In Friday’s Citrus Bowl, the Auburn offense will face off against one of the nation’s best defenses.
The No. 14 Northwestern Wildcats roll into Camping World Stadium with the 22nd ranked unit in total defense. In the Wildcats' eight games this season, they have allowed only 11 offensive touchdowns on their way to finishing first in the Big Ten West.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris knows his unit will have their hands full with the Northwestern defense.
“Those guys, each year they are always in the top echelon defensively; this year being no different,” Morris said. “These guys are very well-coached. They are sound. They are gap-sound. They don't do a whole lot defensively, but what they do, they do it very well, and the guys tackle extremely well in space. They are very aggressive, physical.”
The Northwestern defense keeps opposing teams out of the endzone. The highest score the Wildcats allowed all year was 22 points to No. 4 Ohio State, but that was after holding the Buckeyes to two field goals in the first half.
Ohio State’s running back Trey Sermon had his way with 29 carries for 331 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern. Still, top NFL quarterback prospect Justin Fields completed only 12 passes and threw two interceptions.
Against No. 10 Wisconsin, the Wildcats held the Badgers to a single touchdown all game. Quarterback Graham Mertz tossed three interceptions and his team fumbled four times. The Northwestern defense has 14 interceptions on the year, tied for fifth-best in the nation.
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“They have been playing this type of defense for quite some time, and so they are really good at it,” Morris said. “Their guys understand the adjustments that have to be made from it. And to be able to watch those guys and how they communicate, it is very impressive. They will give some exotic looks on third down, but again, I think that just does a great job of complementing what they do on base downs.”
The Auburn offense will take a hit with wide receiver Anthony Schwartz not playing in the bowl game, but Morris said slot receiver Eli Stove will fill in for Schwartz and expects “some young guys getting on the field.”
Even with some changes, quarterback Bo Nix says it will be business as usual for his squad.
“I think just like any old game, I think we'll have to come out and run the ball effectively and hit some passes when they are there and just make explosive plays,” Nix said. “I know our defense is going to do a good job of getting us the ball back, and we have to do our part, making sure we're moving the ball, having good drives and protecting the ball.”
When the Auburn offense is at its best, it is on the ground. Running the football will be paramount for the team’s success against the Wildcat defense. In three of the Tigers' four losses, the running game has been stifled.
The Auburn coaching staff did not reveal much about the status of freshman running back Tank Bigsby but did say D.J. Williams is healthy and ready to play. Williams will have to carry most of the offensive load on the ground if Bigsby is out, especially with running back Mark-Antony Richards not taking part in the game after entering the transfer portal.
This game will be Auburn’s first in almost a decade without head coach Gus Malzahn. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele took over the interim head coaching duties, and Morris has remained at offensive coordinator. Morris is highly confident in his offense but understands the challenge that lies ahead.
“We definitely have our work cut out for us,” Morris said.
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