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Northwestern vs. Mississippi State: Three Key Matchups To Watch In The Gator Bowl

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

You can talk about resumes and physicality and offensive and defensive identities, but in the end, college football games – particularly bowl contests, which entail long layoffs affording coaches extra time to prepare different schematic tweaks and tactical wrinkles – comes down to matchups. I’ve identified three that will prove crucial as Northwestern looks to handle business against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Other matchups will impact the game in different ways, but to me, the following three have the biggest game-turning potential. Let’s have at it.

Nick VanHoose vs. wide receiver Chad Bumphis

The vast progress made throughout the Wildcats secondary was one of the more pleasantly surprising storylines of the 2012-13 season. From VanHoose to C.J. Bryant to Daniel Jones – once you look past the Michigan debacle, it’s not hard to see he developed, however incrementally, as the year wore on – there were improvements across the board. That doesn’t get around the fact that the secondary was the weakest point of Northwestern’s defense this season. Opponents attacked the Wildcats through the air, much like last season, only at a lower success rate – 8.5 yards per attempt in 2011, compared to 6.7 in 2012.

The Bulldogs are no passing juggernaut, nor is Tyler Wilson even a top-tier quarterback in the SEC. Will that discourage Mississippi State coach and noted passing guru Dan Mullen from targeting Northwestern’s young pass defense? As much as the SEC prides itself on smashmouth football, a pass-heavy gameplan seems the logical plan of attack against the Wildcats, particularly with a receiver as capable as Bumphis providing big-play ability every time he touches the ball. The Bulldogs’ senior wideout amassed 904 yards and 12 touchdowns on 55 catches, including a six-catch, 146-yard, two-touchdown outing in the season finale against Ole Miss.

Provided VanHoose has fully recovered from the various ailments that plagued him towards the end of the season, coordinator Mike Hankwitz will probably match him with Bumphis to try and neutralize the Bulldogs’ most versatile offensive weapon. If VanHoose can shut Bumphis down, Mississippi State will be severely limited in its ability to break big plays downfield.

Venric Mark and Kain Colter vs. Mississippi State’s Defensive Line

The reasons behind Northwestern’s newfound success in the run game are not difficult to pin down. Almost all of them come down to the option-based attack orchestrated through Mark and Colter, which perplexed opposing defenses all season long. As the year rolled along, Colter and Mark executed their pitches and fakes with excellent precision and timing, almost to the point press box viewers, myself included, frequently lost sight of who had possession of the ball. If my birds-eye vantage point wasn’t sharp enough to discern ballcarrier from faker, I struggle to imagine what it must have been like trying to defend the option at field level, on gut instinct and snap judgment reads at game speed.

The option gradually evolved into the defining element of Northwestern’s offense. When Colter and Mark developed a rhythm, it was nearly impossible to contain. Trevor Siemian provides a nice change of pace as a more conventional pocket passer, but the Wildcats – strange as it sounds – constructed an offensive identity grounded on spread option principles.

It is highly unlikely they will stray from this blueprint against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs never managed to find a credible replacement for senior defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, which helps to explain why they finished ranked 12th in the SEC in rush defense (4.29) yards per play. Northwestern will undoubtedly look to attack that relative weakness with the option scheme that garnered so much success all season long. You can rest assured Siemian will get his work in, even if its only a) in third-down situations and/or b) for two-minute, no-huddle purposes. Even so, odds are the Wildcats will continue with what’s worked best, and that’s the Mark-Colter option. If it can establish that offensive staple early on, Northwestern will control the clock and sustain long drives. Running the ball, eating clock, keeping Missippi State off the field – three key objectives made easier by an effective option attack.

Northwestern’s defensive line vs. Mississippi State running back LaDarius Perkins

It is no coincidence that Mississippi State’s midseason tailspin coincided with a severe drop in production from Perkins. Over the first seven games of the season, when the Bulldogs stormed out to an undefeated start and a No. 11 BCS ranking, Perkins averaged 103.4 yards per game and scored eight rushing touchdowns. The next five games, of which Mississippi State lost four, Perkins averaged 54* yards and scored 0 rushing touchdowns. Granted, a drastic increase in competition level is another significant factor behind Mississippi State’s collapse down the stretch, but an inability to establish the run game through Perkins was also critical. Either way, opponents eliminated the Bulldogs’ run game, losses piled up, and Mississippi State fell out of the SEC West Race.

I wrote last week about Northwestern’s defensive line and the myriad ways it improved throughout the season. The line can punctuate a truly great season with another strong effort against Mississippi State (which may or may not lead to that elusive bowl victory). It will require the same toughness and intensity the line demonstrated over the last three months, especially when it comes to maintaining gap discipline and plugging holes at the point of attack. Brian Arnfelt, Sean McEvily and the other tackles will need to break the Bulldogs’ wall of protection, meet Perkins in the backfield and collapse the pocket on quarterback Tyler Russell. Ends Tyler Scott, Quentin Williams and Deonte Gibson must apply pressure off the edge and snuff out stretch plays and tosses. No single player can shut Perkins down; it will demand a disciplined approach from all involved, including the linebackers and, on occasion, the secondary.

Stopping the run is a huge priority for the simple reason that eliminating a huge chunk of the playbook whittles down Mississippi State’s range of offensive creativity. It also allows the Wildcats to devote greater attention to Bumphis and the Bulldogs’ other receivers. If Perkins gets things going on the ground, Northwestern will need to send more defenders to the line of scrimmage, which could leave Bumphis and others in favorable matchups. With the run game out of order, Russell will struggle to find open receivers downfield, and Mississippi State’s offense will stagnate.

*in the interest of statistical symmetry, my calculations excluded Mississippi State’s game against LSU, which Perkins sat out due to injury.