JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Just getting to a bowl game no longer matters to Northwestern.
The 21st-ranked Wildcats want to win one and end a decades-long losing streak.
Northwestern (9-3) hasn’t won a bowl since it beat California in the 1949 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats have dropped nine in a row since, matching the longest streak in NCAA history.
They get a chance to stop that skid when they face Mississippi State (8-4) today in the Gator Bowl.
“It’s the next step in where we want to go as a program,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The consistent success we’ve had in the program of being in the postseason for five successive seasons is something we’re proud of. Winning a bowl game is the next step.”
Northwestern has come close the past four years, losing 30-23 in overtime against Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl, falling 38-35 to Auburn in overtime in the 2010 Outback Bowl, dropping a 45-38 decision to Texas Tech in the 2011 Ticket City Bowl and then losing 33-22 to Texas A&M in last season’s Meineke Care Car Bowl.
But as Fitzgerald and his players were quick to point out, close means little.
“I feel like everyone on this team is motivated to be that first team to get that bowl win for the first time in a long, long time,” quarterback Kain Colter said. “The seniors have done a good job in building the foundation that we have. We’re on the rise right now and a lot of that is credited to them. If we could send them off the right way and add another part to their legacy and continue on to our legacy, that would be great.”
Mississippi State dropped four of its final five games to end the regular season, but it has won five consecutive bowl games – the longest current streak in the country.
“We’ve had a lot of big wins this year and some tough losses this year,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “Our guys want to go out there and finish it off the right way and send our seniors out winning a bowl championship.”
The Bulldogs haven’t lost a bowl game since the 1999 Peach Bowl. They rebounded the next year to beat Texas A&M in the Independence Bowl and since have postseason wins against Central Florida (2007 Liberty Bowl), Michigan (2011 Gator Bowl) and Wake Forest (2011 Music City Bowl).
Mississippi State’s last trip to Jacksonville ended with a 52-14 romp over the Wolverines. The Bulldogs scored 42 unanswered points while dominating the final three quarters.
The lopsided affair added to a recent run of Southeastern Conference success against Big Ten opponents on New Year’s Day.
The SEC is 8-2 against the Big Ten over the past four years, with wins coming in the Gator, Outback and Capital One bowls.
“Playing in the Southeastern Conference, a lot of people see it as one of the elite conferences,” MSU linebacker Cam Lawrence said. “But I get excited to play a new school. It’s always fun to have a new experience and a new opponent and a new challenge. ... It’s a bowl game and anything could happen.”
Maybe Northwestern can even win one.
Fitzgerald’s team probably should have won more games this season. The Wildcats blew double-digit leads in the second half against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan.
But all those heartbreakers can be erased, or at least diminished, with a bowl victory.
“We want to erase that losing streak,” backup quarterback Trevor Siemian said. “This is a new team with different players. We probably stopped thinking about the bowl game last year a day after that game. We’d really like to get the win for the seniors, end the losing streak and get a 10-win season.
“Definitely a lot of goals to be playing for. It’s right there in front of us. It’s an awesome opportunity and we want to make the most of it.”