Auburn, Northwestern ring in the new year

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

TAMPA, Fla. -- Between them, Auburn coach Gene Chizik and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald have a wealth of defensive experience.

Nearly all of Chizik's 23 years of coaching have been on the defensive side of the ball, and Fitzgerald, well before he assumed the head job at his alma mater, established himself as one of the best college linebackers of the 1990s.

So there will be a touch of irony today in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, where both teams plan to unleash their up-tempo, spread offenses on one another.

"There are two defensive guys sitting up here," Fitzgerald said during a joint press conference with Chizik earlier this week. "I think we know what gives defenses problems."

Both schools have made a habit of that this season. Auburn (7-5) made drastic leaps in its first year under the guidance of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, finishing the regular season ranked 13th nationally in rushing offense (213.8 ypg), 20th in scoring (32.9 ppg) and 21st in total offense (432.2 ypg).

Northwestern (8-4), still running the offensive system first installed by the late Randy Walker earlier this decade, has thrived by not being afraid to spread the field and throw the ball at will. Fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Kafka has thrown for 2,898 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, completing nearly 66 percent of his passes.

Both teams move fast. Both teams get their athletes in space. And both teams aren't afraid to buck conventional wisdom to do so.

"I bought into it right away," Fitzgerald said. "I thought it made the defense defend the entire field horizontally and vertically. It made the defense defend a tempo. It made the defense defend for verticals and the speed option all in the same formation.