When Northwestern takes the field against the Tennessee Volunteers on Friday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, it will do so as an underdog for the seventh time this season. The SEC's representative in Jan. 1's Outback Bowl comes in as an eight-point favorite despite simple metrics such as win-loss record and ranking favoring the Wildcats.
However, Northwestern has won five of those seven games outright. It's a feat almost remarkable as the fact that a top 15 team played more than half its games as an underdog.
Throughout the season, Northwestern has consistently done just enough to win. Oftentimes you can look back at football games and conclude that games were decided on five or six plays, and more often than not, Northwestern has won those plays.
That's what Northwestern will have to do Friday. Northwestern might not be a better team than Tennessee. The Vols have better athletes despite the uptick in athleticism in Evanston, they have a better quarterback, and they have no glaring weakness. But Northwestern can be inferior and still win the Outback Bowl if it wins big on those few momentous plays.
And that — the Wildcats making two or three game-changing plays — is by no means out of the questions. The defense has done it all season. Dean Lowry saved the day in the second quarter against Duke. Anthony Walker sealed the Minnesota game by scooping and scoring. Nick VanHoose won the Nebraska game with a pick six.
But interestingly, it might be on the offensive side of the ball that Northwestern can pull out an Outback Bowl victory, and an historic 11th win. Part of that is because Tennessee's offense might not let Northwestern's defense make those plays. Tennessee coach Butch Jones has approached some games this season in a similar manner to the way Northwestern has. The Vols' gameplans and playcalling have at times been "ultra-conservative." They themselves don't have an explosive offense, especially through the air. It ranks 80th nationally in Isolated Points Per Play, and 99th in passing IsoPPP. But the corollary is that quarterback Josh Dobbs, a junior who has started all season, doesn't make mistakes. He's thrown just five interceptions all season.
The lack of aggressiveness isn't necessarily a poor formula to beat Northwestern though. The Wildcats' best wins since Week 1 have been made possible by aggressive mistakes, as opposed to conservative ones, by its opponents. Or probably more accurately, the NU defense has been able to force opposing offenses into mistakes. If, for example, Nebraska had pulled back the reigns on Tommy Armstrong, the Cornhuskers might've had a better chance to win. That's likely what Tennessee will do with Dobbs.
So instead, on Friday, those five or six momentous plays might be found when Northwestern has the ball. Tennessee's opponent IsoPPP ranks 76th nationally, and has been especially susceptible to explosive plays on standard downs, ranking 81st. That's really the only blemish on the record of an otherwise stout defense.
And just as importantly, in a departure from previous years, just about the only thing that has kept Northwestern's sputtering offense afloat has been big plays. Justin Jackson has been able to make defenders miss at the second level, not just at the line of scrimmage. Warren Long, often thought of as a bruiser, is a sneaky big play threat. Solomon Vault has been a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. Clayton Thorson has outstanding breakaway speed. And as Josh Rosenblat said on our Outback Bowl preview podcast, Austin Carr doesn't just make big plays, he only makes big plays. He doesn't do anything else.
In a way, the Wildcats have, on occasions, used the pitifulness of their offense to their advantage. They've used it to catch an opposing defense playing too aggressively and hit a big pass play down field. They've baited safeties into coming up and trying to make plays at the line of scrimmage in the run game, only to have them hit an incorrect gap and leave acres of space behind them.
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Another phase of the game that hasn't garnered much attention is Northwestern's return game. Tennessee's special teams units have been a popular subject of discussion, and rightly so, but Solomon Vault is extremely dangerous in his own right. Could he alter the narrative with an 100-yard sprint?
In reality, it's impossible to say definitively where a game will be won or lost. Entering the season opener against Stanford, many thought big plays would be a necessity, but as it turned out, Northwestern more or less just lined up and beat Stanford. But that was three months ago. Now, with far fewer unknowns, and with an opponent that has had a full month to prepare, that seems less likely. Butch Jones knows that if he doesn't give Northwestern's defense opportunities to make game-changing plays, his Vols are in good shape. So it might be the NU offense that has to — and can — come through.