Sunday, December 2, 2012
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl
By Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg
Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) vs. Northwestern Wildcats (9-3)
Jan. 1, noon ET, Jacksonville, Fla. (ESPN2)
Mississippi State take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: What started as a possible dream season for the Bulldogs, quickly turned ugly when the month of November rolled around.
The Bulldogs started off the season 7-0 and rose as high as 11 in the BCS rankings. While the early part of the schedule was very favorable to Mississippi State, this team showed a ton of promise with how balanced it was on offense and how much its secondary frustrated opposing offenses.
Through the first seven games of the season, the Bulldogs allowed an average of 327 yards. The 95 points allowed by their defense was the lowest total through the first seven contests for the Bulldogs since the 1999 team held opponents to 74 points.
Quarterback Tyler Russell was also one of the nation’s most efficient passers and was one of just three quarterbacks with 15-plus touchdowns and just one interception through seven games.
But after being blown out by 31 against Alabama and setting foot in November, the Bulldogs fell apart. The lack of a consistent pass rush and execution issues on offense set the Bulldogs back, as they went 1-4 in their past five games and were outscored by 93 in the process.
The season ended with a 41-24 loss to archrival Ole Miss in Oxford. It was the Bulldogs’ first loss to the Rebels since 2008.
Even though the regular season ended in a very unflattering way, the Bulldogs could still finish the year with nine wins for the second time in four years.
Northwestern take from Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern not only reversed the recent trend of declining wins totals this season, but it left its fans wanting more. The Wildcats went 9-3 to match their best regular-season record under seventh-year coach Pat Fitzgerald, and they were a play or two away from winning the Legends Division. If they had held onto late leads against both Nebraska and Michigan, the purple could be heading back to Pasadena.
Although finishing games was a struggle at times, Northwestern exceeded almost all expectations with a young roster. After finishing no better than 45th nationally in rushing during Fitzgerald’s first six years, the Wildcats’ ground game surged this season (14th nationally, third in the Big Ten). Junior running back Venric Mark blossomed in his first season as the starter, and, along with quarterback Kain Colter, formed one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous backfield tandems. Northwestern used both Colter and sophomore Trevor Siemian at quarterback and went from a pass-first offense to a run-driven attack, as Mark earned second-team All-Big Ten honors and finished ninth nationally in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg).
A much-maligned defense had some hiccups along the way but made obvious strides, too. Linebacker David Nwabuisi saved his best season for last, and younger players like safety Ibraheim Campbell, cornerback Nick VanHoose and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo stepped up.
The next step is obvious: winning a bowl game for the first time since the 1949 Rose. Although Northwestern moved down a few spots in the selection order after being pegged for Capital One on Saturday night, the Wildcats have a winnable game against struggling Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.