Football: Northwestern headed to Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day


Source: Gator Bowl website

Northwestern will play Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. The two teams will square off noon at the EverBank Field in Jacksonville.

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

After mounting speculation throughout the past week, No. 20 Northwestern officially accepted an invitation Sunday to play in the 2013 Gator Bowl.

The Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) will face Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) in the New Year’s Day game in Jacksonville, Fla., with kickoff scheduled for 11 a.m. It is NU’s fifth consecutive bowl game and third in the last four years to be played Jan. 1.

“It’s going to be a great trip for us, and I know our fans are excited,” athletic director Jim Phillips said. “It’s really a privilege to go and play on a January 1 bowl game, especially in Florida.”

Many fans hoped NU would get bumped up in the bowl selection order after Nebraska lost 70-31 to Wisconsin in Saturday’s Big Ten title game. However, the Cornhuskers were ultimately selected by the Capital One Bowl, who had the first pick, and Michigan was then taken by the Outback Bowl, which had the second pick. That left the Cats to accept the invitation to the Gator Bowl.

Phillips said he was talking with bowl games until 2:30 a.m. Saturday and then woke up again around 7:30 a.m. to continue his discussions with their respective staffs. He said he got the official notice at 12:45 p.m. today that the Gator Bowl invited the Cats to their game.

“It’s been a fluid landscape when it comes to the bowls,” Phillips said. “There’s no birth order to this thing. There’s no ‘You deserve to be in a certain place or a certain destination.’ It really is a selection. We’re a part of a conference for 364 days, and then one day of the year, we’re independent contractors and independent negotiators.”

News of NU’s destination leaked out on social media this afternoon, adding a new dynamic to the official announcement.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald joked that he was the last person to tell his team where it would be going because they had all heard on Twitter. Junior quarterback Kain Colter said he found out via text from his mother after waking up from a nap. Senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said he was playing video games with his teammates when he heard that NU would be headed to Jacksonville.

Nwabuisi is a part of the first class to ever go to bowl games for five consecutive years. He said playing in bowls has almost become a given, and it’s time for NU to get the proverbial monkey off its back by nabbing its first win at a bowl game since 1949.

“(Going to five straight bowl games) will mean nothing until we get this win in this bowl game,” Nwabuisi said. “Since I’ve been here, it’s expected that we go to a bowl game. It’s all about taking that next step and getting that bowl win and then next year pressing on and getting to the Big Ten Championship and setting new goals and standards.”

Despite the fact NU is playing in its fifth straight bowl game, Fitzgerald is making minor changes to the preparation routine for his players. The most notable change is the amount of rest the coach is giving the starters. Fitzgerald said he is basically going to rest them until the end of finals, only having them in the weight room and do cardio workouts.

“We’ve definitely tweaked it this year,” Fitzgerald said. “With the way the season went down and the amount of bumps and bruises that we had as the season unfolded, we’re really going to give the varsity a rest. We’ve got a very specific plan to instill the game plan and keep those guys fresh but really improve on the things we need to get better at for the varsity.”

Mississippi State finished fourth in the SEC West and come into the Gator Bowl having lost four of their last five games. The Bulldogs make compelling opponent for NU because they are ranked 70th nationally in rushing defense, the hallmark of the Cats’ offense. However, the Bulldogs are tied for fifth in the country in turnover margin, whereas NU is ranked 10th. Fitzgerald admitted he knows very little about the Bulldogs, but he expects the coaching staff to have film ready to study by Monday afternoon.

After bringing a stuffed monkey to the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas in 2011, Fitzgerald did not pledge to travel with another symbol of NU’s 63-game bowl drought. He said Sunday that he would get his creative juices flowing and see what he could come up with.