TAMPA, Fla. -- Pat Fitzgerald reached into Northwestern's bag of tricks one more time, hoping to pull out the perfect play to give his team a dramatic victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
"I've had it in my back pocket for four years, and people tell me I'm too conservative. So I said, 'What the heck. We're here to win, so let's go,"' Fitzgerald said after a version of the old fumblerooskie failed in overtime, leaving the Wildcats with a 38-35 loss on Friday.
"And I'd do it again," the 35-year-old coach said. "Next time I'd score, though, and we'd be celebrating."
Wes Byrum kicked a 21-yard field goal in overtime, and Auburn (8-5) overcame several mistakes, including a costly pair of penalties, that gave Northwestern chances for their first bowl victory in 61 years.
On the game's final play, the Wildcats sent backup kicker Steve Flaherty onto the field seemingly to try to force a second overtime.
But with regular kicker Stefan Demos on the sideline after being injured earlier in the overtime, Fitzgerald had no intention of trying to tie the score.
"I just kind of felt like the stars were aligned there when we lost Stef," Fitzgerald said, adding the "modern-day fumblerooskie" was one of coach Randy Walker's favorite plays at Northwestern.
Walker died of an apparent heart attack in 2006, and Fitzgerald was promoted as his replacement.
"We played for the win," Fitzgerald said. "Unfortunately we ended up a little bit short."
Receiver Zeke Markshausen took a handoff between the legs from holder Dan Persa and circled right end to try to win the game. Auburn's Neiko Thorpe stopped him after a 3-yard gain to the 2.
"Circumstances were very unusual, but we found a way to win it," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
"When I saw where everyone was lined up I knew something was up," Thorpe said. "It was just so quick and I was afraid I was the only person who saw it. But on the replay you could see there were a lot of people pursuing the play."
The Tigers intercepted Mike Kafka five times -- twice in the end zone -- and Walter McFadden returned one of the picks 100 yards for a touchdown that helped Auburn to an early 14-0 lead.
Kafka threw for a career-best 532 yards and four TDs. He rallied Northwestern from a 2-touchdown deficit in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, and the Wildcats wasted a chance to win it at the end of regulation.
"Everybody got their money's worth today," Marshausen said. "It was a blast to play in."
Auburn finished its first season under Chizik with the second-most wins by a first-year coach in school history. Only Terry Bowden, who went 11-0 in 1993, produced more wins in his initial season on the job.
Northwestern fell to 1-7 all-time in postseason games. The lone win came against California in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
Ben Tate ran for 108 yards and two TDs for Auburn, which led 35-21 before Northwestern stormed back with a pair of touchdowns and a 2-point conversion to force overtime. Tate's fourth-quarter fumble and a late face mask penalty against the Tigers' Nick Fairley helped the Wildcats' cause.
Demos squandered a chance to win it in regulation, hooking a 44-yard field goal attempt wide right with no time remaining.
Byrum gave Auburn the lead on the first possession of the extra period, and then things got real interesting.
Thinking they had won the game when officials ruled Kafka fumbled when he was sacked for a 10-yard loss, the Tigers rushed off the sideline to celebrate until the call was overturned in the replay booth.
Four plays later, Demos lined up for a 37-yard field goal to tie but hit the right upright, setting off another premature celebration.
This time, T'Sharvan Bell was penalized for roughing the kicker, giving Northwestern new life -- but also leaving the Wildcats without Demos, who limped off the field.
Kafka only threw seven interceptions during the regular season and entered Northwestern's first New Year's Day game in more than a decade with a streak of 116 consecutive passes without one.
The fifth-year senior, part of Walker's final recruiting class, completed 47 of 78 passes, both Outback Bowl records.
"We left a lot of plays out there," Kafka said. "Personally I think I made some decisions that really hurt us. We need to learn for that, grow from that."
Kafka looked like he might be able to overcome the early mistakes when threw TD passes of 35 yards to Andrew Brewer and 66 yards to Drake Dunsmore within a span of 2:15 to make it 21-21 heading into the fourth quarter.
Brewer also caught a 35-yard TD pass, and later took a pitch for Kafka on a gadget play and threw to Brendan Mitchell for a 2-point conversion that tied it 35-35 with 1:15 remaining in regulation.
Markshausen had 12 receptions for 84 yards and Sidney Stewart finished with 10 for 97 yards and one TD.
Darvin Adams led Auburn with 12 catches for 142 yards, and Quindarius Carr scored on a 46-yard reception from Chris Todd, who was 20 of 31 for 235 yards and no interceptions.
Chizik said he can't remember a wackier ending.
"I've been in some wild games. Ones that come down to the end numerous times. But one that goes back and forth - Did we win? Did we not win? Is he down? Is he not down? No," the Auburn coach said.
"We didn't know what to do. That was wild and crazy. I'm not so sure I've ever gone into a game with seven wins and came out with 10."