A poor day from the Northwestern offense and an inability to stop Tennessee's rushing attack did in the Wildcats in the Outback Bowl, as Tennessee's defense picked off Clayton Thorson twice en route to a 45-6 victory.
The Volunteers dominated Northwestern's offense and limited Thorson to just 57 yards passing -- the fewest of his career, even fewer than he had in less than a half against Penn State -- while holding Justin Jackson relatively in check.
In the second half, Tennessee proved to simply be superior in the trenches, as Thorson received a heavy dose of pressure and Tennessee running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara combined for 183 yards.
It was a slow start to the game, as the teams combined for two first downs -- both by Northwestern -- and four punts on the game's first four drives.
The next three drives, though, provided some fireworks. With Northwestern's offense back on the field, Thorson rolled right and badly underthrew Solomon Vault. Malik Foreman jumped the route, and Tennessee looked to be in field goal range at the very least. But an unsportsmanlike penalty and a tremendous stand by the Northwestern defense pushed the Volunteers back, and the 49-yarder from Aaron Medley hit squarely off the upright.
Northwestern took over and immediately drove into Tennessee territory, aided by two more personal fouls by Tennessee. But Jack Mitchell missed a field goal of his own, and Tennessee was quick to capitalize, going on a 7-play, 75-yard drive that included a 42-yard pass up the seam to wide-open tight end Alex Ellis. Josh Dobbs capped off the drive with a touchdown run on a well-designed quarterback draw. Northwestern responded with a three-and-out. At the end of one quarter, Tennessee held a 7-0 lead.
Tennessee proceeded on another long drive, but the Northwestern defense stiffened in the end zone, forcing a Tennessee field goal.
In dire need of a response, Northwestern got one in a huge way, driving 75 yards on 12 plays, including conversions on 4th-and-inches on its own 35 and 3rd-and-3 on the Tennessee 40, in 5:07. Jackson, who had converted on the 4th down earlier, plowed in from five yards. After another Mitchell shank, though, the Wildcats trailed 10-6.
It appeared as if Northwestern had gotten another three-and-out on the following drive, but a holding call on Matthew Harris kept the Tennessee drive alive, and the Volunteers would take advantage, cashing in for six on an Alvin Kamara dash outside on the read option. It was perfect recognition by Dobbs, who saw Deonte Gibson crash inside before handing it off to his tailback. Heading into the half, Tennessee led 17-6.
Tennessee looked to be taking control on the first drive of the second half, getting into field goal range. But after lining up in field goal formation, the Volunteers spread out wide and called for a pass from holder Patrick Ashford — which was a bad idea. The Wildcats got the stop and took over, but once again the Wildcats couldn't get much going, even after a big run from Jackson had put the Wildcats near midfield.
Then Tennessee's offensive line took control, opening up big holes for Jalen Hurd and affording Dobbs enough time to convert two third downs with his arm. After converting on a red zone fourth-down, Hurd punched it in from three yards out, and the Volunteers led 24-6.
Perhaps no drive was more representative of the game as a whole than that drive. Tennessee got what it wanted when it wanted it on the ground for much of the drive, and when the Wildcats did force Dobbs to throw, he delivered. The Volunteers were too big, too fast, and simply too physical up front as the game wore on.
Desperate to get something going on offense, Thorson took a shot deep but well underthrew his man, and Brian Randolph picked it off. Despite there being over a quarter to go, the game was all but over.
Hurd continued to break tackles by simply overpowering would-be tacklers, and Dobbs scored a highlight-reel touchdown to extend the lead to 31-6. Tennessee pulled him, as well as Hurd and other players, after Northwestern went three-and-out and punted it away.
With backups in the game, the Volunteers tacked on another touchdown after Zack Oliver threw an interception. Oliver then threw another interception with 8 seconds remaining and Evan Berry returned it 100 yards to the house. The game ended 45-6.
- Dan Vitale and Christian Jones, the top two receivers on the team, combined for a whopping zero catches for zero yards. Jones had one obvious drop and Vitale dropped what would have been a tough catch down low, but the lack of targets for both was notable. Instead, most throws were very close to the line of scrimmage.
- Justin Jackson actually had himself an okay day, carrying it 14 times for 74 yards and the touchdown. As seen in games against Michigan and Iowa, though, after the team got down, the running game was mostly abandoned. More concerning, however, was that, also as in those games, Northwestern's players were dominated on an individual basis. Only Justin Jackson could compete on an individual level. Northwestern's wide receivers and offensive line gave the offense no chance to have success.
- Keith Watkins played very well in place on Nick VanHoose, aside from his personal foul penalty. Watkins provided solid coverage and tackling all game long, and had one particularly good pass breakup along the sideline. The secondary wasn't the problem for Northwestern's defense.
- The issue was Northwestern's front seven. Northwestern's defensive line and linebackers, which have been outstanding all season, couldn't wreak havoc like they have in the past. Tennessee's offensive line bullied them, especially in the run game, and NU seemed to wear down as the game went on.
- Jalen Hurd at times seemed impossible to tackle. The combination of Hurd and Kamara was one Northwestern couldn't deal with.
- Northwestern struggled covering tight end Alex Ellis up the seam, much like against Michigan, and Tennessee exploited that weakness on both of its first-half touchdown drives.
- The special teams units were a concern coming into the game, and Northwestern lost that battle, but not in the way that may have been expected. In fact, Northwestern's coverage was outstanding. But Jack Mitchell missed both a 42-yarder -- a kick well within his range and one that would have given Northwestern an early lead -- as well as an extra point. Additionally, the Wildcats did themselves no favors in the return game, as they were pinned inside their own five on one punt and their lone kick return resulted in the offense starting inside its own 20 after a holding call.