NCF Nation: Outback Bowl 2009 bowls

A quick look at Auburn’s 38-35 overtime victory against Northwestern on Friday in the Outback Bowl:

How the game was won: After seemingly winning the game on two previous occasions, Auburn finally survived when defensive back Neiko Thorpe slammed Northwestern’s Zeke Markshausen out of bounds and kept him from getting into the end zone on a fake field goal attempt in overtime. The Wildcats had the ball at the 5, but had already missed three field goal attempts – one that would have won the game at the end of regulation. So they tried to win it in regulation with a little trickery, but the Tigers weren’t fooled.

Turning point: Auburn had a 35-21 lead with 7:32 to play in regulation and appeared to be cruising to a win. But the Tigers turned the ball over twice in a span of two minutes. Ben Tate lost a fumble at the Northwestern 31, and Demond Washington lost a fumble at midfield after a long kickoff return. The Wildcats were able to score a pair of touchdowns in the final three and a half minutes of regulation to force overtime.

Turning point II: Walter McFadden’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter changed the whole complexion of the game. It looked like Northwestern was about to tie the game at 7-7. The Wildcats had a first-and-goal at the 4. But on third down, McFadden tipped a pass to himself in the end zone and raced untouched down the right sideline for the touchdown to give Auburn a 14-0 lead.

Stat of the game: Where do you start? The two teams combined for 1,074 yards of total offense and 53 first downs. Northwestern had 35 first downs, and the Wildcats’ quarterback, Mike Kafka, passed for 532 yards. But Kafka, who threw a Big Ten-low seven interceptions this season, was intercepted five times by the Tigers.

Stat of the game II: The Tigers overcame 12 penalties for 139 yards, including a couple of personal fouls toward the end of regulation and in overtime.

Player of the game: McFadden had two of Auburn's five interceptions. His first pick set up the Tigers' first touchdown, and he returned his second pick 100 yards for a touchdown to give Auburn a 14-0 cushion.

Unsung hero: Auburn receiver Darvin Adams capped a big sophomore season with perhaps the best game he played all season. Adams finished with 12 catches for 141 yards and made several plays to help keep drives alive.

What it means: Getting to eight wins in Year No. 1 under Gene Chizik has to be considered a success on all fronts for Auburn, which also stopped the bleeding. The Tigers (8-5) closed the regular season by losing five of their last six SEC games. Still, the way Northwestern moved the ball up and down the field is a reminder that Auburn still needs to upgrade its depth on defense and its talent on that side of the ball if the Tigers want to be a player in the Western Division race over the next couple of seasons. That’s where these next couple of recruiting classes come in.

Well, that was wild.

For the second straight year, Northwestern went to overtime in its bowl game. And once again, the Wildcats came out on the short end of a wacky contest with Auburn. NU made two amazing comebacks and received one of the truly unique performances from senior quarterback Mike Kafka, but special teams once again hauntSteed the Wildcats, as Stefan Demos missed two field goals.

The Wildcats seriously might be cursed in the postseason.

The Big Ten falls to 1-2 in bowls.

How the game was won: Both teams committed costly mistakes, combining for nine turnovers. Northwestern made a furious rally in the final minutes, scoring two touchdowns in the final 3:20 and getting the ball back with a chance to win at the end of regulation. But Demos hooked a 44-yard field goal, while Auburn's Wes Byrum converted a chip shot in overtime. Demos missed a 37-yard attempt in overtime but was roughed, giving Northwestern new life. The Wildcats couldn't get into the end zone and tried a fake field goal for the win, but Zeke Marskhausen was brought down short of the goal line.

Stat of the game: Kafka's stat line qualifies here. He went 47 of 78 passing for 532 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. He also had 20 rushes for 29 yards and a score. Northwestern outgained Auburn 619-425.

Player of the game: It's got to be Kafka. Sure, his interceptions put Northwestern in a big hole early, but he proved to be extremely clutch on both comeback attempts. The Wildcats had no run game today, so everything fell on Kafka's shoulders, and he made a ton of big throws. A team rarely has a chance to win when its quarterback throws five picks, but Kafka and an opportunistic defense kept NU in the game.

Second guessing: Northwestern's offense was in a nice rhythm at the end of regulation, but the Wildcats went deep on second-and-long when they might have been able to set up a shorter field-goal try. I didn't mind the fake field-goal attempt for the win in overtime, but the Wildcats should have thrown to the end zone at least once after the gift roughing-the-kicker penalty set up first-and-goal from the Auburn 9.

Unsung heroes of the game: So many to name for Northwestern. Wide receiver Andrew Brewer and tight end Drake Dunsmore combined for 16 receptions, 247 yards and three touchdowns. Cornerback Sherrick McManis had an incredible interception and a fumble recovery at the end of regulation. Auburn's Walter McFaden (2 INTs, 1 returned for TD) also deserves a mention.

What it means: Northwestern's bowl losing streak continues, and this one will be very hard to swallow. Until special teams no longer becomes a liability, it's hard to see the Wildcats winning in the postseason. But they never give up, as they showed today and for much of the season. The program might not truly gain national respect until it wins a bowl game, but there was some measure gained today against Auburn. Northwestern loses several standout seniors but should be in decent shape for a third consecutive bowl run in 2010.

Outback Bowl preview

December, 31, 2009
Here's a quick look at the first of three Big Ten games on New Year's Day, as Northwestern (8-4) squares off against Auburn (7-5) in the Outback Bowl (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET).

WHO TO WATCH: Mike Kafka. Few Big Ten players proved more valuable to their teams this fall than Kafka, who ended the season playing his best football. He complemented an efficient short passing attack with more downfield shots to receivers Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen. Kafka faces an Auburn defense that defends the pass well (28th nationally) but has struggled with depth problems for most of the fall. You figure Auburn's high-powered offense will hit on some big plays against the Wildcats, so Kafka will be called upon to answer. If he plays like he did Nov. 21 against Wisconsin, Northwestern should be in good shape.

WHAT TO WATCH: The chess match between Mike Hankwitz and Gus Mulzahn. Hankwitz, the Northwestern defensive coordinator, has seen it all in two plus decades running defenses. But Mulzahn's innovative offense, which employs a huge playbook and a ton of motion before the snap, will test Hankwitz's scheming skills. Northwestern's defense got healthier and improved its tackling as the season went on, but the Wildcats have been gashed for big plays at times. Hankwitz had an excellent game plan against Missouri's high-powered offense last year in the Valero Alamo Bowl, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with after nearly a month to prepare for Malzahn and Auburn.

WHY WATCH: Northwestern finished the season as one of the nation's hottest teams, going 3-0 in November with two wins against ranked opponents (Iowa and Wisconsin). After a lengthy layoff, the Wildcats play on New Year's Day for the first time in 13 years and search for their first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. It's also the Big Ten's first crack at the SEC, regarded as the nation's premier conference in large part because of its BCS title game wins against Ohio State. Northwestern still struggles to shake its miserable pre-1995 history, and a win against Auburn would go a long way toward erasing the program's poor past.

PREDICTION: The Wildcats are the hotter team, as Auburn dropped five of its final seven contests, but the Tigers are feeling good about themselves after taking No. 1 Alabama to the wire in the Iron Bowl. Both teams are excited to be here, and both boast strong offenses. Auburn takes an early lead behind big plays from quarterback Chris Todd and running back Ben Tate, but Northwestern once again rallies, as it has all season. The Wildcats win this one, 31-28.

Outback Bowl preview

December, 31, 2009
Breaking down the Outback Bowl on Friday (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET) between Auburn (7-5) and Northwestern (8-4):

WHO TO WATCH: When senior quarterback Chris Todd had it going this season, Auburn was pretty tough to beat. For a lot of people, it was a surprise that he’s the one who emerged in August as the starter after missing all of spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Todd, who set an Auburn single-season record with 21 touchdown passes this year. He suffered through a forgettable junior season while trying to fight through an injured throwing shoulder that was never right. And then this season, he had the lull in consecutive losses to Arkansas, Kentucky and LSU where he was held under 140 yards passing in all three games to go along with no touchdowns and two interceptions. But the resilient Todd came back strong in his last four games with nine touchdown passes.

WHAT TO WATCH: Which version of the Auburn defense shows up for this game? Is it the one that looked fresh and aggressive in the 26-21 loss to Alabama in the final game of the regular season? Or is it the one that struggled to make it through 11 straight weeks without a bye and wound up finishing last in the SEC in scoring defense at 26.9 points per game? The long layoff should really benefit the Auburn defense. It’s not a deep unit, and several guys should be back closer to 100 percent now that they’ve had the extra time off. The Tigers would love to cap off the season with their most complete defensive performance yet. They’ll probably need it against Northwestern senior quarterback Mike Kafka, who throws it quickly, accurately and with a lot of confidence.

WHY TO WATCH: Gus Malzahn’s offenses are always a lot of fun to watch. And with this much time to prepare, you know he’ll have a full arsenal of reverses, throw-back passes and various other wrinkles ready for the Wildcats. This is also the healthiest the Tigers have been on offense in a long time, especially with freshman running back Onterio McCalebb back to full strength after being plagued by an ankle injury during the second half of the season. Freshman Philip Lutzenkirchen is worth keeping an eye on, too, as he steps into the H-back role.

PREDICTION: Northwestern ended the season by winning four of its last five games and five of its last seven. Auburn, on the other hand, lost five of its last six SEC games. But the difference in this contest will be Kafka, who’s shown this season that he can beat teams with his arm and his legs. Northwestern 27, Auburn 24.