Bulldogs pose 'fun challenge' for Wildcats
December 11, 2012, 6:53 pm
Defensive back Johnthan Banks is considered one of the school’s all-time greats at Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs’ All-American is just one of several challenges Northwestern must ponder as it prepares for their Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
“They have enough wrinkles to make you turn grey, and they've got great SEC speed,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to have our best couple of weeks of preparation to be ready. But our guys are hungry for it.”
Last week Banks captured the Jim Thorpe Award, awarded to the nation’s top defensive back. He’s the fourth straight Southeastern Conference player to win the award, and the first from Mississippi State.
Banks is tied for sixth nationally with six career interceptions returned for touchdowns and is No. 1 in all-time career interception yards (320). The Walter Camp All-American also collected 59 tackles this season.
Mississippi State also presents an imposing defensive line, a particular concern for Wildcat running back Venric Mark.
“They have guys on the inside who are 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, 340 pounds and realistically, (if) we run option sideline-to-sideline they’re going to get tired,” Mark said. “When you play a team like that, with that type of caliber of players, it’s all about scheme...You have to know what your strengths and your weaknesses are.”
There’s a lot for Fitzgerald to consider as he locks down a game plan for the Wildcats’ fifth bowl game in five seasons.
“(Bulldog coach) Dan (Mullen) does a terrific job schematically,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve got great balance. When you look at them offensively, there’s not a lot of things that are going to tip what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
“(Assistant coach) Chris Wilson does a great job with their defense, they’re big up front -- on both sides of the ball. They’re very athletic and they’ve got the Thorpe Award winner, the best DB in the country in the secondary.”
Northwestern has already seen some of the what Mississippi State may offer.
“They’ve got a lot of similarities to Iowa and Michigan State from the standpoint of the downhill run and play-action pass,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re very physical and very well- coached and play with terrific effort.
“It’s going to be a fun challenge.”
Banks was the Bulldogs’ only first team all-SEC player, but freshman linebacker Benardrick McKinney also snared league honors as an all-SEC freshman. He played in all 12 games and finished 7th in the SEC with 97 tackles.
Northwestern had three representatives on ESPN.com’s Big Ten All-Freshman Team, including cornerback Nick VanHoose and defensive end Dean Lowry. True freshman Dan Vitale landed on the offensive team.
Last week, the College Sports Information Directors of America awarded Capital One Academic All-American honors to Wildcat offensive lineman Patrick Ward (first team) and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt (second team). Northwestern now has 34 Academic All-Americans in program history.
But with two exceptions, top conference football awards eluded the Wildcats.
Fitzgerald said he considered running back Venric Mark, who rushed for 1,315 yards and 11 touchdowns, the Big Ten’s best. But Mark could only garner second team conference recognition.
“I did miss a game -- Michigan State -- which is probably the best defense in the Big Ten,” Mark said. “I was a little bit down, a little upset, but at the end of the day (if Fitzgerald) thinks I’m the best runner that’s all that really matters to me.”
The only other Wildcat honoree was kicker Jeff Budzein, who shared first-team selection with Nebraska’s Brett Maher.
Northwestern will pick up the practice pace later this week. The month of preparation is invaluable, not only to get veterans back up to speed but also allowing younger players additional practice time.
“The rich get richer,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s one of those situations where you’ve got a huge opportunity to get those guys a lot of work, (teach) fundamental technique on what you do and how you do it and then figure out what they’ve got to do better in the winter.”
Missing from bowl preparations this year is the stuffed monkey that accompanied the Wildcats to the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston.
Northwestern lost to Texas A&M, 33-22, and that symbol of getting a long bowl losing streak off their backs probably won’t make the Gator Bowl trip.
Besides, the Wildcats don’t need any outside influences.
“I think a year ago that was fun,” Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the day, we’re a totally different team ... Our seniors are highly motivated and they want to find a way to win a (bowl) game.”
That’s a sentiment wholeheartedly embraced by quarterback Kain Colter.
“Guys are fueled to make some new goals that we haven’t achieved here at Northwestern,” he said. “We want to be the team that’s remembered as getting that first bowl win in a long time.”
, Pat Fitzgerald
, Venric Mark
, Mississippo State
, Johnthan Banks