Gator Bowl -- Northwestern 34, Mississippi State 20: The Monkey Will Hang Around

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State couldn't get out of its way long enough during its season-ending bowl to finally beat a Top 25 team

Maybe it's only in retrospect that it seems like Mississippi State was doomed from its second drive of the game. But it now seems like the unraveling that occurred from that point forward cost the Western Division Bulldogs their chance at the Gator Bowl; after essentially getting spotted a 10-point lead in the first quarter, Northwestern never looked back.

The first drive ended abruptly, with Tyler Russell's third straight pass attempt ending up the hands of Quentin Williams -- who is notable for being a member of Northwestern's football team. Williams returned it for a touchdown. On the seventh play of the ensuing Mississippi State drive, Russell threw another interception. Northwestern would cash that one in for a field goal.

Or maybe the last chance for the Bulldogs came a few minutes later, with the Wildcats leading 13-0 early in the second quarter. Denico Autry picked off a Northwestern pass -- only to have Russell throw another interception on the next play. Northwestern would not score on that play, and would throw two more interceptions during the afternoon in a game that saw seven total picks, but the waste of a chance to get the momentum back will be one of the game's bigger what-ifs.

And one of the biggest what-ifs for Mississippi State's season. We've talked before about the Bulldogs' woes against ranked opponents, and we don't need to re-plow that ground here. But here was a chance to close out their season by definitively removing that strike against them -- and Mississippi State couldn't pull it off.

The Bulldogs got other monkeys off their backs this season, of course. For the first time in the Dan Mullen Era, they beat SEC West teams not located in Oxford. (Even if they ended up losing to the SEC West team that is located in Oxford.) There are still many reasons to think that future years could bring more achievements in Starkville. But the Bulldogs could have provided their fans with a more concrete reason to believe on Tuesday, if only only they could have held on to the ball.

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