By West Lamy
The storyline coming into the 24th annual Outback Bowl is Northwestern’s coming up short in the postseason since 1949. That’s right, a 60-year streak without a bowl win. In their first trip to a January bowl since 1997, the 8-4 Cats will try and lay to rest a six-game bowl losing streak on New Year’s Day. “ It will be great to get that monkey off our back. It is the last negative said about out football program. A win will be a great way to send off our 21 seniors,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern beat California in their first postseason appearance, the 1949 Rose Bowl. They went on bowl hiatus until since 1995 and they’ve dropped each of their six bowl contests since then, most recently last season’s 30-23 overtime loss to then ranked No. 25 Missouri in the Alamo Bowl. It was Northwestern’s first bowl game under Fitzgerald.
The SEC representative Auburn Tigers (7-4) will meet the Wildcats. The Tigers have not had much trouble finishing strong in bowl season, as they seek their sixth bowl win in eight seasons. They’ve won five of six bowl games since 2002, with the one loss coming against Wisconsin in the 2006 Capital One Bowl. Brian Calhoun rushed for 213 yards, John Stocco passed for 301 and Brandon Williams had 173 yards receiving, lifting the 21st-ranked Badgers to a 24-10 victory over Auburn who were ranked #7 at the time. It’s the third Outback Bowl appearance for the Tigers. That said, let’s move on to the matchups:
Northwestern’s Offense vs. Auburn’s Defense
Auburn’s defense hasn’t seen an offense like Northwestern’s spread option all season. NU quarterback Mike Kafka has felt the pressure in his backfield all season, but the senior is third in the conference with 2,898 passing yards. He’s thrown 12 touchdown passes and added seven rushing, giving him a place on the All-Big Ten second team. On the other side this will also be the last college game for defensive end Antonio Coleman. A two-time All-SEC first team selection, Coleman leads the conference with 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks. He’s third in career sacks at Auburn with 23.5. That is not good news for Kafka, who was sacked 23 times; tied for second-most in the Big Ten. If he gets adequate protection from Coleman and company, Kafka should be able to take advantage of an Auburn team that is giving up an SEC-worst 26.9 points per game.
Auburn’s offense vs. Northwestern’s defense
Auburn quarterback Chris Todd and running back Ben Tate, both seniors, look to make a name for themselves on New Year’s Day against the Wildcat defense. Todd ranks fourth in the SEC with 21 touchdown passes and has thrown just six interceptions, while Tate was fourth in the conference with 1,254 rushing yards. Together, they’ve led an Auburn team that’s third in the SEC with 432.3 scrimmage yards and 32.9 points per game. NU Defensive End Corey Wootton is still coming off a knee injury, but is a big technically sound end that will be a catalyst for the Wildcat defense. “It’s hard to talk about the season when it’s not over yet,” said Wootton. “We have one more opportunity. But I think the biggest thing is we want to be remembered as the first team to win a bowl game since 1949. We’re focused on that goal” he stated at Outback Bowl Media day. Wootton also talked about how he stated publicly that he was 100% healthy during the early part of the regular season, even though he clearly was not. He admitted to deceiving his opponents into thinking he was completely convalescent even though he didn’t actually start to come around until the week before the Iowa game in early November. So is he 100, or 90, or 80% now? I guess no one expect the Auburn OL will know for sure.
Another standout defender is cornerback Sherrick McManis, who’s opened the eyes of NFL scouts with his fundamentally sound cover skills. McManis has 8 interceptions and 30 career pass breakups.
Northwestern at Auburn Raymond James Stadium (65,856) Tampa, Fla. January 1,2010 11 A.M. ET, 10 AM CST