Friday at noon CT, No. 14 Northwestern (6-2 Big Ten) will end its season by doing battle with Auburn (6-4 SEC) for the second time in program history. As we creep ever closer to kickoff of the 2021 Citrus Bowl, it’s only natural to think back to that first such meeting between the two teams. And oh, what a clash it was.
The 38-35 overtime loss the Wildcats suffered to the Tigers in the 2010 Outback Bowl was one of the wildest college football postseason contests of the century. Despite a matchup of unranked squads, the game had everything a neutral watcher could ask for (and enough for partisan watchers to tear their hair out multiple times over): turnovers, tempo, big plays, questionable decision-making, comebacks, false finishes, and enough shenanigans for a full season of Northwestern football.
In honor of a game that deserves to be remembered forever, even with its unfavorable ending, I’ve put together a little blast from the past (in the form of a numbered list, of course). For each of the eleven years since we last saw the Tigers and Wildcats face off, I’ve attached a special piece of the 2010 Outback Bowl to the corresponding number, counting all the way down to zero. Enjoy!
Seconds elapsed between Drake Dunsmore catching a late third quarter screen pass from Mike Kafka at right around his own 34 and the superback crossing the goal line to put Northwestern an extra point away from completing its first 14-point comeback of the game. Given the broken tackles and sheer speed he displayed, along with the situation in which the play came, Dunsmore’s catch-and-run certainly ranks among the most remarkable touchdowns in the history of Northwestern football.
Catches for Sidney Stewart, the then-junior’s single-game career high by three receptions. Stewart capped off his career-best day with a crucial 18-yard touchdown grab with 1:15 to play. Senior receiver Andrew Brewer’s throw to Brendan Mitchell to convert the ensuing two-point conversion completed NU’s second 14-point comeback of the afternoon.
Additionally, this number refers to how many turnovers occurred in the game.....if you ask the ESPN box score, which attributes a phantom lost fumble to Northwestern that could be the result of either of the second half plays ruled a Wildcat fumble on the field before being called back.
Turnovers between the two teams, for real this time. Seven were secured by future NFL players, including a spectacular one-handed interception by safety Brian Peters.
Of the four players who participated in this game and are still active NFLers (including Auburn long snapper Josh Harris, who has played the same role for the Falcons since 2012), two accounted for three of the most important takeaways. Longtime Bears special teams ace Sherrick McManis intercepted Kodi Burns to stunt the Tigers’ momentum in the final two minutes of the first half and then recovered Ben Tate’s fumble late in the fourth quarter to set up the game-tying drive. Veteran corner Neiko Thorpe provided Auburn’s fourth interception of Mike Kafka (more on that later) in plus territory early in the second half.
Meanwhile, Burns, the quarterback the Tigers used primarily for their Wildcat packages, attempted just two passes on the day.....and both were intercepted. Not to worry, then-first year offensive coordinator and recently fired head coach Gus Malzahn would find a mobile quarterback much more suited for the style of play he wanted in the following season.
Northwestern bowl games since January 1, 2010, including the one coming up on Friday. Including the 2010 Outback, the Wildcats had appeared in just eight bowl games in total at that point in the program’s history, winning only one of them, the 1949 Rose Bowl. The ‘Cats have managed to both match those eight berths and go 4-3 in the eleven years since. Impressive to say the least.
Additionally, this number refers to how many receptions Auburn had on passes not delivered to Darvin Adams, whose 12 catches for 142 yards in this game precluded great things to come alongside that aforementioned quarterback.
Plays that grossed more than 30 yards from scrimmage over the course of the contest, though many others were close. The most notable, aside from perhaps Dunsmore’s iconic touchdown, was Walter McFadden’s 100+ yard interception return for a score in the first quarter, staking Auburn to an early 14-0 lead on what was already the safety’s second pick of the day. The only non-quarterback to accrue multiple such plays was Brewer, the aforementioned pass-catcher whose pair of long receiving touchdowns twice buoyed the Wildcat offense as it stared down two-touchdown deficits.
Personal fouls committed by Auburn, including two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after touchdowns, both rather light if you ask me, and neither of which affected the game much. A fourth-down face mask by future NFL first-round defensive tackle Nick Fairley kept alive a touchdown drive, and a roughing the kicker penalty sustained Northwestern’s hopes in overtime. It was far from a disciplined performance from first-year head coach Gene Chizik’s Tigers.
Total Mike Kafka touchdowns (and interceptions), both of which were career highs. The quarterback (and likely future NFL head coach?) was the star of the stat sheet, marking Outback Bowl records and career highs in passing yards (532), completions (47) and attempts (78) in a wild performance. He also set a Northwestern record that appears nearly impossible to break with a combined 98 (!) total passing and rushing attempts. The performance is unquestionably one of the craziest individual bowl game efforts in college football history and a significant part of what made this battle so special.
Additionally, this number refers to another record-setting mark: the number of Northwestern receivers with at least six receptions. Dunsmore, Brewer, and Stewart joined Zeke Markshausen and a young Jeremy Ebert in achieving the feat.
Successful Northwestern fourth down conversions on five attempts, each of which occurred on a touchdown drive. The final three such plays all happened en route to the penultimate Wildcat score, part of a methodical 15-play, 58-yard drive. This stat doesn’t even encompass the two aforementioned personal foul-aided conversions. Did this game kickstart Fitz’s unusual but statistically accurate and extremely fun proclivity towards going for it more often than almost all of his coaching counterparts? Probably not, but then again, who’s to say, really.
Missed kicks by Stefan Demos before he left with an injury in the overtime period. First, there was a difficult 48-yarder early in the second quarter that nobody’s holding against him. Even the blocked extra point late in the fourth was made up for by the aforementioned two-point conversion. But the 44-yard, game-winning try he pushed ever so slightly to the right as time expired in regulation (after Jordan Mabin’s forced fumble and recovery on an Auburn kickoff return with just over a minute to play), which would have given the Wildcats a remarkable 17 points in the final 3:30 of the game, was a tougher pill to swallow.
Luckily for Demos, this doesn’t even count the potentially game-losing, 37-yard miss in the first overtime, which was wiped off the board due to a correct personal foul call that nevertheless came well after the kicker had finished his motion. It just wasn't his day.
Times Auburn rushed the field prematurely during overtime, only to see play continue. First, the Tigers thought they had recovered a Mike Kafka fumble after their field goal on the extra period’s opening possession, but replay showed his knee ruled down. Then came the much-ballyhooed roughing the kicker. Both times, jubilation turned to confusion as the referee took to the microphone to prolong the first college football game of the 2010s.
Year until Auburn won the National Championship. “Oh right,” remembers every college football fan who wasn’t paying particularly close attention during the rest of the article, “this was that Auburn team.” Even during this game’s broadcast, the Cam Newton hype was real, with the broadcasters spending a solid two-minute window deep into the third quarter discussing the transfer quarterback and how he would mesh with Chizik and Malzahn.
Turns out, pretty well! The Tigers rode one of the most dominant offenses in the history of college football to a 14-0 record, an SEC Championship, and the 2011 national title. Guess nobody was smart enough to look at that Outback Bowl blueprint: after all, Northwestern did give Auburn the toughest test it saw in 2010.
Successful fake field goals run by the Wildcats out of a fumblerooski-type formation with their backup kicker in the game and the chance to snap a six-bowl losing streak that dated back 61 years on the line. I’ll go ahead and let the tape do the talking on this one, though you might need to watch more than once to get the full effect.
If Friday’s Citrus Bowl can even hold a candle to the shenanigans and the spectacle of the first postseason meeting between these two programs, it will undoubtedly have been worth the 11-year wait. Sure, there’s little to no chance of us seeing another 115-play output from Northwestern, and Auburn is certainly unlikely to see the same aftermath that they did in 2010, but the infectious optimism New Year’s Day always brings will still be there. And who knows: that just might be enough.