Football: Northwestern looks to rebound from its (mostly) doomed bowl past


(Daily file photo by Melody Song)

Northwestern football players stand behind their Gator Bowl trophy. The Cats won the Gator Bowl in 2013, ending a decades-long bowl losing streak.

Stephanie Kelly, Web Editor


When Northwestern last went to the Outback Bowl in 2010, the team hadn’t come away from a bowl game with a win in 61 years.

The 2010 Outback Bowl proved to be a close game with the Wildcats eventually conceding 38-35 in overtime in front of a crowd of 49,383. NU never led during the game, but came back from a deficit of 14 in both the first and fourth quarters.

With minutes to go in the fourth quarter, NU was down 35-21. After three fourth-down conversions on the drive, the Cats secured a touchdown. They then immediately recovered an Auburn fumble, capitalizing on the ensuing drive with another touchdown and a two-point conversion. The game was tied at the final whistle, and that’s when it turned dramatic.

After Auburn scored a quick overtime field goal, NU quarterback Mike Kafka drove his offense two yards short of the end zone before finally falling to the Tigers, following a series of overturned calls and Auburn penalties that had kept the Cats in the game. On the first overturned call on the drive, Kafka fumbled on a first down and Auburn recovered, but the play was eventually ruled a sack, giving NU another chance.

Cats kicker Stefan Demos then missed the field goal attempt and the game seemed over, but a flag on the play gave NU another first down when an Auburn player was called for roughing the kicker. On the five-yard line on fourth down, NU faked a field goal attempt and instead ran the ball, coming up short within feet of the end zone. The game was over.

The Outback Bowl in 2010, however, is notable for other reasons than just its finish. The game was laden with performances from NU players that broke Outback Bowl records.

Individually, Kafka tied the record for most passing touchdowns with four. He also set the record for most passing yards with 532 and most attempts and completions. Andrew Brewer caught two touchdown passes in the bowl game, another record-tying performance. In the end, though, the game wouldn’t extinguish the Cats’ bowl losing streak.

NU’s bowl history is painful to look back on. The Cats had nine losses in their bowl games from1996-2011, tying them with Notre Dame for the longest bowl-losing streak of all time. But this history has rich near-comeback stories such as the 2010 Outback Bowl and isn’t quite as pathetic as it might look on the surface. 

The beginning of the end

The 1996 Rose Bowl drew the largest bowl game attendance NU has seen with 100,102 people in the crowd that day in Pasadena, California. The Cats, the Big Ten champion that year,  were 10-1 for the season and undefeated in the conference.

Their opponent, the USC Trojans, scored first and by the second quarter the Cats were down 24-10. USC had a power tandem in quarterback Brad Otton and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Otton, who completed 29 of 44 passes for 391 yards, threw 12 of those completions to Johnson for 216 yards. One play saw Johnson sprint 56 yards to the end zone from an Otton pass in the third quarter.

NU, however, kept the game close, much to USC’s surprise. The final score, 41-32, was the result of a valiant effort by NU running back Darnell Autry. The Heisman Trophy finalist had a three-touchdown game, compiling 1,785 yards on 387 attempts by the end of the season. He had 17 touchdowns for the Cats that year. For perspective, sophomore running back Justin Jackson has 1,344 rushing yards on 298 attempts and four touchdowns so far this year.

Although the Wildcats lost the game, the 1996 Rose Bowl was profound for the Cats in a number of ways — it was the first time they were in a bowl game in 47 years.

Defeat to the Volunteers

The next year, the Cats went to the Citrus Bowl to face the Tennessee Volunteers, their upcoming opponent in this year’s Outback Bowl.

With Peyton Manning as the Volunteers’ quarterback, Tennessee took an early 21-0 lead in the first quarter and won the game 48-28. Manning threw for 408 yards, with no interceptions and four touchdowns.

The Cats tied the game briefly in the second quarter because of efforts again from Autry, who found the end zone twice.

Although they lost their bowl game for the second year in a row, the Cats still garnered national attention because of standout players. Autry again was in the running for the Heisman Trophy. Linebacker Pat Fitzgerald also made history for the program — he was named national Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive year. He was also the first Wildcat named a first-team All-American for two consecutive years.

The ones you want to forget

Seven bowl games later, the Cats still didn’t have a bowl win.

NU didn’t even return to a bowl stadium for nearly four years until the 2000 Alamo Bowl, where they played Nebraska. The 2000 season was the third time NU earned at least a share of the Big Ten title in six seasons, and that year its offense was ranked third best in the country. Still, the Cats lost to Nebraska 66-17.

In the 2003 Motor City Bowl against Bowling Green, the next bowl game for NU, Cats running back Jason Wright broke bowl records including most yards rushing and the longest touchdown run, but NU still lost 28-24.

The next two bowl games saw another two losses for NU. During the 2005 Sun Bowl against UCLA, the Cats were up by 22 until their offense and special teams sputtered, caving to the Bruins 50-38. Against Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl — the first bowl game under Fitzgerald — the Cats lost 23-20 in overtime.

After the 2010 Outback Bowl effort, the Cats continued their losing streak in the 2011 TicketCity Bowl, falling to Texas Tech 45-38 while injured starting quarterback Dan Persa watched from the sidelines. NU then set a school-record by making a bowl game for a fourth straight season, playing Texas A&M on the last day of 2011 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Texas. Despite a strong final performance from Persa — the quarterback ended up breaking the NCAA record for career pass completion percentage with 72.7 percent — the Cats left Texas unsuccessful for the second straight year.

A new hope

The Cats finally ended their string of bowl losses in the 2013 Gator Bowl.

In a performance bolstered by turnovers, the Cats beat Mississippi State 34-20. NU defensive backs Quentin Williams and Nick VanHoose were central to the win, with Williams returning an interception for a touchdown and VanHoose setting up a touchdown after another interception. In total, NU intercepted Mississippi State four times.

On the other side of the ball, Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter’s two-quarterback system outplayed the Bulldogs’ offense. Running back Venric Mark and superback Dan Vitale also helped carry the offense in NU’s win.

“This one goes to all the Wildcats that have been here before us,” Fitzgerald said after the game to EPSN. “They’ve paved the way for us. … The sky is the limit for where our program can go.”

The Cats have been absent from a bowl game since.

Writing the future

Tennessee (8-4, 5-3 SEC) will hardly be NU’s most difficult bowl opponent. The Volunteers, however, remain a threat and are on a five-game win streak, on par with the Cats’ own win streak.

Judging from NU’s past bowl results and the program’s tumultuous history, this game won’t be easily predicted. Although the Cats squelched the previous one, whether another losing streak begins Jan. 1 at the Outback Bowl remains to be determined.

Twitter: @StephanieKellyM