Dec. 27, 2009
Series: First Meeting
Northwestern will take part in back-to-back bowl contests for the first time since the 1995 and 1996 seasons when the program makes its first appearance in the Outback Bowl. The Wildcats face Auburn for the first time in school history. Northwestern will play in its second Florida bowl game after taking part in the 1997 Citrus Bowl, when current head coach Pat Fitzgerald led the program to a second-straight bowl outing for the first time. After making only one bowl trip in its first century of college football, the program will be appearing in its seventh bowl since the 1995 season. Fitzgerald made his first bowl trip as a head coach last year and the Wildcats were edged in overtime by Missouri in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Northwestern is 1-6 in bowl games, as the program looks for its first postseason win since the 1949 Rose Bowl Game.
The Big Ten has produced a record of 9-11 in the Outback/Hall of Fame Bowl, including victories in two of the last three games for Iowa (2009) and Penn State (2007).
Auburn makes its 35th bowl appearance overall and its third trip to the Tampa-based bowl, but the first in 14 years. Auburn’s last Outback Bowl visit was a 43-14 loss to Penn State on Jan. 1, 1996. Auburn has a 19-13-2 record in its previous 34 bowl games and has played in a bowl game in 21 of the last 28 years. The Tigers have also won their last two bowl games, defeating Nebraska in the 2007 AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic and Clemson in an overtime thriller in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Auburn is 6-3-2 all-time against the Big Ten, with bowl games accounting for nine of those 11 contests.
Northwestern’s offense managed 25.2 points and 386.0 total yards of offense this season, including 266.1 in the air that ranked second in the Big Ten. The Wildcats gained 400 or more yards of total offense on five occasions, including the final two games against Illinois (444 yards) and Wisconsin (437 yards). NU’s offense was known this season for its quick-strike spread attack. Pat Fitzgerald’s ballclub racked up 20 or more first downs in 10 of its 12 games and the team’s average of 22.4 first downs per game ranked 15th nationally. Quarterback Mike Kafka is the main cog in the Wildcats’ fast-moving wheel. The second-team All-Conference selection threw for 2,898 yards and scored 19 total touchdowns this year. He averaged 241.5 yards per game and completed 65.7 percent of his 414 passes. Kafka had just seven interceptions on the season and when Northwestern had one or fewer turnovers in six of its 12 games, the Wildcats were 6-0 in those six contests. Senior Zeke Markshausen was Kafka’s primary target this season with 6.58 receptions per game – second in the Big Ten – and 64.5 yards per game. Andrew Brewer hauled in 66.0 yards per outing to place fourth in the conference.
Defensively, Auburn was prone to giving up points this season, averaging an SEC-worst 26.9 points per game. The Tigers ranked eighth in the SEC in overall total defense (353.5), including eighth against the pass (191.8) and 10th against the rush (161.7). Auburn allowed 15 passing touchdowns and picked off 12 attempts in return, three of which were for TDs. Kafka and the Wildcats will enjoy the fact that Auburn was 11th in the SEC this year with 19.5 first downs allowed per game, but NU’s offensive line will have to fight off an impressive pass rush led by Antonio Coleman. A two-time All-SEC first team selection, Coleman led the conference with 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks, and he’s third in career sacks at Auburn with 23.5. Kafka was sacked 23 times this season, which was the second-most in the Big Ten. In addition to Coleman, look for junior linebacker Josh Bynes to make some noise, having ranked sixth in the SEC with 7.8 tackles per game. Fellow linebacker Craig Stevens was 11th at 7.4.
Auburn ranked 21st nationally in opponent third-down percentage (33.7), and has held four of its last eight opponents below 25 percent. Northwestern, however, was second in the Big Ten with a 48.0 percent conversion rate on third downs.
Auburn’s offense gave its opponents fits this year, ranking 13th in the nation in rushing offense (213.8), 20th in scoring offense (32.9) and 21st in total offense (432.3). In fact, the Tigers’ total offense mark tells us there is a strong possibility of Auburn getting 282 yards in the Outback Bowl to break the school single-season record for total yards. Similar to Northwestern’s attack, Auburn tends to score quickly. The Tigers have 26 scoring drives this season that have taken less than two minutes, with 23 of those ending in touchdowns – a mark that is tied for the sixth-highest total in the nation. The Tigers have also been very efficient in the red zone, scoring 94.4 percent of the time (34-of-36, 26 TDs) -- a clip that ranks second in the SEC. Ben Tate had six 100-yard rushing games this season and averaged 104.5 yards per game, which ranked 23rd in the nation. The Tigers’ rushing leader ranks fifth all-time with 3,213 career yards and has amassed 1,254 of those this season. Auburn is led under center by Chris Todd and his 198.1 passing yards per game, which ranked sixth in the SEC this season. Todd completed 59.9 percent of his 297 passes and threw a school-record 21 touchdowns to just six interceptions. His primary receiver is Darvin Adams, who shared the SEC lead with 10 receiving touchdowns, which is third most in a single season in school history. Adams was fourth in the league with 71.2 receiving yards per game and fifth with 4.0 catches each time out.
Defensively the Wildcats were riddled with injuries this season, especially in the secondary, which could bode well for Todd. Northwestern gave up 23.3 points, 119.9 rushing, 220.8 passing and 344.2 total yards each game, the latter of which ranked fifth in the Big Ten. NU held 10 of its 12 foes to 375 yards or less of total offense this year and now face an Auburn team that averaged close to 60 yards more than that mark. The Wildcats boast a plus-5 turnover margin, which ranked third in the Big Ten, and had 11 fumble recoveries and 15 interceptions on the year. Northwestern is hopeful that all four starters will return to the secondary for the Auburn game. Cornerback Sherrick McManis, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, ranked 14th nationally in passes defended (1.22) and 18th in interceptions (4). Junior Nate Williams was 14th in the conference with a team-high 7.2 stops per outing, while Quentin Davie and Brad Phillips each forced four fumbles on the year.