ORLANDO, Florida — Navigating through the bumps and turns of this pandemic-altered season, No. 14 Northwestern (7-2, 6-2 B1G) once again came out on top at Camping World Stadium Friday afternoon, defeating Auburn (6-5, 0-1 B1G) 35-19 to win the 2021 Vrbo Citrus Bowl.
There were ups and downs as the ‘Cats jumped out to a quick lead, only to let Auburn slowly work its way back into the game during the second and third quarters before NU took control once again and cruised to the blowout victory.
After struggling in two of Northwestern’s last three games, quarterback Peyton Ramsey played his best game in a Wildcat uniform. The grad transfer threw for a season-high 291 yards while completing 24 of his 35 passes, added a season-high 50 yards on the ground and contributed four total touchdowns.
The “Irish Law Firm” also showed out, as the trio of senior linebackers combined for 31 tackles (highlighted by 12 from Paddy Fisher) and led what was another dominant defensive performance by the ‘Cats.
Mike Bajakian’s offense came out crisp on its first drive, registering an opening drive touchdown for the sixth time this season. NU faced a third-and-long at its own 49-yard line, and Peyton Ramsey found Riley Lees for a 14-yard catch and a first down. He immediately followed it up with a dime to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for a 35-yard score, giving NU a quick 7-0 lead.
Auburn was in for a rude awakening from defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who earned his 400th career win in the matchup ahead of his retirement, and his defense, which fielded three-and-outs on its first two series. That gave the ball back to Northwestern, which continued to march downfield, gashing Auburn through the air.
Faced with a fourth down in Tiger territory, Fitz opted to go for it. The head coach’s gamble paid off, as Ramsey found Lees for a 19-yard gain across the middle of the field (in total the ‘Cats were 2-of-4 on fourth downs). The senior receiver finished with four catches for 48 yards and a touchdown, and Ramsey took advantage of the conversion by finding John Raine in the end zone a few plays later to put Northwestern up 14-0.
A key play occurred when Tiger punt returner Eli Stove muffed the catch at his own 32-yard line and Northwestern recovered the ball. But NU was called for kick catch interference, negating the turnover and giving Auburn the ball at its own 47 after the penalty.
The Tigers got in range for an Anders Carlson in a 50-yard field goal, cutting into the Wildcats’ double-digit lead.
Auburn’s offense continued to churn as the Wildcats’ did not, putting together its best drive of the day, covering 72 yards in 14 plays before stalling near the goal line and settling for their second field goal of the half. Northwestern entered the break with a 14-6 lead.
To open the second half, the Tigers continued to gain momentum, as a rare miscommunication in the Northwestern secondary resulted in a 57-yard catch-and-run touchdown for Elijah Canion. It appeared cornerback AJ Hampton thought he was supposed to come down on a blitz, only to turn around and realize his man was streaking down the field.
Late in the third quarter, the ‘Cats snapped their streak of five straight scoreless drives as Ramsey scrambled 30 yards for a touchdown on third-and-10, putting Northwestern up 21-13 and getting much-needed points.
On the ensuing drive with 14:29 to play, Auburn faced a fourth-and-1 at midfield. Nix tried to sneak for the first down, but the Wildcats’ defensive line blew it up. In a performance that encapsulated its season, NU’s defense limited AU to 2-of-13 on third downs and 1-of-3 on fourth downs.
The offense took advantage of the good field position, turning loose halfback Cam Porter for a seven-carry, 50-yard touchdown drive to regain a two-touchdown advantage. The freshman tailback, who established himself at the top of the depth chart late in the regular season, finished the game with 98 yards on 33 carries.
The fourth quarter avalanche continued for NU as Auburn fumbled in its own territory just a couple of plays later. The Wildcats turned it into a third passing touchdown for Ramsey as he hit Lees in the back right corner of the end zone to put NU up 35-13.
Nix finished 25-for-42 on the day for 292 yards, and wide receiver Seth Williams led the way with five catches for 72 yards. Auburn’s 19 points was their third-lowest scoring output of the season.
Northwestern finishes the season 7-2, recording its best winning percentage since the 1995-96 season and its best bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. The ‘Cats await their final AP poll ranking in a couple of weeks, which should also be their highest final ranking since ‘95.