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Outback Bowl Epic: Northwestern comes up two yards short against Auburn

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Outback Bowl Epic: Northwestern comes up two yards short against Auburn
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

After about 24 hours of collecting myself after the craziest game I've ever seen, I will finally give the post game analysis a go, but I can guarantee that it will not do this game justice.  There have been many wild finishes in Northwestern football history (many during the last decade), but this one takes the cake as the wildest that I've seen.  What a way to kick off New Year's Day 2010 with an epic in the Outback Bowl.

The game didn't start well for the Northwestern Wildcats (8-5), to say the least.  Two first quarter QB Mike Kafka interceptions led to two Auburn (8-5) touchdowns (one of them a 100 yard TD return by star Tiger CB Walter McFadden).  NU would respond with a 39 yard bomb from Kafka to WR Andrew Brewer (who had two 30+ yard receiving TDs on the day) before the end of the first quarter.

NU senior S Brendan Smith unsuccessfully defended Auburn WR Quindarius Carr as QB Chris Todd tossed a 46 yard TD pass to once again give the Tigers a 14 point lead, 21-7, which would be the score going into halftime.  Northwestern's turnover woes continued as Kafka threw his third interception of the day, another one in the red zone, keeping NU to just 7 points through two quarters despite racking up 289 yards of total offense during that time (NU's Stefan Demos also barely missed a 48 yard field goal).

The third quarter, though, was owned by Northwestern, with the defense holding the Tigers to just 62 yards of offense in that period and adding an interception of their own.  Kafka sputtered again to start the quarter, throwing his fourth interception of the day, but responded with two touchdown-scoring drives to tie the game at 21 going into the fourth quarter.

The game-tying touchdown featured an impressive catch-and-run from SB Drake Dunsmore, who caught the quick screen for what looked to be a small gain, then eluded a would-be tackler and rumbled down the field.  He was met by Auburn's McFadden but broke his tackle as well as he skirted the sideline and made it into the end zone, sending Wildcats fans into a frenzy.

The fourth quarter saw Auburn turn the tide back in its favor, as the Tigers went on an efficient 60 yard drive to score the go-ahead touchdown.  The Wildcats were looking to respond and appeared to have completed a first down to the Auburn 11, but Brewer was flagged for offensive pass interference, setting up a third-and-19 and effectively ending NU's scoring chance.


Auburn would make quick work of the next drive, including a 50 yard end around run that set up a Tate seven yard TD run, and although he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct (which would be assessed on the ensuing kickoff), NU found itself in dire straits.

With just over seven minutes to play, Northwestern took over at its own 42 after benefiting from that penalty on the kickoff, and moved the ball down the field on a 15 play drive that included three gutsy fourth down conversions (two were fourth-and-five or longer), which was capped off by a Kafka TD run.  NU PK Stefan Demos' extra point try was blocked, leaving NU down by eight (35-27) with just over three minutes to play.

Northwestern knew it needed the ball back and attempted an onside kick that was easily recovered by Auburn.  NU had three timeouts, but it looked like Northwestern was close to sending its bowl losing streak to seven, with the first (and only) win coming in the 'Cats' 1949 Rose Bowl appearance.

After Auburn rushed for one first down, the craziness began.  Auburn RB Ben Tate was stripped by NU S Brad Phillips with the ball recovered by Wildcat CB Sherrick McManis, giving the Wildcats one last chance to tie the game with just about two and a half minutes left in regulation.

NU quickly drove to the Auburn 33 and faced another fourth down (remember that they converted all three on their last TD scoring drive).  The Tigers sent the blitz and Kafka was quickly chased backwards and, once again, it looked like it was all over for the 'Cats.  But as he twisted and turned to avoid the tackle, Auburn's Nick Fairly reached up and pulled Kafka's facemask, drawing a penalty from the onlooking referee, which gave the Wildcats 15 yards from the previous spot, an automatic first down, and new life once again.

The Wildcats wouldn't take any more chances, with Kafka finding WR Sidney Stewart open in the end zone to pull within two, 33-35, with a minute and a half to play in the fourth.  NU would need to convert for two points thanks to the blocked extra point after their last TD, so out came the bag of tricks.

Kafka took the shotgun snap and began running right and tossed to the reversing WR Andrew Brewer, who was quickly tracked down by two Auburn defenders.  Then Brewer (who started at QB for a few games at NU in 2006) tossed the ball to a wide open TE Brendan Mitchell in the end zone which tied the game at 35 and once again caused the Northwestern fans to go wild.  Note that this play was called "Yankee" in homage to Northwestern alum and Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who was in attendance at the game and also has his offseason office across the street from Tampa's Raymond James Stadium at the Yankees' Spring Training center.

All Northwestern needed to do was contain Auburn to get into overtime, something that seemed unlikely just five minutes earlier.  Things looked grim when Auburn's Demond Washington returned the ball to near midfield, but Northwestern's David Nwabuisi made a huge play by forcing a fumble that was fallen upon by Wildcat Jordan Mabin.  The play was challenged by the Tigers but was upheld, giving the Wildcats the ball and a chance to win in regulation.


NU quickly drove to the Auburn 28 before having to set up the field goal with a Jacob Scmidt run, setting up the ball at the 26, making it a 44 yard field goal attempt.  Northwestern took its final timeout to stop the clock with three ticks left, ensuing that this would be the final play of regulation.  Auburn took its final timeout to try and ice Stefan Demos, who missed his only FG attempt of the day and had his last extra point try blocked.

Demos got off what looked to be a good kick that had plenty of distance, but it drifted just wide right, sending the game to overtime and putting those Northwestern bowl win hopes on hold.

The craziness would, of course, continue into overtime.  The Wildcats won the toss and deferred, giving Auburn the ball first.  After just two plays, the Tigers had first and goal at the nine yard line, but the Wildcat defense responded, holding them at the four yard line and forcing a field goal that put Auburn ahead 38-35.  Just like at the very end of regulation, things appeared to be in the Wildcats' favor as a TD would win the game for Northwestern in their OT possession.

On second and six, more controversy ensued when NU WR Zeke Markshausen, who had 12 catches on the day, caught the ball then went to the ground, forcing the ball to pop out.  An Auburn player batted the ball backwards, drawing a penalty flag, and Kafka recovered and carried the ball upfield for a net loss of two yards.  The penalty flag would have given NU a fresh set of downs and a half-distance to goal penalty, but the play was reviewed and Markshausen was called down, setting up a third and one at the 16.

Kafka went under center and tried the sneak up the middle, but Auburn had a mass of players piled in the middle to stop the initial sneak.  But Kafka kept fighting, even getting some assistance from his running back to keep moving forward as he squirmed and eventually found room to get to the first down line.  First down, NU keeping their shot at the win alive.

If all that wasn't enough, there was more craziness to come.  On the next play, Auburn once again sent the pass rush as Craig Stevens chased Kafka backwards and sent him to the ground as Kafka was trying to unload the ball, with the football coming loose at almost the same moment as Kafka hit the turf.  The ball bounced forward and Auburn recovered, sending their team streaming onto the field believing that they won.

BUT, the referee sent them off and went to review the play, which was overturned, as Kafka was called down at the 29.  An incompletion on second down put the Wildcats in a precarious third-and-24 and needed to move the ball just to get into make-able field goal range for the tie.  Once again, Kafka went to Markshausen, who caught the ball at the 19 and set up a 37 yard attempt for the tie.

Stefan Demos put the ball in the air and once again pushed it just a bit too far to the right, clanking it off of the upright, and for the second time in OT, sending Auburn streaming onto the field in a victory celebration.


BUT, an Auburn defender rolled into Demos' leg, drawing a roughing the kicker penalty and giving NU the ball at the nine with an automatic first down.  Demos had to be helped off the field, though, with that leg suffering an apparent injury due to the roughing.

After sending the Auburn players off once again, NU had the ball first-and-goal at the nine with, once again, a legitimate chance to win their first bowl game in 61 years.  But the Tigers' defense clamped down, forcing an incompletion intended for Markshausen on first down (that would have gone for just two yards) and Kafka scrambles for just one and three yards on second and third downs, respectively.

That set up the deciding play of the game, fourth and goal from the five yard line.  With Demos out due to an injury that he suffered as he was roughed following his last field goal miss in overtime, NU sent out Steve Flaherty, who boasts just one made extra point (against Towson earlier this season) and one kickoff (following that same made extra point) as the lone action in his collegiate career.

But the Wildcats would not go for the tie, instead running "Heater," a renamed version of "Fastball," the fake field goal play that was successful for Northwestern both against Wisconsin in 2003 (a first down run by Noah Herron) and Illinois in 2005 (a touchdown run by Gerard Hamlett).  Unfortunately for the Wildcats, though, Auburn was not fooled and was looking for the fake the whole way and forced the ballcarrier, Markshausen, out of bounds at the two yard line, which allowed Auburn to rush the field in victory for the final time.

While it was disappointing not to achieve the goal of winning the bowl game, the Wildcats showed that they would never give up and gave it all they had when going for the victory in overtime.  It was an unforgettable and crazy game, to say the least, and one that will undoubtedly go down in Northwestern history.  As Fitz stated in the postgame press conference, the team's performance made us all proud to be affiliated with Northwestern and we'll look forward to "climbing the mountain" next year in order to reach the pinnacle of that elusive bowl victory.


Player of the Game

Northwestern QB Mike Kafka (47-of-78 passing for 532 yards, 4 TDs, 5 INTs; 20 carries for 34 yards, 1 TD)   Although Northwestern lost the game and he threw five interceptions, Mike Kafka is deserving of the player of the game honors.  He fought back from those five interceptions and led Northwestern in a valiant comeback to tie the game and force overtime then gave the 'Cats a chance to win it outright.  There were both good and bad, but nobody was the difference maker in the game like Kafka was.



Northwestern Honorable Mentions

Northwestern Wide Receivers

Brewer, Stewart, and Dunsmore all caught touchdown passes as the receivers did their part on offense despite rain throughout the first half and slippery conditions throughout the game.  Not to mention two clutch fourth down receptions.  Markshausen tied the bowl record with 12 receptions on the day.  Jeremy Ebert added six receptions while both Arby and Demetrius Fields (no relation) added one reception each.


Northwestern Offensive Line

Despite the obvious fact that Northwestern was going to be throwing the ball all day long (Kafka threw the ball 47 times and also had over half of Northwestern's carries), the offensive line allowed just three sacks.  Yes, the one negated by the facemask penalty doesn't appear in the stat line and one of those came in overtime, but three sacks out of over 50 drop backs is pretty darn good.  Their performance allowed Kafka just enough time to make things happen for much of the day.


Big Defensive Plays

Yes, the defense was gashed at times, but stiffened when absolutely necessary and forced a huge fumble that allowed the Wildcats to tie the game and even gave Northwestern two chances to win with a fumble recovery on the final kickoff of the game as well as stopping Auburn in overtime by forcing a field goal.  NU also had three sacks (by Quentin Davie, Nate Williams, and Vince Browne) that seemed to come at key times.  Also, the 'Cats came up with two huge interceptions of their own (both in the red zone by Sherrick McManis and Brian Peters).  They made adjustments and gave NU a chance to win down the stretch.


What to Work on

Special Teams

Stefan Demos had a day to forget, missing all three field goal attempts (including a game-winning attempt and a game-tying overtime attempt), having an extra point blocked (forcing NU to go for two later on), and shanking two punts.  He was also injured following that overtime attempt.  Add to the fact that NU allowed a 46 yard return that could have allowed Auburn to win the game in overtime, if not for a forced fumble.  Best wishes to Demos in his recovery, but look for Fitzgerald to shake things up on punts and kickoffs to allow Demos to focus on placekicking, which he has done well earlier this season.


Turnovers

It's pretty hard to overcome five interceptions, and it is admirable that Northwestern almost did just that, as they miraculously tied the game and then were in a position to win the game both in regulation and overtime.  Then again, five interceptions, with three converted into Auburn touchdowns, were very costly and were what put the 'Cats into such a precarious position in the first place.  It was amazing how resilient Kafka was, leading NU to two separate 14 point comebacks after throwing four picks.


Finishing

Once again, Northwestern was on the doorstep but couldn't close the deal.  The Wildcats showed a huge amount of heart in their comeback and even put themselves in a position to win the game more than once, but couldn't make it happen.  For a team that prides itself on winning close games (24 wins in the last 31 games decided by one touchdown or less), the inability to close this one out is a tough pill to swallow.


Random Observations

Penalties

Relatively disciplined play by NU (three penalties for 25 yards) and rather lax play by Auburn (12 penalties for 140 yards) definitely helped Northwestern's cause, with two of those penalties, both personal fouls, directly extending Northwestern's chances in this game.


Points off Turnovers

Auburn has 21 points off turnovers (including one TD directly off of an interception return), which was a huge factor in the game.  The Wildcats had just seven points off turnovers and missed a field goal on the final play of regulation that was set up by a recovered fumble.


Total Offense

Those points off turnovers more than made up for the large advantage Northwestern had in total yards, as the 'Cats racked up 625, exactly 200 more than Auburn.  What is amazing is that Kafka accounted for 91 percent of those yards, racking up 566 total yards himself, including a school-record 532 yards passing.


Records

All in all, 28 different Outback Bowl records were tied or broken in this barn-burner, including the following by Mike Kafka: passing yards, passing attempts, passing completions, passing touchdowns, and total yards.  The teams also combined for the most points, yards, and plays in the bowl's history.


Red Zone Chances

Auburn went 3-of-4 in the red zone while the 'Cats went 2-for-5, with their failed scoring attempts coming off of two interceptions and the final play of the game.


'Cats' Lives

Here is a recounting of how Northwestern stayed in this football game until the bitter end:

1. Auburn RB Tate scores a TD with 7:32 left in the game to put Auburn up 35-21.
Response: Unsportsmanlike conduct penalty helps NU set up a touchdown-scoring drive that included three fourth down conversions to stay in the game.

2. Northwestern's extra point attempt blocked, trail by 8 (27-35) with 3:20 left to play.
Response: NU uses trick play "Yankee" to convert for two following their next touchdown to tie the game.

3. NU's onside kick attempt at 3:20 in the fourth quarter is easily fielded by Auburn.
Response: Brad Phillips forces a fumble from Tate that is recovered by Sherrick McManis, giving the Wildcats new life with 2:37 to play.

4. Kafka sacked on fourth down with under 2:00 remaining.
Response: Facemask personal foul on Auburn.  Northwestern scores a pass touchdown on the following play.

5. Auburn's Washington returns the ensuing kickoff to midfield (Auburn had two timeouts remaining).
Response: NU's Nwabuisi strips the ball and Mabin recovers, giving the 'Cats a chance to win in regulation.

6. Kafka tries to sneak for the first down and is initially stopped...
Response: Kafka stays on his feet, and with some help from his running back finds the first down line to keep NU's hopes for an overtime win alive.

7. Kafka is sacked for a 10 yard loss and fumbles the ball, recovered by Auburn (who rushes the field).
Response: Play is reviewed and Kafka is ruled down.

8. Demos' game-tying field goal attempt clanks off the upright (Auburn rushes the field).
Response: Roughing the kicker personal foul gives NU the ball first-and-goal at the nine.

9. Fake field goal attempt named "heater" is stopped short of the goal line.
End of game.



Final Thought

Another bowl game, another heartbreaking overtime loss against a big favorite, but it's hard to keep going for moral victories when the last (and only) Northwestern bowl win was in 1949.  But, Northwestern fans can take away the fact that this team did the university proud and fought valiantly until the end and went down trying to go for the win.

The 2010 Outback Bowl was also the craziest game that I've ever seen and was likely one of the wildest finishes to any football game in recent memory.  No, it didn't have national implications, but it provided an entertaining start to New Year's Day and gave a lot of attention to the Northwestern football program.

Yes, Auburn won the game and how close Northwestern was to the win (two yards) leaves a bitter taste in one's mouth, but the Wildcats' amazing comeback and attempts at victory gave Northwestern a lot more attention than Auburn on the national scene.  Now Wildcats fans will continue to try and digest this game as we look forward to signing day in February, spring practices in April, and the 2010 season in nine months.

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