by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
JACKSONVILLE, FL — For all of the opportunities Northwestern has blown in the past, under a bright sun in Jacksonville, the Wildcats made the plays that mattered most.
You would be hard pressed to claim that the Wildcats outplayed the Bulldogs. For most of the game, they couldn't run the ball up the middle. For that matter, they couldn't establish a consistent offensive attack for much of the game. The second quarter, for example, featured an interception and three consecutive punts.
"We did some uncharacteristic things too offensively. We had a couple of nice punts on offense," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald joked. "(Sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian) will talk about it. We didn't necessarily execute very well in the second quarter."
This was not Bloomington, where junior quarterback Kain Colter ran circles around the Indiana defense and established himself as a threat at wide receiver. This was not Evanston, where Colter owned the airwaves against Illinois and cut through Iowa's defense like a knife. This wasn't Minneapolis, where junior running back Venric Mark played tag with the defense all day long. This was Jacksonville, where the Wildcats struggled for every yard.
On the other side of the ball, Mississippi State junior running back LaDarius Perkins sped through Northwestern's defense. He finished with 84 rushing yards. Mississippi State finished with 186, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. At halftime, the Bulldogs had 136 rushing yards on just 14 carries. Through the air, it sometimes seemed like Bulldogs junior quarterback Tyler Russell did more to help the Wildcats than they did to help themselves. Russell had open men; he just didn't hit them.
"Defensively, we gave up some uncharacteristic big plays," Fitzgerald said. "We fit wrong. We adjusted wrong on one play. It's something that we've seen a couple of other times."
And yet, Northwestern, plagued by a lifeless series of drives midway through the game, unable to stop Mississippi State from scoring on three straight drives, prevailed.
The Wildcats prevailed due to an unbelivable number of big plays. They took an early lead on the Bulldogs' first drive of the game, when Russell threw it right to senior defensive end Quentin Williams, who sprinted down the sideline into the end zone. Then, when Mississippi State appared poised to tie the score back up, ploughing 50 yards down the field, it was sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell's turn to make a play, as he stepped in front of a seemingly open wide receiver down the right sideline to snare the interception and take points off of the board for the Bulldogs.
Fittingly, it was an interception that sealed it for the Wildcats. Already leading 27-20, they had the Bulldogs facing a third-and-five from their own 25-yard line. Mississippi State had no need to rush. There were still 10 minutes left. The Wildcats didn't give Russell time to think, however, chasing him out of the pocket and forcing him to throw an ill-advised lob downfield. Redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose not only caught the ball — he ran with it, dodging tacklers to bring the ball just five yards from paydirt. Five plays later, Northwestern had its two-touchdown lead. It had its victory.
"It was a great way to finish the season," senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "I don't know who didn't make a play on defense today. It was incredible. Players were coming from everywhere. As a defense, we kind of compete to try and see who makes the most plays, and truthfully, we have no idea. It was amazing."
The biggest play of the day may have come on the offensive end, however. After a miserable second quarter went beyond the locker room as Colter started the second half with another interception, after Mississippi State marched down the field and booted a 47-yard field goal to tie the score, after Northwestern had watched its 13-0 lead dwindle away, the Wildcats' chances suddenly appeared quite bleak.
On first down, Siemian misfired badly as he threw off of his back foot to Mark. On second down, he was unable to find freshman superback Dan Vitale. Facing third-and-10, the game appeared to be careening rapidly in Mississippi State's direction. On that play that changed the course of Tuesday's game and thus Northwestern football history, Siemian was nearly brought down, but he somehow twisted out of the defender's grasp and roamed toward the left sideline, finally finding junior wide receiver Rashad Lawrence for a 12-yard grab and a first down.
For greater than 15 minutes, Northwestern had been unable to find any offensive rhythm. From the start of the second quarter until Siemian's miraculous completion to Lawrence toward the beginning of the third quarter, the Wildcats had just 60 yards of total offense. In their ensuing six plays, they mustered 76 yards of total offense. As soon as Siemian found Lawrence, Northwestern was off to the races. Next thing you know, Siemian found a tightly covered Demetrius Fields crossing over the middle for a 27-yard gain. Then, he flung a pass downfield to Vitale, who reached up well over his head to snare the pass for a 34-yard gain. Finally, senior running back Tyris Jones pounded it into the end zone. Just like that, Northwestern had its lead back — a lead it would maintain until game's end.
"It was big," Siemian said. "It's really tough to get away with playing like that, the way we played in that stretch, but guys on the outside just stepped up and made some plays. Rashad adjusted to the ball. Fields had a big catch in there. Danny almost put one in there, but yeah, guys on the outside stepped up."
Siemian accounted for their next score too on another huge play, as he pulled the ball back from junior running back Mike Trumpy and took it in himself around the right end.
"That's probably the first pull I had on the play all year," Siemian said. "I surprised myself a little bit. I just think they thought I was never going to pull it and neither did I."
Siemian's scramble was a fitting capper on a day marked by huge plays on both sides of the ball. Whether it was four picks, two sacks on Mississippi State's final drive or Siemian displaying uncharacteristic mobility, Northwestern made the plays it needed to make to win the game.
At the end of the day though, perhaps Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said it best in describing the drive that began with Siemian's miraculous pass to Lawrence:
"They're a tempo team," Mullen said. "They ran up and made another big play and that's kind of what they do. You know, that was a big drive that they had at a key moment. Give their kids credit. They made big plays when they needed to."