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OT losers in back-to-back bowl games, Northwestern looks to come away with postseason win

Pat Fitzgerald was bound for Los Angeles on a recruiting trip a few days later when he finally watched that play.

You know which one.

The "great infomercial" for Northwestern, as the coach put it.

Or, the trick play that came up short in the Outback Bowl against Auburn, leaving the Wildcats with their second straight overtime bowl loss and an 8-5 record after they decided to go for the win rather than the tying field goal.

"I think our young men believe in what we're trying to accomplish as a program," Fitzgerald said. "And we'll get there. But it's been a great source of motivation, I promise you that, because that was one play of about 50 that if it would have gone to the left instead of right or the right instead of left, we'd be bowl champions."

Winning a bowl game would certainly give an athletic department seeking attention a nice boost.

The school recently launched a "Northwestern, Chicago's Big Ten Team" marketing campaign to raise interest. There's a new ticket sales department to make roughly 2,500 calls per week and help make a bigger dent in a market where fellow Big Ten member Illinois and Notre Dame have large followings along with the city's major professional teams.

Northwestern is no stranger to stiff competition, and the football team could certainly help the marketing cause if it builds on its recent success.

That would mean a third straight bowl appearance, which would be a first for the program. More important, it would mean a bowl win, something that has happened just once in eight tries — the 1949 Rose Bowl, when the Wildcats beat California in their first postseason appearance.

"We have to go out there and win it this time," defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. "I'm not going to go down there and say 'I'm happy, this is our third time.' We're going to have to go out there and execute and try and win it."

They came close in the Outback Bowl, rallying from 14 down with three minutes left in regulation before falling 38-35 in overtime to Auburn.

Mike Kafka threw for a school-record 532 yards and four touchdowns, although he got picked off twice in the end zone, in a memorable end to his career, but the lasting image from that game is the wild finish.

Down 3, Northwestern caught a break when Stefan Demos' 37-yard field goal attempt hit the upright and Auburn's T'Sharvan Bell got called for roughing the kicker. That's when Fitzgerald dipped into late coach Randy Walker's bag of tricks and pulled out a version of the fumblerooskie.

He sent out Steve Flaherty in place of the injured Demos but had no intention of forcing another OT. Instead, receiver Zeke Markshausen took a handoff between the legs from holder Dan Persa and circled right end to try to win the game. He got stopped at the 2 after a 3-yard gain.

"The thing you learn from that bowl game is the fact that we need to finish better," linebacker Quentin Davie said. "That's one of the things we pride our program on is finishing."

Persa said: "There's a lot we can learn — good and bad — from that game that we'll take into the season."

One thing they're bringing is higher expectations, although there are some key losses to address.

Defensive end Corey Wootton got drafted by the Bears, and Kafka got taken by Philadelphia after throwing for 3,430 yards last season and 4,265 in his career. Markshausen and Andrew Brewer, the leading receivers a year ago, are gone, too.

Persa steps in for Kafka after throwing for 224 yards as a sophomore, and two of his top targets figure to be tight end Drake Dunsmore (47 receptions for 523 yards and three touchdowns last season) and wideout Sidney Stewart (42 receptions, 470 yards, two TDs).

A bowl win would be the perfect way to cap a season that also includes a date with Illinois on Nov. 20 in the first football game at Wrigley Field since the Bears last played there in 1970. Not since DePaul played there in 1938 has there been a college game at the old ballpark, and it'll be the first appearance for Northwestern since 1923.

"I think that's just the buzz around the program," Persa said. "The past two years, we've been playing really well, and when you play well, winning brings good things. And I think that's just a product of that."