The last time Pat Fitzgerald stepped on the field at the Citrus Bowl, he was an All-American linebacker and the captain of a Northwestern defense facing Tennessee star quarterback Peyton Manning.
“That was the neck roll generation, so it’s been too long,” joked Fitzgerald of the 1997 showdown the Volunteers won 48-28.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Fitzgerald is back in Orlando, this time as the coach of the Wildcats, who are coming off their second appearance in a Big Ten Championship Game in three years.
No. 14 Northwestern (6-2 Big Ten) is set to take on Auburn (6-4 SEC) in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl Friday at Camping World Stadium. Kickoff is 1 p.m. and the game will air on ABC.
“This will be a battle,” Auburn interim coach Kevin Steele said. “They are the champions for the Big Ten West and that’s hard to accomplish. Their coach is a future Hall of Famer. He has done remarkable things at Northwestern and they are certainly up to the task and they will be a handful.”
“I appreciate Coach Steele’s kind words,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s going to get in the Hall of Fame before I am, there’s no doubt about that — the defenses that he’s coached and he’s done a terrific job.”
Fitzgerald was named Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Thursday morning after guiding Northwestern to a 6-2 mark following a 3-9 campaign in 2019.
“It’s humbling and it’s a program award,” Fitzgerald said of earning the honor for the first time.
Auburn, meanwhile, is looking to wrap up an up-and-down season that saw the school part ways with longtime coach Gus Malzahn after eight seasons. After a short search, former Boise State coach Bryan Harsin was hired on Dec. 22.
“We just stayed focused on our players,” said Steele, who was rumored to be a candidate for the job. “That was the thing that we did. Obviously, there were other things going on, but that was not in my control. That was in somebody else’s control.”
Both teams have to figure out how to limit their opponent’s ground game.
Auburn running back Tank Bigsby earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors after rushing for 834 yards this season. He cracked the 100-yard threshold four times, including a season-high 192 yards during a win over Mississippi State on Dec. 12.
Bigsby has been listed as questionable going into the game with an undisclosed injury, but even the thought of his presence in the lineup is enough to get Northwestern’s attention.
“It will be a great challenge because we have tremendous respect for Bigsby and their big offensive line,” said longtime Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who is retiring after this game.
Northwestern gave up a record 339 rushing yards during its loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game — 331 of those yards came from Trey Sermon.
“Obviously, we go back, watch the game and make corrections during the week,” Wildcats linebacker Pat Gallagher said. “Feel great about the plan. We have all this stuff fixed up and we just need to go out and execute. That’s all it is.”
Northwestern will be without tailbacks Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser, who entered the transfer portal after the loss in the championship game. Freshman Cam Porter stepped up late in the season, rushing for a career high 142 yards in a win against Illinois on Dec. 12.
“They are a traditional offense in a lot of ways,” Steele said. “Schematically, a lot of formations, but they are built on a power run game, drive the football offense more than a big-play offense.”
The key to success for Auburn is simple, according to senior defensive tackle Big Kat Bryant.
“Stop the run,” said Bryant, who has earned 15 tackles and 3.0 sacks. “They are a big run team. Big pressure team. Stopping the run is going to be the biggest thing. If we can get guys in third-and-long, second-and-long, I think it’s going to be a long game.”