TAMPA — There was only one way the 2010 Outback Bowl could end, really.
A game this wild, this crazy, this exhilarating, deserved better than a chip-shot field goal, keeper up the middle or, gasp, the victory formation.
It had to finish with flair.
A trick play on the game's final play provided exactly that.
Eschewing a field goal on fourth and goal from the 5 that could have forced a second overtime, Northwestern went for broke with its variation of the Fumblerooski.
The play caught seemingly everyone at Raymond James Stadium off guard except Auburn defensive back Neiko Thorpe, who tackled receiver Zeke Markshausen at the 2 to give the Tigers a 38-35 win Friday before 49,383 fans in, arguably, the most memorable Outback Bowl ever.
"I knew something was up," Thorpe said.
After Thorpe's stop, Markshausen lay motionless for several seconds; not from the pain of the hit, but the agony. Meantime, a stunned contingent of purple-clad fans went silent as Northwestern (8-5) fell 6 feet short of its first bowl win since 1949.
"I saw the end zone," Markshausen said. "But their guys came so quick."
The Tigers (8-5) danced as if they had won the BCS title.
A year ago, the program was in limbo after Tommy Tuberville resigned as coach. Auburn surprised many by hiring Gene Chizik, a former Tigers assistant who went 5-19 in two seasons as Iowa State coach. After the win, the Clearwater native exited the field to cheers of "War Eagle."
"I couldn't be more proud," Chizik said.
Even before the game's dramatic conclusion, it already qualified for "Instant Classic" status. Among the highlights:
• Northwestern's Mike Kafka was intercepted an Outback-record five times but completed an Outback-record 47 passes (on 78 attempts) for 532 yards, another Outback record, and four touchdowns. He also ran for 34 yards (and one touchdown) on 20 carries for 566 yards of offense, still another Outback record.
• Auburn receiver Darvin Adams, the game's MVP, caught 12 passes (six more than his previous season high) for 142 yards.
• Two Tigers, T'Sharvan Bell and Walter McFadden, had two interceptions. McFadden returned one of his 100 yards for a first-quarter touchdown.
Even though Northwestern battled back from a 14-point halftime hole to tie the score in the third quarter, a 7-yard touchdown run by Auburn's Ben Tate (108 rushing yards, two touchdowns) with 7:32 left seemed to ice it at 35-21.
But 15 plays and 58 yards later, Northwestern scored on Kafka's 2-yard run. The extra point was blocked by Antonio Coleman, but the Wildcats had life.
Auburn tried to run out the clock, but Tate fumbled. And Northwestern scored with 1:15 left on Kafka's 18-yard strike to Sidney Stewart. A two-point conversion, in which receiver Andrew Brewer took a reverse, stopped and hit Brendan Mitchell, tied it at 35.
"They kept coming back," Chizik said.
After Auburn fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Northwestern drove to the Tigers 22. But Stefan Demos' 44-yard field goal hooked just wide to the right.
In overtime, Auburn went ahead on Wes Byrum's 21-yard field goal. On their possession, the Wildcats twice appeared to lose — on a fumble recovered by Auburn after which replay officials ruled Kafka was down and Demos' 37-yard field goal that hit the right upright.
On the latter, Auburn roughed — and injured — Demos, giving Northwestern first and goal at the 9. Under heavy pressure from an exhausted but determined Auburn defense, Northwestern gained only 4 yards on the next three plays. But with Demos unable to kick, coach Pat Fitzgerald called for the fake.
The ball was quickly snapped to upback Dan Persa, who moved forward slightly and slid it through his legs to Markshausen to set up the dramatic finish.
"I know everybody got their money's worth," Chizik said.