War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for a look at Auburn’s 2010 Outback opponent, the Northwestern Wildcats. Trying to imagine what will happen in this contest has NOT been easy. Auburn and Northwestern have never played each other in football. There are NO common opponents on the two teams’ schedules. Both teams feature wide-open offenses that try to push the tempo. Auburn’s spread attack has been more run oriented. Northwestern, without a feature back, has aired it out more. Both teams have tended to favor the 4-man rush on defense, and zone coverage. Both Auburn and Northwestern have had up and down periods, losing games they shouldn’t have, and beating ranked teams. For those who are expecting a media-bandwagon “SEC is superior to the Big 10″ post in this space, you are going to be disappointed. I think bowl history in the past ten years shows the two leagues to be remarkably even.
Northwestern began the season looking like a lower echelon Big-10 team. After blowing out Towson, the Wildcats struggled to a 27-24 win over Eastern Michigan. Losses on the road to Syracuse and Minnesota followed. The Wildcats appeared to be headed for a third road loss at Purdue, trailing 21-3 in the second quarter. The Wildcat D stepped up, forcing six turnovers. Northwestern would rally to beat Purdue 27-21, salvaging the season. A defensive win over Miami of Ohio followed, but then the Wildcats were shut down in East Lansing, falling to Michigan State 24-14. If you thought the 21-3 deficit was huge against Purdue, Northwestern fell behind 28-3 to Indiana at home. 26 unanswered points provided a miraculous 29-28 win over the Hoosiers. Northwestern appeared to be on the way to a major upset hosting Penn State. The Wildcats led 13-10 at the half, but quarterback Mike Kafkawas hurt, the dam broke in the 4th quarter, and Penn State won going away, 34-13. With a 5-4 record, and games left against Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, it looked like Northwestern was in dire trouble. In Iowa City, quarterback Mike Kafka was limited with a leg injury, and gave way to backup Dan Persa. Then Persa hurt his hand. Kafka limped back on the field, and led Northwestern to a stunning 17-10 upset of the BCS-bound Hawkeyes. In Campaign Illinois, again with Kafka hobbling, the Wildcats downed Illinois 21-16. A huge underdog in their home finale against Wisconsin, Northwestern led much of the day, behind a 326-yard passing effort by Kafka. In the end, it was the Wildcat defense turning the Badgers away again and again. Northwestern won it, 33-31. The Wildcats finished 8-4, 5-3 in the Big Ten.
Offensively, the Wildcats try to run a balanced spread attack. This year, with a young offensive line and a variety of backs, rushing totals have been down. Fireplug freshman Arby Fields is the team’s leading rusher, with 294 yards. Quarterback Mike Kafka is close behind with 265. Many of the big Wildcat rushing plays have been on quarterback scrambles, which happens to be one of Auburn’s defensive weaknesses. The Tigers have been plagued all year by 3rd and long plays in which the quarterback pops through the middle for big yards. Auburn will have to contain Kafka, who should be 100% healthy after battling leg ailments in the latter half of the regular season. Northwestern’s passing attack is dangerous, if Kafka gets time to throw. Senior H-back Zeke Markshausen has caught a whopping 79 passes, and lanky senior wideout Andrew Brewer has added 49 more. Five Northwestern receivers have at least 23 or more catches, and 8 receivers have ten or more catches. The Wildcats are averaging 266 passing yards per game, and 386 total yards per game. By comparison, Auburn is averaging 214 rushing, and 219 passing, for 433 total yards per game.
Defensively, Northwestern has a stout front seven that has weathered brutal Big-10 trench warfare well. A banged up patchwork Wildcat secondary has managed 15 interceptions. The bad news for Auburn is that all 4 starters should be healthy for the Outback Bowl. Lockdown senior corner Sherrick McManis has 4 interceptions and 7 pass breakups, and I’d expect to see him matched up on Auburn’s Darvin Adams for much of the morning. Auburn’s Chris Todd will have to be careful airing the ball out, as Northwestern’s defensive backs all seem to play the ball well. Where Northwestern has had problems is against pounding running games, and against screens. On the line, the Wildcats look to senior defensive end Corey Wootton. Wootton suffered a major knee injury in last year’s Alamo Bowl, and has battled a high ankle sprain all year. Despite that, he’s still managed 6 tackles for loss and 4 quarterback hurries. All in all, a pretty salty Wildcat defense has tallied 62 tackles for loss and 27 sacks. By comparison, Auburn has 71 TFLs and 25 sacks. Defensively Northwestern gives up 344 yards and 23.3 points per game. Auburn gives up 354 yards per game and 26.9 points per game.
On special teams, Auburn has a few advantages, although a couple of glaring holes remain. Auburn has yet to locate a punt returner who doesn’t drop the ball. While this has yet to cost the Tigers meaningful points off a turnover, it has seriously impacted field position. Auburn also has a porous kick coverage unit. Northwestern covers kicks and punts pretty decently, but their returns are only average. Auburn has struggled punting the football with only a 35.4 yard net, but Northwestern is worse, managing only 31.7. Both teams have good placekickers. Auburn’s Wes Byrum only missed one field goal all year. Northwestern juniorStefan Demos has hit 18 of 23.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn linebackers vs. Northwestern runners: Auburn has absolutely been ravaged by injury in the linebacker corps. Juniors Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens have had to play every snap in most games, and have had difficulty holding up as Auburn played 11 games in a row without a break. After a week off, the pair STONED Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, holding the Tide great to 30 yards. Weakside linebacker has been a rotating cast. Sophomore Eltoro Freeman is perhaps Auburn’s most talented linebacker, but injuries have held him back. He’s trying to recover in time for the Outback Bowl, and is practicing. The only other scholarship linebacker available is true freshman Jonathan Evans. Northwestern runs the ball by committee. Quarterback Mike Kafka seems like the biggest threat, running the zone read with aplomb. The likely bowl starter at running back will be sophomore Scott Concannon, who averaged 3.6 yards per carry on the season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Northwestern receivers: Auburn’s Walter McFadden, a senior, will likely spend the day matched up with Northwestern’s Andrew Brewer. McFadden has handled a number of dangerous SEC wide receivers well, good for 4 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. Where Auburn may struggle is on the other side. Sophomore Neiko Thorpe has been suspect from time to time, although he does have 1 interception and 8 pass breakups. The battle between Thorpe and Northwestern junior Sidney Stewart will be interesting to watch. Both are tall and athletic. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Northwestern secondary receivers and quarterback:Auburn will need SERIOUS help here from the linebackers and corners. The Tigers start true freshman Darrin Bates at one safety, and sophomore JUCO Demond Washington at the other side. Washington has only started 3 games. Both guys have lots of speed and are hitters, but are short on experience. Redshirt freshman T’Sharvan Bell is first in off the bench in nickel situations. Northwestern has OPTIONS in the slot. As mentioned above, Zeke Markshausen is a mainstay. The Wildcats can go heavy with “superback” sophomore Drake Dunsmore, a 235-pounder with 38 catches. Northwestern is particularly good at running “clear-outs,” where the corners are pinched in on slants and posts, and the slot guys go out and up. Quarterback Mike Kafka has the arm to make all of the throws. Huge Advantage: Northwestern.
Punting: Auburn senior Clinton Durst dropped two yards in his punting average this year, finishing at 40.7. In Durst’s defense, special teams coordinator Jay Boulware has revealed upon occasion that Durst was instructed to kick the ball out of bounds rather than test our suspect coverage unit. Junior Stefan Demos has struggled likewise for Northwestern, averaging only 35.3 yards per punt. Coverage for the Wildcats has been shaky, giving up 9.9 yards per return. Auburn’s been downright bad on coverage, giving up 13.8 yards. Northwestern’s 6.6 yard per punt return average won’t impress anyone. Auburn has gone through a merry-go-round of return men, and has probably dropped a dozen punts on the ground over the course of the season. The Tigers’ 4.5 yard punt return average is among the worst in the nation. It’s been a miracle that the punt teams’ woes haven’t resulted in a loss. This may be the game! Advantage: Northwestern.
Kickoffs: Auburn is slightly better on kickoff distance, averaging 62.0 yards to Northwestern’s 59.9. Auburn coverage has been worse, giving up 23.6 yards per return, to Northwestern’s 21.1. Auburn has kicked 5 balls out of bounds, to Northwestern’s 1. Lately, we’ve cheered kickoffs out of bounds, because the other team usually does BETTER than the 40 on returns! Northwestern averages 20.4 yards on returns. Auburn averages 23.6. The thing to note about the Tiger kick return game is that they discovered sophomore Demond Washington’s talents late. Washington wasn’t used on returns till late in the season, and he’s averaging 32.2 yards per return. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Placekicking: Auburn junior Wes Byrum has had a nearly flawless season, hitting on all of his 49 extra points, and 14 out of 15 field goals. Northwestern’s Stefan Demos has a good year, too. Demos has hit on 31 of 32 extra point attempts, and 18 of 23 field goal attempts. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Northwestern defensive line: This is a strength vs. strength matchup. The Tiger line has held its own all year, and was only really beaten against Georgia and LSU. Auburn placed junior left tackle Lee Ziemba and junior center Ryan Pugh on some second-team All-SEC units. Auburn runs an array of traps, draws, and misdirection plays. Pulling guards Mike Berry and Byron Issom have been used almost like fullbacks, and have been very effective blocking on the corner. Despite playing in a spread offense, the Tigers have only given up 18 sacks this season. Where Auburn is weakest is handling the speed rush at right tackle. Senior Andrew McCain is a solid run blocker, but has trouble with speed off the edge. I look for Northwestern to at times move senior defensive end Corey Wootton to the right to try and get a mismatch. Wootton vs. Ziemba should be a good battle. Wootton vs. McCain worries me. Wootton is big, at 280, and fast. Wootton isn’t the only capable lineman Northwestern has. Junior tackle Corbin Bryant and senior Adam Hahn are solid. Sophomore defensive end Vince Browneis tied for the lead on the team with 4 sacks. There is Wildcat depth in front four, too. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Northwestern linebackers: Auburn’s backs have done well most of the year, and should benefit from weeks of rest. Running back Ben Tate made second-team All-SEC. H-back Mario Fannin was a blocking force and caught 39 balls. Backup H-back Eric Smith is a threat, too. Freshman tailback Onterrio McCalebb is a speed-demon. He’s been battling ankle injuries in the last 8 weeks of the season, but should be healthy for the bowl. Juniors Nate Williams and Quentin Davie anchor the Wildcat defense. The pair combined for 160 tackles, including 14 for loss. Davie has been dangerous as a pass rusher too, with 4 sacks, 6 quarterback hurries, and 4 forced fumbles. These are prototypical Big 10-sized linebackers at around 235-240, and they won’t be bowled over easily! Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Northwestern corners: For the Tigers, this is the Darvin Adams show. Left out of All-SEC balloting, Adams finished in the top five in the league in every category, including a spiffy 17.8 yards per catch average. Terrell Zachary holds down the number two spot, and is a threat on the end around. Zachary only has 24 catches on the year, but is averaging 19.4 yards per reception. Northwestern will counter with senior Sherrick McManus and sophomore Jordan Mabin. Mabin has only two passes defended on the season in 12 games, so look for Auburn to try to test him. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Northwestern safeties:Auburn will go with senior quarterback Chris Todd and a battle tested bunch. Blocking tight end Tommy Trott has been off and on as a receiver, and Chris Todd has struggled to get him the ball late in the season. The main receiving threat of the secondary receivers is Mario Fannin. That bubble screen to Fannin is probably our single most popular pass play, and I look for Northwestern to have the short zone dialed up for that. With a pair of seniors deep for Northwestern, Auburn may have trouble in the middle. Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith are solid, and sophomoreBrian Peters are all among the leaders on the team in tackles. Advantage: Northwestern.
Auburn is not going to wow anyone on special teams, but they MUST minimize mistakes! When Northwestern has the ball, Auburn must really run to contain Kafka and the spread. If Auburn loses the battle at the line of scrimmage, it will be a long day of chasing Wildcat receivers. When Auburn has the ball, they have to continue to be multiple. If the Tigers have to rely on either the run or the pass too much, Northwestern has the scheme and players to shut it down. Chris Todd needs to have an accurate game in his Auburn finale, for the Tigers to win.
Prediction: With an El Nino pattern firmly in place, the gulf coast is seeing wave after wave of low pressure systems, mixed with waves of cold air from the northwest. It’s been one of the wettest years on record, in the Southeast. Expect rain, for this year’s Outback Bowl. Both teams will struggle with the conditions, and Auburn’s running game is the difference in this one. Auburn wins, 27-20.