By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dan Mullen had to be blunt about his disappointment.
His Mississippi State squad capped off its season-ending stumble with a 34-20 loss to No. 21 Northwestern in the Gator Bowl at EverBank Field on Tuesday.
MSU (8-5) started the season 7-0 but lost five of its last six, four of those to ranked teams.
“Excuse my language, but it sucks,” said Mullen, who’s now 2-17 against ranked foes. “Nobody likes to lose. Our kids put in, everybody puts in, a lot of working to go win football games.
“It was great to win a lot early. It sucks to lose late, to be honest with you.”
Tyler Russell threw a career-worst four interceptions, and the Bulldogs saw a streak of five consecutive bowl wins stopped. As for the Wildcats (10-3), the victory snapped a nine-game bowl losing streak; their only previous postseason win was the 1949 Rose Bowl.
This was the fourth multi-interception game of Russell’s career, and he finished the season with 10 picks. He had just four going into the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss in the regular-season finale.
Mullen sent Russell to the locker room in the second quarter after his third interception.
He said he told the junior, “Go into the locker room, splash some water on your face, readjust your pads and forget that you came out to start the game. Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.”
It seemed to help for a while, as did a strong running game.
Tailback LaDarius Perkins had rushes of 10 and 20 yards to set up State’s first touchdown – an 18-yard toss from Russell to Arceto Clark, who made a diving catch in the back of the end zone.
That cut Northwestern’s lead to 13-10 with 1 minute, 6 seconds until halftime. But Russell’s fourth interception would kill off MSU’s last hope for a comeback.
Fast-forward to the fourth quarter, with NU leading 27-20 and MSU facing a third-and-5 from its own 15-yard line. Russell was flushed left and tossed up a prayer that was caught by Northwestern cornerback Nick VanHoose.
He returned it to the 5-yard line, and three plays later Venric Mark scored from 3 yards for a 34-20 lead with 8:10 left in the game.
Mullen said Russell’s pass was a “really poor decision.”
Russell finished 12 of 28 for 106 yards and two TDs and was sacked three times. He was not made available for interviews.
Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian gave a stagnant Northwestern offense a spark in the second half, leading two touchdown drives to open up a 27-13 lead in the third quarter. He passed for 73 yards on the first TD drive, including a 12-yard pass on third-and-10.
Following that conversion, Siemian completed passes of 27 and 34 yards, and then Tyris Jones scored on a 3-yard run.
“Well, they’re a tempo team,” Mullen said. “They ran up and made another big play, and that’s kind of what they do.”
Siemian capped the second TD drive with a 4-yard run with 26 seconds left in the third. The sophomore finished 12 of 20 for 120 yards and an interception.
MSU played most of the second half without All-American cornerback Johnthan Banks, who suffered a laceration on his leg during a punt return.
This is the first 10-win season for Northwestern since the 1995 Rose Bowl team. Seventh-year coach Pat Fitzgerald was a member of that team, and this victory is as special as they come.
“I’m ecstatic for everyone that’s ever supported Northwestern football, and those that have been here before,” said Fitzgerald, who is now the program’s all-time leader in wins with 50. “It’s been a long road to get the win.”
Northwestern out-gained MSU in total yardage, 357-292, but the Bulldogs’ 186 rushing yards were the second-most allowed by the Wildcats’ defense this season. Josh Robinson had 91 yards on seven carries, while Perkins gained 84 on 19 carries.
Perkins eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season – he has 1,024 – but it was little consolation. He echoed Mullen’s sentiment.
“Losing, I mean it sucks,” Perkins said. “But it’s happened, it’s life. You’ve got to move on after things like that.”