Pat Fitzgerald took the microphone at the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl trophy presentation. He thanked the bowl committee, he thanked the sponsors, he thanked the opponent, he thanked the fans. He said typically in moments of triumph like this, you act like you have been here before.
Except Northwestern had not been here before. Not in 63 years.
Fitzgerald told the crowd David Nwabuisi had told him that Northwestern was here now… and they were here to stay.
Tuesday’s win was very much that kind of a statement — an imperfect all-around game as LTP noted postgame. The Wildcats obliterated that monkey hanging on their back (and apparently secretly carried that stuffed monkey around before obliterating it and leaving its stuffing all over the floor of the team’s locker room at EverBank Field. A 34-20 victory over Mississippi State at the Gator Bowl gave Northwestern all the firsts that LTP mentioned previously — first bowl win since 1949, first 10-win season since 1996, a new first in all-time wins with Pat Fitzgerald passing Pappy Waldorf.
This game though felt like destiny from the beginning. On the third play of the game, Quentin Williams ducked underneath the route and intercepted it, returning it to the Northwestern-painted end zone and sending the fans to the first of many frenzies this game.
The Wildcats defense forced four interceptions, including two that occurred in the Bulldogs’ red zone. Eventually the mistakes became too much for Mississippi State to overcome.
Yes, the Bulldogs started gashing the Wildcats with runs as Ladarius Perkins and Josh Robinson each rushed for 91 yards, breaking containment and cutting back to the open space. That enabled Mississippi State to tie the game at 13 in the second quarter.
This would have been as good a time as any for Northwestern to get down on itself and let the worst happen. The always nervous Northwestern fan base might have thought that was coming too.
Each time though, the defense would stand tall. Mississippi State would drive deep and NU would find a sack or a pass breakup to maintain control. The offense began picking up the pace with three straight completions from Trevor Siemian, including a 3rd-and-10 completion to Rashad Lawrence that prevented a three and out. That drive was the response the team needed to giving up 13 unanswered points and gave NU the lead for good.
Siemian was 3 for 4 for 73 yards on that drive, the biggest contribution to his superb 12-for-20, 120-yard performance.
The fact we can call that superb should tell you how strange an offensive day it was. Kain Colter passed for 76 yards and threw two picks, while rushing for 71 yards. Venric Mark had 13 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown, rarely finding space to get free and get going against a physical Mississippi State defense looking to stop the speedy back. The Bulldogs did a good job turning him and not allowing him to get up to speed.
No, Northwestern won this game with a methodical offense that set the team up with good field position — Mississippi State’s average starting field position was its own 28-yard line. The Wildcats defense again found ways to stand tall, holding long drives to field goals on many occasions or bailing themselves out with a big turnover.
This was not your typical Northwestern win.
But as LTP said, that did not matter. What mattered was that the Wildcats won. They won with their defense making stand after stand and keeping the Bulldogs off balance. They won by controlling possession when they needed to and speeding up when they needed to.
At the end of the game and a 7-point lead, NU went for the kill. The team came out throwing the ball and trying to aggressively keep things moving and score again (perhaps). That drive ended in t a three and out but it was another sign Northwestern did not view the game as over. The defense proved that too in getting its fourth interception and setting up the game-sealing touchdown.
From there, the defense brought the heat, recording two sacks on that final drive for Mississippi State and allowing only one more first down the rest of the game.
Quentin Williams started it with that interception return and he finished his career with a sack on the defense’s final play. Mississippi State allowed Northwestern to kneel the ball and revel in the victory for two minutes without any nail biting or worry.