ORLANDO, Florida — Pat Fitzgerald said he and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz were making adjustments until the final series, even as No. 14 Northwestern (7-2, 6-2 B1G) led Auburn (6-5, 6-4 SEC) by 22 points midway through the fourth quarter of its 35-19 Vrbo Citrus Bowl victory.
That just about sums up Hankwitz’s Northwestern tenure and the Wildcats’ season. Despite the game being firmly in control, the retiring Hankwitz was focusing on tightening up his own fundamentals, even with no goals for next season besides resting, traveling and reconnecting with friends.
The box score belonged to NU quarterback and game MVP Peyton Ramsey, who threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for another score. He turned in his best performance of the year and reminded Wildcat fans why his return next year, along with any of his senior receivers, would be a boost.
The picture-perfect New Year’s Day in Orlando belonged to Hankwitz, who earned his 400th career win as a coach in the final game of his 51-year career. The outwardly grandpa-like figure, who described his time in coaching as a labor of love, received a fitting sendoff from one of the best defenses he’s coached at Northwestern and one of the best teams Fitzgerald has ever fielded.
NU’s defense wasn’t perfect on Friday. The Tigers averaged a solid 5.2 yards per play and threw for 300 yards, the most allowed by the secondary all season. Cornerback AJ Hampton busted a coverage that allowed Auburn signal caller Bo Nix to find receiver Elijah Canion wide open for a 57-yard touchdown that made it 14-13 NU with 8:32 left in the third quarter. Outside of that one communication error, though, Fitz said he was pleased.
“It was two younger players that responded when we came over, and we talked on the sideline, and I think that’s just a hallmark of Hank’s defense,” said Fitz. “He’s not emotional. He just stays calm and anyone that’s covered us, he says ‘well, Fitz, I think we had a gap there.’ He’s got that voice, and he’s just really unflappable, and I think that permeates through the defense where they don’t get too high and too low.”
In a lesson everyone can learn in today’s times, Hankwitz never let perfect be the enemy of good. Not in the Citrus Bowl win, and not in his 13 years in Evanston. Northwestern’s bend-don’t-break defense is a remedy prescribed by the Doctor of Fundamentals, but there’s nothing magic about it. He said that in his half-century of coaching, three things have characterized his defenses: execution, fundamentals and the development of an identity.
The keys were creating stops in the red zone and on third down. NU excelled in both statistics all season long. It entered the game second nationally in red zone touchdown defense, allowing end zone trips on just 30 percent of opponent trips inside the 20, and ranked 12th in the country in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 31 percent of their tries.
Nix and the Tank Bigsby-less Tiger offense fared no better. The Wildcats held Auburn to just 2-of-13 on third down and 1-of-3 on fourth down. A late first-half stand forced the Tigers to settle for a field goal despite having first-and-goal at the five-yard line, and D.J. Williams scored on a two-yard rush in garbage time.
Responding to adversity was a theme of his NU defenses, and he said this year’s group is one of the best he’s ever had at tightening up in the red zone or making the momentum-swinging play.
“It’s got a special place in my heart because of everything they went through,” said Hankwitz. “We’ve had some other defenses that were dang good, too. But this one, their ability to respond to adversity, and to keep people out of the end zone when they got down in there or we had a sudden change like responding to a 17-0 deficit at Iowa. I mean, that just doesn’t happen every day, and this group was one of the best I’ve ever had at accepting that challenge. Then today, [Auburn] got down there twice early and we hold them to field goals. We’ve always said that field goals won’t beat you very often. So you’ve just got to rise up and respond, and they just did a phenomenal job.”
No more apparent was Northwestern’s ability to rise up and respond when Auburn faced a fourth-and-1 at midfield with 14:29 left in the fourth quarter and NU leading by eight. Senior linebacker Paddy Fisher, playing in what was likely his final collegiate game, shot the gap and stuffed Nix short of the first down to notch his 400th career tackle.
The ‘Cats then proceeded to score touchdowns on three straight drives to put the Tigers away and create a celebratory fourth quarter atmosphere.
“You could just feel the air of Auburn’s balloon go out and momentum completely come on our sideline,” Fitz said. “Our guys quite frankly said ‘we’re going to dominate the line of scrimmage’ and that’s what they did.”
Hankwitz said he didn’t care how they won the game, he just felt they were going to do it one way or another. In a season for Northwestern characterized by disrespect and defense, the common refrain from many in the college football world was that seemingly every week the Wildcats’ opponent was “having an off day.”
The 73-year-old coordinator is too humble to ever complain about the disrespect, but he is the king of creating the off day. So take a bow, Mike Hankwitz, because you’ve earned a well-deserved long day off.