By BEN WAIT
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Northwestern Wildcats are taking the same approach, but in totally different ways.
The Bulldogs (8-4) face off against the No. 21 (Associated Press) Wildcats today in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. and can be seen on ESPN2.
The Bulldogs have won their last five bowl games, including three under head coach Dan Mullen.
“I’m a big proponent of the bowl system,” Mullen said in a Gator Bowl press conference on Monday. “I think bowls are a fantastic reward. You’ve got to remember that these guys playing the game are student-athletes; it seems everyone wants to be selective of when they’re student-athletes and when they flip it the other way. The bowl experience to me is a tremendous experience for the student-athlete.”
Northwestern has lost its last nine bowl games and is only 1-9 in bowl games in the program’s history. The Wildcats have lost four bowl games under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“I learned it stinks to lose,” Fitzgerald said. “There is nothing positive about that.”
Most MSU fans have good memories of the Gator Bowl. MSU beat Michigan 52-14 in the 2011 Gator Bowl.
There are 21 Bulldogs on this year’s roster that played in the 2011 Gator Bowl, but there are also some new faces seeing Jacksonville for the first time.
“We have a lot of young guys who get to come experience a new city,” Mullen said. “We’ve been fortunate that some of our guys have been here before but I think over half our team was not on the roster two years ago. It’s their first opportunity for some of them to come to Florida, see a new city and be exposed to something different.”
Both senior classes for Mississippi State and Northwestern are looking to cap off great careers. Both have been one of the most successful in school history.
“It shows the leadership these guys have had at both schools,” Mullen said. “You look at all the success they have had over the last four years for both schools, you want to finish it off the right way. (It’s) not just (for) the seniors, but I think everybody else wants to see their seniors go out as winners in their final game and leave that final stamp on the program. You look at our senior class and certainly their senior class, (and) you look at all the success they’ve had, they have certainly changed the culture of the football programs at both universities.”
The Bulldogs have given up 1,992 yards on the ground this season. Northwestern junior running back Venric Mark has rushed for 1,310 yards on 213 carries this season. He has also scored 11 times on the ground.
“You watch him and he has the ability to be a physical runner,” Mullen said. “He’s obviously pretty special out in the open field. I think our guys are use to that.”
The Bulldogs bring a good offense to Jacksonville as well. The Bulldogs have picked up 1,688 yards on the ground this year. They are led by junior tailback LaDarius Perkins.
Perkins has picked up 940 yards on 186 carries. He has put it in the end zone eight times this season.
For the Wildcats passing game, they have been using a two-quarterback system. Sophomore Trevor Siemian is more of the passer with junior Kain Colter running the ball more.
“Schematically, they put a lot of pressure on you and try to make you play left-handed if you’re right-handed,” Fitzgerald said of MSU’s defense. “From the standpoint of their secondary, their long and break on the ball well. They’re very good in zone and man defense concepts. They do a nice job of attacking your schemes in each package.”
MSU senior defensive back Jonathan Banks won the Jim Thorpe Award — the nation’s top defensive back — this season. He is not concerned with the athleticism of Northwestern.
“They aren’t going to be as good of quality as I’ve seen,” Banks said. “They have got some good football players on their side of the ball. I’ve got a lot of respect for what they do and for their players.”
The Bulldog passing attack has seen several records fall this season. Junior quarterback Tyler Russell has been a main reason.
The receivers have also done their part and that’s due to wide receiver’s coach Tim Brewster.
“I think he’s done a great job,” Mullen said. “He’s just an experienced coach has really helped them focus and get them all going in the right direction.”