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Northwestern football eager to end bowl drought

Northwestern running back Venric Mark (5) celebrates touchdown with teammates during first half an NCAA college football game against South

Northwestern running back Venric Mark (5) celebrates a touchdown with teammates during the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Dakota in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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vs. Miss. StATE

The facts: 11 a.m. Tuesday in Jacksonville, Fla., ESPN2, 720-AM, 89.3-FM.

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Updated: February 2, 2013 6:20AM

At the final media function before Northwestern faces Mississippi State on Tuesday in the Gator Bowl, coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked about the adjustments his receivers have made in the running game.

That only can mean one thing: The pregame analysis has reached critical mass. It’s time to quit talking about the game and start playing it.

Wildcats coaches and players couldn’t agree more.

‘‘My thought process at this time is to just get the guys there on time,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We’re ready to go.’’

If NU loses its fifth consecutive bowl game under Fitzgerald, it won’t be for lack of preparation or motivation.

The Wildcats’ decades-long drought since their last bowl victory is always the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The most successful senior class in the history of the program would like nothing more than to leave the parting gift of future players never having to answer questions about NU not winning a postseason game since its Rose Bowl triumph in 1949.

The Wildcats have a real chance to accomplish that against a Mississippi State team that lost four of its last five regular-season games and has struggled against up-tempo spread offenses
all season.

NU must continue to avoid turnovers because the Bulldogs have won 23 of their last 25 games in which they have won the turnover battle. The Wildcats must also contain quarterback Tyler Russell, who has broken five single-season school passing records this season, and receiver Chad Bumphis, who owns school records for career touchdowns (24), career receiving yards (2,252) and consecutive games with at least one reception (29).

‘‘We’ve been fortunate enough to go to a bowl game every year since I’ve been here, and we’ve gone for one reason — to win a game — and we haven’t been able to do that,’’ guard Brian
Mulroe said.

Another sure sign NU coaches have left no stone unturned during five weeks of preparations was a meeting Monday to discuss cowbells, of all things.

Ringing cowbells at games is a long-standing tradition for Mississippi State. The Southeastern Conference outlawed artificial noisemakers in 1974 but, in a nod to the Bulldogs’ tradition, agreed to lift the ban in 2010 as long as certain rules were followed.

Those same rules will be in effect Tuesday at EverBank Field, and they prohibit fans from ringing the bells when the Wildcats have the ball. On-field officials can’t penalize Mississippi State if its fans ignore the rule, but the game will be stopped and a video will be played to remind fans of their obligation.

If the ringing persists,
security personnel will be sent into the stands to
enforce the rule. Mississippi State also can be fined for undisciplined bell-ringing by its fans, believe it or not.

Fitzgerald said he doesn’t worry the bells will hinder NU’s offensive execution.

‘‘At practice every day, we have crowd noise and absolutely terrible music from warmups through the end of practice, so we’ve prepared our guys for any distraction we might have,’’ he said.

Fitzgerald has been stressing during preparations that the game is a pat on the back for a job well-done. And while that might be true, players might have trouble conjuring fond memories of their Gator Bowl experience if they fail to come out with a victory.

‘‘It was a tough locker room after those games, just fighting with those guys and not getting the job done,’’ Mulroe said when asked what he remembers most about past bowls. ‘‘We want to change that. I don’t want to be part of a locker room like that.’’

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