JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The stuffed monkey spent the last year in storage, out of sight but still in everyone's mind.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald dusted it off for the Gator Bowl and even had it on the sideline Tuesday as a reminder of Northwestern's decades-long, bowl losing streak -- the ol' monkey on their backs.
Now, it's in pieces.
Behind huge interceptions early and late, No. 21 Northwestern beat Mississippi State 34-20 and snapped college football's longest postseason losing streak. The Wildcats (10-3) hadn't won a bowl game since 1949, a nine-game skid that was tied with Notre Dame for the longest in NCAA history.
It's history now. And as a reward, Fitzgerald let his players rip the monkey to shreds in the locker room.
"We've never been here before, but now we're here and here to stay with a new streak you can talk about in a positive fashion," Fitzgerald said.
Quentin Williams returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the game and Nick VanHoose set up another touchdown with a 39-yard interception return in the fourth. Those plays were the difference in a back-and-forth game that featured more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six).
In between, Northwestern's two-quarterback system kept the Bulldogs (8-5) off balance most of the day.
Scrambler Kain Colter ran for 71 yards, making up for his two interceptions. Backup Trevor Siemian threw for 120 yards and an interception, and also ran for a score.
Northwestern might have become anxious when Mississippi State tied the score at 13 in the third quarter. The Wildcats had blown three double-digit leads in the second half of three games this season. But they responded with Siemian directing a 76-yard drive that put NU up for good. Tyris Jones bowled in from 3 yards out.
"I feel like a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders," Colter said.
Venric Mark, Northwestern's all-everything back, finished with 56 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. He and Colter were on the field for the final few snaps, watching as the madness started to unfold on their sideline. The Wildcats spent the final 1:42 celebrating the program's first postseason victory since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
Defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, one of the team's 25 seniors, doused Fitzgerald with a water bucket and then jumped into his arms. When the game ended, players danced at midfield and then ran toward the stands to recognize friends, family and fans. Fitzgerald playfully directed the band as it belted out the alma mater.
"This one goes to all the Wildcats that have been here before us," Fitzgerald said. "They've paved the way for us. ... The sky is the limit for where our program can go. ... We might not be putting the Big Ten championship trophy in our case, but we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today."
The Wildcats donned Gator Bowl championship hats and posed for pictures long after the final seconds ticked off the clock.
A few minutes later, they got to rip the monkey to pieces.
"Every time I think about this, I start to tear up a little bit," said Williams, who also tipped another pass that was intercepted. "This is just a fantastic happening for our school. We've worked so hard to get to this point and it paid off. I've been here for five years and to finally get a win is just amazing."