Football: Northwestern’s fourth-quarter performance makes the difference in the Citrus Bowl

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Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Earnest Brown IV picks up a loose football. The senior defensive end had 3.5 tackles on Friday.

Peter Warren, Gameday Editor


Football


If life is a game of inches, the 2021 Citrus Bowl was a game of centimeters.

Trying to march down the field and tie the game at the start of the fourth, Auburn faced a fourth-and-incredibly-short at midfield to keep their drive alive. All the Tigers needed to move the chains was to advance the football the length of a lemon, maybe even less.

Opting for the classic quarterback sneak, Bo Nix took the snap and leaped over the gap between the center and right guard. But instead of clearing the line for a first down, Nix was met by a brick wall known as Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher.

Northwestern’s fourth-down stop was the turning point in the game. After allowing the Tigers to slowly crawl back from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit, the Wildcats retook control of the game for good.

NU scored two touchdowns and forced the only turnover of the game in the seven minutes after holding Nix while Auburn’s energy level dropped like snow on a windy Chicago day.

What started as a 21-13 slugfest at the start of the quarter ended in a 35-19 Cats knockout punch.

“I think we lost our edge after we went for it on fourth down there,” Auburn interim head coach Kevin Steele said. “We didn’t go back out with the same edge that we had played with all day.”

NU’s offense took the field and looked like a completely different group. The first three quarters were marked by excellent play from graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey but a complete inability to run the football. Other than Ramsey’s 30-yard touchdown scramble, the Cats had 55 yards on 32 carries.

But the NU offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage on this drive in particular, opening massive holes for freshman running back Cam Porter to shake and bake for big pickups. The Cats ran seven plays on the drive. Porter rushed the ball on all seven, including one-yard direct snap touchdown run.

The Tigers defensive front that had been so stout through the first three quarters, looked deflated and gassed. Auburn defensive end Big Kat Bryant said the Tigers said that they felt the pain of having a few starters miss the game over the final 15 minutes, adding the group was outmuscled in the fourth.

“That was the biggest thing, some of the guys that were just inexperienced,” Bryant said. “This was their first game and it got late in the game, and I mean, guys probably just got lazy and just got gapped out, man.”

The next Tigers possession was chaotic. Bo Nix limped off the field after the first play. Backup quarterback Cord Sandberg, a former minor league baseball player, entered and completed an eight-yard pass. And then Jordan Butler deeked the Auburn right tackle Brendan Coffey to meet running back Shaun Shivers in the backfield.

Butler’s blow popped the football out of Shivers’ hands and senior defensive Earnest Brown IV dove on top of the pigskin to recover the only turnover of the game.

NU continued to feed Porter, who finished the game with 33 carries for 98 yards, on the ensuing drive. But Ramsey finished it off with a dime to senior wide receiver Riley Lees, running an out route to the far sideline, to go up 35-13.

“We just asserted our will, asserted our dominance and played Big Ten football and continued to execute,” Ramsey said. “Those dudes up front, they played so hard. They played so well today.”

The 11th and 12th rounds of a boxing fight are called the championship rounds because they tend to be the time when the better fighter starts to exert their full power over their opponent, where mental strength becomes just as important as physical.

The championship round of the Citrus Bowl was the fourth quarter.

The fourth-down stop was an uppercut. The Porter touchdown was a left hook. The fumble was a blow right to the gut. And the Lees touchdown was the knockout punch, putting the fight out of reach.

It was anyone’s ballgame when the whistle blew at the start of the fourth quarter. But by the time the clock hit zero, a champion had left no doubt in the minds of the audience.

“The guys just talked about finishing as champions,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Our guys just went and emptied the tank.”

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