JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen has not had the best of luck against ranked teams.
It didn't get much better on Tuesday.
The Bulldogs (8-5) fell 34-20 to No. 21 (Associated Press) Northwestern (10-3) in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl at EverBank Field.
Mullen's record against ranked teams dropped to 2-17 all-time at Mississippi State.
"Nobody likes to lose," Mullen said. "Our kids put in, everybody puts in a lot of work to win football games. It was great to win a lot early. It (hurts) to lose late."
The Bulldogs beat Michigan 52-14 in the 2011 Gator Bowl, but had less luck this time around.
MSU trailed 27-13 to start the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs got within seven points, when junior quarterback Tyler Russell found sophomore tight end Malcolm Johnson in the back of the end zone for 14-yard passing score. After the Devon Bell extra point, MSU trailed 27-20 with 11:42 to go in the game.
The Bulldog defense held and forced a Wildcat punt.
On the ensuing drive, Russell threw his fourth interception of the game. Russell scrambled around the pocket and finally heaved it. Northwestern's Nick VanHoose made a good play on the ball and intercepted it.
"The fourth one (was a) really poor decision," Mullen said. "(It was) just a poor decision on third down. (He was) flying around in the pocket, and just threw a ball that he shouldn't have thrown."
After the return and a sideline interference on MSU, Northwestern had first-and-goal at the MSU 5-yard line.
Northwestern junior running back Venric Mark punched it in from 3 yards out to end the scoring with 8:10 left in the ballgame.
The Bulldogs didn't start the game as they might have liked. MSU received the opening kickoff. On the third play from scrimmage, Russell threw his first interception of the day.
Northwestern's Quentin Williams intercepted it and returned it 29 yards for the touchdown to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead with 14:13 to go in the first quarter.
On the very next State possession, Russell threw another pick as the Bulldogs were driving. He tried to hit a receiver on an out route, but Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell read it and picked it off.
Northwestern turned that turnover into a field goal.
Russell threw another interception in the second quarter.
"He came out, and I talked to him going into the locker room after the third pick. (I) 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. Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.'"
MSU settled down offensively and added a 27-yard Bell field goal to make it 13-3 with 4:48 remaining in the second quarter.
Mississippi State senior defensive back Johnthan Banks went down late in the first half. The Jim Thorpe Award winner had a laceration to his leg and was taken immediately to the locker room.
"I saw him grabbing his leg," Mullen said. "I was scared to death for him. (I) looked up at the instant replay and said 'it didn't look like anything serious.' He had a massive gash in the side of his leg that they had to stitch up. He wanted to go back in, but I told our trainers unless he's 100 percent, try not to put him back in the game."
The Bulldogs finally found the end zone when Russell hit Arceto Clark for an 18-yard passing score with 1:06 left in the first half.
MSU trailed 13-10 going into the locker room.
"There are a lot of things that we need to continue to work on and correct as a program," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "One of those is when we get a big lead, (we need) to put teams away. I've got to give a ton of credit to Dan Mullen's staff and his young men. They battled back and made a bunch of plays in the second quarter."
Junior defensive back Nickoe Whitley lifted the Bulldogs to start the second half. He intercepted a Kain Colter pass at the MSU 46-yard line with 13:39 remaining in the third quarter.
"It was a good read," Whitley said. " I did what the coaches told me to do and played my assignment."
The Bulldogs evened up the score on the ensuing drive, when Bell connected on a career-tying long 47-yard field goal with 10:37 left in the third quarter.
It didn't stay tied long as Northwestern marched down the field. The Wildcats capped off a six-play, 76-yard drive with a 3-yard Tyris Jones rushing touchdown.
Banks had an appearance in the second half, but did not play much.
"I don't really think it affected us much because we've got like five or six corners that can play just as good as Banks can," said Whitley, who had two interceptions in the game. "They learn from Banks every day."
Junior defensive lineman Denico Autry also had an interception.
The Wildcats finished with 357 total yards offense, while MSU had 292. The Bulldogs picked up 186 of those yards on the ground.
Junior tailback LaDarius Perkins finished with 84 yards on 19 carries. Josh Robinson led the team with 91 yards on seven carries.
Russell finished the day 12-of-28 passing for 106 yards. He had two touchdowns, but the four interceptions.