Lowes Line


Mississippi State Preview and Prediction


By Jersey Cat

Before we get into the analysis of Northwestern and the Gator Bowl, I wanted to pass along an exciting piece of information very relevant to The Lowes Line.  Thanks in large part to the efforts and donations of many who regularly read this column, The Marcus J. Lowes Memorial Scholarship has become a permanently endowed scholarship at Northwestern, to benefit annually a Medill graduate student with a focus on sports journalism.  Specifically, the Board of the Lowes Trust would like to recognize and thank Amy Koplow and The Eades Foundation for their enormous generosity in making this become a reality.  While The Lowes Line is a weekly reminder of Marcus during the football season, the permanent scholarship in his name will have a greater and lasting impact on a Northwestern student.  Thanks very much.

Matchup: # 20 Northwestern Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 SEC)

Date/Time/Place: Tuesday, 01 Jan 2013, 11:00 am CST. Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, FL


Line: Northwestern (-1)


First off, let's get the nomenclature thing out of the way.  Anyone who follows the Big Ten and sees "MSU" in print will be first thinking of our conference foes in East Lansing, and not the Bulldogs from Starkville, MS.  Similar to how when you read "USC," you first think "those bastards who beat us in the Rose Bowl," before the team led by the Head Ball Coach in Columbia, SC.  As such, there will be only "Miss St" to identify Northwestern's foe for its fifth consecutive bowl game.

Second, let's address "gator" as a part of speech.  To most folks,  it's a noun, and an abbreviation of the term "alligator."  However, its usage as a verb cannot be understated.  For example, "y'all gator?" is fairly common speak in places where the tooth/tattoo ratio is much less than 1.0, and is a question many of you have been asked at one point in your lives, most likely in Panama City, FL.  It's some form of hillbilly breakdancing.  All you need is a wooden floor and a pair of Wrangler's with the Skoal circle in the back left pocket.  For any NU fans attending the game, you may want to make a side trip  75 miles southwest of Jacksonville to Cactus Jack's in Salt Springs, FL to check out the real deal:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYL3Hz5uM18 [editor's note: sweet Baby Jane, am I sorry I clicked this link.  No amount of Clorox to my eyes will burn this image away. -L. ]

The 'Cats finished the regular season at 9-3, topping nearly all preseason expectations.  It was the second nine-win season for Coach Fitz in his seven years at the helm of the program, and he is currently tied for the all-time number of wins by a Northwestern coach with 49, a figure that will likely double before his current contract expires following the 2020 season.  It also should be noted that a win in the Gator Bowl will give Fitz a tie for the all-time NU record for postseason wins.    It was an interesting regular season for NU.  They  struggled for their season opening win at Syracuse, but didn't have too many issues until blowing an 11-point fourth quarter lead at Penn State in the sixth game of the year.  Heartbreaking losses against Nebraska and Michigan followed, but NU was able to manage a 5-3 conference record, something that didn't seem likely in late August.  The good news is that NU was in position to win every game on the schedule, and held a fourth quarter lead in each.  The bad news is that against top tier competition, the 'Cats folded down the stretch, leaving a host of "what-ifs" for 2012. 

A stated goal of the program is to win a bowl game, something they have been unable to do in nine tries since the 1996 Rose Bowl.  To relive some of that, here's the history in addition to the Rose Bowl debacle:  1997 Citrus Bowl, 2000 Alamo Bowl, 2003 Motor City Bowl, 2005 Sun Bowl, 2008 Alamo Bowl, 2010 Outback Bowl, 2011 Ticket City Bowl, 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. All losses, some worse than others.   NU had been an underdog in each of those previous bowls since the '96 Rose Bowl, and started out as a 2-point dog in this game as well, only to become the favorite as of late. 

If you're looking for a reason why NU came together as a squad and ended with a better record than may have been expected, you can point to the maturing of Kain Colter, a defensive front that applied more pressure than last year, leadership at linebacker, and an improved secondary.  All those would be true.  But they pale in comparison to the emergence of Venric Mark as a playmaker at running back.  Mark had been utilized primarily as a punt and kick returner in his career before this season, and was named a 1st team All-American at punt returner this year.  It was his move to running back in the offseason, however, that changed the dynamic of this team.  Mark ran for over 1,300 yards and averaged 6.2 yards a carry, becoming an offensive weapon, and not only complementing the option play of QB Kailn Colter, but augmenting it significantly. 

Mississippi State, out of powerhouse that is the SEC, started off the season 7-0, mostly against light non-conference opponents and SEC foes who were towards or at the bottom of the league.  They put up nearly 38 points per game in their 8 wins, but were a different team in their 4 losses, averaging just over 15 a contest.   To be fair, Miss St's losses came against the likes of Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, and Ole Miss.  Not exactly a bunch of chumps in that list.   The Bulldogs are led by junior QB Tyler Russell, who had a solid season, throwing 22 TDs against only 6 INTs for over 2700 yards passing.  Russell was injured in Miss St's regular season finale against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.  Reports indicate he will be available and ready to go against NU.  Russell should keep the Wildcat secondary on its toes, and may be the best QB the 'Cats face this year.

On the defensive side of the ball, Miss St is loaded with speed and skill.  Bulldog cornerback Johnthan Banks won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back, and is considered to be a top prospect in the next NFL draft.  Interestingly enough, Miss St has had its share of troubles defending opponents' passing games. 

That noise you might be hearing during the game is the clanging of cowbells by the Miss St faithful.  The ringing of cowbells is a tradition at Miss St., and no doubt as the Bulldogs are making plays on New Year's Day, you'll be hearing an audible clanging.
NU's secondary has improved this year, and the solid play of Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose is a big reason why.  This pair will need to be ready to go against the Bulldogs.  Expect Miss St to try and establish the passing game early, and to get NU on their heels.  When the 'Cats have the ball, look for them to exploit the Colter/Mark option combo that's been so successful this year.  That said, I expect Trevor Siemian to spend some time under center as well, in an effort to challenge the Bulldog secondary of those not named Banks.  I see this game turning by a big play on defense, and look to see the NU linebacking corps led by David Nwabusi and Chi Chi Ariguzo involved in that gamechanger. 

PICK: I got a fever, and the only prescription is Less Cowbell!  'Cats muzzle Bulldogs to get elusive bowl victory.  Northwestern 31, Miss St 28.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.

Happy New Year, 'Cats fans!

Season to date: Straight up, 11-1; Against the Spread, 9-3

The Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.  The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat, GallopingGrapes, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2012 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!