Mississippi State to face Northwestern in Gator Bowl

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi State is headed back to Jacksonville, Fla.

The Bulldogs (8-4) have been selected to play in the Gator Bowl, it was announced today. They’ll face No. 21-ranked Northwestern of the Big Ten in the Jan. 1 game (11 a.m., ESPN2). It’s the second time in three years MSU has been chosen for this bowl; it beat Michigan 52-14 days after head coach Dan Mullen received a hefty raise (four years, $10.6 million).

This is the first meeting between Northwestern and MSU.

It’s the third consecutive bowl trip for State, which beat Wake Forest 23-17 last year in the Music City Bowl. The Bulldogs were being considered for that game as well, but the Gator Bowl picked just ahead of the Music City and went with State over Vanderbilt (8-4).

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MSU coach Dan Mullen and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about their Gator Bowl matchup on a teleconference this evening. The two coaches are good friends but have never met on the field as head coaches. In fact, this will be the first meeting between the two schools in football.

I’ve got highlights from the teleconference, and let’s start with Mullen, who said he first met Fitzgerald while recruiting the Houston area as a Utah assistant.

• On seeking advice from Fitzgerald: “A lot of times you’ll come in with one thought, bounce an idea off and he has an idea on it. It might change how you think in what you end up doing and what you implement in your program. Obviously I have respect for him. Look at the success he’s had and not just short-term success — consistent success — shows that he’s one of the premier coaches in all of college football.”

• On Fitzgerald building up his program: “You’re not going to find a fiercer competitor and the team takes on the personality of their head coach. You see that with his team, the fierce competitiveness that his players play with.”

• On how he’ll use the coming weeks to improve the team: “We’re going to spend the next couple of weeks — we have final exams coming up — getting a lot of young players reps. This is kind of their first opportunity at spring practice and getting reps. Then we’ll hone in on game planning later. It’s a tremendous opportunity. I think the challenge of playing a team we’ve never played before is a great experience for our guys and that lack of familiarity with the two teams make it pretty special.”

• On Northwestern’s run-heavy offense: “They’re going to put a whole new set of challenges on us and very different challenges. They run an up-tempo offense with a very run-oriented team. They run the ball as well as anybody in the country. That will cause a different challenge than what we’ve seen the last couple of weeks, but we have a couple of weeks to get ourselves prepared for it.”

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Now, for some tidbits from Fitzgerald.

• On his relationship with Mullen: “When I’m thinking about making some decisions or tweaks or changes, Dan’s one of those guys that I’m going to reach out to and do some research and just bounce some ideas off of.”

• On the team’s first Gator Bowl trip, first meeting with MSU getting fans and players excited: “There’s no question that our fans will do a terrific job traveling. If you look at our bowl travel record here over the last four years, it’s been outstanding. Wildcat nation has been incredibly supportive of our football program. We’re thankful for that. I believe it’s 18,000 living alumni in the state of Florida we have, so hopefully all those folks will find a way to make it.”

• On how well he knows Mullen’s offense, whether that will help him: “When Dan and I have visited, it’s been less about schematics and more about how we manage and lead. Schematics, that is what it is, and I think you’ll see similarities in both teams in our offenses. At the end of the day, it’s more just about a relationship that’s been built on respect.”

Click here for Gator Bowl ticket information.

Click here for more at Brad Locke’s Inside Mississippi State Sports Blog.

Read more in Monday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.