WNUR Web Director Eric Klaus previews Tuesday’s Gator Bowl.
On New Year’s Day, the 9-3 Northwestern Wildcats will battle the 8-4 Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl. It is Northwestern’s first ever trip to the Gator Bowl (played in Jacksonville, FL). In addition, it is the first time that Northwestern and Mississippi State have played one another.
Although bowl games are often seen as glorified exhibitions, Northwestern will have plenty to play for on Tuesday. For one, they will get another chance to end a nine game bowl-losing streak that dates back to 1949. On top of that, the ‘Cats will have the opportunity to clinch a 10-win season for the first time since 1996. A win would also lead to a top-20 finish in both the AP and Coaches Polls, something Northwestern has yet to do under coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Mississippi State will also have a lot to play for as they try to end their season on a high note after a late season slide. They started the year at an impressive 7-0 and rose all the way up to #11 in the AP poll. However, they were humbled in the season’s final five games, as they went just 1-4, losing decisively to Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. Interestingly, all eight of Mississippi State’s victories came against teams that were not bowl-eligible.
Offensively, Mississippi State is fairly average, as they rank 56th in the FBS in points per game. They are an incredibly balanced offense as they ran just four more pass plays than run plays during the regular season. Their leader on offense is junior QB Tyler Russell who has thrown for 2791 yards and 22 touchdowns (against just 6 interceptions) this season. Two other players to watch out for on offense are RB Ladarius Perkins and WR Chad Bumphis. Perkins, an all-SEC selection, has rushed for 940 yards and 8 touchdowns this season, while Bumphis has a team-high 12 touchdown receptions.
Mississippi State is a little stronger on the defensive side of the ball, where they allowed the 28th fewest points in the FBS this season. Their defense is led by star cornerbacks Jonathan Banks and Darius Slay, who form one of the best cornerback duos in all of college football. Banks, in particular, is considered to be one of the best shutdown corners in the country and as such, won the Jim Thorpe Award , an award given to the nation’s best defensive back. The Bulldogs front seven is much weaker, and has struggled against the run all season.
As mentioned before, Northwestern has lost 9 consecutive bowl games, including 4 in the last 4 years. To avoid a 10th consecutive bowl defeat, Northwestern will have to do three things:
1) Run the ball early and often
Norhtwestern’s biggest strength this season has been their rushing attack, as they are averaging 231 rushing yards per game (good for 14th in the nation). Since Mississippi State is very strong in the secondary, Northwestern will likely struggle to pass the ball, meaning they will need a solid run game to move the ball and sustain drives. Furthermore , considering Mississippi State’s struggles against the run (they are allowing 166 yards per game), Northwestern should have an opportunity to make many big plays on the ground.
2) Win the turnover battle
Both Northwestern and Mississippi State did a great job of winning the turnover battle this season as Northwestern had a +13 turnover margin and Mississippi State had a +17 turnover margin. Although the turnover battle is always important, it will be especially important because both teams rarely make mistakes with the ball. Mississippi State in particular struggled when losing the turnover battle as they had -3 turnover margin in their four losses.
3) Finish the game strong
This is nothing new as Northwestern has been plagued by late-game struggles all season and has blown 4th quarter leads in all three of their losses. Mississippi State on the other hand, has been great in the 4th quarter this season, outscoring its opponents 86-62. Therefore, if Northwestern has the lead late they will have to keep their foot on the gas and avoid letting another victory slip through their fingers.
Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 20
Northwestern should be able to control the clock and the game with a strong rushing attack. Expect Venric Mark and Kain Colter to have big days on the ground. Mississippi State will put up some points, especially through the air, but it will not be enough to overcome Northwestern. In all, expect a very close game that comes down to the final few possessions, with the ‘Cats ultimately prevailing.