After losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, Northwestern travels to Orlando this Friday to play Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. The Tigers got the better of the ‘Cats the last time these two teams faced off in the 2010 Outback Bowl in a 38-35 shootout, but Pat Fitzgerald & co. will look to return the favor on January 1. Here are three matchups to keep an eye on for Northwestern’s last game of the season.
Tank Bigsby vs. Northwestern’s front seven
After successfully containing the run against talented Big Ten running backs all season, Northwestern’s front seven was decimated on the ground by Ohio State’s Trey Sermon in the Big Ten Championship. Sermon was able to hit big hole after big hole on his way to a program-record 331 yards and two touchdowns.
Northwestern’s defense faces another difficult task ahead in Tank Bigsby, Auburn’s freshman running back who won SEC Freshman of the Year and averages a whopping six yards per carry. To make matters more difficult for the ‘Cats, they will be without starting defensive end Eku Leota who elected to enter the transfer portal following the loss to Ohio State. Stopping the run will not be easy against the talented Tigers, and after a poor last showing against the Buckeyes, it will be interesting to see how the rest of Northwestern’s front seven responds to the challenge that Auburn and Bigsby presents.
Seth Williams vs. A.J. Hampton/Cam Ruiz
In three seasons with Auburn, Williams has tallied a staggering 2052 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. The junior wideout is a likely 2021 NFL draft pick, as the Alabama native has good size at 6-foot-2, impressive hands and a huge catch radius. Williams has the ability to pick apart defenses in a variety of ways and has had another strong season thus far, having caught four touchdowns on 688 receiving yards. Northwestern will be without its top corner in Greg Newsome this Friday, so it will likely be either AJ Hampton or Cam Ruiz lining up across from him on Friday.
In the two games that Newsome has not played in this season, the secondary has still performed admirably, holding Maryland’s Dontay Demus and Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette to just 41 and 84 receiving yards, respectively. Regardless of whoever shadows Williams in the Citrus Bowl, shutting down the talented wide receiver will be crucial to the Wildcats’ defensive success against Auburn.
Peyton Ramsey vs. Auburn’s secondary
After a strong first five games of the season that helped the veteran signal-caller earn All-Big Third Team honors, Ramsey has stumbled in recent weeks, throwing for just one touchdown and four interceptions in his last three games. The Indiana transfer has still had his moments in these games, including a brilliant first half in the Big Ten Championship, but has largely struggled to protect the ball and make the right reads for all four quarters in recent games. He will have a good opportunity to bounce back against a fairly mediocre Auburn passing defense that ranks 68th in the FBS and gives up an average of 238 yards per game.
Ramsey will be without one of his top receivers in Kyric McGowan after the senior decided to enter his name in the transfer portal following the Big Ten Championship, so he’ll need other players on the outside to step up in order to find success through the air. But no matter who it is that ends up catching the passes, Ramsey will need to be able to consistently move the chains and limit turnovers for Northwestern’s offense to find success in Orlando.