Gator Bowl: Mississippi St.-Northwestern

Key matchup

Mississippi State has had its troubles against up-tempo offenses this season, allowing no fewer than 527 yards vs. Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Troy. The Bulldogs will be facing an opponent that plays at a similar pace with No. 21 Northwestern, but one that does it a different way.

These Wildcats are predicated by the run, ranking 14th in the nation (230.9 yards per game) behind running back Venric Mark, who ran for 1,315 yards and 11 touchdowns, and dual-threat quarterback Kin Colter (68.3 per). It would seem to be a troubling matchup for a Bulldogs defense that yielded 166 yards on the ground (69th), including 223 in their four losses to Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU and Ole Miss.

Defensive end Denico Autry has shown improvement, totaling four tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles over the last three games. But even with the strides the junior college transfer has made, depth issues on the line make slowing down the Wildcats seem like a difficult task for the Bulldogs defensive front.

Player to Watch

The Jim Thorpe winner as the nation’s top defensive back, Johnathan Banks may be the best player on the field but considering the Wildcats’ ability to run, and the Bulldogs’ troubles stopping it, you have to wonder how much of a factor he’ll be.

Instead, we’ll turn our attention to the player who is likely the key to Mississippi State’s chances if Northwestern has its typical success on the ground: QB Tyler Russell.

The junior, who has thrown for 2,791 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, has been wearing a brace on the ankle he sprained Nov. 24 vs. Ole Miss but is isn’t expected to be limited against the Wildcats.

That’s good news for the Bulldogs, because if there’s a place where they would seem fully capable of exploiting the Wildcats defense, it’s through the air as Northwestern ranks 98th in the nation against the pass, allowing 262.5 ypg.

He’s been well protected all season, with only Tennessee allowing fewer sacks per game among SEC teams than Mississippi State’s 1.3 per. Keeping him upright is key as he’s thrown for 19 TDs and one pick in the Bulldogs’ wins compared to five picks and three scores in their losses.

Telling Stat

64: That’s how many years it’s been since the Wildcats last won a bowl game, beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl. Northwestern enters the game riding a nine-game postseason losing streak.

Final Analysis

The Bulldogs fell hard after winning their first seven games, dropping four of their last five. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are two tight losses – one point against Northwestern and an OT loss to Michigan – from coming into this game on a six-game streak. All that being said, Mississippi State has already faced a team in the BCS title game (Alabama) and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. These Bulldogs are tested and should keep Northwestern’s postseason skid alive.

The Pick: Mississippi State 27-24