Ramsey leads No. 15 Northwestern past Auburn in Citrus Bowl

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
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ORLANDO, Fla. — Northwestern’s defense sent coordinator Mike Hankwitz into retirement as a winner.

Peyton Ramsey threw three touchdown passes and ran for a score, and the 15th-ranked Wildcats clamped down defensively to beat Auburn 35-19 in the Citrus Bowl on Friday.

Ramsey, a graduate transfer, totaled 291 yards passing and 50 yards rushing for Northwestern (7-2), which won its fourth straight bowl game. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Brown, John Raine and Riley Lees had touchdown catches for the Wildcats, who bounced back from an ugly loss to Ohio State on Dec. 19 in the Big Ten championship game.

It was the final game for the 73-year-old Hankwitz, who is retiring after a 51-year coaching career that included 400 victories at nine schools. He was the defensive coordinator for Colorado’s 1990 national championship team and spent the last 13 seasons as Northwestern’s coordinator.

“For Hank, you want to talk about the (legend), think about this: 580 career games coached, 400 career wins, 288 of those as a defensive coordinator, 11 conference championships and a national championship,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “There’s a lot to be thankful for – our seniors, to Hank and our players down here.”

Bo Nix threw for 292 yards for Auburn (6-5) but was often frustrated by Northwestern’s defense, which came in allowing 15.5 points per game, ranked fifth in the nation. Auburn was led by interim coach Kevin Steele following the Dec. 13 firing of Gus Malzahn and was missing several key players.

“We’re Auburn football and we’re never going to make excuses for who’s out there and who’s not out there. It’s next man up,” Steele said. “It doesn’t matter – COVID, injury or opt-outs, we don’t (make excuses). We had some young guys who did some really good things that are going to help them for the future of the program.”

Auburn got within 14-13 when Nix hit Elijah Canion for a 57-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter. But Ramsey responded with a 30-yard touchdown run late in the quarter.

“On the 30-yard run, it was a look we had seen a couple times earlier in the year, but this time they didn’t spy me,” Ramsey said. “I was able to get out in the open field and get in the end zone. More than anything, I got out of the pocket and saw some green grass.”

Linebacker Paddy Fisher, the nation’s active leader in tackles coming into the game, drilled Nix for no gain on fourth-and-1 on the second play of the fourth quarter. Cam Porter had seven carries on the ensuing drive, including a 1-yard plunge into the end zone that put Northwestern ahead 28-13. Porter rushed for 98 yards on 33 carries, and the Wildcats offense finished with 457 yards and 25 first downs.

The Tigers failed to convert 10 of their first 11 third downs, were unsuccessful on their first two fourth-down tries and mustered 361 yards and 18 first downs. For the game, the Tigers were 2 of 13 on third downs.

Ramsey put Northwestern ahead 14-0 on first-quarter TD passes of 35 yards to Chiaokhiao-Brown and 6 yards to Raine. His final touchdown pass, to Lees, put the Wildcats ahead 35-13 midway through the fourth quarter.

“We stumbled in a couple of games, but we wouldn’t be where we’re at today without Peyton Ramsey,” Fitzgerald said. “Great leader, great teammate and you can tell that he is from a coaching family. And he’s just so unflappable.”

Both teams were without major contributors because of COVID-19 protocols, injuries and opt-outs. Auburn running back Tank Bigsby didn’t make the trip for medical reasons, and top wideout Anthony Schwartz and defensive back Roger McCreary opted out to prepare for the NFL draft.

COACHES OLD AND NEW

Fitzgerald and several Northwestern players were visibly emotional while celebrating with Hankwitz after the game.

“When you start, you don’t plan how many years that you’re going to coach,” Hankwitz said. “I’ve been fortunate to work with some great head coaches. . When I had a chance to come here (to Northwestern) I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.”

Bryan Harsin, hired out of Boise State to replace Auburn’s Malzahn, was on the field before kickoff and watched the game from a suite.

THE TAKEAWAY

Auburn: Harsin will have plenty of talent to build his offense around with Nix and Bisby expected back next season.

Northwestern: Fitzgerald has established the Wildcats as a consistent contender in the Big Ten and the future should be bright. The first priority: Finding a replacement for Ramsey, who had a solid season after transferring from Indiana.

UP NEXT

Auburn: Opens its season at home against Akron on Sept. 4.

Northwestern: Hosts Big Ten rival Michigan State on Sept. 4.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.