*This is Mississippi State’s second appearance in the Gator Bowl in three seasons. The 2010 Bulldogs celebrated New Years Day 2011 by routing Michigan 52-14.
*State is making a third-straight bowl trip, including last year’s Music City Bowl. This is only the second time Bulldog teams have gone bowling three consecutive seasons; the other was 1998-2000.
*A victory in Jacksonville would produce the first three-consecutive-year bowl winning streak ever for Mississippi State. And dating back to 1999, Bulldog teams have won five-straight postseason games.
*State can match Coach Dan Mullen’s best season record with a win, equaling the 9-4 slate of 2010. He would also become the first MSU coach with two nine-win seasons.
*State is 1-0 against Big Ten teams (at the time) in bowl play.
*Northwestern is the designated home team. They are making a fifth-straight bowl trip but their first appearance in the Gator Bowl. A victory would give the Wildcats their first 10-win season since 1995.
*This is the third post-season SEC matchup for Northwestern, with losses to Tennessee in the 1996 season Citrus Bowl and Auburn in the 2009 season Outback Bowl. The Wildcats own a regular season win over the SEC after defeating Vanderbilt in September.
*At 29-21 Mullen now is tied for fourth-most victories by a Bulldog coach.
*Bowl games included, State has won the last 15 non-conference games.
*Mullen is 2-16 against ranked-at-the-time teams though, the wins in 2009 (Ole Miss) and 2010 (Florida). His teams have lost the last ten meetings with ranked opponents.
*There are 21 Bulldogs playing for the second time in a Gator Bowl. Eight started the 2011 game: CB John Banks, DT Josh Boyd, CB Corey Broomfield, WR Arceto Clark, OG Gabe Jackson, WR Brandon Heavens, WR Chris Smith, S Nickoe Whitley.
*There are 13 more Dogs who played, from scrimmage or special teams, the last time in Jacksonville: LB Cam Lawrence, WR Ricco Sanders, QB Tyler Russell, FB Sylvester Hemphill, RB LaDarius Perkins, FB Adrian Marcus, ST Chris Cameron, LB Chris Hughes, LB Deontae Skinner, DE Corvell Harrison-Gay, DT Devin Jones, OG Tobias Smith, and DE Shane McCardell.
*WR Chad Bumphis missed the last Gator Bowl with injury. A total of 23 current Bulldogs were on the 2010 team roster but not playing in that bowl game, in reserve or redshirting.
The Opponent: Alter a few scores, make that just one or two plays, and these Wildcats could be playing on another coast. Never mind how the Big Ten standings were scrambled by other events, Northwestern was a genuine contender for that title. As far as their post-season status, this team beat five other bowl-bound clubs en route to Jacksonville. Coach Pat Fitzgerald (49-39) has not just raised the image of his program. He’s raised expectations to the point everyone else expects Northwestern to win. Oh, and for the academic record, the Wildcats led all college teams from either the bowl or championship subdivisions in APR.
Offense: There are program that strive for balance, others which try trickery. Not Northwestern. After years relying on throwing, these guys now pound the ground. 63% of snaps have produced a rush, called or otherwise, and 58% of the yardage. They’ve had three games of 300-plus rushing yards and were close twice again. Changing emphasis has maximized the abilities of TB Mark Venric, the B10’s second-leading rusher with 1,310 yards and a 6.2 average each tote. He also has eleven rushing touchdowns but that’s just second on the squad to QB Kain Colter with a dozen. He’s also netted 820 rushing yards himself. Safe to say this team’s games move right along. Kain is a 69% passer too but more of a short-route guy; if the Wildcats need a real downfield threat Trevor Siemian (59%, 6 TDs) gets the call. Between them these two have just four interceptions. They don’t get caught for losses much either, with just six sacks in the last eight games and 16 for the whole season. The same five blockers have started all 12 games, and they average 307 pounds across led by Rimington nominee OC Brandon Vitabile. When they do throw the ball, there’s no one or two targets for defensive focus; the leading four receivers have 29-to-32 receptions and near-identical yardages to boot. H-man Christian Jones is the deeper threat at 12.4 yards-per and two TDs, while split end Tony Jones has four scores and a 11.6-yards rate this year after a 2011 knee injury. The Wildcats are top-20 nationally in red-zone scoring with 31 touchdowns in 51 chances, mostly via rushing…which is something the Bulldog defense specializes in stopping. That’s the matchup to watch. Oh, and Northwestern has had a lead in every game this year.
Defense: Their counterparts run the ball; these guys stuff the run. Only once all season has anyone (Nebraska) mustered 200 ground yards on Northwestern, and just three other clubs netted as much as 150 on a unit that allows 3.6 yards per carry. Points come even harder with 16 rushing touchdowns in a dozen games. It’s a standard 4-3 base with size befitting a Big Ten program, though the ‘Fun Train’ tag claimed by the defensive line might not suit that league’s image. When you have a 6-5, 300-pound tackle (Brian Arnfelt) who scores three sacks and three more stops for losses, you can call yourself anything you like. The real entertainment comes from ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott; they have 10.5 sacks and 16 TFLs between them, five forced fumbles, and even eight blocked passes. SEC coordinators would love having this front to work with. All three starting linebackers ranked in their league’s top-twenty for tackles, led by mike-man Damien Proby with 108 stops. The outside guys are free to attack and have combined for 18 tackles behind the line, not to mention six recovered fumbles. They can cover too, which helps because the secondary as a whole has allowed 59% completions and eleven yards per catch. Soph Ibraheim Campbell started as a freshman safety and has developed fast, with 11 break-ups and a pick this year. Working around injuries and changes, second-year men Daniel Jones and Nick VanHoose have emerged as the staring corners. They’re likely to get a test Tuesday if the front-seven stuff the run as usual. And Wildcat insiders say their concern is a trend of late-game letdowns that account for all the losses.
Specialists: PK Jeff Budzien is the conference Kicker of the Year after making 17 of 18 field goals, and he’s perfect on 97 career PATs. P Brandon Williams is solid with a net-37.8 yard average. But the special teams star is Venric, with his 20.1 yard punt return average. Right, twenty yards each time, though he is one return shy of enough attempts to be ranked by the NCAA. He holds school records already for game punt and kickoff return yard, and has touchdowns of 82 and 75 yards this year.
Bulldog Notebook: In regard to that last item, here is perhaps the best matchup of the day: Mississippi State ended the regular season #1 in NCAA punt return yardage, with just eight yard given up.
*P Baker Swedenburg has punted 52 times with only 12 attempted returns and 30 fair-catches.
*Statistics shuffle daily here in bowl season. As of now Mississippi State is tied for fifth in NCAA turnover-margin, with SEC cousin Florida in fact. The Bulldogs did lead the nation for a mid-season stretch.
*Key to the defense’s prowess is picking passes, though this was erratic over the second half of the schedule. As of now State is tied, with five more programs for 19th in team interceptions with 16.
*CB Darius Slay (5) is tied for 11th in the latest NCAA standings, with nine more defenders; CB Johnthan Banks (4) is tied for 30th.
*State ranks just 96th in NCAA statistics through the regular season. But the Bulldogs have allowed just 16 sacks through 12 games, 28th-best nationally.
*This offense has produced the second-most points (363) and yards (4,673) in school history. State needs 14 points and 544 yards to tie those records which were set in 2010.
*State already has set a season record with 26 touchdown passes, topping last year’s mark of 19. And the 59.2% completion rate is easily the best in program history.
*In their eight wins the Bulldogs have rushed (scrambles and sacks included) 54% of plays. In the four losses, all league games, it was over 60% passes.
*In wins, 57% of Bulldog yards have come on passes; in losses when State must throw it is 82%.
*Four of the five best passing-percentage seasons by a Bulldog quarterback, and the top three, have been under Mullen’s management.
*Thorpe Award-winner Banks has this last game to reach his stated goal of the program interceptions record. He has 16 picks in 50 career games, tied with Walt Harris’ mark set 1992-95. Banks’ last interception was October 20.
*Banks has 217 career tackles.
*Banks and SS/CB Corey Broomfield do remain tied with three career touchdown returns, one ahead of Slay.
*And Broomfield is tied for 7th himself in the career-picks list, with ten.
*Slay needs one more interception to tie the season record of 6, shared by five Bulldogs including Broomfield in 2009.
*Slay has six career picks, two returned for touchdowns (Georgia 2011, Jackson State 2012).
*FS Nickoe Whitley has eight career interceptions of his own. Thus the current starting State secondary quartet has 40 picks between them.
*LB Cameron Lawrence waited until the final regular season game to intercept a 2012 pass. And he came away with a pair of Egg Bowl picks, giving the senior four for his career.
*Lawrence will repeat as team tackles champion. He has 111 going into the Gator Bowl, 14 more than next-nearest competitor LB Benardrick McKinney. Lawrence recorded 123 tackles as a junior.
*Lawrence had notched double-digit tackles in the last five games and eight for the season. He had six double-digit games as a junior.
*His four sacks this season top the three totaled in Lawrence’s first three years.
*McKinney ranks first among SEC freshmen in tackles, and fourth-best nationally among rookies.
*Sophomore DE Preston Smith finished the regular season first in team sacks with 4.5. This after not getting a single stop for loss of any sort as a 2011 freshman.
*Senior DT Josh Boyd has 33 tackles this year, after making 51 as a junior. His sacks are also down from 4.5 to 1.5.
*Boyd has two blocked field goals for his career, one this season against Texas A&M.
*State has forced just 12 fumbles; and only Lawrence and DE Denico Autry have done it twice.
*QB Tyler Russell has re-written a couple of pages in the passing record book in his first season as full-time starter. In the regular season alone the junior re-set standards for: yardage at 2,791; completions with 219 (and the first Dog passer ever to complete 200 tosses in a season); yards-per-game of course; and touchdowns with 22.
*For comparison, the previous TD pass record in a century-plus of Bulldog football was 16 by Derrick Taite in 1995.
*But a bad Egg Bowl has dropped Russell to second-best for now in season completion rate, at 59.8%. He’s barely behind former teammate Chris Relf’s 2011 record of 60% even.
*Russell’s eight 200-yard passing games are also a season record.
*Russell is just as accurate throwing in wins or losses this year. In the eight victories he was 141-of-235 or 60% even; in the four losses he was 78-of-131 or 59.5%. The difference? In wins he had 19 touchdowns and one interception; in losses five picks and three scores.
*Russell has tied a record once thought beyond reach at State, matching the 24 touchdowns-responsible for by Jackie Parker set in 1952. Russell has rushed for two scores this year.
*In SEC games, Russell’s completed passes average 12.2 yards; while the non-SEC rate is 14.1 yards.
*In 30 career games, 16 of them starts, Russell has thrown 35 touchdowns. That leaves Russell just three short of Taite’s record 38 set in 1993-96…and the current quarterback has this Gator Bowl as well as an entire senior season to move the milestone.
*Russell is already #6 in career passing yardage and 7th in completions.
*WR Chad Bumphis will exit with at least two MSU career receiving records and two more are within the senior’s reach. Most meaningful is his 24 touchdowns which smashed the prior standard of 17. Bumphis caught a touchdown in the last four regular-season games, two in both the last two contests.
*Bumphis is the first Dog receiver to lead the SEC in touchdown catches since, are you ready, 1973. And he needs 96 yards for only the second 1,000-yard receiving season ever at State.
*In November alone, Bumphis caught 25 balls for 418 yards and six scores, perhaps the best month ever by a Bulldog wideout? In the process he set the season yardage mark with 2,252…and counting, breaking Mardye McDole’s 1978 record.
*Bumphis has four 100-yard receiving games this year, one more than his prior three seasons combined. He can tie the season record shared by McDole (1978) and Tony Burks (2006) with a great Gator Bowl.
*His dozen touchdown grabs this year is already a record; in fact Bumphis because the first Bulldog ever with ten or more TD catches in a season. Eight of his scores came in SEC games.
*He has 55 catches this year, and the record is 62 (Jenkins, 2003).
*Bumphis has caught a pass in 29-straight games and in 48 of his 49 career games.
*This is also Bumphis’ last chance to throw a pass, as he attempted on the first snap of his first college game back in 2009. He is 0-of-1 this season with the lone try against Middle Tennessee.
*Bumphis has rushed the ball 36 times in his career for 229 yards and one touchdown, in 2009.
*RB LaDarius Perkins is bidding to become just the ninth Bulldog to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The junior has 940 yards in eleven games, having missed the LSU trip with injury. There have been eleven 1,000-yard seasons at State.
*He can become the third starting back under Mullen to reach the 1K benchmark.
*Perkins has eight rushing touchdowns this first starting season, but none since October 20. That was also the last of his four 100-yard rushing games.
*He did catch two touchdowns in the Arkansas game though, his first scoring receptions of the season. Perkins had five TD catches the previous two years.
*Backup QB Dak Prescott may have one-third of the starter’s touchdowns, but his eight have come in far fewer snaps. The redshirt freshman has rushed for four scores and thrown for four, out of 58 total plays running or throwing.
*WR Chris Smith has caught two or more passes every game this season, and 29 of his last 37 games.
*WR Arceto Clark had a big November with 15 catches for 203 yards. But the senior is still looking for the first touchdown catch of his senior season.
*WR Robert Johnson has worked his way into the rotation since October, with 13 catches the last six games.
*A remarkable and frustrating career ends at TE Marcus Green completes his sixth season. He’s going out in style though with a personal-best six touchdown catches in 2012; he had four the previous four varsity years.
*Five of his six scores were in SEC games.
*Bulldog tight ends average 12.8 yards each reception. Though Rufus Warren is still looking first his first college catch.
*Junior OG Gabe Jackson will make his 39th consecutive start this week, more than any senior on the squad.
*PK Devon Bell is 12-of-18 for his freshman season.
*Five Bulldogs have played in all 50 games under Mullen: Banks, Boyd, Broomfield, FB Sylvester Hemphill, and WR Brandon Heavens. None have started every game. Banks has the most Mullen-era starts with 44.
*Five true freshmen have played: PK Bell, DT Nick James, DT Quay Evans, DE Ryan Brown, and CB Cedric Jiles. Only three true freshmen played in both 2010 and ’11.