By BEN WAIT
Coach Dan Mullen believed that success could be accomplished in Starkville when he took over the Mississippi State football program.
For only the second time in school history, the Bulldogs are going to three consecutive bowl games.
Mississippi State (8-4) accepted a bid on Sunday to play in the 2013 Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Bulldogs will be pitted against Big Ten Conference opponent No. 21 (Associated Press) Northwestern (9-3). The Bulldogs and the Wildcats have never met on the football field.
The game is set to kickoff at 11 a.m. at EverBank Field on Tuesday Jan. 1, 2013. It can be seen on ESPN2.
“When game day kicks off everything changes for our guys,” Mullen said during the Gator Bowl teleconference Sunday. “They know we have our hands full with a team that has gone to a lot of bowls lately and one that is nationally ranked now. They guys know that and will be fired up and ready to play.”
Mississippi State fans can order tickets for the MSU ticket office. Mississippi State was allotted 15,000 tickets for the game.
“Rick Catlett and his team at the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl do a wonderful job and we’re excited to return to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl,” MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a school release. “Bulldog fans have shown how enthusiastic and supportive they are of our team with record ticket sales each of the last two years, and I know they will take over Jacksonville for New Year’s Eve and EverBank Field on New Year’s Day.”
MSU finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference Western Division with a record of 4-4. Northwestern was third in the Legends Division of the Big Ten with a 5-3 mark.
The Bulldogs defeated Michigan 52-14 in the 2011 Gator Bowl and beat Wake forest 23-17 in the Music City Bowl last season.
The Bulldogs went to back-to-back-to-back bowl games from 1998-2000 and they have won five straight bowl games.
The last loss for MSU came in the 1999 Cotton Bowl when the University of Texas beat Mississippi State 38-11.
This is the 17th appearance in a bowl for the Bulldogs with the first coming in 1912 in the Bacardi Bowl. Mississippi State beat the Havana Athletic Club 12-0.
The Wildcats have appeared in 10 bowl games and have only won one. Northwestern beat California 20-14 in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
The Wildcats are appearing in their fifth-straight bowl game and fourth on New Year’s Day.
Northwestern lost to first-year SEC participant Texas A&M 33-22 in the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
The Wildcats have never played a bowl game in Jacksonville, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald is not worried about fans not traveling.
“There’s no question that our fans will do a terrific job traveling,” Fitzgerald said. “If you look at our bowl travel record here over the last four years, it’s been outstanding. Wildcat nation has been incredibly supportive of our football program. We’re thankful for that. I believe it’s 18,000 living alumni in the state of Florida we have, so hopefully all those folks will find a way to make it.”
The Bulldogs and Wildcats traded game films a couple of weeks ago before the announcement was made by the Gator Bowl.
Mullen and Fitzgerald are really good friends and there is a great deal of respect between the two head coaches.
“He and I are close friends and he’s helped me in my young career as a head coach,” Mullen said. “I’ve been able to bounce ideas off of him.”
Mullen and Fitzgerald met on the recruiting trail.
“It goes back to when we recruited Houston together when we were assistant coaches,” Fitzgerald said. “We stayed in contact ever since. Head coaches don’t have a lot of friends in the world so you have to reach out to other guys.”
Both Mullen and Fitzgerald have similar coaching styles so the Bulldogs and the Wildcats mirror each other.
“I think there are similarities,” Mullen said. “When you share ideas there are similarities. I don’t think you will find a fiercer competitor than Fitzgerald, going back to when he played to now. A team takes on the personality of their head coach and that is what you see with Northwestern.”
Fitzgerald was a linebacker at Northwestern in the mid-1990s.
Mullen has always taken advantage of bowl practices by getting younger guys a lot of reps. That is no different this time around.
“We’re going to spend the next couple of weeks getting a lot of young players reps,” Mullen said. “We’re a young football team with only 29 guys that are juniors and seniors and the rest of are freshman and sophomores, so for a lot of guys that redshirted, this will be their first real opportunity to get a lot of reps. Then we will hone in later on game prep.”
The Wildcats are led by a duo of quarterbacks. Trevor Sieman and Kain Coulter have split time at quarterback this season for Northwestern.
Sieman has 1,192 yards passing with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Coulter has accounted for 796 passing yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He has also rushed for 820 yards and 12 scores on the ground.
“It gives us an opportunity and a lot of time to prepare for this game,” Mullen said. “Every team you play will be different and put a whole new set of challenges. They run an up-tempo offense with a very run-oriented team. That will cause a different challenge for us than we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks.”