- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Let's look at three keys for Northwestern in Tuesday's matchup against Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com 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.