Happy New Year everyone!! If you are reading this, you made it over the football cliff! On New Year’s Day we have a plethora of football games with most involving Big Ten Teams.
To start the day, I will be taking a look at the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Penn State fans may remember last year this bowl was called the TicketCity Bowl. This year Purdue will be taking on Oklahoma State. At the same time, Northwestern will be taking on the Mississippi State Bulldogs out of the SEC. Check out Matt de Bear’s Big Ten preview of the Outback Bowl and the Capitol One Bowl and contributing writer Eric Sion’s Rose Bowl preview.
So, sit back, relax, get the remote control and the popcorn ready, and have yourself a little bit of sauerkraut and hot dogs while we here at VBR provide you with a little college football preview for the New Year’s Day Bowl games.
TEAMS: Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten Conference) vs. Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference)
TIME: January 1st, 12:00 p.m. EST
LAS VEGAS LINES: Northwestern -2; Over/Under 54 points
The Gator Bowl will pit Northwestern out of the Big Ten against Mississippi State from the SEC. Many people around the country have their eye on this game to see how the middle of the Big Ten is able to match up with the middle of the SEC. This game features two teams that are fairly evenly matched. In fact, both teams are in the top-11 nationally in turnover margin. Mississippi State was +17 in the turnover ratio while Northwestern was +13 in the category. Since both teams protect the ball and don’t turn it over, it will be imperative for the team that is able to generate a turnover to do something with it.
On the year, Mississippi State can be described as a tale of two halves! In the first part of the year – the first seven games – the Bulldogs were unbeaten having beaten teams like Auburn, and Tennessee. The remainder of the season the Bulldogs 1-4 as they hit the meat of their schedule. They lost to Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, and their year-end rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Mississippi State is looking for their first win since Nov 17th when they defeated Arkansas 45-14.
The Bulldogs have lost much of the momentum that they built up early in the season, and it will be up to head coach Dan Mullen to help get it back. A win over a Northwestern aquad that was in an out of the top-25 for much of the year would be a nice way to cap off the year and propel them into 2013.
The Wildcats of Northwestern are a few fourth quarter collapses away from playing not only in the Big Ten title game, but also possibly the Rose Bowl. They lost 4th quarter leads at Penn State, against Nebraska, and at Michigan. Northwestern started the year with impressive wins at Syracuse and at home against Vanderbilt. They continued their success with wins over Boston College, South Dakota, and Indiana to start the Big Ten slate. Then came their first of three blown fourth quarter leads. This one came at the hands of Penn State after the Wildcats had just entered the top-25. Northwestern would then trade wins and losses for the next four weeks before closing out the 2012 campaign with back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Illinois. A bowl victory over Mississippi State would give the mid-Big Ten a little bragging rights over the mid-SEC.
For Northwestern and head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are looking for a 10th win for the first time since the 1995 season when they went to the Rose Bowl. The Wildcats have some explosive players like QB/WR Kain Colter and RB Venric Mark. However, the offense is not very balanced. The Wildcats are predominantly run-heavy and rank near the bottom of the FBS in passing yards. They will need to count on both aspects of their offensive game if they are going to beat Mississippi State.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mississippi State’s junior quarterback Tyler Russell is one of the most prolific passers in the SEC. He was 6th in the conference in passing yards with nearly 233 yards per game for a total of 2791 yards. His 22 TDs were good for 5th in the SEC. To put it mildly, Russell is a main cog in the Bulldogs offense. While not generally thought of as an elite SEC quarterback, Russell did produce a very solid season and his statistics back that up. As a whole, the Bulldogs have a passing offense that ranks 6th in the SEC at nearly 250 yards per game. In Russell’s last three game he has thrown for at least 250 yards and a combined 6 TDs and only 3 INTs.
He is looking for another stellar performance as he goes up against a Northwestern defense that ranks last in the Big Ten in passing defense giving up almost 263 yards per game. I will not be surprised to see Mississippi St put the ball in the air at least 30-35 times in the game. Northwestern has been very porous against the pass, and Dan Mullen’s team will likely look to take advantage of that fact.
When Russell does drop back to pass he will be looking for one of the biggest receiving threats in the SEC, Chad Bumphis. The senior receiver led all of the SEC with 12 TD receptions. Look for Mississippi St to get him involved early in this contest. Chris Smith is another receiver that Russell likes to target. Smith was second on the team in receptions (45) and receiving yards (540). When the Bulldogs enter the red zone, they also like to target their 6-1 TE Marcus Green. Green hauled in 19 passes for 215 yards, but of those 19 pass receptions, 6 of them went for scores.
On the ground, the Bulldogs will try to get LaDarius Perkins going. The junior RB sits just 60 yards shy of reaching 1000 yards for the first time in his collegiate career. In his last 4 contests, Perkins has been held below 100 yards rushing and has not found the end zone. The ability of Mississippi St to run the ball will be key because it will not only keep the high-octane Wildcats offense on the sidelines, but it will also keep the Northwestern defense from loading up on QB Tyler Russell.
The Bulldogs secondary was one of the top defensive groups in the SEC. They were second in the conference with 30 INTs, but over their past 5 games they only recorded four picks. In order to get back to the level that they started the season, Jim Thorpe Award winner (Top defensive back in the country), Johnathan Banks and crew will need to start playing up tho their ability. Over their last five games, the Bulldogs gave up 273.4 yards per game and 12 TDs. That type of performance will not get it done against a Wildcats offense that is averaging 31.5 points per game.
Look for Mississippi St to try and force Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian to stay in the pocket and throw the ball downfield. Northwestern ranks among the worst team in the FBS in passing offense at just under 167 yards per game. If Mississippi State can generate and maintain a lead deep into the fourth quarter, it should have the upper hand in forcing Northwestern to a predominantly pass-heavy attack although the Bulldogs have had trouble generating a pass rush this season.
For Northwestern to be successful, they are going to need a sterling performance from quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Colter is the dual-threat playmaker that those who follow the Big Ten know can frustrate opposing defenses while Siemian is the drop back passer. Both are talented in their respective craft, but Colter is the player more likely to be on the field either as a quarterback or as a receiver. On the year Colter only threw for 796 yards, but he did throw for 8 TDs against only 2 INTs. For Siemian, he was the team’s leading passer with nearly 1200 yards, 6 scores and 2 picks.
Along with Colter being elusive with his rushing ability, the offensive MVP for the Wildcats would be RB Venric Mark. Mark provided a jolt of offense rushing for 1300+ yards, 3rd best total in the Big Ten behind Le’Veon Bell and Montee Ball, and 11 scores, and he was very fruitful as both a punt and kick returner. There is no doubt he was able to change the tide of many games with a big run or return throughout the course of the year.
As mentioned earlier, Kain Colter is another tough rusher to bring down. He was second on the team with 820 rushing yards and he led the team in rushing TDs with 12. As a pass catcher, Colter hauled in 16 catches for 169 yards. Couple Mark and Colter together, and they become Northwestern’s two most vitale offensive weapons that head coach Pat Fitzgerald must find a way to get involved early and often in the game plan.
If the game comes down to a last-second field goal, the Wildcats have the most accurate placekicker in the Big Ten and second most accurate in the country in Jeff Budzien. On the year Budzien made 18 of 19 kicks and made all 46 of his PAT attempts. Budzien was a perfect 17-17 on the season from 49 yards and in.
Defensively Damien Proby and David Nwabuisi are two of the most prolific tacklers in the Big Ten. Combined the two recorded 198 tackles. They will need to be steady and make open-field tackles to prevent Mississippi State from making big gains out of smaller plays. Look for Tyler Scott, who ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 7 sacks, to generate pressure on Tyler Russell.
Northwestern – 27
Mississippi State – 17