Facing fourth down and goal at the five-yard line and trailing by three in overtime by three points in the overtime, Fitzgerald disdained the short field goal and rolled the dice. Cornerback Neiko Thorpe was in the right place at the right time and made the stop short of the goal to give the Tigers the victory.
"I have outside contain on kicks and I looked inside and saw a guy crouched down behind the guard and I knew something didn't look right," Thorpe said. "Everything happened so quickly. I saw the ball snapped and had to fight through a block to make the play on the corner. I wasn't sure where I stopped him until Josh Bynes came over and grabbed me and said we won the game. That was a great feeling.
"We really wanted to win this game for the seniors," the sophomore cornerback added. "I am so glad we were able to do that."
The game was memorable for the seniors and everybody else in rainy Raymond James Stadium.
Highlights included five interceptions by the Tigers, including one by Thorpe and two apiece from Walt McFadden and T'Sharvan Bell.
The 38 points are the most scored by the Tigers in a bowl, topping than the total in AU's 35-28 Gator Bowl win over Ole Miss after the 1970 season.
With 425 yards the Tigers finished the season with 5,469, the most of any Auburn team.
Darvin Adams, who as named MVP of the game, had 12 receptions for a career-high 142 yards. His 60 catches are a single-season school record, two more than Willie Gosha in 1995 and Frank Sanders in 1994.
Northwestern QB Mike Kafka set a bowl record and personal-high with 532 yards passing. His 566 yards of total offense was a bowl record, but he had a streak of 117 straight passes without an interception snapped. In his career he had never been intercepted more than three times in a game prior to the Outback Bowl.
Northwestern kept the football for an amazing 115 plays while Auburn held it for 72 plays to gain 425 yards. The Wildcats totaled 625 yards as they hit 47-78 pass attempts and added 93 yards on 37 runs.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik said he was thrilled with the mental toughness the Tigers showed after letting the game slip away in the closing minutes and then hanging on in overtime. The coach joked that he had never gone into a game with seven wins and come out with 10 because it felt like the Tigers had to win the game three times against a scrappy opponent that battled to the end.
"When you win games it isn't necessarily if you win, it is how you win," Chizik said. "The circumstances were very unusual, but we found a way to win it, and I am very proud of it."
Wes Byrum's 21-yard field goal in the overtime proved to be the winning margin after Auburn lost the toss and Northwestern elected to put the Tigers on offense to start the extra period.
After an incomplete pass, Ben Tate rushed for 16 yards to give the Tigers first down and goal to go at the nine. However, the Tigers had to settle for three points after Tate ran for four, Kodi Burns netted one yard on a keeper at right end and a Chris Todd pass into the end zone fell incomplete.
Northwestern then kept the ball for nine plays in the overtime period aided by a couple of unusual calls by the officials plus a second chance to win the game after a missed field goal that bounced off the upright was wiped off by a roughing the kicker call that gave the Wildcats a first down at the Auburn nine.
That set up the fourth and goal to go call at the five and the trick play stopped by Thorpe.
"I saw what was happening, but I couldn't get off my block to get outside and stop it," defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. "Fortunately, Neiko was there to make a great play to win the game.
"I am really happy we were able to send the seniors out as winners," Fairley added. "That win means a lot to those guys, but it also means a lot to the guys on the team coming back. It is great for our momentum going into next season."
Fairley said the Tigers did extra conditioning work to prepare for Northwestern's offense. "Coach (Tracy) Rocker had us in shape for the game and the backups did a great job helping us win the game."
After Byrum's kickoff for a touchback opened the contest, the Tigers got the ball three plays later when Walter McFadden's diving interception gave Auburn great field position at the Northwestern 31.
Five plays later the Tigers were on top 7-0 with Kodi Burns scoring at right guard on first down from the one. The big play on the drive was an 11-yard pass to Adams on third down to get the drive started.
Northwestern's second possession looked promising until the Wildcats moved to a third and goal to go at the Auburn six. An out pattern was picked by McFadden two yards deep in the end zone. He had clear sailing down the sideline. His touchdown return was the longest in Outback Bowl and Auburn history to put the Tigers up 14-0 with 4:37 left in the opening quarter.
"On the 100-yard return, when they had No. 80 in the game, we knew that they were going to max protect and that's when I get the post corner," McFadden said. "I undercut the post corner and batted the ball to myself. I knew it had to be zipped in because it was a short distance. I tipped it up to myself and I happened to run it all the way back.
"When I was a sophomore I returned one 96 yards and as I was running I thought to myself ‘Man, I broke the record'. I'm an Auburn man and I wanted to be remembered."
Northwestern's third possession went much better for the Big 10 team as the Wildcats drove 67 yards on just six plays for a touchdown. The score was a 39-yard pass from Kafka to wide receiver Andrew Brewer, who got behind Bell on a sideline route. That made the score 14-7 with 2:04 left in the first quarter.
Auburn's third possession ended on a fourth down gamble at the Northwestern 37. Todd's pass to Adams was low. It was first ruled complete, then incomplete and then on review it was ruled incomplete with 12:30 left in the half.
The Tigers' defense forced a three-and-out and Auburn got the ball back at its 21 after a line drive punt that Quindarius Carr didn't have a chance to return. The extra distance to the goal line was no problem for the Tigers who moved 74 yards in just five plays to make the score 21-7.
The touchdown came on a 49-yard bomb to speedster Carr, who beat single coverage over the middle for the score with 8:54 left in the second quarter.
The Tigers celebrate their victory at Raymond James Stadium.
Auburn had a chance to increase its lead before halftime after getting the football at the Northwestern 36 with 1:55 left in the half. However, a trick play backfired when a double pass from Todd to Burns intended for Mario Fannin was intercepted by cornerback Sherrick McManis before his momentum carried him out of bounds at the six-yard line.
Northwestern ran its hurry-up offense to quickly move the football into Auburn territory, but again the Auburn defense came up with a big play. This time, on second and goal, Bell made an interception in the end zone to end the threat leaving the Tigers up by 14 at intermission.
"I just read the play and broke on the ball like I was taught to do," Bell said.
In the first half the Wildcats out-gained Auburn 289 yards to 194 and held the football for 52 plays to just 29 for the Tigers. Auburn coaches said that defensive players were getting IVs for fluids in the locker room during the break. They would need them in the second half.
Auburn took the second half kickoff and moved into scoring territory, but another interception of a Burns pass, this one by Brian Peters, gave the Wildcats possession at the one-yard line. The interception, with one hand, came on a pass intended for Fannin.
The Wildcats got the ball off the goal line with a first down and averted another interception disaster when on third down when Washington dropped a would-be pick six on a play in which he could have walked into the end zone. The Tigers got the ball back at their own 44 after the punt, but couldn't move it and punted.
Northwestern turned the ball over on third and long after a Gabe McKenzie sack. With 5:46 left in the third quarter, Thorpe grabbed a deep sideline route and was tackled immediately at the Northwestern 49.
Despite the good field position, the Tigers could not make a first down and punted into the end zone after a short run by Tate, a dropped pass by Tommy Trott and a pass that Todd threw away when nobody was open.
T'Sharvan Bell played a major role for the Tigers in the bowl victory with two interceptions.
Northwestern scored on its next possession moving 80 yards on just six plays with Kafka hooking up on a 35-yard touchdown pass to Brewer with 2:42 left in the third quarter. Brewer got behind cornerback D'Antoine Hood, who was called for a pass interference two plays earlier to keep the drive alive.
The Wildcats made the Tigers pay for going into the offensive doldrums and did it quickly. On the first play after an Auburn punt, a short pass from Kafka to Drake Dunsmore turned into a 66-yard score when Hood missed a tackle near the line of scrimmage and the receiver took off down the sideline. McFadden arrived to make a potential TD-saving tackle inside the 10, but Dunsmore broke away for the score to tie the game at 21-21 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Tigers responded with their first points of the second half as Todd and Adams moved the football downfield with the passing game.
A pass over the middle to Burns set up a five-yard first down run for a score by Tate at left tackle to put the Tigers up 28-21 with 10:10 left in the fourth quarter.
Auburn scored on its next possession, too, thanks to a 50-yard reverse run Terrell Zachery to the seven. On the next play Tate scored untouched from the seven to make the score 35-21.
A celebration penalty on Tate forced the Tigers to kick off from the 15 giving the Wildcats good field position at the Northwestern 42. With the help of three fourth down conversions the Wildcats held the ball for 15 plays on their way to a two-yard TD run by Kafka with 3:20 to play. Auburn led 35-27 as Thorpe blocked the PAT.
Auburn then got the on-side kick as Burns got the football at the Northwestern 44. Onterio McCalebb ran for 11 yards on first down, but on the next play Tate was stripped of the football and the Wildcats made Auburn pay.
Northwestern raced 69 yards on seven plays to score on a 18-yard pass to Sidney Stewart with 1:15 to play. A reverse pass play for two points worked perfectly to tie the game at 35-35.
On the kickoff Washington got the ball to midfield, but he also fumbled it giving Northwestern a chance to pull off the big comeback. The Wildcats moved the ball 24 yards on six plays, but Stefan Demos missed a 44-yard field goal wide right to set up the overtime.
Todd hit 20-35 passes for 235 yards and one touchdown while Tate rushed for 108 yards and two scores on 20 carries.
Commenting on the final play of the game, Northwestern's Fitzgerald said, "It was a modern day fumble-rooski. We were trying to sneak Zeke (Markshausen) out the back door and Auburn did a nice job of defending it. It looked like we were a little quick. We wanted to hold it a few seconds and get them to see our motion, our shift and they did a great job defending it."
Both teams finished the season with 8-5 records.