TAMPA, Fla. — How you judge Auburn’s pass defense in a 38-35 Outback Bowl win against Northwestern is based largely on which stat you look at.
The bad? Northwestern’s Mike Kafka threw for 532 yards and four touchdowns.
The good? Despite using a patched-together crew due to injuries, the Tigers picked him off five times.
“You’ve got to know that things are going to be hard. They’re going to get their momentum,” cornerback T’Sharvan Bell said. “But there’s always going to be that play where we can take it right away from them.”
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Kafka might have shattered former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees’ Outback Bowl record of 378 passing yards Friday, but Auburn’s secondary did just enough to emerge as winners.
Northwestern’s passing-intensive spread offense lived up to its billing. The Wildcats threw the ball 78 times in 115 plays. Nobody Auburn had played this year threw the ball more than 44 times.
“It was exciting,” said cornerback Neiko Thorpe, who had an interception and made 14 tackles, most notably the fourth-down stop near the goal line in overtime that sealed the win. “It seemed like every play was coming your way. It really tests your stamina a lot, but you just have to keep fighting.”
The Tigers capitalized on more mistakes than Kafka has made all year. The fifth-year senior entered the game having thrown only seven interceptions this season. He had gone 117 passes without throwing one. But Auburn picked him off five times, matching a season high set against West Virginia.
Senior Walt McFadden had two in the first quarter. The first came off a tipped pass and set up and Auburn touchdown in the first three minutes. The second he tipped to himself in his own end zone, turning it around 100 yards for a touchdown, the longest interception return in Outback Bowl history.
“I undercut the post corner and batted the ball to myself,” McFadden said. “I knew it had to be zipped in because it was a short distance. I tipped it up to myself and I happened to run it all the way back.”
Bell, a seldom-used reserve redshirt freshman who battled an ankle injury all year, played his biggest role to date, alternating at corner with Central-Phenix grad D’Antoine Hood in the nickel formation Auburn used almost exclusively.
Although Bell had a rough start, giving up a 39-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, he bounced back to make two interceptions, the second and third of his career. The first came in the end zone just before halftime, one of three times Northwestern came away empty-handed in the red zone.
“That’s a big deal any time you can get some stops down there in the red zone to be able to swing the momentum back,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “T’Bell made two great plays on the football.”
The Tigers did it despite nagging injuries. McFadden got knocked in the head on the final play of regulation and sat out the overtime.
Safeties Daren Bates and Demond Washington both fought cramps near the end, so much so that Washington had to be carried off the field by teammates once the game ended.
“By the end of the day we were looking for trainers and managers and anybody who could suit up to go in there because we didn’t have anybody left,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said.
How did the Tigers get through it?
“Next man up,” Roof said.