By Mark Long/The Associated Press
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell walked out of the locker room and headed straight for the bus.
He refused to stop and didn’t utter a word.
There really was nothing to say after the worst game of his career.
The junior threw four interceptions in a 34-20 loss to No. 21 Northwestern in the Gator Bowl on Tuesday. The Wildcats (10-3) ended a 64-year postseason drought, earning their first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
Russell certainly helped Northwestern snap a nine-game bowl losing streak. He had one interception returned for a touchdown on the third play of the game, threw two passes that were picked inside Northwestern’s 15-yard line and essentially sealed the game with his fourth of the day.
“Guys are going to have off days,” coach Dan Mullen said. “Here’s the great thing: He had an off day and there were still some opportunities there for us in the fourth quarter to go win the game. So great learning moment for young guys.”
The Bulldogs (8-5) ended the season with five losses in their last six games. It was a stark contrast to how they felt following their last trip to Jacksonville two years ago, when they thumped Michigan 52-14 to win nine games for the first time since 1999.
“Nobody likes to lose,” Mullen said. “Everybody puts in a lot of work to win football games. It was great to win a lot early. It (stinks) to lose late, to be honest with you. But we’ve got to do a better job as coaches and we’ve got to make sure we continue to put kids in position to win. Our kids play hard.
“Eight-win seasons are starting to get disappointing. So that is the direction you want the program headed in.”
LaDarius Perkins ran 19 times for 84 yards for the Bulldogs, and freshman Josh Robinson added 91 yards on seven carries.
Cornerback Johnthan Banks, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s best defensive back, left the game with a leg injury.
“He had a massive gash in the side of his leg that they had to stitch up,” Mullen said. “With that, he didn’t feel right. He wanted to go back in, but I told our trainers unless he’s 100 percent, try not to put him back in the game.”
More concerning than Banks’ injury was Russell’s turnovers.
Quentin Williams returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the game and Nick VanHoose set up another touchdown with a 39-yard interception return in the fourth. Those plays were the difference in a back-and-forth game that featured more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six).
In between, Russell had two more near the end zone.
Ibraheim Campbell picked off a pass Williams tipped at the 14 on Mississippi State’s second possession. Equally crushing was the one Chi Chi Ariguzo intercepted early in the second quarter. It came on the ensuing play after the Bulldogs picked off Kain Colter and returned it to the 15.
“I talked to him going into the locker room after the third pick, said ‘Go into the locker room, splash some water on your face, readjust your pads and forget that you came out to start the game,’” Mullen said. “‘Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.’”
After falling behind 13-0, Russell settled down and got the Bulldogs back in the game. They tied it at 13, but then the Wildcats responded.
Russell completed 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns. He had only thrown six picks in the first 11 games this season.
“We are kind of down right now, but life goes on,” Perkins said. “We got to make sure we come back strong next year. … Our coaches have all the confidence in the world in us, so we are just going to stay positive and come out in the offseason and get everything going.”