In the 75th edition of the Citrus Bowl, Auburn couldn't find its footing and fell to No. 14 Northwestern 35-19.
The Citrus Bowl matchup was Auburn’s first game since 2012 without Gus Malzahn, as defensive coordinator Kevin Steele served as the acting head coach.
However, the defense was where Auburn struggled the most, allowing Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey to pass for a season-high 291 yards and 3 touchdowns.
“We were not pleased with that as a group, as a defense,” Steele said. “But Northwestern is a very, very good football team in terms of their play, and they are mistake-free in a lot of ways. They are a really, really smart football team. They have talent, but they are well, well-coached, and hats off to them."
On the first drive of the game, Ramsey was 5-for-5 for 66 yards and a touchdown. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman was on the receiving end of Ramsey’s 35-yard touchdown pass, and the Wildcats never surrendered their lead.
On Auburn's drive following the Northwestern touchdown, the Tigers went 3-and-out.
Two drives later, Northwestern went up 14-0 after converting a wide-open pass on fourth down. On the day, the Wildcats were 3-of-5 on fourth down. On crucial downs, the Auburn defense was unable to get Northwestern off the field. The Wildcats had the ball 13 times on New Year’s Day and never once went 3-and-out.
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It took Auburn until almost the middle of the second quarter to end up on the scoreboard.
Following a kick-catch interference penalty on Northwestern, Auburn started on its own 47. Taking the ball down to the Northwestern 27, Nix sent a ball to running back Shaun Shivers, which lost six yards and forced a field goal.
Anders Carlson nailed the ensuing 50-yard field goal and put the Tigers on the board 14-3. Carlson’s kick was the third-longest made field goal in Citrus Bowl history.
The Tigers' next drive took 15 plays and went 72 yards. Again, the Tigers were unable to best one of the nation’s best defensive units and settled for a 27-yard chip shot by Carlson to go into halftime 14-6.
Auburn came out in the second half and put the game within one.
Steele said that young guys were going to have to step up, and freshman Elijah Canion did just that.
Canion didn’t have a reception on the year but caught his first touchdown pass, and second catch of the day, on a broken coverage by Northwestern that he took for 57 yards and a score.
Canion finished the game with three catches for 80 yards and a touchdown, all career highs. Canion's touchdown was a play that energized the whole team, according to Steele.
“We were clawing and scratching to get the points, in the first half, the two field goals, and so we were clawing and scratching to make something happen,” Steele said. “That big play offensively put points on the board that we needed desperately, but it also energized the whole football team.”
14-13 was the closest Auburn ever got to a lead, as Northwestern proceeded to go on a 21-0 run that essentially ended the game. Auburn scored late on a 2-yard rush by D.J. Williams, but the game was out of reach.
Missing seven starters proved too costly for the Tigers as they lost their second straight bowl game to a Big Ten opponent.
One of the lone bright spots for Auburn was the play of the team’s younger core that stepped in for injured or opted-out players. Along with Canion, fellow wideouts Shedrick Jackson and Kobe Hudson stepped up on offense.
Jackson and Hudson each had three catches for 32-yards and 29-yards, respectively.
On defense, Marco Domio, Zykevious Walker and Jeremiah Wright all stepped up for missing team members.
“We’re Auburn football, and we’re never going to make excuses for who’s out there and who’s not out there,” Steele said. “It’s next man up. We had some young guys go out there and do some really good things. It’s going to help for the future of this program to play in this game.”
Auburn will take this loss into the offseason with some questions to answer, but the Bryan Harsin era at Auburn has officially begun.
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