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Northwestern-Tennessee recap: Player grades from the Wildcats' 45-6 Outback Bowl loss

The Wildcats got crushed by a superior Tennessee team in a disappointing finish to their successful 2015 season.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern was able to stay close to the Tennessee Volunteers for much of the first half in Friday's Outback Bowl in Tampa, but faded in the second quarter, and collapse in the second half of a 45-6 loss that was almost as much of a one-sided affair as the score would indicate. The offense, outside of Justin Jackson, couldn't get anything going all day, while the defense was trampled by the combination of Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. It was a disappointing day all around for the entire team.

Let's get to the grades:

Clayton Thorson

Grade: D+

8/20, 57 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT; 12 carries, 23 yards

Thorson, as has been noted the entire season on this website, has struggled with bouts of inconsistency, especially when facing top defenses (see the Iowa and Michigan games) that bring a lot of pressure. Tennessee doesn't have a top defense, per se, but did a great job at making Thorson rush his progressions and, subsequently, hurry up his decision-making process.

This led to two very bad interceptions for the freshman which eliminated any positive momentum the Wildcats were able to build through their ground game and defense. But, other than that, it kept Thorson from developing a rhythm with his receivers and limited Northwestern from gaining much yardage at all. He had a few nice runs but he wasn't able to get much, if anything, else on the afternoon. It was a nightmare game all around.

Zack Oliver

Grade: D-

6/13, 72 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT

Oliver came in for Thorson in the fourth quarter. He didn't do well, throwing two more interceptions. When your passing game combined for four picks and less than 130 yards, it's unlikely your team put up much of a fight.

Justin Jackson

Grade: B+

14 carries, 74 yards, 1 TD; 2 catches, 15 yards

Considering Northwestern was losing big for much of the game, it's not surprising to see that Jackson, who was the Wildcats' only bright spot, ran the ball just 14 times. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall tried to establish the pass game in the first half, and then with Northwestern down big, Jackson became a non-factor. Anyway, Jackson wasn't the reason Northwestern lost by 39 today.

Wide Receivers

Grade: F

Part of this grade is due to the poor play of the quarterbacks, but the wideouts (and converted running backs) simply were awful. There were dropped passes everywhere, (ones by Austin Carr, Dan Vitale and Christian Jones come to mind) as even the few good pass attempts by Thorson and Oliver were mishandled. This is clearly a position that has to improve in the future, and is likely Northwestern's worst position group.

Offensive Line

Grade: C-

The Tennessee defensive front -- mainly Derek Barnett, Darrin Kirkland and Jalen Reeves-Maybin -- was in the Northwestern backfield all game, as the Volunteers combined for four sacks and eight tackles for loss. As Pat Fitzgerald said after the Iowa and Michigan losses -- as well as after today's -- his team lost the battle of the line of scrimmage badly, which was a main reason for the huge defeat. Thorson had no time to throw all day, which he didn't help by constantly going out of the pocket where he had even less protection, as the game's tempo was dictated by Butch Jones' team.

Defensive Line

Grade: C-

The defensive line was just as bad as its offensive counterpart, as Tennessee ran all over the Wildcats with ease. Jalen Hurd had 130 yards on the ground on just 24 attempts, and added a touchdown, while Alvin Kamara and Dobbs combined for 23 carries, 101 yards and three scores. By no means was the Northwestern pass defense dominant, but Tennessee won this game, at least offensively, upfront on the ground.


Grade: C

Not all of the blame for the Volunteers' 226 rushing yards belongs to the line, though, as the linebackers didn't help the cause much. On the ESPN2 broadcast of the game, it was mentioned repeatedly how multiple Wildcats defenders -- like Anthony Walker -- were struggling with the Florida heat, which clearly affected their ability to make plays on Volunteers' rushers. Too many times there were missed tackles, miscommunications and failed assignments that led to big gains on the ground, but also through the air (note the two long passes to tight end Alex Ellis right up the middle of the field).

Anthony Walker

Grade: B-

7 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack

Walker made some of his trademark stunning open-field tackles today -- most notably one of a running Dobbs on a first-quarter third-down attempt -- but had a tough second half (along with Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry). Maybe the biggest flaw of his day, though, and of the entire defense's was that Tennessee did not commit a turnover all game. Walker has been great at making plays on the ball this year for interceptions or fumbles but wasn't able to do that, which let the Volunteers continue to drive down the field for points.


Grade: B

Outside of the two long passes to Ellis and other big gains during garbage time, the secondary actually was decent today. You can't blame guys like Traveon Henry (16 total tackles), Godwin Igwebuike (14 total tackles) and Keith Watkins and Matthew Harris (four pass breakups between them) for the ease with which Tennessee ran the ball, since they were forced to make tackles down the field after Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs broke through the first two layers of the defense.

Those guys were the only ones, mostly, to make plays on a tired defense that was run over by a faster, more talented and better conditioned defense. Also, if they didn't deflect as many passes as they did, the Volunteers might have hit 60 points.

Special Teams

Grade: F

Jack Mitchell missed the only extra point he took today as well as the only field goal he attempted (42 yards). Hunter Niswander punted the ball seven times with an average of 34 yards per attempt. The cherry on top was a 10 yard punt. It's hard to get much worse than that.

Coaching Staff

Grade: D+

It's hard to fault the coaching staff for a loss like this in which Northwestern got so roundly outplayed by a team that is clearly more talented, but the offensive playcalling of Mick McCall -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- did Clayton Thorson no favors early on. Instead of sticking to the running game on key 3rd downs, he went back to the ineffective screen pass that has failed to work all year. In general, the scheme didn't present Tennessee with many challenges. Abandoning the best part of your offense in the first quarter is a surefire path to failure against a formidable SEC foe.