Gator Bowl: View from the Stands

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

When the clock hit 0:00, with the score Northwestern 34, Mississippi State 20, there was pandemonium on the NU side of Everbank Field. It was a great day to be a Wildcats fan.

I got home from Jacksonville late last night, and man, what a trip, so if you'll indulge me, here's an LTP-style TL;DR paean to one of the most satisfying wins for Northwestern. There's a bunch of analytic breakdowns of the game here on SoP, and I'm sure Rodger and MountainTiger will keep 'em coming, but for those of you who weren't able to make the game, I'll do my best to describe the sights, sounds and pure euphoria in the stands.

My wife and I didn't arrive in Jacksonville until close to midnight the night before the game, and I knew I wasn't going to arrive at Everbank Field until a little bit before kickoff, so apologies on not organizing an SoP pre-game get-together as I had hoped. Maybe next time, in Pasadena.

It was a gorgeous day in Jacksonville, sunny with temperatures in the low 70s and slightly breezy. It felt like September in Evanston. I haven't seen the TV broadcast, so I don't know how the crowd looked on camera, but it felt like a pretty decent 50/50 split of fans, with huge pockets of empty seats on both sides, and basically empty upper decks. The pre-game show was pretty sterile. Each side's band got a perfunctory 5-minute or so performance, and then they did a weird swearing-in ceremony for a bunch of high school seniors who were going to join the Marines. I mean, kudos for their commitment and willingness to serve, but kinda weird for it to happen at the Gator Bowl.

Then Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove out onto the field and did a good job of not chewing up the turf. They had some local radio DJ introduce the national anthem singer, and I guess the singer's rendition was going a little too slow, because there was a staffer in front of him who kept motioning for him to speed up. The reason became clear, as we got a flyby from some cool-looking planes just as the singer was barely able to belt out "Home of the braaaaaaaave" in time.

To the game: Quentin Williams' pick-six was awesome. And then when Ibraheim Campbell followed it up on the next drive with another interception, the NU faithful were feeling pretty good. High fives all around.

But then we started settling for field goals, and the worry started to creep in. How many stops did the defense have left in them? Could the offense get on track? The Bulldogs had Venric Mark pretty bottled up, and with Kain Colter struggling on some of his throws, the MSU defense clearly was stacking the box. When Trevor Siemian came in, the offense didn't fare much better. The playcalling at times was head-scratching.

When the Bulldogs scored a touchdown late in the first half to cut their deficit to 13-10, I had a pretty bad feeling in my stomach. This is what it's like to be a Northwestern fan, to feel like the game has slipped away, when the Wildcats are still leading.

Funny moment: At one point, someone in my section started up a hilarious cheer of "Beat Ol' Miss!" Great way to troll the MSU fans sitting around us.

MSU would tie the game up in the 3rd, but then like a switch was turned on, the NU offense got humming. Siemian led an awesome drive that ended with a Tyris Jones plunge into the endzone, and then Siemian and Colter combined to lead another great drive that saw Siemian, of all people, run the read-option and keep the ball, going around right end for a 4-yard TD.

Things were feeling pretty good in the stands. But there was also a nervousness among the fans around me. This is Northwestern, after all, and we still had the 4th quarter to play.

Now, a note about the cowbells. I didn't think they were too annoying, though I was in a section where there weren't too many MSU fans around. So it's not like I had clanga-clanga-clanga going in my ear the whole game. I think the cowbells would have been more impressive at a Bulldogs home game, where the entire stadium is ringing them, and there's a terrible din. Syracuse fans, IMO, should think about adopting cowbells, because the Carrier Dome would be a seriously annoying venue then.

But in a 1/3-empty open-air stadium, with the MSU fans mostly sitting on one side? I didn't think the cowbells had much effect, but you'd have to ask the NU players to be sure. But the MSU fans who didn't respect the two PA announcements from their own president not to ring the cowbells while NU had the ball, though-- jerks, all of them. Learn some etiquette, yo!

Anyway, MSU scored with 11:27 left to bring the Bulldogs to within 27-20, and here we go. Would the Wildcats buck up, or fold? It didn't look good. The Wildcats went 3-and-out on the ensuing possession, with Mick McCall doing a strange by bringing in Colter on 1st down for a pass, and then Siemian on 2nd and 3rd downs.

But then MSU quarterback Tyler Russell, already having the worst day of his career, inexplicably airmailed a jumpball off the back of his foot that was so underthrown that Nick Van Hoose had all day to camp underneath it. Three plays later, and Mark was in for the TD and a 34-20 lead with 8:10 left.

That 8:10 felt like it took ever. One fan in front of me remarked how funny it was that MSU fans were exiting the stadium en masse, while the entire Northwestern side stayed put. "For a normal team in a normal game, a 14-point lead is like game over," she said. "But we know better."

On the ensuing possession, our defense held strong and forced a punt. But once again, the NU playcalling got weird. Despite a two-TD lead with 6:43 left, for some reason we were in hurry-up mode, with Siemian calling for the snap with 30 seconds left on the play clock. Mark ran for 5 yards, then Siemian completed a pass to Vitale for a 1st down. Then, NU called timeout.

What was going on, here? The Wildcats easily left at least a minute of gametime on the clock, and now out of the timeout, Siemian throws an incomplete pass to stop the clock again. It would have been the most Northwestern way to lose, blowing a 14-point lead thanks to terrible time management. Fans pleaded with Fitz to run the damn ball and take time off the clock.

The message seemed to be heard, as NU finally started milking some time. The Wildcats would punt the ball back to MSU with 2:46 left, and it was "Hold on to your butts" time for NU fans. No quick scores, was all I was hoping for. Make 'em earn it. I told my wife, "A 14-point game should not be this emotionally draining. Especially in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, of all meaningless games."

But then came the defensive stand of all defensive stands. On 1st down, Tyler Scott blows through a double team and sacks Russell. On 2nd down, MSU derps the playcall with an RB draw that gains nothing. On 3rd and 20, a dropped pass. On 4th down, after hanging around the pocket for what felt like forever, Russell finally gets dragged down by shoulda-been-MVP Quentin Williams for another sack. Turnover on downs, and the NU side of the stadium was in pandemonium.

Colter kneels three times, and finally, the bowl losing streak was snapped! I'm sure all of you who weren't there were jumping up and down in your living rooms or high-fiving everybody at the bar/watch party you were at. In the stadium, it felt like we had just won the national championship. Hugs all around, and I'll admit that I teared up a bit. So many years of frustration and being the butt of jokes were vanquished when the clock hit zero. I wasn't yet a Northwestern fan during that magical 1995 season, but I can imagine that this moment comes closest to that feeling when Michigan beat Ohio State to send NU to the Rose Bowl that year. The pure joy of the players on the field and the fans in the stands felt so sweet.

The team ran over to the student section and band to sing the fight song. Those of us on the other end of the field screamed for the players to come to our side, and they obliged, running over and singing the fight song again with us. Then at the trophy ceremony, Fitz took the microphone and said in a cracked voice, "We tell our guys to act like they've been there before. But we've never been here before!" The crowd went wild. Fitz, in typically classy fashion, thanked the Gator Bowl folks, congratulated MSU on its season, and then dedicated the win to everybody who has represented NU.

Jared Carpenter got the MVP award, and though that was a bit unexpected, he did have a great game, as I noticed his name called a lot on tackles. Carpenter was clearly taken aback by the award, fumbling through a speech that included thanking the coaches and his teammates. Fans gave him a nice ovation. Then Fitz got the band to strike up "Go U Northwestern," and we all jubilantly sang the fight song again.

On the way out of the stadium, NU fans thronged around the merchandise stands, snapping up Gator Bowl t-shirts that were reduced to $10. Shouts of "Go U, NU!" echoed off the concrete walkways. Fans applauded the band as they walked to their buses. It was a great day.

Other fan bases in the months to come may make fun of us for celebrating a Gator Bowl win, but screw 'em. It was and is a huge moment for the program, and hopefully the springboard to bigger things. It felt damn good to be a Northwestern fan that day, and it's a feeling I'll remember for a long time.

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