TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl Preview
Dec. 29, 2012
Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013 • Noon ET • Jacksonville, Fla.. • Everbank Field (77,511)
Northwestern will make its first appearance in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., where it will face Mississippi State on Jan. 1 at noon ET. The Wildcats earned their 11th bowl berth, advancing to the postseason for the fifth straight time under coach Pat Fitzgerald. It will be the first meeting between Northwestern and Mississippi State and it is the Big Ten’s eighth all-time appearance in the bowl game.
The 9-3 Wildcats will be looking for their first 10-win season since 1995 and a postseason victory over Mississippi State would also make Fitzgerald the winningest head coach in NU football history. Fitzgerald’s next head coaching win will be his 50th, one better than Lynn Waldorf’s record of 49 set from 1936-45. MSU is the third different SEC opponent Northwestern has encountered in bowl competition; the ’Cats previously faced Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl following the 1996 season, and on Jan. 1, 2010, faced Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
Mississippi State, which began the year with seven straight victories and climbed as high as No. 11 in the AP poll before suffering its first setback on Oct. 27 to national title contender Alabama, is making its third-straight bowl appearance for the second time in school history. Winners of their last five bowl games, the Bulldogs are currently tied with Rutgers for the nation’s longest active bowl winning streak. While the Bulldogs and Northwestern have never met on the gridiron, MSU owns a 3-7-1 all-time record against Big Ten teams, including a 1-3 mark at neutral sites. The last time MSU faced a Big Ten opponent was against Michigan in the 2011 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. And just as NU’s Fitzgerald can seek Wildcat fame with a bowl win, so too can MSU head coach Dan Mullen. A victory for the Bulldogs would make Mullen the only coach in the 113-year history of MSU football to capture nine wins in a season twice. Additionally, the fourth-year coach is trying to become the first coach in school history to win three bowl games.
Northwestern’s offense finished the regular season ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring (31.5), fourth in rushing (231.8), seventh in total yards (399.0), and 11th in passing (167.2). The Wildcats veered away from its familiar passing attack and used a two-headed rushing approach to rack up the yards this season. Running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter helped the NU unit rank 14th nationally in rushing yards and post three 300-yard rushing performances on the year. Mark topped 100 rushing yards in eight games this season, ranking fourth in the conference with 109.2 yards on the ground each time out. His 170.7 all-purpose yards are tops in the conference and ninth nationally. Mark needed only nine games to become NU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006 and is now 147 all-purpose yards shy of tying the NU single-season record of 2,195 yards set by Damien Anderson in 2000. Colter has been a part of a two-headed passing attack as well, with teammate Trevor Siemian helping out under center. The two have put up impressive numbers this season, including a school-record 704 yards of total offense against Indiana. The NU tandem has also gone without an interception in nine of 12 games this year, while Northwestern is one of nine teams in the country to have four or fewer interceptions this season. Those stats have helped Colter rank seventh in the conference with a 135.3 passer rating, while Siemian is 10th in the league with 99.8 passing yards per game. Sophomore Tony Jones, who missed all of 2011 with a knee injury, has been NU’s primary deep threat this year with long receptions of 42, 41 and 36 yards. He leads Northwestern with four touchdown catches on the year and has five for his career. In addition to Jones, four other wideouts – Rashad Lawrence (32), Demetrius Field (31), and Christian Jones (30) – have caught 20 or more passes on the year.
The Mississippi State defense concluded its SEC campaign ranked seventh in the conference in scoring (22.4), eighth in passing (223.9), ninth in total yards allowed (389.9) and 11th in rushing (166.0). The Bulldogs are led by All-American defensive back Johnthan Banks, who was recently named the winner of the 2012 Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the best defensive back in college football. Banks is far from the lone star in the Mississippi
State defensive backfield this season. Seniors Corey Broomfield and Darius Slay along with junior Nickoe Whitley have played substantial amounts of football for the Bulldogs. Combined, the starting four have played in 159 games and earned 124 starts. They’ve also intercepted 40 career passes, with eight returned for touchdowns. Slay has posted a team-high five of the Bulldogs’ 16 picks this year, which has helped Mississippi State own a SEC-best plus-17 turnover margin, a mark that also ranks tied for fifth nationally. All-SEC senior linebacker Cameron Lawrence posted double-digit tackles in seven of eight conference games this year, including 8.5 tackles for loss in his last six overall games. Lawrence ranks third in the SEC with 111 tackles and is nine stops away from becoming the first MSU player since James Williams in 1988-89 to have back-to-back seasons with 120-plus tackles. Fellow linebacker Benardrick McKinney shined in his first season with the Bulldogs. He was named All-SEC Freshman after finishing seventh in the SEC and leading all conference newcomers with 97 tackles, which rated fourth among freshmen nationally.
Offensively, Mississippi State finished the regular season sixth in the SEC in passing (248.8), tied for seventh in scoring (30.2), eighth in total yards (389.4) and 11th in rushing (140.7). Under center for the Bulldogs is second-year starter Tyler Russell, a junior completing 60 percent of his passes with 22 touchdown tosses to his credit. The Russell-led attack has broken five different single-season team records this year, including yards (2,985), yards per game (248.8), completions (237), completion percentage (.600) and touchdowns (26). Led by Russell, MSU has passed for 300 yards in three-straight games (Nov. 10-24) for the first time in school history. Russell has also individually rewritten the school’s record books, breaking or tying nine different single-season school passing records, including: attempts (366), completions (219), yards (2,791), completion percentage with a minimum of 200 attempts (.598), touchdowns (22), consecutive attempts without an interception (137), 200-yard passing game (8), interceptions per attempt (1:61), and passing efficiency rating with a minimum of 200 attempts (140.45). He is just 89 yards of total offense away from breaking the school’s single season record (2,886), held by Don Smith in 1985. Russell’s primary target is All-SEC wideout Chad Bumphis, the school’s career leader in touchdowns (24), receiving yards (2,252) and consecutive games with a reception (29). He is also seven catches away from breaking David Smith’s 42-year old school record of 162 career receptions. Bumphis, who is 96 receiving yards shy of becoming the second 1,000-yard receiver in school history and 132 receiving yards from breaking the single-season school record, became the first MSU wideout since 1973 to lead the SEC in touchdown receptions (12). In the backfield, All-SEC junior tailback LaDarius Perkins ranks second in the conference in all-purpose yards per game (129.5) and sixth in rushing (85.5).
Northwestern’s defense rated third in the Big Ten against the run (122.8), fifth in scoring (22.8), ninth in total yards allowed (385.3), and 12th defending the pass (262.6). While a stingy Wildcat line looks to contain Perkins to minimal yards on the ground, the unit will be tested in the air. Expect the NU pass-rush tandem of junior defensive end Tyler Scott and senior defensive end Quentin Williams to disrupt the efforts of MSU’s Russell. Scott is leading Northwestern’s efforts to affect the quarterback this year, ranking fourth among all Big Ten players with 7.0 sacks on the year to move within 1.5 of cracking NU’s top-10 list for career sacks. Scott also has five pass breakups this season and has caused a Big Ten-best three fumbles. Williams has been responsible for 16 TFLs, including memorable back-to-back sacks at Minnesota with the Gophers driving late in search of a game-tying score. Junior linebacker Damien Proby is sixth in the conference with 9.0 tackles per game, while fellow linebacker David Nwabuisi is tied for 13th at 7.6 stops each time out. Northwestern enters the postseason as one of eight teams in the country with 15 or more fumbles recovered (16). The Wildcats have recorded exactly four takeaways in each of their last two outings and will square off against the Bulldogs owning a Big Ten-best plus-13 turnover margin.
In special teams, Mississippi State is led by sophomore return man Jameon Lewis, who boasts an SEC-best 28.1 yards per kickoff return average. An area in which the Bulldogs might be vulnerable is in the kicking game itself. True freshman place kicker Devon Bell has hit just 12 of his 19 field goal attempts on the year, with a pair of those misses being blocks. Bell, however, is on pace to become the third true freshman in school history to lead the Bulldogs in scoring and needs one point in the Gator Bowl to break the school record for most points scored by a kicker in a single season. Bell’s counterpart, Northwestern junior Jeff Budzien, was voted the Bakken- Anderson Big Ten Co-Kicker of the Year and a first-team All-Big Ten performer by the league’s coaches, making him the first NU kicker since Brian Gowins in 1997 to earn first-team All-Big Ten recognition. He wrapped up the regular season having converted 17 of his 18 field goal attempts on the year, including 6-of-7 tries from 40 yards or longer. He also is 46-of-46 on extra point attempts this year, remaining perfect for his career (97-of-97). While Venric Mark has stayed busy in the Wildcats’ backfield, he has continued to impress in special teams. NU is ranked No. 3 in the country in punt return average (17.5), while Mark’s 20.1-yard average would lead FBS but is one return shy of meeting the minimum qualifying number of returns (14). He is now the single-game school record holder for punt return yards (134 at Syracuse, 2012) and kickoff return yards (273 at Wisconsin, 2010).