SEC: Gator Bowl 2012

Are eight wins enough at Mississippi State?

Obviously not, because it’s hard to find anyone in the Land of Cowbells who feels especially good right now about Mississippi State’s 8-5 finish this season.

That includes coach Dan Mullen, who despite what anybody says, has done a solid job with that program when you consider what had transpired in Starkville prior to his arrival. The Bulldogs, ravaged by NCAA sanctions, managed just one winning season from 2001-08.

Mullen, after taking over in 2009, has guided the Bulldogs to three straight winning seasons.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State
AP Photo/Stephen MortonMississippi State's disappointing season was capped with a loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
But that seems like a hollow accomplishment given the way it all unraveled at the end of this season. After starting out 7-0 and climbing to No. 11 in the BCS standings, Mississippi State lost five of its last six games, a collapse that was punctuated by a 34-20 loss to Northwestern on Tuesday in the Gator Bowl.

Mullen didn’t hold back when asked how disappointing it was to lose five of the last six games.

“Excuse my language, but it sucks,” Mullen said. “Nobody likes to lose. Our kids put in … everybody puts in a lot of work to win football games. It was great to win a lot early. It sucks to lose late, to be honest with you.”

Trying to find a silver lining, Mullen pointed out that eight-win seasons were starting to become disappointing at Mississippi State, and he added, “That is the direction you want the program headed in.”

He’s right in theory, but a closer look at who the Bulldogs have beaten and who they haven’t beaten during Mullen’s tenure paints a very different picture.

Mullen is now 7-21 at Mississippi State against teams that finished the season with a winning record. It will be 7-22 if Ole Miss wins its bowl game.

The Bulldogs haven’t beaten an SEC team that finished the season with a winning record since their 10-7 win at Florida in 2010. They’ve now lost 11 straight games to nationally ranked opponents and are just 2-17 against ranked foes under Mullen.

In their four losses to ranked teams this season, they were outscored 147-57 and gave up 34 or more points in all four games.

It’s probably telling that Mullen switched it up and had co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins call the plays in the bowl game. Changes are almost certainly coming. The Bulldogs were already looking for a cornerbacks coach after losing Melvin Smith to Auburn.

It’s also hard to feel good about what the offense did in the final part of the season. Quarterback Tyler Russell threw four interceptions against the Wildcats. One was returned 29 yards for a touchdown to open the game. Another set up the clinching touchdown after Nick VanHoose returned Russell's final pick 39 yards to the Mississippi State 5.

In the end, this will be a season that’s remembered more for how soft the Bulldogs’ schedule was to start the season than how well they performed on the field.

That doesn’t diminish the gains the program has made under Mullen, and it doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is finished climbing.

What it does mean is that eight wins aren’t enough, particularly when the seven wins against FBS competition come against teams that finished the season with a combined 29-56 record.

The streak is over and the monkey is gone. Northwestern finally can celebrate a bowl win.

The Wildcats claimed their first postseason victory in 64 years after downing Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Although the game didn't go as planned for either squad, Northwestern rode opportunistic defense (17 points off turnovers) and a big third quarter from Trevor Siemian to its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. Surprisingly, there was little drama as Northwestern's defense clamped down.

Let's take a look at how it went down:

It was over when: Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw his fourth interception, a wounded duck on third-and-10, and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose returned the ball inside the red zone with 9:54 to play. Northwestern led by only seven at the time but scored three plays later to take a 14-point lead with 8:10 left. To truly seal the win, Wildcats defensive lineman Deonte Gibson dropped Russell on fourth-and-20 with 1:42 left.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern defensive ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott. Both of the Wildcats' top edge rushers stepped up in the bowl win. Williams set the tone for the game with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also had a sack and two tackles for loss, while Scott dropped Russell twice in the win.

Stat of the game: Both teams entered the game among the nation's best at taking care of the ball, but things changed in Jacksonville. The Wildcats and Bulldogs combined for seven turnovers, including three first-half interceptions by Mississippi State's Russell, who threw four picks after throwing just six in the regular season. Northwestern came in with just 12 giveaways, tied for sixth-fewest nationally, while Mississippi State had 13 giveaways (tied for ninth). Both teams ranked in the top 10 in turnover margin but looked sloppy with the ball.

Stat of the game II: Third-down efficiency played a huge part in the game, and Northwestern had a significant edge there. The Wildcats moved the chains 10 times on 19 third-down opportunities. The biggest conversion came with the game tied in the third quarter, when Siemian made a tough throw on the run to Rashad Lawrence to convert a third-and-10 in Wildcats territory. Northwestern scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. Mississippi State, meanwhile, was a mess on third down, converting just 1 of 11 chances.

Unsung hero: Northwestern freshman superback (tight end) Dan Vitale. Mississippi State's defense did a good job taking away Venric Mark and Kain Colter, but Vitale, a freshman, gashed the Bulldogs for seven receptions and 82 yards. He provided the receiving threat Northwestern needed against a good Bulldogs secondary.

What Northwestern learned: It can win a bowl game, for starters. After several near misses (2008 Alamo, 2010 Outback), Northwestern finally got over the hump in the postseason. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff did a masterful job coaching a young team not predicted to do much to just the school's third 10-win season. After blowing three fourth-quarter leads in Big Ten play, Northwestern made enough plays on both sides of the ball to hold off the mistake-prone Bulldogs. Northwestern needed this win to legitimize its program and should be right in the Legends division mix next fall, as most key players return.

What Mississippi State learned: Russell can be rattled. The junior turned in a record-setting season for the Bulldogs but had a miserable performance in the bowl, completing only 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns and the four picks. Mississippi State wins with discipline and Russell didn't have enough of it with the football. The Bulldogs played without star cornerback Johnthan Banks for most of the second half, and his absence showed. After a 7-0 start, Mississippi State had an extremely disappointing finish and lacked any decent wins on its résumé.

Mississippi State bowl X factor

January, 1, 2013
It's time to take a look at Mississippi State's X factor in today's matchup with Northwestern in the Gator Bowl:


LaDarius Perkins, Jr. RB: One thing the Bulldogs have struggled with during their 1-4 finish was running the ball. What had been their bread and butter on offense for most of their 7-0 start was barely moving in the month of November. After averaging 180.4 yards per game through the first seven contests of the season, Mississippi State averaged just 85 yards on the ground in the last five games -- and that included a 203-yard performance against Arkansas. Perkins has to get it going again today. He went from being one of the top all-purpose backs, to becoming the forgotten man, as he averaged just 54 yards and had no rushing touchdowns in the last four games that he played. Northwestern's rush defense is pretty good, too. The Wildcats rank 20th nationally against the run, allowing just 122.8 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. Mississippi State wants to be extremely balanced on offense, but that obviously can't happen if Perkins isn't running the ball well. The Bulldogs haven't had the same efficient offense since mid-October, so Perkins' play is very key to getting the ball moving again. With Mississippi State's defense struggling mightily during the last month of the season, the offense will have to churn out yards and put up points because you just don't know what you'll get from the other side of the ball. Also, keeping the ball in their own hands will help tremendously because the Wildcats love to run and keep that clock moving. The Perkins of old has to show up for the Bulldogs today.

Northwestern keys for Gator Bowl

December, 30, 2012
Let's look at three keys for Northwestern in Tuesday's matchup against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl:

1. Establish the run early and often: Northwestern has been at its best when going up-tempo with the zone option game. Mississippi State isn't great against the run (69th nationally, 166 yards per game), so it's imperative for Wildcats tandem Venric Mark and Kain Colter to establish the ground attack behind a physical line early in the game. Northwestern's passing attack has been up and down, and the Wildcats don't want to get into obvious passing situations against a veteran Bulldogs secondary featuring Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks at cornerback. The Wildcats offense needs to hit on a big run play or two and convert manageable third downs.

2. Turning the tables: Northwestern and Mississippi State both do a great job of taking care of the football. The Wildcats lead the Big Ten and are tied for 10th nationally in average turnover margin (plus-1.08 per game), while Mississippi State is even better (tied for fifth nationally, plus-1.42 per game). The teams have combined for 55 takeaways (30 for Mississippi State, 25 for Northwestern), while committing only 25 combined giveaways (12 for Northwestern, 13 for Mississippi State). The Bulldogs have won 23 of their past 25 games when winning the turnover battle, so it's vital that Northwestern protects the football and makes smart decisions in the passing game. The Wildcats have recorded timely takeaways throughout the season and might need one or two to beat Mississippi State.

3. Win the fourth quarter: Northwestern would be undefeated if it could have held fourth-quarter leads against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. Although the Wildcats still consider clutch play their hallmark, they need to show they can finish the game if they establish an early lead. Northwestern has been outscored 87-60 in the fourth quarter this season. Mississippi State, meanwhile, hasn't had any issues blowing late leads. The Bulldogs have won their past 38 games when leading after three quarters, including a 28-0 mark during coach Dan Mullen's tenure. Both teams have been good in the first three quarters, but the Bulldogs definitely have the edge in the fourth. Northwestern must change that Tuesday.

Pregame: Gator Bowl

December, 30, 2012
Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)

WHO TO WATCH: Northwestern running back Venric Mark. A year ago, Mark was a nonfactor at receiver. Now he's an All-American because of his explosiveness both as a running back and as a return man. The junior gave Northwestern its first true threat at running back since 2008 and, alongside quarterback Kain Colter, changed the offense from a pass-happy attack to more ground-based. He ranks 23rd nationally in rushing (109.2 yards per game), first in punt-return average (20.1 ypr) and ninth in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg). He needs 148 yards in the bowl to set Northwestern's single-season record. Despite his size (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), Mark likes running between the tackles and challenging much bigger defenders. But his breakaway speed is his best attribute, and he's responsible for 23 plays of 20 yards or longer and 10 plays of 40 yards or longer.

WHAT TO WATCH: Mississippi State's secondary. There might not be a better cornerback tandem in the country than Johnthan Banks, the Thorpe Award winner, and All-SEC selection Darius Slay. Banks and Slay combined for nine interceptions, 22 passes defended, two fumble recoveries and three tackles for loss. Northwestern doesn't throw the ball nearly as much as it did in previous seasons and might be even more hesitant to challenge Banks and Slay. It'll be interesting to see how both men help against the run, an area in which Mississippi State has had some issues (69th nationally). The Bulldogs are very experienced and dangerous in the secondary with 124 starts and 40 interceptions (eight returned for touchdowns) combined among the starting four.

WHY TO WATCH: Northwestern is a young team that exceeded most expectations with nine wins and easily could have had more (three blown fourth-quarter leads). The program is enjoying an unprecedented period of sustained success, but it continues to be haunted by a bowl losing streak that stretches back to the 1949 Rose. Northwestern hopes to erase the "final negative," as coach Pat Fitzgerald puts it, and notch just the third 10-win season in team history. Mississippi State, meanwhile, does its best work in the postseason and brings the nation's longest active bowl win streak (five games) to Jacksonville, Fla. The Bulldogs struggled down the stretch after a 7-0 start and are still seeking a signature win to cap the season. Quarterback Tyler Russell leads a record-setting Mississippi State pass attack against a Northwestern defense that, while improved, still is prone to breakdowns.

PREDICTION: Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24. Russell will make some plays in this one, but Northwestern has the better résumé, easily could be in a better bowl and ended the season playing much better than Dan Mullen's Bulldogs (lost four of last five). Mark and Colter will find enough space against an average Mississippi State run defense, and Northwestern will force a key turnover or two in the second half. It'll be close, but Northwestern prevails to end the bowl losing streak. Gator Bowl

December, 2, 2012
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 Gator Bowl.