Gator Bowl 2013: Grading Northwestern and Mississippi State's Performances
The drought is over for Northwestern, which won its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl, after being crowned the 2013 Gator Bowl champions with an impressive 34-20 victory over SEC foe Mississippi State.
After 64 years without a bowl win, NU used a bevy of turnovers and overall strong defensive play to suffocate MSU in the win.
Offensively, the Wildcats put together a solid team performance utilizing multiple quarterbacks, receivers and running backs in an impressive victory from top to bottom.
MSU, meanwhile was plagued by four interceptions from quarterback Tyler Russell and a tricky Northwestern attack that kept the Bulldog defense guessing for four quarters.
Here are our individual position grades for the Wildcats' win in Jacksonville:
Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, Northwestern: C+
Northwestern wasn't afraid of switching up its quarterbacks in this one. Colter and Siemian split the snaps fairly evenly, with Colter receiving the nod just a bit more. It was Seimian who led the way through the air, finishing 12-of-21 for 120 yards and one interception. Colter, meanwhile, had 76 yards and two interceptions off of 9-of-15 passing.
Those numbers were pretty poor overall, especially the interceptions, but they both also combined for 85 yards and a touchdown on the ground. This duo wasn't great through the air, but the alternating between them allowed the Northwestern offense to have success as a whole.
Tyler Russell, Mississippi State: F
Russell had the worst game of his career and, all things considered, played as large of a role as anyone in MSU's loss.
He entered the contest with just six interceptions on the year and only one multi-interception game, but threw four in what was an absolute nightmare of a game for the junior. He finished 12-of-28 for 106 yards. He had two touchdowns, but that means nothing with four interceptions.
For the most part those interceptions weren't just amazing plays by NU—they were ugly.
Russell had a pretty solid season up to this point, but he'll have to go back to the drawing board in the offseason after that performance.
Venric Mark earned every bit of hype he received during the season, rushing for more than 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns. He added touchdown No. 12 that essentially iced this game for Northwestern, but MSU actually did a solid job of bottling up Mark, holding him to just 56 yards.
Tyris Jones had a touchdown of his own earlier in the game—his second of the year—and had just 14 yards on the game.
As a whole, NU was outgained by 25 yards on the ground.
Mississippi State: A-
MSU benefited from a solid one-two punch on the ground from LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson. After playing second fiddle all year long, Robinson was actually the lead man on Tuesday, tallying 91 yards at an average of 13 yards per carry.
Perkins had a nice game himself, netting 84 yards. The only downfall was that neither of them made it into the end zone and they just couldn't do enough to offset Russell's struggles.
What if I told you the Gator Bowl's leading receiver was a fullback? Well, Dan Vitale (pictured) is listed as a superback, playing a sort of hybrid fullback/tight end role for the Wildcats. He's an old-school physical player and has really thrived at that slot. On Tuesday, Vitale led all performers with seven receptions for 82 yards, as MSU struggled to find an answer for him.
Christian Jones added 39 yards off five receptions, three of which went for NU first downs. Demetrius Fields also pitched in with two receptions for 41 yards, as NU's top three receivers all had more receiving yards than all of MSU's receivers.
Mississippi State: C-
MSU's top receiver, Chad Bumphis, was a nonfactor in the Gator Bowl. He had just three receptions for 18 yards, which didn't help Russell's chances.
None of the Bulldog receivers even eclipsed 40 receiving yards on the game.
The only place where the MSU pass-catchers were effective was in the red zone. Both of MSU's touchdowns through the air came inside the 20-yard line—one to tight end Malcolm Johnson and the other to Arceto Clark, who led the Dawgs with three total receptions for 36 yards.
Northwestern didn't have its absolute best game up front, but it wasn't too shabby either. This line didn't allow a sack, but a lot of that was due to the play-calling and athleticism of Colter.
Colter was able to evade a lot of the MSU pressure and there were very few instances where the NU line dropped back in prolonged pass protection.
Northwestern was also held below its season average in rushing, netting exactly four yards per carry. However, this unit did step up near the goal line, leading the way to three rushing touchdowns of four yards or less.
When it mattered, this unit did its job, which made a big impact on the scoreboard.
Mississippi State: B
In pass protection, Mississippi State struggled, which only added to the problems Russell was having. Russell ended up being sacked three times, including twice on the last drive.
The NU pressure wasn't overwhelming by any means, but that pressure certainly didn't help Russell at all.
Against the run, MSU was solid, notching 5.6 yards per carry—a pretty impressive figure through 33 attempts on the ground.
Quentin Williams started the snowball of interceptions from Tyler Russell on the very first drive when he stepped back and snared Russell's pass, taking it to the house to give Northwestern an early lead.
From that point on, Russell was rattled and generally lacked confidence. In addition to his pick, Williams also had two tackles for loss and a sack.
Fellow defensive lineman Tyler Scott also had two sacks, three tackles for a loss and a quarterback hurry. Despite that, NU gave up a lot of yardage on the ground (186), which contributed to a slight drop in this grade.
Mississippi State: B
Denico Autry led the way for an overall solid day from the MSU defensive front. Autry had five total tackles, an interception nearly returned for a touchdown and a quarterback hurry on the day.
As strong as he and the rest of the MSU front line was, they were never able to actually corral and sack Colter or Siemian. In the end this group may have been a bit too aggressive, which allowed the duo to make plays with their feet.
Chi Chi Ariguzo and David Nwabuisi not only had two of the coolest names on the field in Jacksonville, but they also had two great performances. Ariguzo had five tackles and one of NU's four interceptions, while Nwabuisi had six tackles, including one for a loss.
Despite the efforts from these two, Northwestern gave up quite a bit of yardage on the ground, as previously mentioned. The NU linebacking corps as a whole could have done a better job at filling the MSU running lanes. However, it's hard to argue with the end result.
Mississippi State: A-
For MSU, Cameron Lawrence had a team-high nine tackles, while redshirt freshman Benardrick McKinney added five tackles of his own.
Together, this linebacking unit did a nice job of containing the NU running game and withstanding the pressure applied by Colter with his scrambling ability.
Colter was right at his season rushing average, while Mark was held well below his average single-game total.
Jared Carpenter was surprisingly named Gator Bowl MVP, even though he did have a game-high 10 tackles. Still it was a very strong day from the NU secondary. Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose each picked off Tyler Russell.
When an opposing quarterback throws four interception and barely eclipses 100 yards passing, that's a pretty solid day for a group of defensive backs.
Mississippi State: A
MSU also did a very nice job defending the pass. Northwestern had just 196 yards through the air and zero passing touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Nickoe Whitley had one of the best days of any player on the field, recording two interceptions, six tackles and a tackle for a loss. This all came on a day where Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnathan Banks exited early with an injury.
Especially considering his loss, it was a great day from this group.
Northwestern and Mississippi State: A
Special teams didn't play a major role one way or another in this game, simply because the special teams units for both teams did their jobs.
The punting, kicking and coverage were solid for both teams, as even MSU's dangerous returners were not able to break any huge gains.
As far as kicking, the teams combined to go 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts. MSU's Devon Bell hit two, one from 27 yards and the other tying his career long of 47 yards.
Jeff Budzien of Northwestern showed why he is one of the nation's best kickers, hitting both of his attempts from 34 and 37 yards as well. He has the kind of elite kicking power that is just palpable from the sound and sight of the ball off his foot.
It was great to see the emotion displayed by Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald—an NU grad—as the Wildcats secured their first bowl victory since 1949 and their first 10-win season since he was a player in Evanston.
He coached a great game and brought a visibly well-prepared team to Jacksonville. The Cats played well from the start and a big difference in this game was the offensive play-calling by Northwestern.
The Wildcats kept MSU off balance, switching between Colter and Siemian and doing different things with each. This really confused the Bulldogs and directly led to a lot of points.
On the other side, Northwestern was prepared for every move Tyler Russell made, as was obvious by his four interceptions. NU was able to read some of his telegraphed throws that made the ultimate difference in this game.
Mississippi State: C
Dan Mullen, on the other hand, seemed very puzzled by the Northwestern offense. The Wildcats kept the Bulldogs guessing all game long, and MSU often guessed wrong.
Offensively, as Russell struggled, Mullen did what he could to generate some momentum for his quarterback. He could have gone to Dak Prescott more often, but given the success he has had all season long, it isn't surprising that he stuck with Russell through the game.
In the end, Mullen isn't overly responsible for the loss, as Russell simply made some poor decisions throughout the game.