An early 29-yard interception touchdown return by Quentin Williams set the tone early in Mississippi State's 34-20 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats, and even though the Bulldogs rallied to tie the game briefly at 13-13 in the third quarter, the squad from Evanston proved too much for the Maroon and White in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl on New Year's Day in Jacksonville.
Even before play began on the field, a sense that trouble may be brewing came in the hour before kick off when it was announced that Dan Mullen had decided to let co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins call the defensive plays instead of Chris Wilson. Whether or not this was truly a last minute decision or a well-thought out plan, fans may never know, but at any rate, the change has to add questions to the preparation of the team headed into the bowl game.
The Wildcats showed they had no such issues on the first Mississippi State possess when Williams put the first points on the board with his interception return. On the next possession, the Wildcats managed to intercept Russell for a second time. Ibraheim Campbell snagged the pick along the sideline at the Wildcat's 14 yard-line to end a promising Bulldog drive.
The Wildcats followed the interception with a 15-play drive that resulted in a field goal to put Northwestern ahead 10-0 in the first quarter. Following a three and out from Mississippi State, the Wildcats added another field goal to go up 13-0.
After Northwestern forced the Bulldogs into another three an out, Denico Autry intercepted a Kain Colter pass and returned it 43 yards to the Northwestern 15 yard line. The Wildcats defense kept points off the board when C.C. Ariguzo intercepted Russell on the next play.
The Bulldogs put their first points on the board with just under five minutes to play in the first quarter when Devon Bell banged home a 27-yard field goal to make the score 13-3.
Mississippi State found the end zone on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Russell to Arceto Clark with 1:06 in the first half to cut the lead to 13-10.
The way the Bulldogs moved down the field on the two scoring drives was telling. The Bulldogs ran for 63 yards on the first scoring drive (most of that coming on Josh Robinson's 59-yard run), while picking up no yardage through the air. One the second drive, LaDarius Perkins had runs of 10 and 20 yards before Russell completed a nine-yard pass to Chad Bumphis and the touchdown to Clark.
After the break, Nickoe Whitley picked off Colter, and the Bulldogs converted the turnover into a 47-yard field goal to tie the game at 13-13 with 10:37 to play. Again, the Bulldogs' running game led the way on the scoring drive as all the yardage came on running plays.
The Wildcats retook the lead 20-13 with 9:25 to play in the third quarter on Tyris Jones' 3-yard rushing score, and Northwestern pushed its lead to 27-13 on a 4-yard run by Trevor Siemian with 26 seconds left in the quarter.
The Bulldogs cut the Wildcats' lead back to a touchdown when Russell connected with Malcolm Johnson on a 14-yard touchdown pass with 11:42 to play, but the Wildcats intercepted Russell one last time to set up Mark Venric's 3-yard touchdown with 8:10 to play to set the final score.
The Bulldogs picked up 186 yards on the ground, led by 91 yards from Robinson and 84 yards from Perkins. Dak Prescott picked up 20 yards. Russell finished his day 12 of 28 for 106 yards, two touchdowns with four interceptions.
In their final game in the Maroon and White, Clark finished with three catches for 36 yards and a score, Bumphis finished with three catches for 18 yards, and Chris Smith hauled in two catches for 24 yards.
Johnthan Banks left the game early with an injury, and Nickoe Whitley, the only starter in the secondary slated to return next year, finished the game with two interceptions.
For the Wildcats, Colter led the team in rushing with 71 yards, and Venric picked up 60 yards on the ground. Siemian led Northwestern in passing going 12 of 20 for 120 yards and an interception. Dan Vitale led the Wildcats with seven catches for 82 yards.