Gator Bowl: Northwestern vs. Mississippi State

Northwestern is looking to end a nine-game bowl losing skid and take another step in its evolution as a program under Pat Fitzgerald. And the Wildcats will be facing a Mississippi State squad that finished the season by losing four its last five games.

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Northwestern (9-3) vs. Mississippi State (8-4), Jacksonville, ESPN2, noon ET

Player on the spot: Venric Mark. The Northwestern running back is ultra-quick and a guy who can score any time he touches the ball. Mark became Northwestern’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 when Tyrell Sutton turned the trick. The Wildcats will need some big plays to win this game. And Mark must deliver. Another guy to watch is NU kicker Jeff Budzien, who gives the Wildcats an edge if a big kick is needed to win the game.

Top individual matchup: Mississippi State QB Tyler Russell vs. Northwestern linebackers. The Wildcats have an underrated collection of linebackers led by players like Chi Chi Ariguzo, David Nwabuisi and Damien Proby. They must be active and help contain Russell for a Wildcat defense that has made strides this season under coordinator Mike Hankwitz.

Top unit matchup: Northwestern offensive line vs. Mississippi State defensive line. The Wildcats have one of the most underrated fronts in the Big Ten led by tackle Patrick Ward and guard Brian Mulroe. And they will be facing a Bulldog defensive line that has had issues getting a consistent push. If the Wildcats can control the line of scrimmage, they could roll.

Fast fact: It’s becoming common knowledge that Northwestern has lost nine bowl games in a row. But the last time the Wildcats won in the postseason was the 1949 Rose Bowl, the school’s first postseason game.

Northwestern Leaders
Passing Yards: T. Siemian 1192
Passing TDs: K. Colter 8
Rushing Yards: V. Mark 1310
Rushing TDs: K. Colter 12
Receiving Yards: C. Jones 373
Receiving TDs: T. Jones 4
Interceptions: D. Nwabuisi 3

Three reasons for optimism:

1. Northwestern has a dynamic tandem at quarterback in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, who complement each other as runner and passer. Their skills could keep Mississippi State’s offense off balance.

2. Hunger. Pat Fitzgerald has talked often of wanting to get the “monkey” off the program’s back. That monkey is the protracted bowl losing skid. He will use that as motivation for a team that can leave an ineligible mark on the program with a postseason triumph.

3. Tough up front. Northwestern has a solid defensive line and is stout vs. the run. Mississippi State is just 11th in the SEC in rushing (140.7 ypg), but Ladarius Perkins is a threat. If the Wildcats mute the run, they can get after the Bulldogs in the pass game with end Tyler Scott bringing the heat. The Bulldogs have a top blocker in Gabe Jackson.

Mississippi State Leaders
Passing Yards: T. Russell 2791
Passing TDs: T. Russell 22
Rushing Yards: L. Perkins 940
Rushing TDs: L. Perkins 8
Receiving Yards: C. Bumphis 904
Receiving TDs: C. Bumphis 12
Interceptions: D. Slay 5

Three reasons to worry:

1. The Bulldogs have underrated speed and athletic ability on defense led by Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Johnthan Banks and linebacker Cameron Lawrence. Darius Slay is another standout defensive back. Can the Wildcats make enough plays in space? It’s no stretch to say this will be one of the better defenses that Northwestern will face in 2012.

2. Is the defense good enough? Yes, the unit made strides this season, but it still ranks just ninth in the Big Ten (385.3 ypg). NU is third vs. the run (122.8 ypg), but it is last vs. the pass (262.6 ypg). Safety Ibraheim Campbell needs to excel and help contain top Mississippi State wideout Chad Bumphis.

3. What happens if Northwestern falls behind? Will it go into a shell, knowing its postseason struggles? That’s why a strong start could be vital for the Wildcats.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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