TAMPA, Fla. - The saying goes that cats have nine lives.
On Friday, Northwestern used at least that many. For more than 60 minutes, the Wildcats wouldn't die, giving new life to their "Cardiac Cats" nickname.
"We used quite a few (lives). I don't know if I can give you an exact number, but we definitely used them," senior quarterback Mike Kafka said. "When the chips were falling where we liked them, you've got to think (the stars were aligning)."
NU scratched and clawed throughout the game, but when Neiko Thorpe forced Zeke Markshausen out of bounds on a fourth-and-goal trick play in overtime, NU's chances at its first bowl win since 1949 came to a close.
The Tigers burned the Cats 38-35 in the highest-scoring game in Outback Bowl history, one of 18 record-breaking marks in the contest.
After Wes Byrum kicked a 21-yard field goal on Auburn's only possession of the extra session, NU took over trailing by 3.
On first-and-10 at the 16, Kafka was sacked for a loss of 14 yards, and the ball popped loose on his way to the ground. Tigers players and coaches celebrated, but an official review determined Kafka was down by contact, giving NU new life.
Three plays later, Stefan Demos' 37-yard field-goal attempt hit the right goal post, and again Auburn jubilation ensued.
But Auburn's T'Sharvan Bell dove to block the kick and rolled into Demos' leg on the follow-through. The 15-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty gave NU the ball at the 9.
"I'm not so sure I've ever gone into a game with 7 wins and come out with 10," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "We had to win that thing about three times. - It will be hard to find (a bowl) better than that as far as getting your money's worth."
A pair of Kafka rushes moved the ball to the 5, but coach Pat Fitzgerald couldn't send in Demos to tie the game because of injury. Backup kicker Steve Flaherty, a redshirt freshman walk-on, had not attempted a field goal in his young college career.
Within a "nanosecond," Fitzgerald opted to go for a touchdown instead of a game-tying field goal, calling for "heater," a modern-day fumblerooski championed by former coach Randy Walker.
"I 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. "I would do it again, and twice on Sunday. Next time I'd score, though, and we'd be celebrating."
The direct snap went to Dan Persa behind right guard, who rushed left with Flaherty, the deep back. Persa put the ball between his legs, where Markshausen took it and exploded off right tackle, looking to score.
But Markshausen was tackled at the 2-yard line.
"I was blocking the guy and I was trying to force him to the sideline, and he ended up making the play," said senior defensive end Corey Wootton, who lined up at right tackle in the double-wing formation.
"We had worked on it a pretty good amount in these past couple of weeks. We were going to put it out in an emergency situation, and that definitely was an emergency situation."
But even before overtime started, NU found itself in several desperate situations.
The Wildcats fell into a 14-0 hole roughly 10 minutes into the opening quarter but held Auburn scoreless for a 29-minute stretch to rally and tie the game at 21-21 by the end of the third quarter.
Halfway through the final quarter, NU surrendered a pair of rushing touchdowns to Ben Tate and trailed by 2 scores.
But the Cats answered with a 15-play, 58-yard drive, capped off by a Kafka 2-yard quarterback keeper. Two plays into Auburn's next possession, safety Brad Phillips jarred Tate, knocking the ball loose. Sherrick McManis recovered it at the NU 31.
And seven plays later Kafka found Sidney Stewart in the back left corner of the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown strike, tying the game at 35-35.
On the ensuing kickoff, David Nwabuisi stripped the ball from returner Demond Washington, and Jordan Mabin recovered at midfield. A series of quick passes moved the ball to Auburn's 26, where Demos came on for the win.
With time expiring, the junior missed wide right on the 44-yard attempt, his third botched kick of the game.
NU nearly felt the thrill of victory but suffered the agony of defeat, which leaves it still chasing that elusive bowl victory.
"It's a deep wound, the wound hurts. But the wound will heal." Fitzgerald said. "We're going to find a way to get over the mountaintop."