Northwestern has no shortage of reasons to win the Outback Bowl, namely the chance to end a 61-year postseason victories drought that still gnaws at the program.
But players like quarterback Mike Kafka and cornerback Sherrick McManis have a little extra incentive Jan. 1 against Auburn (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET). Kafka is one of the 12 fifth-year seniors who played at Northwestern under the late head coach Randy Walker. McManis, a fourth-year senior, was part of Walker's final recruiting class to NU.
Walker died suddenly from a heart attack on June 29, 2006, less than two months before the start of preseason camp.
"Coach Walk's always been a part of our program," Kafka said, "and he always will be."
Walker certainly will be in the players' thoughts as they take the field against Auburn. They mentioned him during the team banquet and spoke about how a victory against the Tigers would be the perfect way to honor the coach who brought stability to the program, especially in his final three seasons.
"It would be tremendous, and it would make a statement," McManis said. "Coach Walker was a great coach, and we take pride in being one of the last classes he did recruit. We definitely want to win this game for Coach Walker, the coaches, ourselves and this program."
McManis had concerns about how the program would respond after Walker's passing, and the first season under new head coach Pat Fitzgerald wasn't pretty, as the team tumbled to 4-8. But since then, Northwestern has gone 23-14 and will head to a New Year's Day bowl for the first time since 1997.
"It's kind of come full circle," Kafka said. "As far as our senior leadership, we've all stepped up. We've all had to take our game up another level to be where we're at."