Mississippi State, winners in the 2011 Gator Bowl, left the park 8-5 and losers in five of their last six contests. They also saw a post-season win streak begun in 1999 ended, as well as the two-straight string for these veterans. "We didn't finish out the way we wanted to," said one of them, junior guard Gabe Jackson. "Things just didn't go our way."
Coach Dan Mullen was a bit more blunt after his first bowl defeat at State in three tries, and first as a coach since his 2007 season as a Florida assistant. This also was the first time one of his Bulldog teams failed to end their season with a victory. "Excuse my language, but it sucks," he said. All the more so after this team began the year 7-0 and was ranked as high as #11 in the B.C.S. This stretch-run was nothing like any of Mullen's prior coaching experience.
"It was great to win a lot early, it sucks to lose late to be honest with you."
Though, Mullen could at least appreciate seeing peer and friend Pat Fitzgerald celebrate his first bowl win with the Wildcats. "I know how important that was to him. Their players played very well and deserve to win the game."
Northwestern certainly earned the trophy, by slugging toe-to-toe with State and cashing in on just enough easy opportunities. They scored 17 points off Mississippi State turnovers, the first seven directly on an interception. Three snaps into the afternoon Wildcat lineman Quentin Williams stepped in front of a flats-throw by Tyler Russell at the 29-yard line and ran it back for a stunning touchdown.
In a sense State didn't really recover from the stunning start. Northwestern did not maximize other first-half opportunities such as two more interceptions of Russell and drives of 15 and 10 plays, their longest of the game. Those resulted in just field goals, of 34 and 37 yards, and a 13-0 lead. Yet even when the Bulldogs fought back to the tie there was never an impression of a confident club. Or for that matter that the offense was settled on one constant plan.
Even had it been, Russell's day would have thrown things out of synch. "I was talking to Tyler, he was telling me I got to get going," Perkins said. "Because he said he was struggling a little bit, he was like get the guys going and we'd try to keep moving, pick it up some."
Russell set all sorts of season and career records in 2012, but he will want to forget the first day of '13. A Wildcat defense with just nine interceptions all season picked Russell off four times, including the opening touchdown. Russell, who did not speak with media post-game, was 12-of-28 for just 106 yards.
He did toss a pair of touchdowns to extend his own season record. And it was worth wondering how the whole game might have progressed if his second pass had been caught as it should have by WR Arceto Clark for a first down. Because it was the third-down throw that became the pick-six. Still this was not vintage Russell by any stretch.
His second series, a 50-yard drive, also ended on a pick as he floated a ball at the NW 14-yard line where linebacker Ibraiheim Campbell intercepted. And the third spoiled a great turnover-return when DE Denico Autry caught Colter's short throw and rumbled 43 yards to the Wildcat 15 bouncing off bodies of both teams all the way.
"Initially I got cut so I just hopped up and he threw the ball right into my hands, and I just ran." It was for nought. On first down, Russell under pressure threw into a crowd of purple and black with C.C. Ariguzo catching the tip.
"He was just a little frustrated, and who wouldn't be frustrated after making that mistake early on," said classmate Jackson. "I was telling him not to beat himself up, everybody has those days." At one second-quarter point Mullen sent Russell to the locker room for a mental break. "I said splash some water on your face, readjust your pads and forget that you came out to start the game."
Northwestern had their own turnover troubles as both quarterbacks were picked. But starter Kevin Colter and alternate Trevor Siemian also combined for 21-of-36 throwing and 196 yards. No pass produced a touchdown directly; instead it was a knack for key catches and most notably third-down throws that made the Wildcat air game effective. Colter's footwork was equally damaging, 71 yards on 11 rushes. This allowed Northwestern to get a very average day out of tailback Venric Mark with just (for him) 56 yards on 13 rushes, one of them a three-yarder for the final touchdown at 8:10 of the fourth quarter.
Given Northwestern's good record as a rushing defense, throwing often and early was not a surprise. Yet when the Bulldogs committed to the ground game it worked. Starter LaDarius Perkins got 84 yards on 19 runs, and surpassed the 1,000-yard season mark in the process; while backup Josh Robinson had 91 yards on seven carries. Running quarterback Dak Prescott had 20 more yards on two totes.
This made for another what-if, of emphasizing rushing sooner and stronger. "We felt we could kind of start throwing the ball," Mullen said. "That was always going to be an emphasis, but we wanted to make sure we set it up and didn't go solely on the run to start it off. I thought at times today we ran the ball very, very well. And, you know, the line did a good job up front, and I don't think we got to the point where we got to just really hammer away and continually establish the run falling behind early."
Falling behind fast, and those sudden second-half strikes, diminished a reasonably efficient day by the Dog defense. Upon arrival at bowl site, Mullen turned play-calling over to co-coordinator Geoff Collins rather than main coordinator Chris Wilson. Collins said it was because just-departed cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith ran substitutions in games; without him and against a no-huddle Wildcat offense the staff wanted Wilson entirely focused on getting his linemen rotated in and out. "For the most part it was good," Collins said.
But not good enough, certainly not on third downs as Northwestern converted 10 of 19. By bitter contrast the Bulldogs were only 1-of-11.
State did not have to convert third down on the first two scoring drives, one sparked by Robinson's 59-yard carry to the two-yard line. That was still frustrating as first TE Marcus Green and then guard Jackson false-started to negate using Prescott's prowess in goal-line. Devon Bell kicked a 27-yard field goal instead. Perkins broke runs of 10 and 20 yards on the next series, and at the Wildcat 18-yard line Russell had time to let Clark break before firing. Clark made a marvelous grab and got a toe down for the touchdown at 1:06.
The Wildcats gift-wrapped another opportunity to open the third quarter as S Nickoe Whitley intercepted Colter at midfield. Bell's 47-yard field goal tied things up 13-13 at 10:37, and two incompletes later the Bulldogs were a stop away from possession and playing for their first lead. Instead Siemian stayed ahead of two rushers and somehow found Rashad Lawrence for a first down. Just one play, but it put Northwestern in fast-forward.
Siemian threw for 27 yards, then 34 more against a breathless Dog defense. "They hadn't gone as fast because I guess we were hammering the run game early, they couldn't get their tempo started," Collins said. The Wildcats did now and Tyris Jones ran three yards for the go-ahead touchdown at 9:25.
Two series later, starting from their 26, Colter and Siemian alternated throws and called rushes with Colter using a vacated right end for the key 31-yard keeper to State's three again. With the Bulldog defense faked one way Siemian jogged untouched to the right pylon at 0:26.
Russell halved the deficit with his best series, an eight-play drive of 75 yards capped by his 14-yard strike to TE Malcolm Johnson for touchdown at 11:42. The Dogs even got the ball back down one score, but on third down and deep in his end Russell scrambled until unloading towards midfield. "Just a poor decision, a ball he shouldn't have thrown," Mullen said. Nick Van Hoose intercepted and returned to the ten-yard line with five more tacked on due to MSU sideline interference in the runback. Venric sealed things with his three-yard scamper.
Senior receivers Clark, Chad Bumphis, and Chris Smith had eight combined catches for 78 yards in their college finale. Linebacker Cam Lawrence concluded his career with a team-high nine tackles, while junior safety Whitley intercepted twice and had one stop for a loss. None was enough to offset all the other mistakes and missed opportunities, against a Northwestern team obsessed with bowl success.
Not that the Bulldogs were spoiled by their prior wins, Perkins insisted. "We always want a bowl game. We had fun down here, when it was time to lock-in and focus and we did. But we just came short on the losing end at the end of the day. Losing, I mean it sucks. But it's happened, it's life. You've got to move on after things like that."
Mullen moves on immediately to such issues as staff evaluations, on both sides of the ball—he would not forecast changes but with one assistant to replace already there are other aides expected to be in-play for jobs elsewhere. And recruiting looms ever larger.
"I'll see where we're at," Mullen said. "We just finished up the season, we'll hit the recruiting trail and use the full evaluation of where we're at and what directions, what changes and tweaks and all those things we have to make. We'll look at next year's team and see what direction next year's team is going to head."
Interestingly, though, Mullen paused to remind of what direction Mississippi State has been in, at least when they were 7-0 in October and riding high. November letdowns and a first bowl failure are just part of the overall equation.
"The great thing is, eight-win seasons now are starting to become disappointing at Mississippi State," said Mullen. "You know, eight-win seasons used to be massive celebrations. And now within our program those are starting to be disappointing ones. That's the direction you want the program headed in."