TAMPA — According to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka has "seen every role" with the program.
The truth is, that really isn't a stretch.
During his stint in Evanston, Ill., the 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior has been a backup, a fill-in starter, an understudy, a mentor, a full-time starter and a team captain.
This year, he added a new role.
Kafka became a star.
"He," Fitzgerald said, "really leads our offense."
After Northwestern (8-4), which plays Auburn (7-5) in Friday's Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, beat Wisconsin 33-31 in the Wildcats' regular-season finale, Fitzgerald suggested that Kafka should be named Big Ten offensive MVP, and on that day, few probably would have disagreed.
In the victory, which was crucial in Northwestern landing in Tampa, Kafka produced his fifth 300-yard passing game of the season by going 26-of-40 for 326 yards and two touchdowns. On Monday, the Chicago native called that his best game.
"I was able to execute at a high level," Kafka said.
He has most of the season.
Kafka enters Friday's game with 2,898 passing yards, 12 touchdown passes and a 130.7 quarterback rating. He's dangerous with his feet, rushing for 265 yards and seven scores.
Kafka ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense (263.6 yards), ahead of Daryll Clark (Penn State), Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State) and Ricky Stanzi (Iowa), players much better known on the national level.
"He's a great operator of that offense," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
He's also a study in patience, persistence and perseverance.
After redshirting in 2005, Kafka started the Wildcats' first four games (he went 2-2) the following fall before going down with a hamstring injury. As a reserve in 2007 behind C.J. Bachér, he passed for a grand total of 11 yards.
Kafka again backed up Bachér, the program's third all-time leading passer, last season but started twice when Bachér was hurt and performed well. In one of those games, he rushed for 217 yards, a Big Ten record for a quarterback, in a win at Minnesota.
When Bachér departed after last season, Kafka dedicated himself more than ever during the offseason. He put a greater amount of time in the weightroom and worked out with former Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez, who's now with the Chicago Bears.
"That helped a lot," Kafka said. "We watched a lot of film and worked a lot on my mechanics."
Clearly, that helped.
Early in fall camp, several representatives from NFL teams took notice of Kafka during stops in Evanston. There was one recurring theme. Some of the scouts said "he throws a lot better than our No. 3 does," Fitzgerald said.
With a chance this fall to finally be the man, Kafka didn't disappoint. And his teammates weren't the least bit surprised.
Not with his statistics.
Not with his toughness, which he displayed playing hurt in a win at unbeaten Iowa.
And not with his record.
"We all knew what he could do," Wildcats starting offensive tackle Al Netter said. "In the past, you could argue that he was a run-first (quarterback), but I've definitely seen through the year that he has gotten more comfortable back there."
Kafka, who plans to play in the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 23 in Orlando, believes he has performed well enough to get a shot at playing professional football. For now, though, his focus is solely on beating Auburn.
"It's my last game, so I really want to put an exclamation point on the season and my career," Kafka said.