TAMPA, Fla. — Josh Bynes was exhausted, the toll of more than 100 plays having wiped him out. But the Auburn linebacker had enough energy to sprint a hundred yards toward his parents in the stands after a Northwestern field goal doinked off the upright in overtime.
It was the third time the Tigers burst into premature celebration thinking they had won Friday’s Outback Bowl. But a roughing the kicker penalty quickly tempered the mood.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, lord. How many times can we celebrate?’” Bynes said.
Four plays later Auburn could finally let loose for real. Cornerback Neiko Thorpe smothered Northwestern’s modified fumblerooski on fourth down short of the goal line to preserve a wild 38-35 win, giving Tigers head coach Gene Chizik a fine way to finish his first season on the Plains.
“I’m not so sure I’ve gone into a game with seven wins and come out with 10,” Chizik joked.
The 49,383 in attendance at Raymond James Stadium probably hadn’t seen a finish quite like this.
Auburn (8-5) almost gave the game away in the final three minutes, fumbling twice as Northwestern (8-5) erased what seemed like an insurmountable 14-point deficit. The Wildcats nearly won the game as time expired, only to watch Stefan Demos’ 44-yard field goal sail wide right.
The Tigers struck first in overtime, getting a 21-yard field goal from Wes Byrum to take a three-point lead.
Things got crazy from there. After Northwestern converted a first down, Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens blitzed off the edge and took down quarterback Mike Kafka, knocking the ball loose as the fifth-year senior tumbled to the ground. The Tigers recovered, setting off another celebration, but replay officials ruled that Kafka was down, keeping the game alive.
Northwestern eventually set up for a 37-yard field goal by Demos. The junior’s kick bounced off the right upright, falling to the ground as Auburn’s players poured onto the field for a second time. But cornerback T’Sharvan Bell’s momentum took him into Demos’ knee, knocking the kicker down for a penalty. Officials again cleared the field, giving the Wildcats a first down at the Auburn 9.
“I really wanted to break down and cry,” Bell said. “I didn’t want to lose this game for the seniors.”
Three plays later, Northwestern faced fourth-and-goal from the 5. With Demos sidelined by an injury from the previous kick and his backup lacking experience, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald instead called one of the favorite trick plays of late Wildcats football coach Randy Walker: a modern-day fumblerooski.
“I had it in my back pocket for four years,” Fitzgerald said. “People tell me I’m too conservative, so I said, ‘What the heck, we are here to win, so let’s go.’”
Although many of Auburn’s players were confused by the alignment, Stevens recognized it. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn had run something similar while at Arkansas.
“We’ve gone against it before in practice,” Stevens said. “It works the same way. That’s why we really weren’t that surprised and got it done at the end.”
The play in a nutshell: With no kicker, Northwestern lined up quickly and snapped the ball to backup quarterback Dan Persa, who was several yards behind the line. He ran forward to stealthily hand it off through the legs of receiver Zeke Markshausen, who was crouched behind the left guard. Markshausen spun out to the right side, hoping to catch the Tigers off guard.
“I saw the center just grab the ball and hike it through his legs like a little sneak play on the (movie) ‘Little Giants’ or something,” Thorpe said. “But I went outside trying to fight off the block and just made a good play.”
Thorpe dragged Marskhausen out of bounds 2 yards short of the goal line, setting off a celebration that was finally definitive.
“I was looking for a penalty,” Bynes said. “I had to look. I ain’t going to lie to you. I looked and there was no penalty and then I finally celebrated.”
The win was Auburn’s eighth — three more than last year — and gave Chizik the distinction of not only being the only Auburn coach to lead the Tigers to a bowl game in his first season, but the first to emerge victorious as well.
“It wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t always exactly the way we would have liked it, but at the end of the day we got our eighth win,” Chizik said. “I’m proud to say that I’m head football coach here in Auburn. What a great culmination to a great week.”