College Football: Meineke Bowl: Texas A&M 33, Northwestern 22

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 31, 2011

Associated Press
HOUSTON ó Northwestern’s comeback attempt came too late and doomed the Wildcats to yet another bowl loss.
Ryan Tannehill threw for 329 yards and a touchdown and Ben Malena ran for two more scores to lead Texas A&M to a 33-22 win over Northwesternin the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
Heading into the game, players and coaches spoke of “getting the monkey off” their backs and ending the losing streak.
“We failed in that regard,” quarterback Dan Persa said. “We let everyone down and we know it.”
The Wildcats had dropped three close ones in the postseason, losing in OT two years straight before last year’s one touchdown loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has coached the team in each of those recent bowls, said this loss wasn’t any more difficult than the others.
“They all stink,” he said. “They are all awful. It’s frustrating. We will worry about that next postseason. We have to play more soundly. We have to execute more consistently.”
The Aggies, which snapped a five-game bowl losing streak, were up 30-7 before Brian Peters intercepted Tannehill early in the fourth quarter and the Wildcats took advantage of that mistake when Kain Colter scored on a 1-yard run for Northwestern’s first points since early in the second quarter. The 2-point conversion left A&M ahead 30-15.
Colter found Tim Riley in the corner of the end zone for on a 2-yard touchdown pass to get Northwestern within 30-22 with less than six minutes remaining.
Persa, who threw for 213 yards, said the difference on the two fourth-quarter drives was his offensive line’s ability to win one-on-one battles and his doing a better job of getting rid of the ball.
Persa set an NCAA record for career completion percentage (73.6) by going 25 of 37 to end his career 460 of 633. He entered the game needing 19 attempts to meet the minimum standards to qualify for the record.
A&M responded with a clock-eating drive capped by a 31-yard field goal to secure the win after Northwestern cut the lead to eight.
“They made the plays that winners make,” Fitzgerald said. “We ran out of time there at the end.”
Senior Jeff Fuller, who has had a disappointing and injury-plagued year, had a key third down catch for 29 yards on that drive and finished with a season-high 119 yards receiving.
“It stings because we needed to ball back to … try to win the game,” Peters said of A&M’s third down conversions on that drive.
Malena ran for 77 yards, filling in ably for Cyrus Gray, who missed his second straight game with a stress fracture in his left shoulder.
A&M won a bowl for the first time since a 28-9 victory over TCU after the 2001 season. That also came in Houston, when this game was called the bowl and played next door at the Astrodome.
Texas A&M erased a 7-3 second quarter deficit thanks to touchdowns by Malena and Fuller and a field goal by Randy Bullock to lead 20-7 at halftime.
Malena’s second touchdown came on a 19-yard run early in the third quarter that made it 27-7. Another field goal by Bullock, this one from 47 yards, pushed A&M’s advantage to 30-7.
“We hit a little lull in the first half,” Fitzgerald said. “The guys were resilient, they responded and got momentum. We had it and were just one stop away. We were one third down pickup, one offside kick away.”
The Wildcats alternated quarterbacks for much of the day with Persa leading the more traditional offense and Colter directing the wildcat offense. But neither player could generate much offense while often under heavy pressure from the Aggies, who finished with eight sacks.
Texas A&M’s offense got rolling in the second quarter when Tannehill found Ryan Swope, who was a high school running back, on a short pass that he took 37 yards to the 1. Swope tight-roped the sideline and avoided a half dozen tacklers before he was brought down.
Malena scored a play later to put A&M on top 10-7.
Northwestern took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter when Venric Mark scored 2-yard option run.