Mississippi St.-Northwestern Preview
Pat Fitzgerald couldn't lead Northwestern to a bowl win as a player, and he still hasn't guided it to one as the coach.
That could change - and the Wildcats' 63-year postseason drought could end - in the Gator Bowl on Tuesday.
If it doesn't, Fitzgerald's good friend, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, will help the Bulldogs extend their program record with a sixth consecutive bowl victory.
A two-time Nagurski and Bednarik Award winner with the Wildcats in the 1990s, Fitzgerald helped Northwestern win two Big Ten titles. However, the Wildcats lost both of their bowl games during his days in Evanston - the 1996 Rose Bowl and the 1997 Citrus Bowl.
This is the fifth straight year that Fitzgerald, one win shy of setting the school record with 50, has guided Northwestern (9-3) to a bowl. The Wildcats, though, have lost nine consecutive bowl games since their lone victory, which came in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
"It will mean nothing until we get this win in this bowl game," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. " ... since I've been here it's been expected that we go to bowl games. It's about taking that next step and getting that win, then pressing on and getting to the Big Ten championship, setting new goals and standards."
The Wildcats' one-point home loss to Nebraska on Oct. 20 and an overtime defeat at Michigan on Nov. 10 ruined their hopes of a league title, but they can still post their first 10-win season since the 1995 team went 10-2.
A 7-0 start had Mississippi State (8-4) well on its way to its first 10-win season since 1999, but with a far more challenging second-half schedule that included matchups with ranked foes Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU - all losses - the Bulldogs settled for their second Gator Bowl appearance in three years after the rough finish.
Mississippi State, a 52-14 winner over Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl, haven't lost a bowl game since the 1999 Cotton Bowl. They improved to 2-0 in postseason games under Mullen with a 23-17 victory over Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl last season.
Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Russell leads the team into Jacksonville, but it's uncertain how effective he'll be after suffering a sprained ankle in a 41-24 loss at Mississippi in the regular-season finale Nov. 24.
"We're going to have him doing some different things (in practice) but he should be good to go," Mullen said.
Even if Russell can play, redshirt freshman Dak Prescott can expect to see some time under center. Prescott threw for 194 yards and four touchdowns while running for four scores.
That rushing TD total was good for second on the team behind LaDarius Perkins, a second-team all-SEC selection who ran for 940 yards and eight scores.
Perkins, though, has not gotten into the end zone in his last four games.
Mississippi State won't have sophomore running back Nick Griffin available for this game after he suffered a torn right ACL in practice Dec. 8. Redshirt freshman Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton are expected to back up Perkins.
The Bulldogs will face a Northwestern rush defense that's yielding 122.8 yards per game, 18th in the nation.
Mississippi State can expect Northwestern to lean heavily on its ground game, which averages 230.9 yards. Junior Venric Mark has led the attack with 1,310 yards and 11 TDs.
Mark has also averaged 19.7 yards on kickoff returns and 20.1 on 14 punt returns, two of which he brought back for touchdowns. He's ninth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game with 170.7.
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is also a threat out of the backfield, rushing for 820 yards and a team-best 12 TDs. Colter is averaging only 11.2 passing attempts per game in the Wildcats' spread offense, but he's completed a career-high 68.7 percent and is coming off a career-best three-TD performance in a 50-14 victory over Illinois on Nov. 24.
Sophomore Trevor Siemian, an Orlando native, should also get some snaps for the Wildcats. He's thrown for 1,192 yards with six TDs and two INTs while appearing in all 12 contests.
Getting the ball to this trio, as well as freshman tight end Dan Vitale, could be a challenge with Bulldogs seniors Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks manning the secondary. Slay leads the team with five INTs while Banks, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as top defensive back in the nation, made 59 tackles, picked off four passes and broke up seven others.
The Wildcats have recorded six of their nine INTs this season in the last three games. Redshirt sophomore Ibraheim Campbell (team-high 11 pass breakups) and redshirt freshman standout Nick VanHoose, who has seven pass breakups and two INTs despite missing three games to injury, will have to keep an eye on Chad Bumphis.
The senior receiver, a second-team all-SEC pick, has 55 receptions for 904 yards and 12 scores - all team highs.
This will be the first matchup between Mississippi State and Northwestern, but the coaches certainly know each other, having struck up a friendship after meeting in the early 2000s while both were assistant coaches.