by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Throw ancillary storylines and historical trends at Pat Fitzgerald on the eve of Northwestern’s Gator Bowl matchup with Mississippi State, and watch the 38-year-old coach spew out the same refrain. “We’re here to win a football game,” the message Fitzgerald relayed to Northwestern and Mississippi State media with almost mechanical predictability. That’s Fitzgerald’s singular focus.
What about the Big Ten vs. SEC interplay, and the chance to make a statement for the much-maligned Midwest-centered league?
“Northwestern vs. Mississippi State. That’s my focus. We had the same challenge a couple years ago [Auburn in 2010 Outback Bowl].”
How about the Vegas betting that initially pegged Northwestern as two-point underdogs shifting the Wildcats to one-point favorites?
“No idea. We never talk about things like that.”
If there’s one worry Fitzgerald has heading into tomorrow’s matchup, it’s as simple and mundane as they get. “Let’s get the guys here on time.”
The Wildcats may enter this game riding 64 years of postseason pressures, and the general perception that Big Ten teams aren’t nearly as fast, big or talented as SEC teams – Bulldogs media emphasized the SEC’s exalted perception, with one inquisitive reporter probing MSU coach Dan Mullen about the league’s 16-2 record in nonconference games – but for Fitzgerald, it’s just another bowl game.
This is Northwestern’s most successful senior class, but there’s something missing from their resume. And it’s not beating an SEC team – the Wildcats accomplished that earlier this season, when they handled Vanderbilt at Ryan Field. It’s winning a bowl game.
“All the bowl games have been fun,” senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said. “We haven’t had as much fun with the end result, but it’s something we’re looking forward to changing tomorrow – being able to finish the job.”
Resistant though they were to reveal observations from film study about the specifics of Mississippi State’s personnel and schemes, Arnfelt offered a few quips about Mississippi State’s offensive line.
“Up front, they’re big, they execute run blocks really well. It will definitely be a challenge to get into the backfield and penetrate through that line.”
Senior linebacker David Nwabuisi, after deflecting an MSU beat reporter’s question about the perception of Big Ten football in his home state, Texas, offered a standard appraisal of Mississippi State’s offense. “They play hard. The Quarterback slings the ball around. The running backs run hard. It’s just another football team.”
One of NU’s most candid voices, senior linebacker Brian Mulroe, chimed in on Mississippi State’s defense. “They’re quick, athletic linebackers. They run, they’ll come down and hit you. Their guys up front are athletic and big.”
The portrait of a stereotypic SEC defensive line, tidily summed up by one of the men charged with blocking and overpowering the very group Mulroe describes. But In this instance, the reputation of the SEC – and the Bulldogs media’s league superiority complex – is not a concern in the least. There’s one thing on the minds of Northwestern players and its coach: playing and beating a well-coached, talented and experienced football team.
“We’re healthy and ready to go,” Fitzgerald said. “Our guys are focused.”