6 things to watch: Citrus Bowl
By Ryan Choe
No. 14 Northwestern is set to face SEC opponent Auburn Friday in pursuit of its fourth bowl title in as many tries. The ‘Cats and Tigers come into the matchup with an unclear favorite (NU’s spread is currently -3 according to ESPN, but it also has just a 40% chance to win). Northwestern enters the game coming off a defeat in the Big Ten Championship Game while Auburn comes in following a win against Mississippi State. The ‘Cats look to end their memorable 2020 season on a high note and Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz aims to capture his 400th career victory to finish his extensive coaching career. Here are six key things to watch for this weekend.
1. Missing quality contributors
Since the team last played, seven players decided to enter the transfer portal. Most notable among them: running backs Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson, wide receiver Kyric McGowan, and defensive lineman Eku Leota.
Bowser and Anderson have quickly fallen out of the running back rotation, with true first-year Cam Porter emerging as the lead back for the ‘Cats. After averaging 20 carries a game for the first three games, Bowser has only carried the ball a total of 17 times since Nov. 21 against Wisconsin. Drake saw his role diminish even faster, having just one rushing attempt against Illinois and not a single touch against Ohio State after averaging 10 carries per contest through the first six games of the season. Northwestern will most likely have at least redshirt first-year Evan Hull and senior Jesse Brown available for this contest in addition to Porter, however, it isn’t desirable for the ‘Cats to lose their top two rushing leaders for the majority of the season right before the final game.
McGowan’s decision means the offense will lose its second-leading wide receiver and a heavily-utilized player (34 receptions for 366 yards, 10.8 avg, 24 rushes for 141 yards and one touchdown, 5.9 avg), which could signal more touches for senior wide receiver Riley Lees — who currently has the third-most receiving yards on the team.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of these transfers is Leota, who accumulated 13 tackles, one forced fumble and led the team with four sacks this season. We’ll see how sophomore Adetomiwa Adebawore and company adjust for this loss.
Additionally, the Northwestern secondary will be without its top cornerback Greg Newsome II, who is still recovering from a groin injury suffered in the Big Ten Championship Game. Newsome said he planned on playing in the team’s bowl game, but the third-team All-American honoree will now focus on preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft in lieu of his injury. This leaves sophomore AJ Hampton, junior Cameron Ruiz, redshirt first-year Cameron Mitchell and redshirt first-year Rod Heard tasked with holding down the Skyteam against a formidable Auburn wide receiver corps. Northwestern has a tall task replacing the contributions of all these players, but now is the time for the next person to step up.
2. The Northwestern defense
While the conference championship game did not end the way Northwestern wanted, the ‘Cats showed why they deserve to be among the top 15 teams in the country. Most notably, the defense held the OSU offense to just 22 points (fewest since 2018) and the Buckeyes failed to score a first-half touchdown for the first time since 2018. Quarterback Justin Fields arguably played the worst game of his career, completing just 12 of 27 passes for 114 passing yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. However, the defense had no response for OSU running back Trey Sermon, who gashed Northwestern with a historic performance (331 rushing yards for two touchdowns). Subsequently, the defense’s rankings in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense all fell, but Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s unit is still formidable despite a rough second half against the Buckeyes.
How Northwestern’s defense stacks up with Auburn’s offense
|NU Scoring Defense||15.5 points allowed (before OSU: 2nd, after OSU 5th)|
|Auburn Scoring Offense||25.7 points scored (national rank: 86th)|
|NU Total Defense||338.8 total yards allowed (before OSU: 13th, after OSU: 22nd)|
|Auburn Total Offense||385 total yards (national rank: 75th)|
|NU Rushing Defense||156.5 rushing yards allowed (before OSU: 21st, after OSU: 54th)|
|Auburn Rushing Offense||172.7 rushing yards (national rank: 58th)|
|NU Passing Defense||182.3 passing yards allowed (before OSU: 21st, after OSU: 12th)|
|Auburn Passing Offense||212.3 passing yards (national rank: 79th)|
Auburn’s offense is comparable to Ohio State’s offense, although not quite as explosive. While its current average points scored per game stands at 25.7, that includes three contests against three top ten teams (No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 Texas A&M, No. 9 Georgia) in which it combined for 39 points (average of 13 points per game). Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix showed great promise his freshman year and although he hasn’t taken as much of a leap forward as the Auburn coaching staff had hoped, he still put up respectable numbers this season (2,123 passing yards on 60% completion rate for 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games). Nix’s biggest weapon, though, this season might be his legs, as he has the team’s most rushing touchdowns (7) and second-most rushing yards (356) behind SEC Freshman of the Year running back Tank Bigsby.
Bigsby is eighth in the SEC in average all-purpose yards per game (122.4) and has accounted for over a quarter of Auburn’s plays of 20 or more yards this season. He has 834 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns on the season, averaging an impressive 6.04 yards per carry. If Bigsby wasn’t enough of an offensive headache, junior wide receiver Seth Williams should make life all the more challenging for Hankwitz’s unit. In eight of the 10 games played, Williams registered at least 50 receiving yards on as few as three catches. He currently has 688 receiving yards for four touchdowns and is averaging 16.2 yards per catch. By contrast, Northwestern’s leading receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman is averaging 11.8 yards per catch.
As mentioned previously, the ‘Cats will be without key defensive players Eku Leota and Greg Newsome II. For a team only averaging 1.63 sacks per game (T-88th best in the country), losing team sack leader Leota is a major blow. The Northwestern defense is still filled with playmakers, from redshirt first-year and first-team All-American Brandon Joseph to senior JR Pace to the senior linebacker trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin. However, it doesn’t mean the defense is invulnerable. Against Purdue, Pace allowed a 40-yard touchdown pass, and junior Cameron Ruiz gave up three combined long touchdown passes against Wisconsin and Michigan State. Plus, the ‘Cats had no answer for OSU running back Trey Sermon as he torched the ‘Cats two weeks ago. The defense doesn’t have any easier of a test this week, facing yet another offense led by a dual-threat quarterback.
It will be important to see if Nix and the Auburn offense capitalize off a depleted Northwestern defensive line and secondary. If the ‘Cats can’t generate pressure and Nix has plenty of time to throw to Williams and other receivers, it will be a long afternoon for a secondary trying to make up for losing its best cornerback. Likewise, if Northwestern’s defensive front seven can’t stop or slow down Bigsby, it could potentially spoil the new year. Also keep an eye out for Nix’s running ability in this game, as Northwestern struggled with containing other mobile quarterbacks from teams such as Nebraska and Michigan State earlier this season.
3. The Northwestern running game
As previously mentioned, the running back group will be without some key contributors in Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson, showing how competitive the position has been all season. First-year Cam Porter and redshirt first-year Evan Hull erupted against Illinois and Porter had a great start to the Big Ten Championship Game on the offense’s first drive. However, even after rushing for 105 total yards against the Buckeyes, the ‘Cats still find themselves with just the 68th-best rushing attack in the country (162.38 total rushing yards per game). It appears that at this point in the season Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakain and Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald are rolling with whichever running back (a) has the hot-hand and (b) isn’t fumbling the football. These were areas that Bowser and Anderson struggled in as of late, and both Porter and Hull have seized the opportunities given to them since the Illinois game. As exciting of a game as it was, the ‘Cats faced an Illinois team who was already giving up more than 140 rushing yards per game only to be well-contained by Ohio State. Now, the Northwestern rushing attack faces a lackluster Auburn defense that is giving up 163.1 rushing yards per game (64th-best nationally). Northwestern’s offensive line and running back group must establish the running game (ideally over 120 total rushing yards) in order to open up the passing game and potentially win.
4. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey
While Ramsey’s arrival to Evanston brought much-needed steadiness to the quarterback position, there still has been frustrating inconsistencies with his play. After being voted third-team All-Big Ten by conference coaches and media, Ramsey was off to a promising start in the Big Ten Championship Game. However, his performance took a nasty turn as he committed three turnovers in the second half (two interceptions and one fumble). These were the only turnovers Northwestern had in the game.
It will be important to see if the Michigan State-version of Ramsey or Wisconsin-version of Ramsey shows up in Orlando. The matchup with the Spartans saw Ramsey fail to throw a touchdown pass for just the second time this season and he threw two interceptions while completing less than 50% of his passes. Against Wisconsin, Ramsey had one touchdown pass, did not throw a single interception or turn the ball over for the first time since week one and his ability to take care of the ball against the Badgers made a massive difference in the turnover battle. If Ramsey can match his performances from the Maryland, Purdue, Wisconsin and first-half Ohio State games, the ‘Cats will have a chance to win. Auburn’s defense is surrendering 237.8 passing yards per game (68th best nationally) and 23.7 points per game (36th best nationally) so Ramsey’s task ahead isn’t unbearable.
5. The turnover battle
Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald has stressed the importance of controlling turnovers and scoring points off of turnovers all season, and for good reason: when the ‘Cats won or tied the turnover battle they won games, and when they lost the turnover battle they lost games. The three games where Northwestern tied the turnover battle (against Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue), however, all were decided by eight points or less. The only game in which the ‘Cats won despite losing the turnover battle was their regular season finale against Illinois (who finished with the worst record in the Big Ten this season). When Northwestern won the turnover battle against Maryland and Wisconsin, it won by at least 10 points both times. The idea is simple for Northwestern: win the turnover battle and there’s a solid chance to win the game.
6. Third down conversions and red zone efficiency
Some final key statistics to look at for these two teams are third down conversions and red zone success:
|NU 3rd Down Conversion||39.1% (national rank: 74th)|
|Auburn Opponent 3rd Down Conversion||51.37% (national rank: 122nd)|
|Auburn 3rd Down Conversion||47.59% (national rank: 22nd)|
|NU Opponent 3rd Down Conversion||31.4% (national rank: 11th)|
With the 3rd down conversion battle, it looks like an even fight on paper. NU’s defense and Auburn’s offense are some of the most successful units on 3rd downs, while NU’s offense and Auburn’s defense are some of the least successful.
|NU Red Zone Offense||79.31% success rate (national rank: T-88th)|
|Auburn Red Zone Defense||76.47% success rate for opposing offenses (national rank: 26th)|
|Auburn Red Zone Offense||84.21% success rate (national rank: 58th)|
|NU Red Zone Defense||68% success rate for opposing offenses (national rank: 4th)|
The red zone battle looks to be more in favor of the defensive units, with both teams boasting elite red zone defenses. Meanwhile, the offenses for Northwestern and Auburn are some of the weaker red zone units this season. Ultimately, the Northwestern defense needs to incapacitate Auburn’s efficient offense and the Northwestern offense must outperform its current averages on 3rd downs and in the red zone in order for the ‘Cats to win this bowl game.
For a little over two quarters, Northwestern found itself on pace to pull off one of its biggest upsets and claim its first outright Big Ten conference title since 1995. However, the Buckeye running game exploded and the Northwestern offense also failed to score any points in the second half. Even as a 6-4 unranked team who fired its head coach after its previous game, Auburn is more than capable of defeating the ‘Cats if Northwestern isn’t careful. While the team will be short-handed due to quality contributors being injured (Greg Newsome II) or in the transfer portal (Kyric McGowan, Eku Leota, Isaiah Bowser, Drake Anderson), my prediction is that the ‘Cats leave Orlando as victors. This game should be a thriller and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a classic in Northwestern football lore given the context and narrative of the memorable 2020 season.
Score prediction: ‘Cats win, 24-17
Auburn player to watch: WR Seth Williams
NU player to watch: RB Cam Porter
Bold prediction: Northwestern runs a trick play with WR Riley Lees passing to QB Peyton Ramsey