(MCT) — JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — They handed out Gator Bowl baseball caps that said “CHAMPIONS,” and Northwestern players threw them on and sprinted toward the purple mob at a corner of EverBank Field.
Jerry Brown, Northwestern’s longest-tenured coach and a link to Wildcat teams from the late 1960s, bear-hugged Pat Fitzgerald’s wife, Stacy.
“This is so special,” said Brown, NU’s defensive backs coach and a former all-Big Ten player. “I’m speechless.”
Asked how he would celebrate the Wildcats’ 34-20 victory over Mississippi State, Brown replied, “We’ll probably have a few sodas,” and then he erupted in laughter.
The Streak is over.
“The last negative we needed to erase,” as Fitzgerald called it — a run of nine bowl losses spanning 64 seasons — is history.
And the Wildcats (10-3) have the stuffed monkey to prove it.
Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and athletic director Jim Phillips wanted to leave the symbol of NU’s futility in Evanston. But Fitzgerald had Curtis Shaner, NU’s longtime equipment manager, hide it during the team’s trip to Jacksonville.
After the game, according to an observer, former All-American kicker Sam Valenzisi brought the monkey into NU’s locker room, hiding it. Fitzgerald took it and told the room: “Have fun tearing the bejeezus out of it!”
He tossed it in the air, and the players rushed in, leaving the head intact. Fitzgerald brought that furry trophy with him to the postgame news conference, saying: “Chicago’s Big Ten team is going to come (home) as Chicago’s Big Ten champions.”
And then he couldn’t resist a pitch: “Season tickets went on sale today. Let’s get to work.”
Northwestern went to work early in Tuesday’s game. On the third play from scrimmage, Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell gave Northwestern a gift. Defensive lineman Quentin Williams caught his attempt at a screen pass and returned it 29 yards for a score.
Russell entered the Gator Bowl having thrown one interception for every 61 attempts on the season. Northwestern picked him off four times on 28 throws.
“These are young kids, not pro athletes,” Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. “When he started the game poorly, I think he was shaken.”
The fourth takeaway was huge. After Northwestern entered “uh-oh” territory with a double-digit fourth quarter lead — the kind they blew against Penn State and Nebraska this fall — Mississippi State (8-5) scored to make it 27-20.
But facing pressure on a third-and-5, Russell chucked one up for cornerback Nick VanHoose, who returned the ball 39 yards to the 5. Venric Mark took it home for a two-touchdown lead, and NU’s defense went into shutdown mode to seal the victory.
“The defense covered our butts,” quarterback Trevor Siemian said.
Siemian was no slouch himself. He revived an offense that had a five-drive stretch of interception, punt, punt, punt, interception. Kain Colter threw both picks, but Siemian added his own later on a third-down fling that acted as a defacto punt.
Both quarterbacks shined on NU’s final touchdown series. Colter scrambled for 31 yards and the semi-mobile Siemian stunned Mississippi’s defense by faking an option handoff to Mike Trumpy and ambling home for the score from 4 yards out.
“Probably the first ‘pull’ I had on that play all year,” Siemian said.
“Of your career?” Fitzgerald joked.
“I surprised myself a little bit actually,” Siemian said. “They never thought I was going to pull it. Neither did I. I snuck in there.”
Good enough to allow Fitzgerald, his voice in tatters, to say after the game: “We tell our guys: Act like you’ve been there before. Well, we haven’t been there before. As (linebacker) David Nwabuisi just said: ‘We’re here now.’ And we’re here to stay!”