Table set for Wildcats' bowl breakthrough

There are a few cowbells cropping up around Northwestern's football complex in recent weeks, but no monkeys.

The stuffed monkey Northwestern players carried around during last year's bowl preparation -- signifying 63 years of postseason futility -- was good for some laughs, some newsprint and some airtime during ESPN's broadcast of the Meineke Care Care Bowl of Texas. But it didn't bring any luck in the game, as Northwestern fell to Texas A&M, suffering its ninth consecutive bowl defeat.

There's no monkey business this year, and that's a good thing. Just because everyone else brings up the bowl losing streak doesn't mean the Wildcats have to belabor it. They're focused on the Mississippi State Bulldogs, all those cowbells and what it takes to walk off the field at the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl as a winner.

"Our goal is still in front of us," senior guard Brian Mulroe told ESPN.com, "and it's a big goal."

It's also a more realistic goal. A significant factor in Northwestern's bowl slide has been matchups. The Wildcats have been underdogs in each of their past nine bowl matchups -- in several cases, sizable underdogs.

Because of the Big Ten's tendency to send two teams to BCS bowls, Northwestern's recent ability to sell itself to better bowl games and other reasons, the Wildcats have been in several games that, on paper, look like mismatches. Last season, Northwestern leapfrogged two teams it had lost to -- Penn State, Illinois -- on the bowl pecking order and faced a Texas A&M squad led by a future NFL starting quarterback (Ryan Tanehill).

"We played some really darn good football teams, and we've gone toe-to-toe with them," Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "... I don't know, Jeremy Maclin's turned out to be a pretty damn good player [Maclin had a game-changing, 75-yard punt return touchdown for Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl]. And Auburn won a national championship the next year [after Northwestern played the Tigers]. I think I saw three All-Americans on this year’s team that were on A&M."

Northwestern once again is an underdog against Mississippi State, but a slight one. The Wildcats have two more wins than the Bulldogs and a stronger overall résumé. Although both teams started strong, Northwestern finished a bit better with wins in three of its final four games (Mississippi State dropped four of five).

Although many Northwestern fans were hoping for a Capital One Bowl invitation that never came, what they received is a long overdue even matchup in a bowl game. Mississippi State isn't vastly superior to Northwestern, like A&M was last year.

"We just haven't finished the job," Fitzgerald said. "That's what we need to do right now."

Fitzgerald, who played on Northwestern bowl teams that endured two-a-day practices in December ("We almost had a mutiny," he said), hopes to find the right balance of work and fun before kickoff. Northwestern is having a bowl week in Chicago -- the team attended Tuesday night's Bulls-Celtics game -- before the actual bowl week in Jacksonville, Fla.

But for fifth-year seniors like Mulroe, who made his first career start in the 2010 Outback Bowl and started the next two bowls, it's all about taking care of business.

"This is going to be a work bowl, definitely," he said. "It's been tough, but every time in the locker room after those games, those seniors, they're so appreciative of the season but you know deep down, they wanted that last win. So we're going to try to prepare everyone as if they're a senior. It is the last game as a team, and as a unit. Bowls are fun, but obviously there's one goal.

"The one goal is to win, and we're going to get that monkey off our back."

OK, so the monkey isn't totally dead in Evanston, but it could be Jan. 1. And though Fitzgerald still thinks the media places too much emphasis on bowls, win or lose, he acknowledges what a victory could do for a program that returns its core intact for 2013.

"Nine wins is a good season; 10 wins is great," he said. "Winning a bowl game is an exclamation point on this year. With the amount of guys we have coming back and the way our senior class graduates as the all-time winningest senior class, it's an exclamation point on as solid of a foundation of success as we've ever had in this program's history."