Eight wins, a fourth-place Big Ten finish and an invitation to the Outback Bowl isn’t enough for this Northwestern team. Dating back to last year’s Alamo Bowl, the Wildcats have some unfinished business.
“The first thing we talked about when we got back to Evanston last year after the Alamo Bowl was, ‘We’re winning a bowl game next year,'” senior safety Brad Phillips said. “That’s been our number one goal since we started in the spring, throughout summer workouts, fall camp and this season.”
After coming up short in both of their previous bowl appearances, Phillips and NU’s 20 other seniors are hoping the third time is the charm.
“The biggest thing is we haven’t won a bowl game since 1949,” senior defensive end Corey Wotton said. “If we could do that, that would just leave a lasting legacy on this program.”
In order for NU to bust its bad bowl streak, it needs to take down one of the best teams it has faced all year. Five weeks ago Auburn was neck-and-neck with No. 1 Alabama for three and a half quarters, but the Crimson Tide squeaked out a win to remain undefeated. For the Tigers, it was their fifth loss in their last seven games.
Still, Auburn is an eight-point favorite coming into the game.
“We’ve always been an underdog in the time I’ve been here,” Wootton said. “It’s nothing new to us, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside, all that matters is what’s in this football program and how we come out on the field and play.”
The key to success on the field for Wootton and the rest of the Cats’ defense is discipline. Auburn’s offense is unlike anything NU has seen all year, and the Cats are going to have to play fundamentally sound if they want to contain the Tiger attack.
“Anything you can imagine they run,” Phillips said. “They’ll spread you out, try to motion you back in, try to get your eyes in the wrong place. But what it comes down to on defense is we’ve got to get our checks down, get our eyes in the right place, and I think we’ll be alright.”
On offense NU is counting on strong quarterback play to keep Auburn’s defense on its toes.
“Our quarterback has to play because he’s going to have the ball in his hands quite a bit, so he’s going to have to play well,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “Whoever gets the opportunity to get the ball in their hands, when it comes up they’ve got to make a play. We’ve got to get the ball in our playmakers’ hands and when they get opportunities to make plays and the defense allows them to make plays, they’ve got to make it.”
The Cats have been busy watching hours of footage in preparation for Friday’s contest, but they have also made room in their schedules for some relaxation. On Monday some players made a visit to Busch Gardens theme park. Meanwhile, senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen and his dad set sail for an afternoon of fishing.
“It was a great experience,” Markshausen said. “We caught ladyfish, we caught flounder and we caught some trout out there. We were just in the bay. I’m a big fly fisherman, so I really like doing that. We got to do some of that yesterday in the mangroves in the channels.”
Even with all the hoopla surrounding the Outback Bowl, NU still has its priorities in order.
“Being in this outstanding place in Tampa, with all the events and everything that’s going on, we need to be able to focus on what’s really important,” Wootton said. “And that’s to win.”