Northwestern vs. Auburn
The Outback Bowl
Friday, January 1, 2010, 10:00 am CST
radio internet coverage.
Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Auburn
by Jonathan Hodges
Northwestern (8-4, 5-3) will play on New Year's Day for just the fourth time in
school history as the Wildcats travel to Tampa, Florida to face off against the
Auburn Tigers (7-5, 3-5) in the Outback Bowl. Yes, the same Outback Bowl that
has snubbed Northwestern twice this decade (2000, 2008), but, thanks to some
intense campaigning from NU Athletic Director Jim Phillips, decided to select
the Wildcats over Wisconsin (who ended the year at 9-3 with their big win over
The Outback Bowl, the first college football game of the new
decade, presents an intriguing matchup of offenses that can put up some big
numbers and defenses that can take care of business when necessary. Don't let
Auburn's record fool you, their five losses all came against bowl-bound SEC
teams, and their most recent loss (to BCS No. 1 Alabama on the day after
Thanksgiving) was lost by a five point margin in a game where the Tigers led
most of the way.
And despite the fact that Northwestern is an underdog in
this game, the 'Cats are playing their best football of the season, having
beaten two nationally-ranked squads in their last three games and ending the
regular season by winning four of their final five contests. The defense has
come on strong, helping put away NU's last three opponents, while the offense
has shown the ability to move the ball, particularly in their most recent 33
point showing against a stout Wisconsin defense.
This should set up an
offensive battle, much like what was expected from Northwestern's appearance in
the Alamo Bowl last season, although with the long layoff prior to the game,
that could very well fail to emerge, again, like the actual result in the 'Cats'
bowl game last season. The national media has already begun writing off the
Wildcats, although they should have learned their lesson from that game against
Missouri last year where NU led most of the way and fought until falling in
overtime. Expect a close, hard-fought battle in this game, and count out
Northwestern at risk of your own peril.
There are many underlying story
lines in this game, despite the fact that Northwestern and Auburn have never
played on the gridiron. Auburn Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof was the coach at
Duke when the Blue Devils beat the 'Cats in Evanston in 2007 (for his last win
there as head coach), and he was also DC last season for Minnesota where he
watched NU QB Mike Kafka torch the Gophers with his feet as Northwestern took
the game and started a five game Minnesota slide that ended in Roof's
Auburn will be returning to the bowl scene after missing out
with a 5-7 record last year: They had been to bowl games in the previous eight
consecutive seasons. Northwestern, meanwhile, is headed to consecutive bowl
games for just the second time in school history and will be looking to earn
just the second bowl win in school history, and the first since the 1949 Rose
Northwestern's all time bowl record is 1-6, while Auburn's is
19-13-2. The 'Cats have never appeared in the Outback Bowl, while Auburn sports
a 1-1 record in the game as they return for their first appearance in a Tampa
bowl game since 1996.
Although there are few links between the two teams
in this game, both will be looking to establish solid footing heading into the
new decade, and both coaching staffs will have their teams prepared to do battle
early in the morning on January 1st. So, get ready for what should be a great
start to the most enchanted day on the college football
Who Should Win
Toss-up. Yes, I know what the
opening line reads and what all the pundits have said about this game: Auburn
is in the SEC and has way too much talent and speed while Northwestern had a
nice season in the Big Ten and is in for a beat-down. But, Northwestern is
playing its best football of the season on both sides of the ball, while the
Tigers have shown some vulnerability against a strong passing attack (see 44
points posted by Arkansas). This looks to be a rather evenly-matched
In an evenly matched game, there
should be no upset factor, but if the Wildcats even keep this one close, many
will consider it an upset (see Alamo Bowl last year). The Wildcats will need to
play solid defense, particularly against the run, against a varied and effective
offensive attack designed by Gus Malzahn. Expect this game to come down to just
a couple of plays, and whichever team gets those plays to go in their favor will
come out as the victor.
What to Look For: Northwestern Offense
against Auburn Defense
As Northwestern fans saw in the 'Cats' last
game against Wisconsin, the offense can be effective despite lacking a strong
ground game. Kafka was spot-on as he led the 'Cats to a 27 point first half
performance and a big reason was the fact that he protected the football. In
fact, Kafka hasn't thrown an interception since the Indiana game on October 24.
When January 1st rolls around, that makes 68 calendar days since his last INT.
That trend must continue for NU to taste victory in this game.
Wildcats' ground game hasn't been great, but with Kafka's performances it hasn't
really needed to be. Expect more running back by committee from the nation's
93rd ranked rushing offense. More importantly, look out for that short passing
game that has effectively replaced NU's rushing game: the Wildcats rank 29th
nationally, averaging 266.1 yards per game through the air.
overlooked area of Northwestern has been the offensive line, which has performed
admirably over the last portion of the season, allowing just five sacks over the
last three games, pretty good considering there were 105 pass attempts in those
three games and Kafka was sporting a lingering hamstring injury that hampered
On the other side of the ball, Auburn basically falls in
the same category as Northwestern does on defense: not great, but good enough to
win. They rank 51st nationally in total defense (giving up 353.5 yards per
game) but are 73rd nationally in scoring defense at 26.9 points per
The Tigers' best area on defense is pass defense, where they rank
27th nationally in pass efficiency defense, and give up just 191.8 yards per
game through the air (28th in the country). This presents an interesting
matchup with the Wildcats' solid passing attack.
We will also have to see
if Northwestern tries to run the ball more often, since Auburn's run defense
ranks 80th nationally, giving up 161.7 yards per game and a relatively high 4.3
yards per carry on the ground. As mentioned earlier, NU has mostly avoided the
run, but this presents the opportunity to get something going.
mentioned earlier, Auburn DC Roof has faced the 'Cats in each of the last two
seasons as a coach for Minnesota and Duke. In 2007, Duke was able to hold NU to
just 14 points thanks to multiple failed drives in the red zone by the 'Cats,
although in 2008 he wasn't as fortunate as Kafka ran wild against his defense.
It will be intriguing to see how he approaches the NU offense and
Guys to look out for on defense are DE Antonio Coleman, who
leads the Tigers with nine sacks this year, and team tackle leader LB Josh
Bynes. CB Walt McFadden leads the team with four interceptions this year and is
tied for the lead with eight pass break-ups. Although there aren't a ton of
household names, the defense is quick and solid, having held Alabama to just 26
points, something that Florida could not replicate in the SEC title game
(Florida had the nation's number one defense heading into the
What to Look for: Northwestern Defense against Auburn
The Northwestern defense will have its hands full against an
Auburn offense that is designed by Gus Malzahn, who employs a spread offense but
also likes to use the run: He invented the "Wildcat" as the offensive
coordinator at Arkansas a few years back.
The Tigers rank 13th nationally
with an impressive 213.8 yards per game on the ground and average 5.0 yards per
carry. Senior RB Ben Tate leads the way with 1,254 rushing yards on the season
and 8 TDs on the ground. True freshman Onterio McCalebb has also proven to be
effective, adding 547 yards and 4 TDs this season. They are both averaging over
four yards per carry (as a comparison, no Northwestern player with double digit
carries this year is averaging over four yards per carry).
just the ground game. Malzahn loves the spread offense (along with many other
formations) and his senior QB Chris Todd has put together an extremely solid
season with a 146.5 pass efficiency, good for 23rd nationally. Despite not
posting huge yardage numbers, he has thrown 21 touchdowns to just six
Auburn loves to spread it around, but sophomore Darvin
Adams is the favorite target of Tate, as he leads the team in receptions (48),
receiving yards (855), and receiving touchdowns (10). Look for the Wildcats to
put senior CB Sherrick McManis on him in an attempt to contain their most
The 'Cats have been rather successful against the run
over the second half of the season and, on the year, have yielded just 123.5
yards per game, which would be a school record if the season ended today (last
year's 126.4 yards per game set the Northwestern record). This effort must
continue in order to shut down the key cog in Auburn's offensive
On defense, look for DE Corey Wootton to lay it all on the line
in his last collegiate game: He has racked up four sacks in NU's last five games
and is looking like his old self after that knee injury sustained in the Alamo
Bowl last year. The rotation of Adam Hahn, Corbin Bryant, and Marshall Thomas
in the middle has been effective at containing opponents' run games as
Also look out for the senior leadership in the secondary to step up
in this one: Brad Phillips, McManis, and Brendan Smith will be playing in their
last game for Northwestern and will need to have solid games to slow down Auburn
and give the 'Cats a chance to win. It will be great to have Smith back on the
field after he missed the last portion of the regular season with a hand
injury. They'll have a chance to show why they make up what may be NU's best
secondary since the mid-90s.
What to Look for: Special
In a close game, special teams can make a big difference.
Northwestern has experienced big swings over the last two games of its regular
season in that category.
Against Illinois, K Stefan Demos missed all
three of his field goal attempts (prior to that he had missed just two, and
those were blocked) only to turn around and nail all four against Wisconsin,
which all proved vital in the 'Cats' two point victory.
Northwestern's punt coverage team, which yielded just 6.3 yards per return on 16
returns this year, allowed a 68 yard punt return for TD against Wisconsin that
helped the Badgers get back in the game.
NU still features a solid
placekicker in Demos, who is 18-of-23 on the year for FGs and 31-of-32 on XPs,
putting him on the doorstep of some NU field goal records. Auburn's kicking has
been just as solid with K Wes Byrum going 14-of-15 on FGs and a perfect 49-of-49
Both teams are poor in the punt return category (NU ranks 90th
nationally, Auburn is 113th), although Auburn has been respectable on kick
returns (30th nationally, helped by a 99 yard return for TD earlier in the
year). Don't dismiss NU, though, as Stephen Simmons is averaging 25.8 yards per
kick return and ran back a couple of long ones against Wisconsin.
does present a chance for NU to get the return game going, though, ranking 113th
in punt return defense and 98th in kick return defense. The 'Cats could really
use some positive offensive starting position after seeing poor returns for most
of the year, so hopefully this is where the tide turns.
meanwhile, are a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of coverage units, which isn't
a bad thing. Despite giving up a return TD on a kickoff and punt, NU ranks 49th
and 73rd, respectively, in those categories.
There are definitely
opportunities for both teams to do something in special teams, and don't be
surprised to see a big run-back at some point that helps determine the winner of
Northwestern ended the regular season with the
second-most conversions in the country (95, second only to Georgia Tech, who
played one additional game and finished with 100), and placed 10th in conversion
percentage (48.0 percent).
Auburn, meanwhile, is right in the middle of
the pack at 52nd nationally, converting 40.9 percent of their third
On the other side of the ball, both Northwestern and Auburn do
very well at stopping teams on third down, ranking 25th and 21st, respectively,
with both allowing a conversion rate under 35
After staring the year in the red,
NU is up to a +0.42 turnover margin per game; Auburn has a 0 turnover margin on
As one would imagine, the turnover margin had a huge impact on
each team's results in any given game. Both teams were undefeated when winning
the turnover battle: NU was 6-0, Auburn was 4-0.
Neither team fared well
when losing the turnover battle: the 'Cats were 2-4 while Auburn was 1-5 (their
one win was over I-AA/FCS Furman).
Note that Auburn was 2-0 when tying
the opponent in turnovers (both were out of conference games against non-BCS
Scoring by Quarters
Auburn has owned
the first and third quarters, outscoring opponents by a combined 217-148 in
those periods. But, in the fourth, they have been outscored
Northwestern, meanwhile, has been outscored in every period but
the second, where the 'Cats own a commanding 143-69
Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season).
Expect that everyone else, including
S Brendan Smith, makes it back on the field for the 2009 season finale. The
official injury report will be released during the week leading up to the game,
but expect the Wildcats to spend most of the month healing and getting those
injured players ready to go.
Freeman (concussion, questionable), S Zac Etheridge (neck, out for
Like Northwestern, Auburn expects to be close to full health
minus a couple of more serious injuries come January 1st. Don't expect
previously sustained injuries to play a big role in this game due to the long
Northwestern 30, Auburn
That's right, I'm going to go ahead and predict something that hasn't
happened in 61 years: a Wildcat bowl victory. Yes, Northwestern's defense will
yield yards and points, but they have proven time after time that they can slow
down the opponent just enough for NU to win. DC Mike Hankwitz will have his
defense prepared, and he'll finally have them at full strength, which will go a
long way in itself.
On offense, look for Kafka to have a going away party
much like CJ Bacher's one year ago. Auburn has a good but not great defense and
the 'Cats have been successful over their past three games despite facing some
stout defensive fronts and fielding an injured QB. Kafka will be healthy and
ready to go out on top.
This is the number one goal that Coach Pat
Fitzgerald has had in mind since taking over at Northwestern: win a bowl game.
Now the opportunity is there and he and the team are already preparing as much
as possible to make good on that goal. As shown in last year's Alamo Bowl, this
team is dangerous when it is focused, no matter how much of an underdog they are
tabbed as by the media. This year they'll finally achieve the bowl victory that
has eluded Northwestern for so long.
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