Our snapshots of each bowl game featuring a Big Ten team wraps up with ...
TAXSLAYER.COM GATOR BOWL
Northwestern (9-3) vs. Mississippi State (8-4)
Where: EverBank Field; Jacksonville, Fla.
When: Jan. 1, noon ET
About Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald's squad was one of few true bright spots in a mostly miserable Big Ten this season. Pegged by most to win no more than seven games before the season, a young Wildcats team blossomed to match its highest win total in Fitzgerald's tenure. Although blown leads against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan kept Northwestern from reaching the Big Ten championship game, the Wildcats never dropped consecutive games and saw improvement in all three phases. Junior running back Venric Mark provided the rushing threat Northwestern has lacked along with quarterback Kain Colter, and a physical offensive line helped Northwestern rank 14th nationally in rushing (230.9 ypg). The defense had some rough moments but no longer was a major liability and received strong performances from underclassmen like cornerback Nick VanHoose and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Northwestern now tries to eliminate one of the final negatives surrounding its program and win a bowl game for the first time since the 1949 Rose.
About Mississippi State: The Bulldogs stormed out of the gate, winning their first seven games for the first time since they started 8-0 in 1999. But reality arrived in the form of the Alabama Crimson Tide, which pummeled Mississippi State 38-7 on Oct. 27. The Bulldogs fell to two more SEC West heavyweights (LSU and Texas A&M), briefly righted the ship against Arkansas before dropping the Egg Bowl to Ole Miss. Mississippi State lacks a signature win and beat four of the five worst teams in the SEC (Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas). This is a disciplined team that ranks fifth nationally in turnover margin (plus-1.42) and performs well on special teams. Quarterback Tyler Russell triggers the passing game, and Mississippi State boasts arguably the nation's top cornerback tandem in Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.
Key players, Northwestern: Mark earned All-America recognition from several outlets for his exploits both as a runner (1,315 rush yards, 11 TDs) and as a return man (20.1 yard per punt return, 2 TDs). He leads the Big Ten and ranks 11th nationally in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg). Colter also triggers Northwestern's zone-option game, racking up 820 rush yards and 12 touchdowns. VanHoose and sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell (85 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 12 passes defended) anchor the secondary, while junior defensive end Tyler Scott racked up seven sacks and Ariguzo contributed 10.5 tackles for loss and four fumble recoveries. Kicker Jeff Budzien earned All-Big Ten honors after converting 17 of 18 attempts.
Key players, Mississippi State: Opposing quarterbacks must be wary of Banks and Slay on the edges. They've combined for nine interceptions -- five for Slay, four for Banks -- and 22 passes defended. Linebacker Cameron Lawrence also earned All-SEC honors after recording a team-high 111 tackles, including 10 for loss, and two forced fumbles. Russell ranks 44th nationally in pass efficiency (140.4 rating) with 2,791 pass yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. Junior LaDarius Perkins (940 rush yards, 8 TDs) runs behind a line anchored by second-team All-SEC selection Gabe Jackson.
Did you know: Mississippi State is playing in its third consecutive bowl for only the second time in school history (1998-2000). The Bulldogs have won five straight bowl games dating back to 1999. ... Fitzgerald enters bowl season needing one victory to become the winningest head coach in Northwestern football history. Fitzgerald’s next head coaching win will be his 50th, one better than Lynn Waldorf's record of 49 set from 1936-45. ... The game marks the first-ever meeting between the schools. ... While Mississippi State is just two years removed from its last Gator Bowl appearance, Northwestern plays in the bowl for the first time. The Wildcats play their third bowl against an SEC team after dropping games to Auburn (2010 Outback) and Tennessee (1997 Citrus).
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