MNWildcat: Chad, I don't want to get all excited about this game, for, y'know, obvious reasons. So I'm starting this off with what I believe is an obligatory NOJINXNOJINXNOJINX. Still, I find myself packing my bags for Jacksonville with the smallest hint of confidence that Northwestern can win this game. Northwestern is even favored as I write this--by 1 point (Editor's Note: Northwestern started as a 2.5 point underdog, and has now moved to be a 2 point favorite during the time this article was in the works). With essentially a pick'em on our hands, I have to look at the basic stats first.
Northwestern and MSU rank 10th and 5th, respectively, in turnover margin. They both allow about 22 points and score about 31 per game. Both check in just under 400 ypg on offense. Both teams have struggled against the higher-ups of their conference, and beaten up on the teams they should.
My first question is this--why Northwestern? Forgive me for assuming you're picking them, but why do you believe Northwestern has the advantage in this game?
C.E. Bell: Why Northwestern? Let us count the ways.
1. They're due. Like nearly 70 years and 9 straight bowl losses due.
2. Connected to that, Northwestern has played well in bowl games under Fitz. No one remembers this in the hullaballoo over the bowl losing streak, but in each bowl game they've played under Fitz, they were HEAVY underdogs. They ended up taking Mizzou and Auburn to OT despite being underdogs by more than a TD, covered vs. TTech, and just fell short of covering vs. Texas A&M. It's not like Northwestern has laid an egg in bowl games -- and they won't lay an egg vs. Mississippi State.
3. Perhaps the better question is -- why Mississippi State? Vegas installed Mississippi State as 3 point favorites, but based on what? Their zero wins over bowl teams? Their 1-4 finish to the season (after starting 7-0)? The fact that the four SEC teams that they beat (Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas) went a combined 3-29 in the SEC, with all three wins coming in games between that collection of awfulness (Arkansas over Kentucky and Auburn; Tennessee over Kentucky)?
6. Seriously, how is Mississippi State a favorite in this game? Other than representing the ESSSS-EEEEEE-SEEEE, what makes them a better team than Purdue or Minnesota, much less Northwestern?
7. Finally, the jinx factor is overrated. None of these players were there for the first 5 losses in that bowl streak, most have only played in 2-3 bowls (including the 2010 Ticketcity Bowl which was played with Kain Colter at QB as a true freshman.) All reports say the team is loose and having fun and ready to play well -- as Sippin' On Purple noted, the players are playing shirtless volleyball, singing Boys II Men, and having SpongeBob Squarepants drawing contests. This team is relaxed, and ready to win.
So how do you think this game will play out? Where are the matchups that Northwestern can exploit? And does Mississippi State hold any advantages over Northwestern that we should worry about? What are you looking for from the Wildcats when you venture down to Jacksonville for this game?
MNWildcat: Seven reasons, Chad? Oh Lord. You're just begging this to happen. I agree wholeheartedly with your points about Venric and the overrated-ness of the jinx factor. I just can't leave anything to chance, y'know?
Mississippi State holds the advantage in this game that every Northwestern fan prays is a non-factor: secondary. Johnthan Banks is an all-SEC defensive back. Thankfully, this matchup should matter the least for two reasons: (1) because Northwestern, to win this game, will avoid Banks by establishing the run and forcing MSU to sell out pass defense to stop the run, (2) because Dan Mullen inexplicably insists on playing a lot of zone coverage, and (3) because Northwestern's offense is designed to pass underneath CBs.
Regarding the Bulldogs' offense, the 'Cats need to lock down Chad Bumphis. While not busy having a fantastic last name, Bumphis had 904 yards receiving and 12 TDs this year en route to second-team all-SEC honors. Northwestern, burned by the likes of Kenny Bell and Allen Robinson, needs to ensure that Bumphis is contained by Nick VanHoose and Daniel Jones in order to force the Bulldogs into the run. A healthy pass rush could also play a big factor in rushing MSU quarterback Tyler Russell, who's gone for 2900+ yards passing, along with 22 TDs and 6 INTs.
So, the worst-case scenario for the 'Cats (this seems only appropriate given that it's a bowl game and stuff): Northwestern takes a 10-point lead into the 4th quarter, and the Russell-Bumphis connection burns Demetrius Dugar down the sideline for a long touchdown. Conservative playcalling leads NU to go 3-and-out twice, and MSU drives the length of the field for the game-winning score under a minute.
In all seriousness, though, I'm looking for a win, plain and simple. Run, run, run the ball. Not like Minnesota or Michigan State have so far, but using our Colter-Mark option to stretch the defense, slashing Mark, Green, and Trumpy (lolz thinking about him slashing, but yeah) up the middle, and softening up the Bulldog defense to beat them deep off the play-action. This is the best case scenario for Northwestern.
Let's go 2-0 against the SEC. Go 'Cats, beat the Bulldogs!
C.E. Bell: At the risk of engaging in wild hubris, the tastefully named Chad Bumphis and Tyler Russell do not scare me. When Northwestern has been healthy in the secondary (namely when Nick VanHoose has been healthy), they've defended the pass very well, and actually improved in that department as the season progressed. In Northwestern's losses, they've faced QBs and receivers who were frankly MUCH better than Bumphis and Russell (Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson at PSU; Taylor Martinez and Kenny Bell at Nebraska; Devin Gardner and Roy Roundtree at Michigan), and Northwestern ALMOST won each of those games (and arguably WOULD have won the Nebraska and Michigan games if VanHoose had been healthy).
And while the Mississippi State secondary is VERY impressive (Jonathan Banks and Darius Slay are phenomenal), Northwestern's spread passing offense isn't the type of offense that comes to a crashing halt because of two great cornerbacks. There's no one or two Northwestern receivers that make the whole passing game run -- 5 different receivers have caught over 200 yards of receptions (Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Rashad Lawrence, Demetrius Fields, Dan Vitale), plus you have Kain Colter and Venric Mark as legitimate receiving threats, plus guys like Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater who are poised to have explosive games (particularly Prater, who will have benefited from the extra practice/conditioning time).
Northwestern's bowl losing streak was born on tons of bad matchups: versus Keyshawn Johnson and USC in Pasadena; versus Peyton Manning and Tennessee in his final college football game; playing a Bowling Green team led by Urban Meyer; heavy underdogs to Auburn and Mizzou; facing Texas Tech with Kain Colter making his 3rd start as a true freshman at QB in Texas; playing Texas A&M in Houston as a heavy underdog.
This year? Northwestern FINALLY gets a good matchup. Mississippi State has beaten nobody of any note; while Northwestern beat opponents who are now 2-1 in bowl games (thanks a lot Minnesota!) and also beat Vanderbilt (who will probably beat NC State tonight). Mississippi State struggles against the run; Northwestern runs about as well as any team in the country. Northwestern's healthy and was improving down the stretch; Mississippi State ended the season 1-4, including a loss to 6-6 Ole Miss.
Northwestern is winning this game. By a big margin. Northwestern 38 - Mississippi State 14. GO CATS!