Jacksonville, Fla. -- Northwestern, which had had had not won a bowl game since the Harry Truman administration, ended decades of post-season disappointment with a turnover-filled 34-20 decision over Mississippi State on Tuesday in the 68th Gator Bowl at EverBank Field.
"We've been working on this goal all year," said senior linebacker David Nwabusi, who had one of four interceptions of Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell, and six solo tackles. "I could see it on our guys' eyes for the last month, during bowl practice back home and down here. I knew they would have the confidence to get it done."
The 21st-ranked Wildcats (10-3) have won only one bowl game in their history, a 20-14 victory over California in the 1949 Rose Bowl. They had dropped the last nine, which had tied with Notre Dame for the longest bowl losing streak. Four of those losses have come in the last four years under coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"Wow ... I've never been here," Fitzgerald said when sitting on the podium for the post-game news conference. "I don't know how to act."
Here's the act his team brought to Jacksonville: They got four interceptions, had four sacks and held the record-setting Russell to a season-low of 106 yards passing, on 12-of-28 attempts.
The two-headed quarterback combination of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian baffled the Bulldogs' defense and instead of the usual roles of Colter running and Siemian passing, they mixed it up well. Colter completed 9-of-16 passes for 120 yards, shaking off two interceptions, and ran for 71 yards. Siemian was 12-of-20 with one pick, for 120 yards. He carried the ball twice for 14 yards but one of those was a 4-yard TD run near the end of the third quarter. They combined for 281 yards of offense, out of Northwestern's total of 357.
The game sent Northwestern's senior class, already the winningest in school history, out with a bowl victory 64 years in the making. Fitzgerald focused on their accomplishments after the game.
"This speaks to their legacy and success," he said of his 25 seniors. "Our goal is to win championships and they took the first step. The sky is the limit to where this program can go."
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, whose team routed Michigan 52-14 in the 2011 Gator Bowl, said Russell's play was so erratic that he sent him to the locker room after the third interception.
"I 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," Mullen said. "These are still young kids you're talking about."
Northwestern snapped a 13-13 third-quarter tie with a 3-yard TD run by Tyris Jones and a 4-yard TD by Siemian. The first touchdown was set up by a 34-yard gain on a short Siemian pass to Dan Vitale, while Colter set up the Siemian TD with a 31-yard gain to the MSU 4.
Mississippi State cut the lead to 27-20 when Russell threw a 14-yard TD pass to Malcolm Johnson with 11:42 left in the game. However, Nick VanHoose picked off Russell for the final time and returned it 39 yards to the Bulldogs' 10. A penalty for sideline interference and for illegal substitution (when MSU had 14 players on the field on one play) preceded Venric Mark's 3-yard run with 8:10 left.
LaDarius Perkins of MSU gained 96 yards rushing to finish with 1,036 yards for the season.
Northwestern struck early, utilizing offense, defense and special teams.
The Wildcats took a 7-0 lead on the game's third play when senior defensive end Quinten Williams picked off a Russell pass in the flat and returned it 29 yards for Northwestern's third defensive touchdown of the season.
Russell got the Bulldogs to the Northwestern 23 on the next possession but he was intercepted again, by Ibraheim Campbell. Finally able to run an offensive play, the Wildcats went on a 15-play drive that stalled and ended with Jeff Budzien's 34-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Colter, normally Northwestern's running specialist, caught the Mississippi State defense off-balance with eight passes on the march, completing six for 51 yards.
The Wildcats had another promising drive end in a field goal, sparked by Mark's 25 yards rushing. But after earning a first down at the MSU 21, Siemian threw two incomplete passes around a Mark running play stuffed for 1-yard by Cameron Lawrence and Johnthan Banks and Budzien kicked a 37-yard field goal for a 13-0 advantage.
The Bulldogs then clawed back to cut the lead to 13-10 at halftime. Freshman Josh Robinson, not even listed on the depth chart at running back, broke off a gain of 59 yards to the Wildcats' 2. MSU tripped its own momentum with two false start penalties and two Perkins runs were stopped for 1-yard gains.
Devon Bell kicked a 27-yard field goal with 4:48 left in the half but the Bulldogs were at least on the board.
MSU had better fortunes on its next possession. Perkins had gains of 10 and 20 yards and Russell tossed an 18-yard TD pass to Arceto Clark with 1:06 left, dropping the ball over Clark's shoulder in the corner of the end zone and Clark dragging a small piece of green turf with his toe as he was falling.
NOTES: When Williams intercepted Russell on the third snap of the game, it was the third time in Gator Bowl history that the first score of a game came on a defensive touchdown. The last time was in 2008, when DeAndre McDaniel of Clemson returned a fumble 26 yards for a touchdown against Nebraska. The other time was 47 years back in bowl history, when Howard Ehlers of Florida State took an interception back 69 yards for a score against Oklahoma in the 1965 Gator Bowl. ... The Wildcats' quick start was the 13th time in game history that a team led by 10 or more points following one quarter. Those teams had a 10-2 Gator Bowl record. ... Mississippi State scored 21 more points in the first half in the 2011 Gator Bowl against Michigan than it did against the Wildcats. The Bulldogs went on to set a Gator Bowl scoring record that year with a 52-14 victory. ... Northwestern was playing in its fifth bowl in a row, after playing in only five from 1949-2008. Mississippi State was in its third bowl in four years under Mullen, who started coaching the Bulldogs in 2009. Before Mullen, the Bulldogs had played in only 13 bowls in 70 years.