JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The stuffed monkey spent the last year in storage, out of sight but still in everyone’s mind.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald dusted it off for the Gator Bowl and even had it on the sideline Tuesday as a reminder of Northwestern’s decades-long, bowl losing streak – the ol’ monkey on their backs.
Now, it’s in pieces.
Behind huge interceptions early and late, No. 21 Northwestern beat Mississippi State 34-20 and snapped college football’s longest postseason losing streak. The Wildcats (10-3) hadn’t won a bowl game since 1949, a nine-game skid that was tied with Notre Dame for the longest in NCAA history.
It’s history now. And as a reward, Fitzgerald let his players rip the monkey to shreds in the locker room.
We’ve never been here before, but now we’re here and here to stay with a new streak you can talk about in a positive fashion, Fitzgerald said.
Quentin Williams returned an interception 29 yards for a TD 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, Northwestern’s two-quarterback system kept the Bulldogs (8-5) off balance most of the day.
Scrambler Kain Colter ran for 71 yards, making up for his two interceptions. Backup Trevor Siemian threw for 120 yards and an interception, and also ran for a score.
Even with the turnovers, they were more efficient than Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell, who completed 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. He had only thrown six picks in the first 11 games.
He threw interceptions on Mississippi State’s first two possessions and tossed another one early in the second quarter. After falling behind 13-0, Russell settled down and got the Bulldogs back in the game.
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,’ said coach Dan Mullen, whose team lost five of its final six games. Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.’
It worked as Mississippi State tied the game at 13 in the third quarter.
On the other sideline, there had to be a sense of panic. After all, the Wildcats had blown three double-digit leads in the second half of three games this season. Northwestern surrendered big leads against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. That here-we-go-again feeling easily could have taken over when Mississippi State seized momentum.
But the Wildcats didn’t flinch. They responded with Siemian directing a 76-yard drive that put NU up for good. Tyris Jones bowled in from 3 yards out.
Siemian added a 4-yard TD run – set up by Colter’s 31-yard scamper – that made it 27-13 with 26 seconds remaining in the third. That came after Russell’s fourth pick, the one VanHoose grabbed near midfield.
I feel like a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders, Colter said.
Venric Mark, Northwestern’s all-everything back, finished with 56 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
The win was the first in the postseason for the Wildcats since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.