Football: Why Northwestern will win the 2013 Gator Bowl


Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald should have plenty of inspirational material for his team prior to Tuesday’s Gator Bowl. A Wildcats win would give the program its first bowl win since 1949.

John Paschall, Reporter

Have no fear, Northwestern fans. You will finally be able to witness the Wildcats win a bowl game on Tuesday when they take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl. When NU does come out the 2013 Gator Bowl champions, it will be for five key reasons.

1. Mississippi State hasn’t beaten anyone good.

How bad was the Bulldogs’ slate?

The best team they beat was Middle Tennessee State (8-4, 6-2), which finished fourth in the Sun Belt Conference and got blown out by conference champion Arkansas State 45-0 in their final game. Middle Tennessee was also the only FBS team Mississippi State beat that was above .500.

None of the Bulldogs’ eight wins this season came against teams playing in bowl games this postseason.

When Mississippi State did play quality opponents — Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss — they got smoked. The average margin of defeat was 23.25 points. Ouch.

2. There is too much bulletin board material for NU.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald has been gift-wrapped enough bulletin board material to motivate his team to victory. Let’s start with the obvious: the Capital One fiasco. There were numerous reports that the Big Ten and SEC pressured the bowl’s selection committee to get Nebraska and Georgia into that game instead of a possible matchup between Northwestern and Texas A&M. Capital One Bowl CEO Steve Hogan and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany both denied these allegations.

But let’s be real now. Money drives college football nowadays (Exhibit A: The expansion-happy Big Ten), and there was probably a feeling that Nebraska fans would bring more money than Northwestern fans. Yet, in a football perspective, it looks pretty strange putting a Cornhuskers’ team that was downright embarrassed on national TV by 39 points in the Big Ten Championship Game onto another national stage against potentially an even stronger opponent. Fitzgerald won’t admit it, but he knows his team deserves to play in that bowl instead of the Gator Bowl. He lost by inches on kicker Jeff Budzien’s only missed field goal of the year to Nebraska. The team has been a surprise success this year, and a bigger national stage on New Year’s Day could have done wonders for recruiting. But he knows that beating an SEC team would boost NU’s status in a year that saw a lot of weak Big Ten play. They can stand out amongst the crowd on a national stage and head into 2013 with tons of momentum.

The Cats can also thank South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, known as the Head Ball Coach, for supplying a quote for the locker room board when he spoke about playing Michigan in the Outback Bowl, a potential landing spot for NU at the time:

“If you beat or you get beat by Northwestern, you don’t achieve as much as playing Michigan with their stature, tradition, and reputation,” Spurrier said. “It’s something special.”

Oh, yeah. And there’s some sort of 63-year bowl losing streak going on too. That should provide enough to get the Cats going.

3. When you make Mississippi State’s offense one-dimensional, they lose.

This specifically applies to shutting down their rushing attack. In their four losses this year, the Bulldogs have rushed for less than 100 yards. NU’s defense has made major improvements to their run defense in 2012, which ranks 18th in the nation in terms of rushing yards per game (122.75). One strategy that could help the Cats make the Bulldogs a pass-only team is if they were able to get an early or big lead. Junior quarterback Tyler Russell, when forced to play catch up, tends to turn the ball over. When he throws an interception in a game, the Bulldogs are 1-4, and five of his six interceptions this season have come when they are losing or tied.

4. Mississippi State isn’t built to come back on teams.

The biggest fear for most, if not all, NU fans is seeing the Cats build a big lead in the first half and then let it slip away in the second half. But here is the stat that will make Wildcat fans sleep better the night before the game: NU has had the lead going into halftime in 10 out of their 12 games this year. They went on to win 8 of those 10. In every one of Mississippi State’s losses, they have either been tied or trailed at halftime.

5. A Cats win would be a perfect NU sports story.

What better story would there be than to have NU’s bowl loss streak end at the same time that Fitzgerald becomes NU’s winningest coach in school in history?

This is the seventh installment of The Daily’s Road to Jacksonville series leading up to the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. Check back Monday when The Daily begins its coverage from Jacksonville with snippets from coach Pat Fitzgerald’s pregame press conference. Follow @Wildcat_Extra for live updates from the press conference.