Au-burned: Tigers top Cats in thriller down under

Robbie Levin

TAMPA, Fla. – The Wildcats came to Tampa to accomplish something no Northwestern team had done in the past six decades. So when the contest went down to the wire, coach Pat Fitzgerald didn’t have a doubt in his mind. He was going for the win.
With the game in overtime and NU’s bowl drought on the line, Fitzgerald called a trick play rather than attempting a game-tying field goal on fourth-and-goal.
“People tell me I’m too conservative,” Fitzgerald said. “So I said, ‘What the heck, we’re here to win so let’s go.’ And I’d do it again. Next time I’d score, though. And we’d be celebrating.”
Instead, after senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen was pushed out-of-bounds on the game’s final play, Auburn rejoiced in Tampa. In the highest-scoring Outback Bowl in its 24-year history, the Tigers escaped with a 38-35 win.
“I’ve been in some wild games that have come down to the end,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “But one that goes back and forth, did we win? Did we not win? Reviewable plays. Is he down? Is he not down? We didn’t know what to do. That was wild and crazy.” The Tigers’ defense pounced on the Cats early, as cornerback Walter McFadden single-handedly ended NU’s first two drives with a pair of picks. McFadden’s first interception resulted in a Kodi Burns touchdown rush. Then, after a 17-play, 70-yard drive, McFadden snatched quarterback Mike Kafka’s toss to Markshausen in the front right corner of the end zone and raced 100 yards for a touchdown.
NU responded by dinking-and-dunking its way to Auburn’s 39-yard line, where Kafka hit wide receiver Andrew Brewer streaking down the left sideline for the Cats’ first score of the day.
Auburn added another touchdown midway through the second quarter, leaving NU in a 21-7 hole at the half. The Cats dominated in time of possession and total offense through two quarters, but two red zone interceptions and a missed field goal had them struggling to keep up.
“We talked about staying the course, executing and just continuing to fight and keep on swinging,” Fitzgerald said. “And that’s what our young men did.”
The Cats got the spark they needed midway through the third quarter, when Brewer hauled in a 35-yard touchdown catch in the back right corner of the end zone. On NU’s next offensive play, Kafka hit sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore in the flat and, after shedding several tacklers, Dunsmore scrambled 66 yards to pull the Cats even.
It didn’t take long for the Tigers to retake the lead, as Auburn tallied two quick touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But with seven-and-a-half minutes left, NU’s late-game magic kicked in. The Cats converted three fourth downs in a 58-yard touchdown drive spanning just more than four minutes.
A failed onside kick gave the Tigers good starting field position, but that changed with one Brad Phillips hit. The punishing senior safety rammed into Auburn running back Ben Tate on the Tigers’ second play from scrimmage, and Sherrick McManis fell on the ball at NU’s 31-yard line. With 2:37 left in the game, Kafka marched NU down the field, capping off the drive with an 18-yard strike to junior wide receiver Sidney Stewart.
Auburn returner Demond Washington fumbled the ensuing kickoff near midfield, and the Cats set up junior kicker Stefan Demos for the game winning 44-yard field goal. Demos, who had already missed one field goal in the game, hooked the ball wide right.
NU won the overtime coin toss and elected to defend. The Cats defense bent but did not break, forcing the Tigers to settle for a field goal. On the ensuing NU possession, a bizzare series of events-including the reversal of a game-ending fumble and a roughing the kicker call on Demos’ third missed field goal of the day-landed the Cats on the Tigers’ 9-yard line.
NU couldn’t find the end zone in three plays, and with Demos sidelined, Fitzgerald reached into his bag of tricks. NU attempted a play called “Heater,” where backup quarterback Dan Persa took the direct snap and placed the ball between the legs of Markshausen, who was crouching behind the left guard. Markshausen took off to his right, but cornerback Neiko Thorpe caught him and forced him out-of-bounds before he could reach the end zone.
“I always get lined up after the offense,” Thorpe said. “Once the offensive linemen didn’t put their hands down, something triggered off. Then I saw the center snap the ball to an up-back or a wide receiver that was kind of hunched over. So I sprinted outside and tried to fight off the blockers. I was fortunate enough to make a good play.”
The play capped off one of the wildest college football games of the year. All told, 18 Outback Bowl records were broken in the teams’ first-ever meeting.
“I said we were coming down here to win,” Fitzgerald said. “We played for the win and unfortunately ended up a little bit short.”

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