Outback Bowl Preview: Northwestern vs. Tennessee

A preview of the Outback Bowl featuring the Northwestern Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers.

Northwestern Wildcats

Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats have been one of the more pleasant surprises in college football this season. Northwestern began its season with a hard-fought victory over the 5th-ranked Stanford Cardinal, which brought expectations for the Wildcats’ season. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson has played a big role in accelerating the development of a relatively young Wildcats team. Despite Thorson’s low completion percentage (51.6 percent), the Wildcats quarterback has shown promise in the passing game, throwing for almost 1,500 yards this season. In addition to his success through the air, Thorson has rushed for more than 350 yards and five scores this season, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. While Thorson’s play has exceeded expectations, running back Justin Jackson and a stout Northwestern defense have carried the load for the Wildcats in their 10-2 campaign. Jackson, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound sophomore, has rushed for more than 1,300 yards in 2015, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. As Northwestern’s offense continues to grow, the Wildcats’ veteran-led defense has excelled under defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Hankwitz’ defense is allowing just 16.4 points per game.

Tennessee Volunteers

Despite a relatively successful season, the Volunteers have underwhelmed according to their preseason expectations. Dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs was considered a dark horse preseason Heisman Trophy candidate. Although Dobbs’ Heisman campaign crashed and burned before it even got started, the Volunteers managed to win eight games this season with their four losses coming to teams with a combined 40-10 record. Since a 19-14 loss to Alabama on Oct. 24, in which Tennessee led late in the fourth quarter, the Volunteers have won five straight games, averaging more than 240 yards rushing during that span. Tennessee has leaned on junior running back Jalen Hurd, who has more than 1,100 yards on the ground this season, as well as Dobbs’ legs, which have accounted for 623 yards on the ground and nine scores through 12 games.

Player To Watch

Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker

As good as redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson has been, the Wildcats defense has been even better. Northwestern shut down Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey to open the season, holding the dynamic running back to a quiet 66 yards on 12 carries. Anthony Walker is the leader of Northwestern’s athletic defense as the sophomore linebacker has recorded 19.5 tackles for loss and three sacks this season. Walker’s tremendous instincts will be crucial in defending Tennessee’s option attack, run by Dobbs and Hurd. The Volunteers have struggled to throw the ball when they fail to establish an effective rhythm on the ground. Northwestern needs to contain Dobbs within the pocket to not put too much pressure on their corners and safeties to cover for long periods of time. In addition to the Wildcats’ responsibilities on passing downs, Northwestern must show discipline when defending the Volunteers rushing attack.

The Takeaway

Both teams must have success running the football to win. For the Wildcats, establishing their rushing attack with Jackson is vital due to inexperience at the quarterback position. The advantage goes to the Volunteers because of Dobbs’ experience in the passing game. Northwestern will have to rely on its defense to shut down the two-headed monster of Dobbs and Hurd, which could be too much to ask of an athletic Wildcats defense. Tennessee should win its ninth game of the season in extremely close fashion.

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