Dec. 30, 2009
When Auburn meets Northwestern in the 2010 Outback Bowl Friday, it will not only be the first college football game of the New Year, but also the first game between the two programs in history. It will be Auburn's third trip to the Tampa-based bowl, but the first in 14 years.
Auburn, which finished the regular season with a 7-5 overall record including a 3-5 mark in the SEC, will be playing in its 35th bowl game, which is the 16th-highest total of any FBS school. 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.
Since the 1974 Gator Bowl, Auburn is 14-6-1 in bowl games. The Tigers have won their last two bowl games, defeating Nebraska, 17-14, in the 2007 AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, and Clemson, 23-20 in overtime, in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Gene Chizik is the first Auburn first-year head coach to lead the Tigers to a bowl game, although he has been to numerous bowl games as an assistant coach. In fact, Chizik had a perfect 6-0 record in bowl games as an assistant, including a 3-0 record while the defensive coordinator for the Tigers from 2002-04.
Although the Tigers have never faced Northwestern, Auburn is no stranger to playing Big Ten teams, particularly in bowl games. Auburn has a 6-3-2 all-time record against current members of the Big Ten, with bowl games accounting for nine of those 11 contests, including four in the last 10 years.
Auburn's most recent bowl game vs. the Big Ten was the 2006 Capital One Bowl in Orlando, where the Tigers fell to Wisconsin, 24-10. Auburn defeated the Badgers, 28-14, at the 2003 Music City Bowl, and won the 2003 Capital One Bowl against Penn State, 13-9. The 2000 season came to a close with a 31-28 loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl (now the Capital One Bowl).
Northwestern enters the Outback Bowl with an 8-4 record, and finished the Big Ten season with a 5-3 mark. The Wildcats hit their stride down the stretch, winning each of their last three games, including a 17-10 win at then-No. 8 Iowa and a 33-31 victory over then-No. 17 Wisconsin.
Northwestern's offense is focused around senior quarterback Mike Kafka, whose 2,898 passing yards this season are third most in a single season in Wildcat history. Kafka and senior wideout Zeke Markshausen, who has caught 79 passes which is second in the Big Ten this season, are two big reasons that Northwestern ranks second in the Big Ten and 29th nationally in passing offense, averaging 266.1 yards per game.
Kafka also has the ability to run the ball, as he is one of four Wildcat players that have totaled at least 226 yards rushing this season, although no one player has rushed for more than 294. Northwestern averages 119.9 yards per game on the ground, and 25.2 points per contest.
Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof noted that there are a number of similarities between the Northwestern offense and the Tigers' own offense.
"There are a lot of similarities, especially offensively with the spread," said Roof. "Obviously there are some different variations of it, but with the spread and the tempo and things like that, there are a lot of similarities that make you defend the entire width of the field, which some teams don't do."
Senior defensive end Antonio Coleman echoed those sentiments and noted that the Tigers will have their hands full defending Kafka and the Wildcats.
"They are a tough team with a great quarterback who is very mobile," said Coleman. "They kind of remind me of West Virginia in that respect. But if they don't see their read they'll pull it down and run it. It's going to be a big test for us to get pressure on the quarterback and make sure we force their quarterback to throw deep balls."
Defensively, Northwestern allows just 344.2 yards per game and 23.3 points per contest. Auburn's running game, which averaged 213.8 yards per game, will be tested by a Wildcat defense that allowed just 123.5 yards per contest.
Senior safety Brad Phillips is Northwestern's leading tackler with 84, while senior defensive end Corey Wootton has 19.5 career sacks and 38 career tackles for loss.
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn stated that the Wildcats present several challenges defensively.
"They're extremely well coached," said Malzahn. "They're good tacklers and they try to keep everything in front of them. It's hard to get big plays on them and at times when we've played well we've made big plays, so that will be the biggest challenge for us."
Senior running back Ben Tate agreed, noting that Northwestern's biggest strength could be its solid fundamentals.
"They're very sound," said Tate. "They're very well coached. They're always in the right gaps and the right spots and they don't get penalties."
The 2010 Outback Bowl will kick off at 10 a.m. CT from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be nationally televised by ESPN.