No. 21 Northwestern Wildcats (9-3 SU, 11-1 ATS) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4 SU, 6-6 ATS)
Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl
Date/Time: Tuesday, January 1st, 2013, 12:00 p.m. EST
Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
TV: ESPN2/DirecTV 209
by Badger, Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: NW +2/Miss. St. -2
Over/Under Total: 51.5
The 21st-ranked Northwestern Wildcats haven’t won a bowl game in over 60 years, but if they’re going to snap the string of bad breaks and bad luck it will have to come against a team from college football’s power-conference, when the Wildcats meet the SEC’s Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville on New Year’s Day.
The last bowl game Northwestern finished with smiles on their faces was back in 1949, when the won the Rose Bowl by beating Cal, 20-14. They’ve been to nine bowls since, including five straight under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, but every one of them have ended in disappointment.
This year might be the Wildcats best chance at getting the proverbial monkey off their backs in the Gator Bowl. With a 9-3 record (5-3 in Big Ten), the Cats finished third in the Legends Division of the Big Ten Conference and those three losses were by a combined 19 points. They took Michigan into OT before losing, 38-31, and nearly toppled Legends winner Nebraska at home, losing by a point, 29-28. Northwestern finished the season strong too, scoring a modest two-game win streak with a huge “upset” win over Michigan State on the road in East Lansing (23-20) before ending the year with a beat down of in-state rival Illinois, 50-14.
While the Wildcats enter the bowl season with their confidence high and a small win streak on the ledger, the Mississippi State comes into the Gator Bowl on the opposite end of the spectrum. At the midpoint of the season the Bulldogs were ranked and ready to make some noise in the tough SEC, but after losing four of their last five games the Bulldogs are looking at getting some pride and self-respect back in the bowl game.
Sure three of those four loses came against the big boys of the SEC, Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU, but it was more about how they lost them that has caused concern in Starkville. The Bulldogs lost by an average of 25 points in those three losses, and to make matters worse the embarrassment hit an all-time high when they lost to in-state rival Ole Miss in the season finale, 41-24.
Despite their late-season struggles, the Bulldogs opened the Gator Bowl as 2-point favorites. After a few weeks of being live and up on the board the number has yet to move in either direction, with the exception of a few properties in Las Vegas that have gone up the hook to minus -2.5.
On paper, this looks like it might be a good matchup for the Northwestern offense. The Wildcats feature the one-two punch of running back Venric Mark (1,310 yards, 11 TD) and quarterback/running back Kain Colter (820 yards, 12 TD) on the ground who together combine for 231 yards a game on the ground (14th in FBS). Considering that the Bulldogs run defense was one of the worst in the SEC, allowing 166 yards a game (71st), and you can see why spirits are high in Evansville as they prepare to try and snap their long overdue bowl losing streak.
Another intangible working in the Wildcats favor is the fact that Mark led the nation in punt returns, with an average of 20.1 per kick. Mark can set a new school record for all-purpose yards with 148 yards in the bowl game, a mark the junior All-American should break easily if the Wildcats have any hope of winning the game.
Mississippi State will need to attack the Wildcats defense through the air, which means junior quarterback Tyler Russell (60%, 2,791 yards, 22 TD) will need to play a great game out of the Bulldogs spread-option attack. Russell hurt his ankle in the loss to Ole Miss, but with over a month to heal he’s expected to play in the Gator Bowl despite being listed as questionable.
Russell has one of the most dangerous weapons on the outside in senior receiver Chad Bumphis. Bumphis had over 900 yards receiving this season, but his big play capability (16.4 ypc) and nine touchdowns makes his priority number one for a Wildcat secondary that allowed 262 yards per game passing (97th).
These two schools have never met on the field, but considering the Bulldogs are 1-4 ATS during the last five games of the season and 2-5 ATS in the last seven non-conference games, Mississippi State is a risky wager these days.
Northwestern has been the exact opposite, going 11-1 ATS this season including a 4-0 ATS record in their four non-Big Ten games.
Badger’s Pick to Cover the Point Spread: I like the UNDER here.
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