HOUSTON -- After everything Texas A&M had been through in the last month, interim coach Tim DeRuyter worried how the Aggies would respond in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
It didn't take long for DeRuyter to see that his team was going to be just fine.
Northwestern led 7-3 early in the second quarter before A&M reeled off 27 straight points to take a decisive lead and then fight off a late rally to capture its first bowl victory since 2001.
Texas A&M (7-6) broke a five-game bowl losing streak in a win the team dedicated to fired coach Mike Sherman and offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio, who was killed in a car accident last week.
"When you go through the adversity our guys have been through ... there was just a sense that things weren't quite right," DeRuyter said. "As a coach you're a little bit unsettled. But when we came out and started fast, I thought: 'These guys are really ready to play.'"
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 Galleryfurniture.com bowl and played next door at the Astrodome.
Tannehill said all of the adversity simply gave them extra motivation.
"It's been a long year with a lot of ups and downs," Tannehill said. "To get a bowl win for the first time in 10 years, to play for Joey V. most importantly and his family and Coach Sherman -- there's many different levels to it, but a win satisfies them all."
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.
Northwestern (6-7) hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl, a span of nine losses.
Dan Persa, who finished with 213 yards passing, was disappointed he couldn't help the team break its bowl win drought.
"We failed in that regard," he said. "We let everyone down and we know it."
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.
The Aggies 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.
A&M responded with a clock-eating drive capped by a 31-yard field goal to secure the win. 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.
DeRuyter was with the team for his last game before leaving to become Fresno State's coach. The Aggies hired former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin earlier this month to replace Sherman, but he wasn't involved in bowl preparations.
Texas A&M wore helmet decals honoring Villavisencio, who died Dec. 22. The black and white decal, which says 'Joey V.,' had his No. 67 and the Texas A&M logo. There was a moment of silence for Villavisencio before the game and fellow offensive lineman Danny Baker wore his number and greeted his father before the game.
"Hopefully we were able to give some comfort to Joey V's family," DeRuyter said. "I think it was uplifting for them to be here."
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.
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.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the loud, heavily A&M crowd made things difficult for his offense.
"My ears are still ringing because of the noise," he said. "The roof was closed, so it went from a home game to a super home game. I thought we were prepared for it, but obviously, I didn't do a good enough job."
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.
Mark provided another highlight for the Wildcats on a nifty 47-yard punt return where he spun away from a pair of tacklers before hurdling another one before being pushed out of bounds in the second half.