by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The weekly grind of the fall has given way to the protracted timetable that is the bowl season layoff. Northwestern enters its fifth consecutive bowl game with arguably the most favorable matchup over that span. Mississippi State is a big, athletic, well-coached outfit. It is not – as has been the case in years past – a huge step up in competition level. The Wildcats may be two-point underdogs, but few would argue they don’t have a very good chance to break the program’s 64-year-long bowl drought against a team that, for all its recent postseason success (Mississippi State’s five-game bowl winning streak is tied for the longest such streak among FBS teams), lost four of its last five games to end the season.
It’s time we take you inside the matchups. We received good feedback throughout the regular season on our “who has the edge” preview features, but in case you weren’t interested, harbored strong disagreements, or had other ideas about preview coverage, no hard feelings. We’re bringing it back one more time for Northwestern’s final game of the season. This is about as even a bowl matchup as you’ll see on this year’s slate, but we’ve managed to identify some strengths/weaknesses on both sides of the ball.
When Northwestern Has The Ball
The unfamiliarity of facing a new opponent from a different league doesn’t change Northwestern’s priorities on offense. The Wildcats must establish the run early, preferably with Mark and Colter keeping the Bulldogs hefty defensive line off- balanced with option sets. The timing, spacing and precision of pitches and keepers grew stronger as the season rolled along. Colter and Mark developed a mutual understanding of when to toss, when to keep and when to scrap plays and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. By the final game of the season, the two juniors had reduced a complex mutual action that often requires months of repetition to an elementary science. They made something extraordinarily difficult look extremely simple, and defenses, for the most part, were helpless when trying to stop it.
There’s no use in getting away from that strategy against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs rank 12th among SEC teams in rush defense (4.29) and allowed more than 200 yards on the ground in three of its final five games. Northwestern should be able to run the ball against that defense, though after more than four weeks of preparation, it’s tough to say exactly how the Bulldogs will defend the Wildcats’ ground game. That’s the thing with bowl games – there is an inherent uncertainty in making predictions about an opponent’s gameplan, because with a month of practices to try out new plays and schemes, new tricks and tweaks absent from the regular season gametape are unveiled, often to miraculous effect. More likely than not, Northwestern will find holes in Mississippi State’s run defense, and eventually break through for a big gain or two.
Presuming Mississippi State brings extra defenders to the line of scrimmage to help to reign in Northwestern’s rushing attack, and eventually finds ways to contain the option, Trevor Siemian will get some snaps in the passing game. It will be interesting to observe how the Bulldogs prepare for the possibility of seeing two quarterbacks, and how Siemian attacks two of the SEC’s best cornerbacks, Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. The more problems Northwestern encounters in running the ball, the more playing time Siemian will receive as the Wildcats look for alternatives to supplement the option run game.
When Mississippi State Has The Ball…
Striking a healthy balance between pass and run plays is a guiding principle of most successful offenses. In that regard, Mississippi State is right on track, having logged 391 rushing attempts and 395 passing attempts in 2012-13, so you can expect an even split when these two squads suit up on Jan. 1. Coach Dan Mullen rose to fame for his quarterback tutelage under Urban Meyer. He has yet to mold an elite quarterback in Starkville, and incumbent Tyler Russell does not fall under that category. What he does have is one of the strongest arms in the country, and a big-play receiver in Chad Bumphis who’s capable of dashing by receivers and getting behind defenses. Russell will look for Bumphis early and often, and it will be up to Nick VanHoose to make sure he doesn’t get free in space.
On the ground, the Wildcats will focus primarily on running back LaDarius Perkins, who compiled eight touchdowns on 186 attempts and stands 60 yards away from breaking the 1,000-yd barrier. He is arguably Mississippi State’s most important player on offense: during the Bulldogs’ late-season skid, when Perkins never reached 100 yards in a single game, Mississippi State lost all but one contest. Correlation is not causation, obviously, but there is no denying the importance of generating an effective run game. Not only does it wear down defenses and keep the ball away from opposing offenses. It forces defenses to bring extra help around the line of scrimmage, which opens up the passing game for deep threats like Bumphis.
A roughly equal run-pass mix is a reasonable expectation, depending on the urgency of situation, and whether or not Northwestern’s much-improved defensive line can bottle up Perkins at the line of scrimmage. It won’t be much of a surprise if Mullen opts for more passing plays than running plays, if only to test Northwestern’s green secondary. After all, for all the improvements made in the back end of the defense, Ibraheim Campbell and co. remain a work in progress. They are easy targets, no matter how much they improved throughout the season. How Mullen opts to split running and passing plays, and whether Northwestern can limit Bumphis through the air or Perkins on the ground, are crucial matchups.
There’s little to discuss when it comes to Mississippi State’s special teams. The Bulldogs rank in the bottom half of the SEC in most categories, save for kickoff returns, where they average 23.23 yards per return, good for third among league competitors. That number is nothing to scoff at – kick returns are game-turning developments that often make the difference in close games. The Bulldogs’ KR average is nearly three yards greater than Northwestern’s mark of 20.93. So from a statistical standpoint, Mississippi State would appear to have a decided edge in that area.
Here’s a perfect case study in why statistics are not silver bullets for game analysis. Northwestern happens to have one of the most electric return men in the sport. Towards the end of the season, coach Pat Fitzgerald limited his run backs on kickoffs – presumably to minimize injury risk – but when given the green light, Mark is going to get his yards, and few are going to catch him. Mark finished the season as the nation’s leader in punt return average at 20.14, which topped the No. 2 finished by nearly four yards. Which is to say that Mississippi State would do well to punt the ball out of bounds.
What’s been just as impressive on the Northwestern special teams front is the tremendous strides made by Jeff Budzien. Fitzgerald implored Budzien’s inclusion in Lou Groza Award considerations throughout the season, and just as his preseason comment that Venric Mark was “the best [punt returner] in the country” screamed of personal bias and complementary coachspeak, it’s tough to argue Budzien wasn’t one of the best field goal kickers in the country. He connected on 17 of 18 attempts for a 94.4 percent make rate and gained confidence every game – this just one season removed from converting only six of 10 field goal tries.
All told, it was an excellent year in the special teams realm, even if punt protector Bo Cisek’s attempted touchdown runs against Illinois ended in abject failure.
Northwestern 24, Mississippi State 20 – Many fans hoped Northwestern would receive an invitation to the Capitol One Bowl. And for a while there, it felt like a realistic possibility. The behind-the-scenes workings of Capitol One’s final decision are murky and forever muddled, but what we do know is that the Wildcats stand a better chance at defeating Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl than they would have against Georgia or another high-level SEC foe in the Capitol One. Of all the Big Ten’s bowl matchups, Northwestern’s looks the most promising. It has a better resume than Mississippi State. It has a dynamic offense and underrated defense. It plays resilient and inspired football and has exceeded expectations time and again this season. Who’s to say, against a favored SEC opponent (albeit slight and in number only), it can’t pull off another upset?
Northwestern has faced tougher teams this season – Nebraska, Michigan and arguably Penn State – and played pretty much every opponent down to the wire (save Penn State). Just because some decades-long streak of misfortune looms as a remembrance of postseason ineptitude, hanging over any and all discussion of Northwestern’s bowl history, doesn’t mean the wildcats cannot reverse their fate. Northwestern is primed for a bowl victory. This season, against this opponent, is a perfect opportunity it simply won’t squander.