State offensive line. The Bulldogs are a top 30 FBS team in sacks allowed, giving up just 1.33 sacks per game to opposing defenses.

    After starting the season on a hot streak, Scott has cooled off significantly, recording just one sack in the last five games. Williams comes in with 3.5 quarterback takedowns. 

    If Northwestern cannot get pressure on junior quarterback Tyler Russell throughout the game, Mississippi State will have its way with a suspect Wildcats secondary.

    Advantage: Mississippi State

    QB Tyler Russell vs. Northwestern’s pass defense

    Tyler Russell is having a breakout year. With just six interceptions to 22 touchdown passes, the pro-style junior ranks among the nation’s best in quarterback efficiency and passer rating. The only quarterbacks Northwestern has faced with a better rating than Russell are Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, who went for a combined 824 yards and seven scores in their two games. 

    Northwestern has had success stopping the pass against teams without a premier receiver, but you could argue that Mississippi State has two in senior wide receiver Chad Bumphis and senior tight end Marcus Green. Combined, the two account for 18 touchdown grabs and more than 1,000 receiving yards. 

    All of Northwestern’s loses came because of an inability to stop the pass in the fourth quarter. The ‘Cats will need some drastic improvements if they want to stop the Bulldogs.

    Advantage: Mississippi State

    QB Kain Colter and RB Venric Mark vs. Mississippi State’s front seven

    Northwestern has a First Team All-American in Venric Mark. Although the junior spark plug earned the honor as a punt returner, there is no denying his skill in the backfield. Averaging a whopping 6.2 yards per carry and tallying 11 touchdowns, Mark has turned heads all season long. 

    Without including November’s Michigan State game, because of a shoulder injury, Mark has played exceptionally against some of the top run defenses in the nation. Against six top-60 run defenses this season, Mark has averaged 108.6 yards per game.

    Another big reason for Northwestern’s rushing success has been quarterback Kain Colter. Arguably one of the best option quarterbacks in the nation, Colter has been an explosive runner on the edge.

    Northwestern averages about 230 rushing yards per game, good for 14th in the country. Missississpi State, meanwhile, only allows 166 rushing yards per game. Lead by senior linebacker Cameron Lawrence, the Bulldogs are physical in the middle.

    Inconsistencies in the pass game this season make Northwestern’s rushing attack even more crucial to their success in the Gator Bowl. 

    Advantage: Northwestern

    Northwestern fans vs. Mississippi State fans

    For neutral game locations, you always have to wonder which team will bring more fans. Jacksonville, Florida is more than 1,000 miles from Evanston and only 550 miles away from Mississippi State’s campus. 

    Expect the Bulldog faithful to be in full force on New Year’s Day, making it tough for the Northwestern offense to communicate. Unlike the Nebraska game, Pat Fitzgerald better prepare his team for a silent snap count.

    Advantage: Mississippi State

    Prediction: Mississippi State 35, Northwestern 24

    The Wildcats will have to wait another year to see their notorious bowl losing streak come to an end. Close games come down to making plays in the fourth quarter – something Northwestern has failed to do time and time again this season.

    Mississippi State should be able to pass all over NU’s mediocre secondary. Look for senior speedster Chad Bumphis to rack up a lot of yards and haul in a touchdown grab or two. 

    It’s becoming obvious now that Northwestern is not a good passing team. Both Colter and sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian have been inconsistent under center, and unfortunately for the ‘Cats, Mississippi State has an excellent pass defense. Second Team All-American defensive back Jonathan Banks is probably going to be a first-round NFL draft pick in April, and fellow cornerback Darius Slay will likely be joining him in the pros next year. The two have combined for nine interceptions.

    Northwestern should have little to no success in the passing game, and the tandem of Mark and Colter is no longer a secret. Expect seven or eight defenders in the box at all times to stop the run.

    After one of its best starts in a decade, Northwestern will end the season with another disappointing loss in the fourth quarter.


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