Northwestern has carried the proverbial flag for the Big Ten all season long, but in the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State the Wildcats took home a historic win for their program, their fans, and themselves.
The Wildcats had tied a college football record having lost nine consecutive bowl games. Coach Pat Fitzgerald, who played for Northwestern in the ‘Cats’ Rose Bowl loss in the 1995-96 season, had also coached in four bowl losses.
Finally, and on the strength of four intercepted Tyler Russell passes, Northwestern had won a postseason football game, taking home the honors at the Gator Bowl, 34-20.
Both Northwestern and Mississippi State entered the game in Jacksonville among the nation’s best in turnover margin. In fact, both came into the Gator Bowl tied with each other at No. 7-nationally with a +15 turnover margin on the year.
Thus, most prognosticators saw this as one going the way of most Big Ten-SEC matchups: A tough defensive and low-scoring struggle.
As it turned out, there was plenty of defensive prowess on display, but almost entirely from the Wildcats.
On the third play of the football game, big defensive end Quentin Williams intercepted a Russell pass and rumbled all the way to paydirt for a 29-yard touchdown. Both he and fellow end Tyler Scott dominated, as Scott tallied two sacks of Russell, who flailed away most of the afternoon.
After throwing a mere six picks all season, the Bulldogs’ quarterback tossed four in the Gator Bow., effectively killing any momentum coach Dan Mullen’s squad could muster.
“I talked to him going into the locker room after the third pick, said, ‘Go into the locker room, splash some water on your face, readjust your pads and forget that you came out to start the game,’” Mullen told reporters, whose team lost five of its final six games. “‘Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.’”
Mullen’s advice to his young signal-caller seemed to have worked, as the Bulldogs managed to tie the game at 13-apeice in the third quarter.
Northwestern had already blown fourth-quarter, double-digit leads to both Nebraska and Michigan in the regular season, but with a bowl game victory on the line, neither of the team’s two quarterbacks blinked.
Dual threat star Kain Colter threw for 76 yards and ran for another 71. More of a true pocket passer, sophomore Trevor Siemian completed 12-of-20 passes for 120 yards. Like Russell, both were uncharacteristically turnover-prone in this one, combining for three interceptions. However, both stepped up when the team needed it most.
Colter took a 31-yard run into the red zone, and Siemian finished it off with a 4-yard touchdown run to put Northwestern up 27-13 late in the third.
The fourth quarter basically served as a victory lap, and one that was well deserved for Fitzgerald and the rest of the once-downtrodden program.
The win was the team’s first in the postseason since the 1949 Rose Bowl. With Colter, Siemian, Williams and a good chunk of the team’s core returning, in all likelihood it will not be another 50 years until the program’s next bowl win.
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