When, because of Big Ten officials' meddling or another reason, the Capital One Bowl search committee erased their short-term memory and chose the broken down Cornhuskers, the Northwestern football community was left reeling.
Eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M might have awaited the Cats. Even SEC Championship loser Georgia, easily a top-five team in the nation, was a potential opponent. Then, the Mississippi State hammer dropped in the early afternoon, which had its benefits for a fan base praying for any bowl win.
And it made for some humorous, candid discussion.
At a press conference following the decision, the head coach was asked: "Pat, what do you know about your opponent?"
He quickly responded: "Nothing."
Well, neither do we. Despite an impressive 8-4 record that has become a realistic goal in Starkville, MSU only played high profile games as an underdog. The Bulldogs blew out weaker opponents, winning seven games by 10 points or more. Their first three losses came against then-No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Texas A&M, and LSU in Death Valley. They did fall to rival Ole Miss, the worst loss for either Gator Bowl team, but it seemed understandable when looked at as an emotional win for first-year coach Hugh Freeze. MSU proved it could usually dominate when expected, but never broke through against a good team. What do we make of that?
In the same vein, analysts have struggled to figure out the Wildcats in this strange season. Their best win came on Sept. 8 against Vanderbilt. (And naturally, the Commodores and Bulldogs never squared off in SEC play this season.) Despite finishing in the top-20 of the BCS standings – an incredible accomplishment during this rebuilding year – NU lost heartbreaking games to Michigan and Nebraska and settled into a mid-tier status difficult to shake. This bowl game functions as a measuring stick. The Cats seem on the brink of breaking through, whatever that means. Next season, nearly every skill position player returns, and at first glance NU appears to be a top-four Big Ten team. But without looking forward, and without constantly reminding everyone that the Cats have gone 63 years without a bowl win, this game is significant in itself. Both teams are difficult to figure out. Both programs are improving. The game also seems evenly matched, which is more than you can say for Northwestern versus Georgia.
Although I cannot say anything about this game with authority, given that PurpleWildcats does not own a reserve of Bulldogs game tape, the Jan. 1 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl excites me. Jacksonville is not exactly a tourist destination, but instead of being clobbered by a top-10 team in a nicer city, NU can take another step forward – and enter next season in the top-20, where it belongs.
Both teams run the spread offense, but their methods differ completely. MSU coach Dan Mullen was offensive coordinator at Florida for four seasons (three during the Tim Tebow era) and brought Les Koenning to take on the same position in Starkville. He transformed Tyson Lee and Chris Relf into serviceable options under center, before turning to Tyler Russell as the full-time starter this season. He is a successful pocket passer, throwing mainly to top receiver Chad Bumphis and consistent option Chris Smith. The offense avoids radical wrinkles, and gives solid tailback LaDarius Perkins (5.1 yards per rushing attempt) about 15-20 touches out of the backfield. One overlooked statistic from this NU season is the rush defense, which yields just 3.62 yards per carry.
Russell has thrown 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions, though he completes an unspectacular 59.8 percent of his attempts. And as is natural, the collective offensive performance tailed off in losses to superior competition. It obviously helps NU to have Fox Sports Next Freshman All-American Nick VanHoose against a strong offense. The Bulldogs will not win with deception, and Perkins should have a tough time dealing with NU's excellent linebacking corps. Still, they lead a balanced attack, avoid major errors, and if Russell can spread the ball I have no idea which corners will be able to succeed.
On the other side of the ball, MSU boasts Johnthan Banks, the best defensive back in the country. The defense hauled in 16 interceptions, and with the stout secondary, teams run against the Bulldogs. Opponents throw on less than 45 percent of plays, which puts ownership on running backs to take control. NU runs the ball five of every eight plays, and has Venric Mark. The Cats have won games without any success through the air, and that may need to be the case if they hope to earn a bowl victory.
Predictions, though, are difficult. The teams have no common opponents. They have never played each other. One common factor is that both programs are left with something to prove. Their seasons feel incomplete.
In this bizarre matchup, one thing I do expect is a strong effort from both teams. This Gator Bowl means something.
After all of the drama, Northwestern will kick off on New Year's Day, rested and ready for a brand new opponent. Only then will we have some definitive answers.
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