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New Year’s Preview: Northwestern

Kafka: can Auburn squish him like a cockroach?

What’s at stake: For Northwestern, it’s pretty straightforward: the program’s first bowl win since 1949 and a snapped six-game postseason losing streak. Pat Fitzgerald has made no secret of the fact that making and winning a bowl game was the single biggest goal on the Wildcats’ 2009 checklist, particularly after NU outplayed sluggish Mizzou in the Alamo last year and lost the game in overtime. So, yeah, I’d say there’s a pretty good bit at stake for the ‘Cats.

And yeah, that’s more than Auburn’s got on the line. Auburn’s already got a winning season, nothing short of Texas Tech deciding to take a crazy flyer on Malzahn looks capable of throwing the brakes on what looks like the best recruiting class in the brief history of capital-R Recruiting, and this team has already well-cemented its historical reputation as one of the hardest-working, most likable teams in recent Auburn memory. You could make the argument that an Auburn loss might even be preferable to a win, since the latter runs the danger of hiking up 2010 preseason expectations that precisely no one wants.

I’m not buying that argument, though, for several reasons:

1. I don’t know how many people noticed that Auburn’s offense put together 1.5 decent 60-minute performances in its final six games against real competition (1 vs. Ole Miss and .5 vs. ‘Bama), but just in case they did, it would be nice for Malzahn to re-establish himself as an unstoppable wunderkind just in time to head off any “overrated” talk this offseason.

2. I know you can make the same argument for Northwestern’s seniors, but still, dammit do I want McFadden, and Coleman, and Tate, and Trott, and all the other seniors that could have gone to the NFL or transferred out or half-assed things under Chizik or God knows what to win their final game in an Auburn uniform. Those guys matter in a way that not every Auburn senior class matters, I think.

3. Most importantly: Auburn never did quite manage that “signature win,” did they? Between the rain and the comeback, the West Virginia win was the most memorable. The Ole Miss upset was the most important. The performance against Alabama was the team’s best, all-around. But facts is facts: none of those outings would register on the “big win” scale in Tubby’s heyday. Meaning that beating Northwestern–capping the season with a New Year’s Day bowl victory–would go a long way towards removing that nagging feeling that as much as we love these 2009 Tigers, as much as we’ll remember their sacrifices and explosive offensive potential, that maybe there was still something missing.

(That’s pretty much what happened in ’06, if you’ll recall (at least for your humble Auburn blogger): after failing to capitalize on chances to win the West and inject themselves into national title contention with horrible no-shows vs. Arkansas and a weaker-than-usual Georgia team, it took a Cotton Bowl squeaker over Nebraska to really sit up and say “Holy crap, this team just went 11-2!”)

So, to sum: yeah, Northwestern has more at stake and we can only assume will want it more. But that’s not to say that there’s not a good deal on the line for Auburn as well.

When Auburn has the ball

they should be able to get it moving. Northwestern ranks 56th (alongside such luminaries as Syracuse and Kansas St.) in yards-per-play allowed, 41st in yards-per-carry allowed, and an ugly 67th in yards-per-pass allowed. Not horrible, certainly, but not great (none of those marks rank in the top half of the Big 10) and not the kind of numbers you’d expect to see from a team that’s going up against what’s still the nation’s 19th-best offense with a month to prepare. There’s also the little fact that Northwestern’s going to be at a pretty substantial athletic disadvantage: the ‘Cats have some good players, most notably senior defensiver end Corey Wootton, but you just can’t recruit to a rigorous Midwestern acadamic school (that’s not Notre Dame) the way you can to Auburn.

All that said, there’s some solid reasons to think the ‘Cats are going to have some success against the Auburn O:

— Emotion. Again, this game is massive for Northwestern, and the place that’s going to pay the most dividends is on defense. You can expect the ‘Cats to play over their heads.

— Northwestern dramatically improved over the second half of the season with the return of Wootton from injury. After allowing 6.9 a play and 37 points to Syracuse (Syracuse!) and 6.6 to Purdue two weeks later, the ‘Cats finished the season holding three of four opponents to 5.1 yards or fewer–opponents that included Iowa, Illinois (remember, the Illini had some legitimate talent on offense), and Wisconsin.

— And as we all know, while Auburn’s offense has had their moments over the second half of the season–the first quarters vs. Georgia and Alabama, the Ole Miss surge, etc.–it’s also been a long time since they’ve really put the pedal to the floor.

So in the end, it’s the same story we saw against the Rebels, the Dawgs, Kentucky, etc.: if Chris Todd’s on his game, Auburn’s going to move the ball. The offensive line should be able to move the line of scrimmage for some running yards here and there, Auburn’s receivers should be able to find some openings in NU’s pass defense. But with the fired-up ‘Cats flying to the ball, Auburn’s also not going to be able to just cram it down their throats, and Todd’s going to have to make some plays.

I expect Todd’s going to make some, but we haven’t seen enough consistency from him late in the year to expect him to make ’em all. Auburn will have some success, but they’re due for some punting situations, too.

When Northwestern has the ball

Antonio Coleman better pin his ears back and the linebackers and corners better be ready to get those flats covered.

Because aside from the ‘Cats short, possession-based passing game, Northwestern doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. They’re 96th per-play offensively, 94th in total rushing, 69th per-pass.

But that’s to say they’re not dangerous, because when Mike Kafka and the NU receivers get clicking, look out. Kafka’s coming off a masterful 27-for-41, 364-yard, 3-TD performance against an underrated Wisconsin team, having already hit 8.2 per-pass the week before against Illinois. Consider also that Auburn’s biggest Achilles heel defensively (aside from 70-yard touchdown runs) has been coverage underneath, and you can take those per-play averages with a game of salt. Northwestern’s going to avoid the deep pass in favor of throwing short, moving the chains, and methodically moving the ball down the field. The one offensive statistic where the ‘Cats don’t suck is time-of-possession; they’re 43rd. For the season, Northwestern ran 148 more plays than their opponents.

What’s nice about this match-up is that Auburn’s job is pretty simple: disrupt Kafka and the spread-based short timing game, and NU has no other options. They can’t run, and with the exception of the final two games of the season–which I’m hoping are more fluke than rule–they can’t go deep. What’s not so nice is that Auburn hasn’t been capable of that kind of disruption for most of the year.

When special teams are on the field

For what seems like the first time (not counting Furman) since Auburn took on Ball St., we can exhale on kickoffs: Northwestern ranks 92nd in returns and don’t have a touchdown. At least, I think we can exhale.

That’s just the beginning of the good news for Auburn on special teams: the ‘Cats are 115th–115th!–in net punting, don’t return punts well, don’t defend opponent’s punts well, are only OK at defending kickoff returns, and can’t quite match Byrum in the FG department (though who can?). Auburn should be able to win the special teams battle.

Man, how often have we been able to say that this season?

Intangible reason for worry

I hope I covered this adequately under the “stakes” section.

Intangible reason for confidence

When Northwestern hasn’t gotten help in the turnover department, they’ve really struggled. They’ve won two games this year where they finished with a negative turnover margin: a three-point, last-second escape against winless Eastern Michigan and a one-point win over Indiana. Among the games where they finished in the positive included a six-point victory over Purdue in which they went +5 (and were outgained by 60 yards or so), the 7-point win at Iowa (+3, featuring a fumble recovery in the end zone, outgained), and the five-point win vs. Illinois (+2). Northwestern hasn’t yet shown they can overcome a negative turnover margin to beat a team of Auburn’s caliber … and frankly, results seem to show they might need a heavily positive margin to pull it off.

Three wishes

1. Tommy Trott catches a touchdown pass in his final game 2. Antonio Coleman registers three sacks in his final game 3. Chris Todd throws for 2 TDs and no picks in his final game

Success is / failure is: a win/ a loss

Your bottom line

Man, if not for that Wisconsin game, I’d be hella confident. Northwestern just hasn’t been that good this year: they’ve suffered three double-digit losses but don’t have a single double-digit win over a I-A opponent. They beat Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio)–two of the absolute-most gawdawful teams in the country–by a total of 10 points. The Iowa win came courtesy of Stanzi’s injury and the fumble recovery for TD, the Purdue win courtesy of the 5 turnovers. They lost to Syracuse. All told, they played a whopping seven one-possession games and went 6-1; I can guarantee you right now Phil Steele is just waiting to hammer the ‘Cats in next year’s annual.

But then there’s the little matter of the Wisconsin game, where the ‘Cats dominated the visiting Badgers in every aspect of the game save for Wisky’s punt return-for-TD, winning the turnover battle, outgaining UW by 100 yards, and keeping John Clay–one of the better backs in the country, as you may have noticed vs. Miami the other night–relatively in check. If NU repeats that performance, Auburn will be in trouble.

And that’s the issue–looking at how the ‘Cats came out and played vs. Missouri in last year’s bowl and knowing how much they want this one, it’s a safe, safe bet Auburn’s going to get Northwestern’s best punch. Auburn is the better team here–athletically, talent-wise, performance-to-date-wise–and I think they’ll be able to take it. Auburn’s offense is so much more explosive and special teams so heavily favored in the Tigers’ favor, they have to be the smart bet, right?

But so many favorites this bowl season have shown up and gotten upended by an underdog for whom the game mattered more, it’s going to be dicey. If Todd shows and stops throwing picks, Auburn will be fine. If not, all the smart bets are off.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …


Auburn 27, Northwestern 24

Back bright and early tomorrow with the Gameday post. This is the last time this year we get to do this, so enjoy it. War Eagle.

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