No. 14 Northwestern beat Auburn 35-19 to claim the Citrus Bowl and pick up its fourth bowl victory in the last five seasons on Saturday in Orlando. The Wildcats found themselves in firm control of the game from start to finish. They marched 75 yards in nine plays on the game's opening possession. They tacked on another score before the end of the first quarter thanks to a second touchdown pass from Peyton Ramsey.
It was Ramsey's best game as a Northwestern Wildcat. The Indiana transfer set a season-high mark with 291 yards passing, and his three touchdown passes tied the three he threw in a road win over Purdue earlier this season. Ramsey even decided to show off the wheels a bit, rushing for 50 yards on the day, including a 30-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter that helped the Wildcats establish control again after Auburn had cut the deficit to 14-13.
Ramsey was helped out by Wildcats running back Cam Porter, who rushed for 98 yards himself. He also put the finishing touches on the game with a fourth-quarter touchdown to make it 35-19.
Bo Nix finished with 292 yards passing for Auburn and led the team with 32 yards rushing, but it wasn't nearly enough to keep the Tigers in the game. Let's take a look at the four biggest takeaways from Orlando.
1. Northwestern's defense can play with anybody
This was a fitting tribute to long-time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who just coached the final game of a long, successful career. While Auburn finished with 19 points and 361 yards of offense, six of those points and 75 of the yards came late in the fourth quarter when the game had already been decided, and Northwestern was happy to let the clock melt. Before that, the Wildcats defense held Auburn in check all day long outside of a big play to Elijah Canion.
Where Northwestern truly won the game was on third down. Auburn converted only two of its 13 third-down attempts, and they were 0-for-6 on third down when they needed four yards or fewer. Time and again, Hankwitz blitzed Nix to force him to make quick decisions, and too often, he couldn't. It was a classic Hankwitz game and a fitting way for him to end a terrific career.
2. Northwestern is a good football program
There's a tendency to write off this team as a bunch of overachieving try-hards. It's presented in a way that says working hard and exceeding expectations is a negative quality. It's also a way to demean a team by saying it's not as good as its results. Well, while I don't think anybody will ever confuse Northwestern for the kind of team that can compete for national titles, it is solidly among the top 25 programs in the country.
There was a lot of talk about how many players Auburn was missing for this game, and while those absences had an impact on the team's ability to win the game, they ignore that Northwestern was down a few players of its own. Eku Leota, who led the team with four sacks this season and had 5.5 tackles for loss, didn't play. He's in the transfer portal. The same can be said about running backs Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser and the team's second-leading receiver in Kyric McGowan.
Their absences didn't stop the Wildcats from putting up 457 yards and 35 points on Auburn.
3. Appreciation for how Pat Fitzgerald treats bowl games
Some programs look at them as scrimmages and an opportunity to get ready for the next season. Northwestern approaches the games as a vacation of sorts, but a vacation it fully plans on having a great time on. I mean, just look at how Fitzgerald is dressed. He looks like a dad who is ready to dominate his kids on a shuffleboard court.
Fitzgerald's teams are forever playing to win, and they aren't going to play scared. So when faced with a fourth-and-short situation in their own territory, they're not going to punt. They're going for it. Time and time again. It's refreshing to see, and honestly, more teams should take the same approach during the regular season.
4. What does the future hold for Nix?
When you consider that they were being led by an interim coach who won't be sticking around and an entire staff of assistants who don't know their future, what can you really take away? Add in opt-outs and unavailable players due to undisclosed medical reasons, and things get even murkier.
However, I do wonder what the future holds for Bo Nix. Nix is an Auburn legacy and was hand-chosen by Gus Malzahn to be his QB. Will Bryan Harsin feel the same way? It's hard to imagine Nix will head into 2021 as the unquestioned starter. While he has all the talent and potential in the world, it's hard to deny that he hasn't shown much growth during his sophomore season. The moments of brilliance are too few and far between the moments that cause you to rip the hair out of your head. That's not to say the potential isn't there. If Harsin and his new staff can help Nix to develop further, they have a legitimate Heisman candidate on their hands. Still, I expect that Auburn to be aggressive in the grad transfer market this offseason to bring in some competition at a minimum.