Chicago Sun-Times
with Neil Hayes

December 2012 Archives

It was supposed to be a secret, but running back Tyris Jones tweeted a picture of the black helmets Northwestern players will debut when they meet Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on Tuesday.

The black helmets feature a black Northwestern "N" on the side.

The Wildcats hope the new look will help them snap their 64-game bowl losing streak. NU is looking for it's first bowl win since 1949.


Another sure sign that Northwestern coaches have left no stone unturned during five weeks of preparations? They met Monday to discuss cowbells, of all things.

Ringing cowbells during games is a long-standing tradition for Mississippi State. Artificial noisemakers were outlawed by the SEC in 1974 but in a nod to Bulldogs tradition, the conference agreed to lift the ban in 2010 as long as certain rules were followed.

Those same rules will be in effect at EverBank Field on Tuesday, and they prohibit fans from ringing the bells when Northwestern has the ball. On-field officials can't penalize MSU if fans ignore the rule, but the game will be stopped and a video will be played reminding fans of their obligation.

If the ringing persists, security personnel will be sent into the stands to enforce the rule. Mississippi State can also be fined for undisciplined bell ringing by its fans, believe it or not.

Linebacker David Nwabuisi was unaware of the cowbell tradition earlier in the week. Fitzgerald said Monday he isn't worried about the bells hindering his offense's execution.

"At practice every day we have crowd noise and absolutely terrible music from warm-ups through the end of practice so we've prepared our guys for any distraction we might have," he said.

 

FOR NORTHWESTERN

On offense - QB Kain Colter and RB Venric Mark have been one of the most dynamic rushing tandems in the nation and generate the bulk of the 'Cats offense. If they have big days, expect NU to snap its long postseason drought.

On defense --- S Ibraheim Campbell is the leader and best player in the Northwestern secondary and will need to play the game of his life against an MSU passing attack that is as good as any that the Wildcats have faced this season.

FOR MISSISSIPPI STATE

On offense - WR Chad Bumphis is an All-SEC performer who owns MSU school records for touchdowns (24), receiving yards (2,252) and consecutive games with a reception (29). He needs seven catches to break the school record of 162 career catches. If the Wildcats can contain Bumphis they will erase Tyler Russell's best weapon.

On defense --- LB Cameron Lawrence had double-digit tackles in seven of his last eight conference games and was an all-SEC performer. He also had 8.5 tackles for loss in the Bulldogs last six games. He will need to continue those trends if MSU hopes to contain Northwestern's running game.

FOR NORTHWESTERN

1)    Run the ball --- Its what NU does best, after all. The combination of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark have helped the 'Cats rank 15th nationally in running offense. Although they can pass the ball effectively, especially when quarterback Trevor Siemian replaces Colter, the running game has been the key to their success all season.

2)   Protect the ball --- Mississippi State has won 23 of 25 games over the past four years when forcing more turnovers than it has allowed. The 'Cats are hardly careless when it comes to protecting the football. They rank 10th nationally in turnover margin, which means in this area it will be strength vs. strength.

3)    Avoid explosive plays --- The Bulldogs had 89 plays of 20 yards or more this season, an average of almost seven per game, which is up from 3.5 such plays last season. They also had 18 scoring plays of 20 or more yards this season. 

FOR MISSISSIPPI STATE

1)    Find a rhythm in the passing game --- The Tyler Scott-led offense broke five single-season school records in yards passing (2,985), passing yards per game (248.8), completions (237), completion percentage (60) and touchdowns (24). The offense will go as far as the passing game will take it.

2)   Contain Northwestern's running game --- After the Bulldogs allowed an average of 166 rushing yards per game this season, which ranked 11th in the SEC, asking them to shut down NU's 10th ranked rushing offense might be too much to ask. But they need to prevent Kain Colter and Venric Mark from running wild.

3)    Get stops on third down and in red zone --- Northwestern ranks 17th nationally in red zone efficiency and has a third-down conversion rate of 44.9 percent, which is second best in the Big Ten. Finding ways to get off the field on third down and forcing the 'Cats to kick field goals is critical for MSU.

Mississippi State started the season 7-0.

Five wins came against Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama, Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State. Three more were against Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas, three programs that combined to win 12 games.

The Bulldogs were outscored by an average of 39-15 when they hit the meat of their SEC schedule.

Still, Dan Mullen became the only coach in the 113-year history of the program with two nine-win seasons. This is MSU's third straight bowl game.

The Bulldogs have won five straight bowl games. If they beat Northwestern, they will own the nation's longest postseason winning streak.

Mississippi State has plenty of weapons on offense. Quarterback Tyler Russell has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,791 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Receivers Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith and Arceto Smith have combined to catch 133 passes for 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Cornerback Johnathan Banks won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back. 

Northwestern's Venric Mark leads the nation in punt returns. Mississippi State is No. 1 in punt return defense, which should make for an interesting storyline when the two teams meet in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day.

That will be a great matchup," Mark said after Northwestern practiced at Jacksonville University on Friday. "We have a pretty good [punt-return] team. I'm confident in my abilities. I trust my teammates. They have accounted for a lot of my success. It will be a good matchup." 

Mississippi State has allowed 12 returns this season for a total of eight yards and a 0.67 yards-per-game average.

"With what the Bulldogs do schematically, they're going to make you adjust to formations and be prepared for fakes out of every set and every rep," NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "You have to be sound there. Then if you get the ball to be fielded. They're going to directional kick and they do a good job of keeping the ball away from the return men, so a lot of the yards have come post landing and getting a positive roll and things of that nature.

 "They've done an excellent job with that team. Hopefully we'll get some stops so we can get some punt returns."

Northwestern's Drew Crawford will undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder and will miss the remainder of the season, coach Bill Carmody announced Friday.

 The senior forward is eligible to seek a medical hardship waiver, according to a statement released by the team.

Drew's situation is similar to Tre Demps' a year ago," Carmody said in the statement. "Drew aggravated a previous injury in early September and attempted to play through it, but it just hasn't responded as well as we would have liked."

Crawford has started all 10 games for Northwestern this season and was averaging 13.5 points per game after averaging 16 points per game last season.

Crawford's injury is the second blow to Northwestern's hopes of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. In October, junior guard JerShon Cobb had been suspended for the season for academic reasons.

 Northwestern's Venric Mark became the 39th player in Northwestern history to be named an all-American by the Football Writers Association of America.

 

Mark made the team as a punt returner. He was the only Big Ten player on the squad.

 

Mark averaged 20-1 yards per punt return, which was tops in the nation. He became the second player in school history --- and the first since 1949 --- to return two punts for touchdowns in a season.

 

Mark also plays running back. He ranked ninth in the country this season by averaging 171.7 all-purpose yards per game.

Pat Fitzgerald has a plan for how to prepare his team for its Gator Bowl matchup against Mississippi State on New Year's Day, and it's not the same one he has used in the past.

 

"We'll go basically three practices a week, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday," Fitzgerald said after Saturday's workout inside the team's practice facility, which was watched by recruits, their parents and several local high school coaches. "Thursdays are just the young guys. We've done that two Thursdays in a row. Saturdays and Sundays are a mix of developmental work with the young guys and game-plan work now that we know who we're playing and all that."

 

After finals, preparations will begin in earnest. Fitzgerald and his staff will have a typical game week on campus before players are allowed to go home for Christmas on the 20th. The team will reconvene for a flight to Jacksonville, Fla., on the 26th, where another game week of preparation will begin.

 

"We'll go through our typical game week after having already gone through the game plan one time," Fitzgerald said. "We've got a pretty specific plan on how we're going to do things. We'll get about eight practices for the young guys, exclusively, and will use it as pre-spring ball, and then, obviously, do everything we can to have a great game plan, have the bugs ironed out, have the guys understand what we're doing to play fast and be ready for Jan. 1 and peak at the right time."

Northwestern's Aaron Liberman is expected to become the second player in Division-I basketball history to wear a yarmulke during competition. The freshman walk-on from Valley Torah High-Los Angeles, Ca., has yet to appear in a game this season because of shin splints and may be redshirted.

The Wildcats will provide the 6-foot-10, 215-pound forward/center with a purple-and-white yarmulke for home games and purple-and-black one for the road. Liberman also plans to wear at tzitzit, a knotted fringe or tassel worn on the corners of garments, underneath his jersey, a Northwestern spokesperson confirmed.

Liberman led Valley Torah to a 25-5 record and a CIF Southern Section championship during his senior season in high school. It was the first time a Jewish school had claimed a section title in basketball in California. He spent a year in Israel before coming to Northwestern.

The only other player to wear a yarmulke during competition was Tamir Goodman, who played for Towson in 2000 and 2001, and was nicknamed "Jewish Jordan."
Northwestern has hired Chris Reynolds to be deputy director of athletics, recreation and operations, the university announced.

Reynolds spent the past nine years at his alma mater, Indiana. 

"We're ecstatic to add someone with Chris' skills and character to our team," Vice President for Athletics & Recreation Jim Phillips said in a statement. "His professional experience in college athletics is remarkably varied and that informed perspective will help us continue to deliver a world-class experience for our student-athletes."

Reynolds was the senior associate athletic director at Indiana University, where he served as sport administrator for several athletics programs, including men's basketball, and operated as the athletic department's liaison to the University General Counsel's Office. 

 

Before that, he was an assistant athletic director in the compliance office of the University of Notre Dame, and previously worked in athletic administration at Western Michigan University, Michigan State University and in the NCAA national office.

 

A four-year letterwinner in basketball for Indiana, Reynolds helped lead the Hoosiers to a pair of Big Ten titles and the 1992 Final Four. 

Senior safety Hunter Bates won't play in the Gator Bowl because of a back injury, according to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who also the former all-state performer from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., has played his last game for the 'Cats.

"It's an unfortunate deal," Fitzgerald said.

Bates was a backup safety and special teams performer who missed the last six games of the season with the back injury. 

Northwestern's reward for the program's first nine-win season since 2008 and its second since 1996 will be a New Year's Day appearance in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., the Sun-Times has confirmed.

The Wildcats, who were ranked No. 21 in the final Associated Press Poll, will play Mississippi State (8-4 overall, 4-4 Southeast Conference). The Bulldogs have won five straight bowl games dating back to 1999. The 'Cats haven't won a bowl game since 1949.

The game will kickoff at 11 a.m. and will be televised on ESPN2

Coach Pat Fitzgerald will hold a press conference at 5:30 p.m. to make the official announcement. 

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