Eleven years to the day after facing off in a thrilling bowl game, the Auburn Tigers and No. 14 Northwestern Wildcats meet again on New Year’s Day in the Citrus Bowl at Orlando, Fla. (Vrbo Citrus Bowl – Northwestern vs. Auburn – Friday, January 1 – 11am – WGN Radio 720 – Internet stream at wgnradio.com)
The teams played in the 2010 Outback Bowl, with the Tigers pulling out a 38-35 overtime victory. Current Kansas City Chiefs quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka completed 47 of 78 passes for 532 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions for the Wildcats.
Northwestern scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes to tie the game, but the Tigers’ Wes Byrum kicked a 21-yard field goal in OT and the Wildcats were unable to equalize. Auburn went on to win the national championship the following season.
This year, the Wildcats (6-2) enter the bowl game coming off a 22-10 loss to No. 3 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. Northwestern led the Buckeyes 10-6 at the half, but three second-half turnovers and a tired defense gave way to a potent Ohio State rushing attack.
“We just didn’t make the plays we needed to make down the stretch in the fourth quarter to be Big Ten champions,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But to have the opportunity to represent the Big Ten in Orlando, we are ecstatic.”
The Tigers (6-4) haven’t played since Dec. 12, and in that time they fired head coach Gus Malzahn and hired Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has stepped into the interim head-coaching role for the bowl game.
“These guys have been resilient,” Steele said. “They’ve shown a lot of character, leadership and just the ability to adapt. We’ve actually had an additional bump in the road that we had a change at the top for us, which is something that’s hard on a football program. And so we’re going through that.”
Both teams have their conference’s freshman of the year.
Auburn running back Tank Bigsby was selected the Southeastern Conference’s top freshman after rushing for 834 yards on 138 carries in 10 games. He added 300 kick-return yards and 84 receiving yards for 1,218 all-purpose yards.
Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph won the Freshman of the Year award for the Big Ten, the first strictly defensive player to win the award since Deion Barnes in 2012. Joseph leads the nation with six interceptions.
The game will also be the last in the career of Northwestern’s defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who would reach 400 career wins if the Wildcats win the Citrus Bowl.
Hankwitz started his coaching career at his alma mater of Michigan and served as the defensive coordinator for Arizona, Western Michigan, Colorado, Kansas State, Texas A&M and Wisconsin before being hired by Fitzgerald before the 2008 season.
Hankwitz is a finalist for the Broyles Award, which goes to the best assistant coach in the country, and Fitzgerald believes Northwestern’s success on defense starts and ends with Hankwitz.
“You look at my head coaching career here and our success, I mean Mike Hankwitz is in the DNA, the fabric, the architect, take whatever you want to say,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m just so grateful for him.”
–Field Level Media