Kafka falls short in Herculean task

TAMPA, Fla. -- He kept throwing and throwing, in the rain and wind, the haze and muck. He threw when the game was just beginning, when it was "over" in the first half, when it hung in the balance in the fourth quarter, and when it was "over" yet again.

He threw so much that he broke Outback Bowl records for attempts, completions, plays, total yards, passing yards, and yes, interceptions. Northwestern senior quarterback Mike Kafka went 47-for-78 on New Year's Day for 532 yards -- and that doesn't include the 102 that came back at him in one gut-wrenching pick six. He threw with the same defiance on the last passing play as on the first.

And he'll have to wonder for the rest of his life what he could have done with one more throw.

Earlier in the week, Kafka was asked if he had a play in mind if the Wildcats had one shot to win the Outback Bowl. He said absolutely yes, and it was a pass. Well, the time came and the play was called, but it wasn't a pass. It was "Heater," a kind of fumblerooski play, and it'll be talked about as long as Northwestern football is talked about.

What's important about Heater (as in fastball, as late coach Randy Walker was a seamhead) was that it didn't work. Wideout Zeke Markshausen was shoved out of bounds to give Auburn a 38-35 overtime win. But what's just as important is the way the team -- and especially Kafka -- reacted to it.

Many quarterbacks would have complained, or seethed, as Kafka looked like he might do as he stared daggers into the shredded turf as Auburn players celebrated all around him. Kafka led the team all season, with hardly any run game and an offensive line young enough to play on a scout team. Why not give him that last pass?

"That wasn't the [call] I was thinking of," he said after the game. "I'm a competitor, and I want the ball in my hands."

But there was no trace of resentment on the quarterback's face. There was no armchair quarterbacking. Kafka smiled like a little boy when he said, "Great call."

That's the kind of reaction that keeps a program's momentum going even after progress screeches to a halt. Kafka marched into the locker room, his heart broken, and went up to every underclassman he could find. He told them to "carry on the tradition." After he was dressed, he spoke about the program as if he still had another season to play.

The entire afternoon -- well, morning and afternoon -- symbolized Kafka's career. He started his very first game as a redshirt freshman and clocked in with a 148.3 quarterback rating, and then he tweaked a hamstring, lost his starting job, and spent more than two years on the bench. He dutifully went to class and politely told excited professors that no, sorry, he's not related to the famous writer.

He came back, as all good protagonists do, and he kept going. Kept throwing. He got his shot this season and threw more than 400 passes for nearly 3,000 yards -- enough to deliver Northwestern to the doorstep of a program-transforming win in only its eighth bowl game.

Then, Friday afternoon, he turned in what has to be the best five-interception game of all time. When his team was down 14-0, 21-7 and 35-21, Kafka led improbable, borderline-preposterous drives that were either quick and breathless or slow and boring. But whatever the situation, Kafka kept rolling that boulder up the hill -- even when the stone, and the football, came hurtling back at him. Even when he had first-and-goal from the 4-yard line twice and got intercepted twice. It was obvious that his teammates fed off their leader's ability to take the negative thoughts and, as he says, "flush it."

"It never got to him," said receiver Drake Dunsmore. "He's always up."

Even Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley was impressed: "He never gave up. He's a warrior."

Somehow, the Wildcats came back, again and again, until they had a shot -- one shot -- to win it in overtime. The ball went to someone else. And nobody minded -- least of all the quarterback. Kafka's career, like this game, will be remembered as part of an era of ramped-up hopes and dashed dreams. Last season's Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri, also in overtime, was nearly as tough as this one. Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game in 60 years. Kafka, appropriately, is the guy who stubbornly pushed the Wildcats to the mountaintop, but couldn't get them to the other side.

But Northwestern will likely have its best-ever recruiting class, especially after a game that a nation of hungover fans watched with reddened-but-wide eyes. It was a brutal game, an exhausting game, but a game that might energize another generation of Wildcats.

Five picks. Four touchdowns. Five hundred and thirty-two yards. Seventy-eight passes.

"Feels great," Kafka said. "I could go out there right now and do it again."

Fortunately, it hasn't hit him that he won't get another chance.