ORLANDO, Florida — Northwestern’s runner-up finish in the Big Ten featured many quality performances. The Wildcats edged out a season-end top-20 Iowa opponent. They toppled a top-10 Wisconsin team to take control of the West Division. They hung tight with an Ohio State team that is set to play in the National Championship game in a week and a half. But for as successful as they were, Pat Fitzgerald and his Wildcats were still in search of a complete game heading into the Citrus Bowl.
Friday afternoon in Orlando, that complete game finally came as Northwestern handled Auburn 35-19 to claim the 2021 Vrbo Citrus Bowl title and its fourth consecutive bowl victory. While the victory came behind a complete effort in all three phases, quarterback Peyton Ramsey captained the way in a career day, as the Wildcats put an exclamation point on a historic season.
“He stayed poised, he was gritty and when he needed to make plays, even with his feet, he was decisive and that scramble touchdown there at the end was huge,” Fitz said of his quarterback postgame.
Ramsey recorded season highs in passing and rushing yards, posting an impressive stat line in which he completed 24 of 35 passing attempts for 291 yards and three touchdowns while rushing 10 times for 50 yards and an additional score. He was named the game MVP for his effort, which will go down as his best game in purple and white.
The graduate transfer set the tone for the game immediately, going 5-for-5 for 66 yards on the opening touchdown drive. He hit tight end John Raine twice and wide receiver Riley Lees for a 14-yard gain on third down before finding wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for 35 yards and the score.
Ramsey threw touchdown passes on two of his first three drives to help the Wildcats jump out to an early 14-0 lead following a six-yard connection with Raine in the end zone late in the first. Auburn scored 13 unanswered points across the second and third quarters, but Ramsey answered back, closing the third frame with a huge 30-yard rushing touchdown on a third-and-long.
He posted a 166.7 passer rating and 90.6 quarterback rating, exceeding all previous passer ratings in his time in Evanston and trailing only his performance against Maryland in QBR. The senior’s near-perfect performance in Orlando was the poetic culmination to a season in which his team has relied on his leadership on and off the field.
Following last year’s dismal 3-9 campaign, Northwestern desperately needed a leader under center who showed poise, confidence and stability. Six different signal callers took snaps last season, combining to complete 50% of their passes; throw for 1404 yards, six touchdowns and 15 interceptions; and compile just a 84.53 average passer rating. In just one abbreviated season of commanding the offense, Ramsey completed 61% of his passes, threw for 1733 yards and 12 touchdowns with eight interceptions while posting a 120.98 passer rating — showing the monumental strides this offense has made in just one season.
“We wouldn’t be where we are at today without Peyton Ramsey,” Fitzgerald said. “Great leader. Great teammate. You can tell that he’s from a coaching family, and he’s like having a coach out there on the field, and he’s really so unflappable.”
Rarely did Ramsey demonstrate flashy or highlight reel-worthy play. Rather, it was his experience and leadership that made him such an instrumental part of the offense and team as a whole.
In tense situations, he remained calm. When the spotlight is on him, he’s the first to credit others, letting his humility shine. And when younger or less experienced players get in the game, he makes them better, like on Friday, when he connected with eight different receivers and helped five of them set or tie career-highs in receiving yards.
The nine-yard completion Ramsey threw to Lees in the final minutes of Friday’s game could very well be the last pass he ever throws, should he choose not to return for another year. But in his short time in Evanston, he’s built some incredibly strong ties with the receivers, which Northwestern fans hope could convince their beloved leader to return once more to defend his division title. He said postgame it was too early to make a decision but, in character, was quick to talk about the strengths of others.
“I think at some point, you have to make a decision for yourself,” Ramsey said about his future. “I am very high on some of those young guys...Those veteran guys, I can’t say enough about Ramaud, Riley and John and what they have meant to me and how special those guys are...You know, too early to make that call, but I’m really high on those young guys, and I think they are going to be really good players.”
Ramsey and Northwestern proved to be what each other needed this season. The veteran quarterback, working with new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, lifted last year’s dormant unit to proficiency, allowing the team to compete with some of the strongest teams in the conference. Northwestern proved to be a home where he not only belonged but thrived as the undisputed QB1 and possibly ended his college career on the highest of notes.