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.

Siemian’s former high school teammate Rashad Lawrence has a

team-best 32 receptions, while Christian Jones (373) and Tony Jones

(335) lead Northwestern in receiving yards.

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.