Monkey’s now a memory as Northwestern tops Mississippi State in Gator Bowl
BY NEIL HAYES firstname.lastname@example.org January 2, 2013 12:10AM
Northwestern’s Brian Arnfelt hoists the trophy as fellow defensive lineman Will Hampton looks on. | Stephen Morton~AP
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The 1949 Rose Bowl finally can fade into Northwestern history after the Wildcats snapped a 64-year postseason bowl drought with a win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on Monday.
The Wildcats’ 34-20 victory also gave them 10 wins for the first time since their breakthrough Big Ten championship season of 1995. It was just the second bowl win in NU history.
‘‘We talk to our guys all the time. I say, ‘Act like we’ve been here before,’ ” coach Pat Fitzgerald told the crowd after accepting the Gator Bowl trophy. ‘‘Well, we’ve never been here before. It’s like [senior linebacker] David Nwabuisi said, ‘We’re here now, and we’re here to stay.’ ”
Both teams ranked among the national leaders in turnover margin. Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw six interceptions this season, while the NU tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian combined to throw four.
That’s what made the seven combined interceptions in the game — including four by Russell — so out of character.
‘‘The defense saved our butts today for a big part of the game,’’ said Siemian, a passing specialist who completed 12 of 20 passes for 120 yards with one interception. He also caught the Bulldogs’ defense off-guard by running for a four-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
Senior defensive end Quentin Williams returned a Russell interception 29 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the game.
Russell broke five Mississippi State passing records this season but was held to 12 completions on 28 attempts for 106 yards. He was sacked three times.
At one point, MSU coach Dan Mullen sent the rattled Russell into the locker room to gather himself before he returned to the field.
‘‘We got in his head a little bit,’’ Williams said. ‘‘We could have hit him more, but it’s great the defensive backs made all those plays.’’
Mississippi State rallied from a 13-point deficit to tie the game early in the third quarter, only to be outscored 21-7 for the rest of the game by a Northwestern team determined not to blow a fourth-quarter lead for a fourth time this season.
Nick VanHoose’s 39-yard interception return set up a three-yard touchdown run by Venric Mark that gave the Wildcats a two-touchdown advantage with 8:10 left in the game.
‘‘I don’t know who didn’t make a play on defense today,’’ Nwabuisi said. ‘‘Plays were coming from everywhere.’’
There was no doubt this game meant a lot to players and coaches. The Northwestern sideline erupted after every positive play and deflated after negative plays throughout the game.
The postgame revelry lasted for nearly half an hour as players celebrated with students, high-fived fans and sang the school fight song.
‘‘I started to tear up a little bit thinking about the guys who came before us who haven’t gotten the job done,’’ Williams said. ‘‘This is for them.’’
Fitzgerald brought a stuffed monkey to the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season to represent NU’s bowl drought. Athletic director Jim Phillips prohibited him from bringing the monkey to Jacksonville, but Fitzgerald hid it in an equipment trunk anyway.
Players ripped it to shreds in the locker room afterward.
‘‘How can you run away from what we’ve been unable to accomplish?’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘You can’t.’’