Chappatta: Whole season, game more important than final play

Brian Chappatta

TAMPA, Fla. — It is a scientific fact that people best recall most recent events. In the case of the 2010 Outback Bowl, the one memory that will be remembered forever is the final play in overtime. The call was for the trick play “Heater,” which coach Pat Fitzgerald called a “nanosecond” before the fourth down.

In the chaos that ensued, Northwestern came up short of the end zone. People will criticize the decision in hindsight, and rightfully so. But let’s not forget what a journey it was to get to the Outback Bowl, and then to be in a position to win the game in overtime.

Taking a trip to Tampa seemed out of the question after the Cats’ first four games, in which they went 2-2 with losses at Syracuse and at home against Minnesota. After losing at Michigan State, the team was 4-3. But the largest comeback in school history against Indiana propelled NU to four wins in its final five games, including its last game over Wisconsin, which put the Cats ahead of the Badgers in the Big Ten pecking order.

But the tumultuous path to the Outback Bowl was nothing compared to the game itself. Not many teams could survive interceptions on their first two drives, including one that was returned 100 yards for a touchdown, and five total picks. But the Cats kept fighting tooth-and-nail to stay in the game.

Even when Auburn retook a commanding 14-point lead with seven-and-a-half minutes in regulation, the Cats fought back. A poised Kafka managed to find his receivers on multiple fourth downs on the ensuing drive as NU marched down the field. Brad Phillips knocked the ball away from Ben Tate on Auburn’s next possession, leading to another NU score and a successful two-point conversion to tie the game at 35.

Somehow the ball popped loose again on the following kickoff, bringing back flashes of NU’s early-season game at Purdue that kept its season alive. Andrew Brewer’s game-tying two-point conversion end-around pass mirrored his touchdown throw against Syracuse. Stefan Demos had a chance to kick for the win in regulation, just like he did against Eastern Michigan and Indiana. Only this time, the kick went wide.

Overtime was equally as exhilarating. As Auburn coach Gene Chizik said, “We had to win that thing about three times.” That’s the number of times the Tigers rushed the field, thinking they were victorious: once when Kafka fumbled (it was overturned), another when Demos’ kick hit the crossbar (roughing the kicker gave NU a fresh set of downs) and finally, when Auburn actually won as Zeke Markshausen was pushed out-of-bounds two yards short of the end zone.

An optimist would say the Cats fought hard and stayed in the game by making clutch plays. A pessimist would say NU had no reason to even be in the game considering Kafka’s multiple picks, and it was close because of Auburn’s self-destructive penalties.

Either way, a loss is a loss. The Cats came to win a bowl game, and they failed to achieve that goal. Fitz said his players have “deep wounds” but insisted they “will heal, will get better, (and) will improve.” I was lucky enough to be on the field for the final few minutes of the game and overtime, but being so close to the action made the loss even more disappointing. I felt physically sick and emotionally drained as I stood a few feet away from Markshausen kneeling out-of-bounds at the 1-yard line and watched Auburn rush the field once again, this time with a sure victory. If that’s what happened to me, I can’t imagine what the players felt.

Once the sour aftertaste of the bowl defeat passes, people will realize just how good a season this was for the Cats. An offense that was supposed to be the weak point of the team turned out to be among the best in the Big Ten. Kafka had the third-most passing yards and the second-most total offense in the conference, while two of his “no-name” receivers, Brewer and Markshausen, finished fourth and sixth in receiving yards per game, respectively.

Defensively, NU was plagued with injuries, but some young players stepped up and showed the defense will not miss a beat next season when it loses senior captains Corey Wootton, Sherrick McManis and Brendan Smith to graduation. Sophomore Jordan Mabin led the team in tackles in the Outback Bowl, and sophomore Brian Peters made a great one-handed interception.

“We’re going to find a way to get over this mountaintop,” Fitzgerald said. “I believe we took a step forward today. We’re still not there yet and that’s disappointing.”

NU’s 61-year monkey didn’t come off its back. With a strong recruiting class lined up for next year and more experience under the younger players’ belts, the Cats seem poised to complete their journey to the top of the mountain.

Sports Editor Brian Chappatta is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]