January 2, 2013 5:09:33 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Draped in blue Gatorade following his first bowl victory as a Northwestern University football player or coach, Pat Fitzgerald found the answers Tuesday to move his program forward.
Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen left EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., with the feeling his team was stuck in neutral.
The barriers MSU blew through two years ago thanks to a Gator Bowl victory in 2011 were a distant memory as No. 21 Northwestern earned its first bowl victory since 1949 with a 34-20 decision in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
"I think in talking to (Fitzgerald), I've known him for a long time and seeing him after the game, I know how important that was to him," Mullen said.
The victory helped the Wildcats (10-3) earn their first 10-win season since Fitzgerald was a Big Ten Conference Player of the Year at linebacker in 1995. After the game, Northwestern players tore apart a stuffed monkey in the locker room they'd bought last year to symbolize the fact the program hadn't won a bowl game in 63 years. The victory ended a nine-game losing skid that was tied for the longest in NCAA history.
"I've never been here before, so I'm not sure how to act," Fitzgerald said. "There are so many lessons this team has learned, especially for our seniors, and it's been a special journey."
MSU didn't learn the lessons it suffered in losing four of its last five regular-season games five games. The Bulldogs turned the football over repeatedly and never led in their first bowl loss under Mullen.
"Bowl trips tend to be more fun when you come out on top," Mullen said. "We had a great time here this week, but we talked about adjusting back to the speed of the game ... and I think our first five possessions were two three-and-outs and three interceptions, so that's not a real fast start to a game we're looking for."
Northwestern, which entered the game with nine interceptions this season, intercepted junior quarterback Tyler Russell four times to tie a school bowl record set in the 1949 Rose Bowl victory against the University of California, Berkeley.
"These are still young kids we're talking about," Mullen said referencing Russell's performance. "They're not pro athletes. I think he started off the game very poorly. I think he was shaken and I just wanted to calm him down and say, 'Hey, get a blank slate, clear it, go in the locker room and come out and start this one from scratch.' "
Northwestern senior safety Jared Carpenter was named the game's most valuable player. The Bowling Green, Ky., native had a game-high 10 tackles and nearly caused what would've been Russell's fifth interception.
Northwestern's first score came after defensive end Quentin Williams read Russell's eyes and returned an interception 29 yards for his first career touchdown in his final college game.
"Bowl games are unbelievable sometimes how things happen," Fitzgerald said, "so we did something neat today with the highlight tape."
After trailing 13-0, MSU (8-5) cut the deficit to 13-10 thanks to an improved defensive effort that held Northwestern to 47 yards in the second quarter.
"If you look at the first half, they were trying to tempo us, but we were stoning them on first down," MSU co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said.
Collins handled the defensive play-calling duties for the first time this season after MSU struggled to contain spread-option offenses that rely on tempo.
"That's the key to stopping tempo, you don't let it get started and, for the most part in the first half, we were able to do that," Collins said. "I think our guys after three weeks of solely focusing on it felt comfortable and didn't look like a deer in the headlights like they may have at times this season."
Northwestern's quarterback combination of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian combined for 281 yards. Siemian's 120 passing yards challenged the secondary, while Colter broke several tackles in the front seven en route to a 71-yard rushing performance.
"Our guys on the outside stepped up and made plays," Siemian said. "The defense covered our butts today for about most of the game."
In a game Northwestern led from the start but had several momentum swings thanks to seven turnovers, MSU tied the score on a 47-yard field goal by freshman Devon Bell with 10 minutes, 37 seconds left in the third quarter. However, the Bulldogs failed to earn a first down in the next 12 minutes. MSU slipped to 0-20 under Mullen when it trails after three quarters, and 2-17 against schools ranked in The Associated Press Top 25.
"Losing, I mean it sucks," MSU junior tailback LaDarius Perkins said. "But it's happened, it's life, (and) you've got to move on after things like that."
The victory helped Northwestern become the first Big Ten Conference team in the Bowl Championship Series era (since 1998), and only the ninth overall, to defeat two Southeastern Conference opponents in the same season. Northwestern defeated Vanderbilt University 23-13 on Sept. 8. Northwestern is the seventh Big Ten school to beat a SEC school in a New Year's Day bowl game dating back to 2007 (University of Wisconsin in 2007, University of Michigan in 2008, University of Iowa in 2009, Penn State University in 2010, Ohio State University in 2011, and Michigan State University in 2012).
"We can run, we're athletic, we're fast, we're physical, we're tough, and we know how to respond," Fitzgerald said. "I believe we play in the best football conference in the world. I'm biased, but I don't care."