(AP) — The Northwestern Wildcats spent so much time celebrating on the field that coach Pat Fitzgerald finally had to order them into the locker room.
He had something special waiting for them — a stuffed monkey.
It was the same one that went with them to the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season and had become a symbol of the program’s decades-long, bowl losing streak.
Fitzgerald turned his players loose on the plush toy and they destroyed it.
It was their reward for beating Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl and snapping college football’s longest postseason drought. The 21st-ranked Wildcats (10-3) hadn’t won a bowl game since 1949, a nine-game skid that was tied with Notre Dame for the longest in NCAA history.
It’s history now.
“We’ve never been here before, but now we’re here and here to stay with a new streak you can talk about in a positive fashion,” Fitzgerald said.
Quentin Williams returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the game and Nick VanHoose set up another touchdown with a 39-yard interception return in the fourth. Those plays were the difference in a back-and-forth game that featured more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six).
In between, Northwestern’s two-quarterback system kept the Bulldogs (8-5) off balance most of the day.
Starter Kain Colter ran for 71 yards, making up for his two interceptions. Backup Trevor Siemian threw for 120 yards and an interception, and also ran for a score.
Even with the turnovers, they were more efficient than Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell.
Russell completed 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards, with two touchdowns and a career-high four interceptions. He had only thrown six picks in the first 11 games this season.
He threw interceptions on Mississippi State’s first two possessions and tossed another one early in the second quarter. After falling behind 13-0, Russell settled down and got the Bulldogs back in the game.
“I talked to him going into the locker room after the third pick, 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,'” said coach Dan Mullen, whose team lost five of its final six games. “‘Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.'”
It worked as Mississippi State tied the game at 13 in the third quarter.
On the other sideline, there had to be some sense of panic. After all, the Wildcats had blown three double-digit leads in the second half of all three of their losses this season. They surrendered big leads against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. So that ‘here-we-go-again’ feeling easily could have taken over when Mississippi State seized momentum.
But the Wildcats didn’t flinch. They responded with Siemian directing a 76-yard drive that put NU up for good. Tyris Jones bowled in from 3 yards out.
Siemian added a 4-yard TD run — set up by Colter’s 31-yard scamper — that made it 27-13 with 26 seconds remaining in the third. That came after Russell’s fourth pick, the one VanHoose grabbed near midfield.
“I feel like a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders,” Colter said.
The Wildcats spent the final 1:42 celebrating the program’s first postseason victory since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
They doused Fitzgerald with a water bucket, and when the game ended, they danced at midfield and then ran toward the stands to recognize friends, family and fans. Fitzgerald playfully directed the band as it belted out the alma mater.
“This one goes to all the Wildcats that have been here before us,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve paved the way for us. … The sky is the limit for where our program can go. … We might not be putting the Big Ten championship trophy in our case, but we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today.”
The Wildcats donned Gator Bowl championship hats and posed for pictures long after the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“It’s just a great feeling,” linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “It’s unreal. It’s like we keep saying, we haven’t been here before. I’m kind of sad there is no confetti afterwards, but I’ll deal with it. It was just good to be out there on the field as long as we wanted to.”
A few minutes later, they got to rip the monkey to pieces.
“Every time I think about this, I start to tear up a little bit,” said Williams, who also tipped another pass that was intercepted. “This is just a fantastic happening for our school. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point and it paid off. I’ve been here for five years and to finally get a win is just amazing.”