Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

73° Evanston, IL
Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Game Preview: Wildcats taking on Tigers hoping to get rid of monkey

A plaque with three goals hangs in the Nicolet Football Center, the Wildcats’ meeting room adjacent to Ryan Field. These include “consistently prepare for victory” and “earn a Northwestern degree.” After being covered with tape at the beginning of the year, the Cats’ final goal wasn’t revealed until recently: Win a bowl game.

It is a feat NU hasn’t realized in six bowl trips since 1949. After falling to Missouri in overtime last year, the Cats have their seventh opportunity to reverse their bowl blues when they face off against Auburn in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1.

The game marks the first time the schools have ever met, but it is not the first time NU has faced an SEC opponent on a New Year’s Day Bowl. In 1997, the Cats faced Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. That year, Peyton Manning and the Volunteers’ offense lit up Pat Fitzgerald and NU’s defense for 48 points. Fitzgerald has moved from the field to the sidelines, but he still understands the magnitude of this game.

“The facts are the facts,” Fitzgerald said about NU’s bowl losing streak. “What we can do about it (comes) right now. We talked about getting this monkey off our back, and here’s the opportunity in front of us, so let’s go take advantage of it.”

The Tigers hope to keep the monkey on the Cats’ back. Led by Doak Walker semifinalist Ben Tate, Auburn boasts the nation’s 13th-best rushing attack. The senior rushed for 1,254 yards and eight touchdowns this year.

“He reminds me a lot of (Wisconsin running back John) Clay and (Penn State running back Evan) Royster in our league, from a standpoint of power and speed,” Fitzgerald said. “He understands how to play behind his pads and get his pads down, and then he has the athleticism and speed to make you miss in space.”

NU’s defense has slowed running backs this year, holding opposing offenses to 124 yards per game – on pace to set a new school record. But Auburn’s attack is far from one-dimensional. Under the direction of offensive guru Gus Malzahn, the Tigers’ offense likes to spread the ball. Quarterback Chris Todd is the third-most efficient passer in the SEC, and wide receiver Darvin Adams is fourth in the conference with 71 receiving yards per game. Receivers Terrell Zachery and Mario Fannin have combined for 72 yards per game.

“They have some great receivers,” senior safety Brendan Smith said. “It’s really going to come down to how we play and the preparation we put into it, so when they give us new looks or different looks, that we’re not confused, and we’re all on the same page.”

Defensively, the Tigers have struggled, surrendering 27 points and 354 yards per game. Auburn ranks 80th nationally in rushing yards allowed, giving up 162 per game. On the other hand, Auburn boasts a respectable pass defense. Opponents are averaging just 192 yards through the air.

“We’re expecting them to come with some pressure and some man stuff,” quarterback Mike Kafka said. “The bottom line right now is to make sure we’re on our game and we’re executing the best we can.”

Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof is familiar with Kafka. Roof was the defensive coordinator at Minnesota when Kafka galloped for 217 yards against the Golden Gophers in 2008.

NU’s win over Minnesota sparked a season-ending surge in which the Cats won three of their last four games. This year, NU was victorious in each of its last three games, with two victories coming over ranked teams. As the Cats have soared, the Tigers have stumbled. Auburn has lost five of its last seven games. Still, with such a long layoff separating the teams’ last games and the Outback Bowl, Smith said he believes both teams come into the game with a blank slate.

“You cannot look at someone’s record,” Smith said. “We should treat them as though they are 12-0 right now. And we have to play like we’re 12-0, because when you come into it, everyone is 0-0 right now, and we just have to win this game.”

NU expects to have Smith back for the Outback Bowl. Not only would it be his first start in two months, but it would also make him the first NU player to play in three bowl games.

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Game Preview: Wildcats taking on Tigers hoping to get rid of monkey