SEC: Northwestern Wildcats

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 TaxSlayer.com 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.

Mississippi State keys for Gator Bowl

December, 31, 2012
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Here’s a look at three keys for Mississippi State in Tuesday’s matchup with Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl:

1. Setting the tone early: It’s been a while since Mississippi State last won a football game. The Bulldogs beat Arkansas 45-14 back on Nov. 17 and lost four of their last five games to end the regular season. They need to have some success early in this game and regain their edge. That means moving the ball on offense and establishing themselves on defense. In three of their four losses, they trailed by 10 points or more at halftime and don’t want to have to play from behind against a Northwestern team that likes to play up-tempo on offense and is very good at keeping the chains moving with its zone-option game. Moreover, the Bulldogs have proven to be money when they have the lead late. They’re 28-0 under Dan Mullen when leading after three quarters.

2. Finding some balance on offense: Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell was one of the more improved quarterbacks in the country this season and put up excellent numbers. Senior receiver Chad Bumphis also had his best season, with an SEC-leading 12 touchdown catches. But when things went bad for the Bulldogs toward the end of the season, their running game went into the tank. Against SEC competition, they were 13th in the league in rushing offense with an average of 111.2 yards per game and were held under 50 yards rushing in three of their four losses. They need to get running back LaDarius Perkins going in this game. He needs just 60 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, and being able to generate a running game will keep the Wildcats from loading up and coming after Russell.

3. Secondary revival: At one point this season, Mississippi State would have rated right up there as one of the top defensive backfields in the country, and the Bulldogs are still plenty talented back there. Senior cornerback Johnthan Banks won the Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back. The problem was that the Bulldogs didn’t play like one of the top defensive backfields to close the season. They had several communication breakdowns and gave up an average of 273.4 passing yards and 12 touchdowns in their last five games. They were burned for five touchdown passes in the 41-24 loss to Ole Miss to end the regular season. Establishing a stronger pass rush will help, but Mississippi State also needs to get back to playing to its talent level in the secondary and not allow Northwestern any big plays in the passing game. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC this season with 30 interceptions, but only picked off four passes in their last five games.

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

December, 2, 2012
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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.

Northwestern says no to Sunday game

June, 3, 2010
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DESTIN, Fla. -- Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson and school officials had signed off on a request by ESPN to move the season opener against Northwestern to Sunday afternoon (Sept. 5), which would have given both teams the national spotlight.

But Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald didn't want to do it, meaning the game will remain on Saturday.

A Northwestern official told ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg that Fitzgerald's reasoning was that he didn't want to create a short week for his team on the opening weekend and have to travel back on Sunday night. Northwestern has Illinois State at home that following weekend, while Vanderbilt has LSU at home.

Northwestern was OK with playing on Thursday night or Friday night the previous week, but didn't want to go over into Sunday to play the game.

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