Notebook: Mike Kafka’s day filled with highs and lows

Danny Daly

Before the 2010 Outback Bowl, Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka wasn’t known to light up the box score. The senior was one of the steadiest signalcallers in the conference during the regular season-no Big Ten starter threw fewer interceptions than Kafka’s seven, but none threw fewer touchdowns than Kafka’s 12, either.

That’s why Kafka’s line against Auburn was so startling: 47-of-78 passing, 566 total yards, five touchdowns (four through the air) and five interceptions. He single-handedly set or tied seven Outback Bowl records in the 38-35 loss, with his early mistakes putting the Wildcats in a hole and his late-game heroics sparking the rally that forced overtime.

“Mike Kafka is a warrior,” senior cornerback Sherrick McManis said. “He’s always going to keep continuing to fight, and he always puts us in position to win the game at the end.”

Kafka’s first turnover came on the third play of the game, when cornerback Walter McFadden snagged a pass that went off the hands of sophomore running back Scott Concannon. The last time Kafka had been picked off was Oct. 24 against Indiana, breaking a streak of 117 consecutive attempts without an interception. Auburn took a 7-0 lead on Kodi Burns’ short run 95 seconds later.

The Tigers doubled their lead on the Cats’ next possession, when McFadden jumped in front of a pass intended for senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen and returned it 100 yards for another touchdown.

“We knew that they were going to max protect and that’s when I get the post corner,” McFadden said. “I undercut the post corner and batted the ball to myself. I knew it had to be zipped in because it was a short distance. I happened to run it all the way back.”

Near the end of the first half, Kafka threw another pick in the end zone, costing NU a chance to cut the 14-point deficit in half. His two misguided passes in the second half gave Auburn the ball at midfield, with the second drive ending in a touchdown that put the Tigers back on top after the Cats tied the score at 21 entering the fourth quarter.Auburn’s pressure forced Kafka into making some of his poor decisions.

“I give credit to the defensive line,” safety T’Sharvan Bell said. “They had him moving around and very uncomfortable back there.”

But Kafka made up for it with four touchdowns after intermission, leading the Cats on two scoring drives in the final 3:20 and setting up a 44-yard field goal try for the final play of regulation that would have won the game.

While the interceptions were uncharacteristic, the comeback was not. Kafka guided five fourth-quarter drives during the season that produced a tying or go-ahead score.

“Mike is the reason why we’re here and Mike is the reason why we got into overtime and the chance to win the game,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You’ve got to tip your hat to him. You’ve got to think about how far he has come in the last four years.”

And Kafka’s short memory allowed him to put the bad throws behind him and focus on bringing NU back.

“He’s been like that all year,” said sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore, who had nine catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. “Negative things like turnovers don’t affect him. You watch him on the sideline after, he’s still smiling. He’s just thinking about what’s coming next.”HOOD, BELL STEP UP FOR TIGERSPart of the reason NU repeatedly attacked through the air was the slew of injuries to Auburn’s secondary.

“By the end of the day, we were looking for trainers and managers and anybody who could suit up to go in there because we didn’t have anybody left,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. “We’re IV-ing people at halftime.”

The Tigers entered the Outback Bowl with four fewer defensive backs than they started the season with, which posed a problem against a Cats team that runs the spread offense. As a result, Auburn had to rely on little-used players such as cornerback D’Antoine Hood and safety T’Sharvan Bell, who had 13 combined tackles during the year.

Both made an impact. Hood tallied five stops, while Bell had two interceptions. With McFadden getting dinged up during the game, their contributions were especially important.

“I’m very proud of the team effort,” Chizik said. “[Bell] hasn’t played a lot. He was injured early in the season and had all kinds of issues with his knees and ankles. We had to count on him today. We planned on him playing in the game but we didn’t plan on him playing as much as he did. He came in and he delivered.”[email protected]