In the first of three New Year’s Day bowl games pitting Big Ten schools against SEC teams, Northwestern gave an early shot in the arm to a conference that’s seen more downs than ups in a rough 2012 season. And, in the process, accomplished something that hasn’t happened since Harry S. Truman was sitting in the Oval Office.
Thanks in large part to utter quarterback ineptness on the part of its opponent, No. 21 Northwestern took an early two-score lead before pulling away late in a 34-20 Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State. The Wildcats, who entered the game No. 15 in the country in rushing yards per game, did the majority of their scoring damage on the ground as they ran for three touchdowns on the day.
The win marked Northwestern’s first in a bowl game since January of 1949. It also snapped the football program’s nine-game losing streak in the postseason, dating back to the Wildcats’ 20-14 Rose Bowl win over Cal exactly 64 years ago today.
“I’m just so ecstatic for this football program,” an emotional NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said immediately after the game. “This was the one last negative we needed to erase.”
That decades-long streak was stopped thanks in large part to Tyler Russell. The Bulldogs starting quarterback entered the Gator Bowl having thrown just six interceptions all season long; 28 pass attempts later, Russell added four to that total in a single game. His third pass of the game was intercepted by NU’s Quentin Williams (pictured) and returned 29 yards for a touchdown, giving the Wildcats a 7-0 lead that the Bulldogs could never completely overcome.
Russell’s miscues resulted in 17 points for Northwestern, clearly the difference in the game. While Northwestern threw three interceptions of their own, MSU was able to convert those turnovers into just three points thanks to a Wildcats defense that, in addition to the four picks, sacked Russell four times and limited him to just 106 yards on 12-of-28 passing.
Northwestern finishes the season at 10-3, the program’s first year with double-digit wins since 1995 under Gary Barnett. Mississippi State, on the other hand, limped, staggered and stumbled to the end of an eight-win season. After beginning 2012 7-0, the Bulldogs lost five of their last six games by an average of 21.4 points per game.