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Battle at line of scrimmage, not 'SEC Speed,' dooms Northwestern in Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee

The Volunteers dominated upfront on both sides of the ball, leading to a 45-6 blowout.

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

TAMPA -- As he does at the beginning of every fourth quarter, Pat Fitzgerald gathered his team near midfield. But for just the third time all year, his team was trailing at that point. He looked around as he spoke, his mannerisms became more animated and the veins in his neck more pronounced with each word. He barked at his team and his players barked back, encouraging each other as they readied for a potential comeback.

As the circle closed in around him, getting smaller and smaller against the vast see of orange populating Raymond James Stadium, Fitzgerald paused and began to pound his chest. His team -- trailing No. 23 Tennessee (9-4, 5-3 SEC) 24-6 -- didn't just need a spark. It needed a complete restart. And in that moment, in the brief time before the final period of its season, the Wildcats still clung to a sliver of hope.

On the first play of the quarter, No. 13 Northwestern (10-3, 6-2 Big Ten) stopped Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd two yards short of a first down, setting up a critical third-and-two with the Volunteers still in their own territory. On the next play, quarterback Joshua Dobbs again handed the ball to Hurd. Northwestern defensive tackle Greg Kuhar broke through the line and wrapped up the six-foot-four, 240-pound running back a few yards behind the line of scrimmage.

But the massive running back, as he had done all game long, escaped Kuhar's grasp and found refuge in the open field. Twenty-four yards later, the sophomore was finally brought down. It was the longest run of his 130-yard day. Six plays later, the Volunteers went up 31-6 on an 18-yard run by Dobbs, who Northwestern was unable to corral after fumbling the ball in his own backfield. The game, for all intents and purposes, ended on that drive. Tennessee tacked on two more touchdowns to finish off the 45-6 victory.

"He's a strong back," Northwestern defensive end Deonte Gibson said about Hurd, who won the game's MVP award. "He's a longer-limbed back so when you wrap up, you've gotta wrap and drive because he's a big guy. He's going to have a special career."

The fashion in which Tennessee dominated the game went against the played-out narrative about the SEC's superior speed when compared to the Big Ten. The SEC-Big Ten rivalry is mostly one of egos; a clash of cultures that both love, celebrate and play football, but do so in different ways. But the Wildcats matched up well with Tennessee on the perimeter. Safeties Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike combined for 30 total tackles and flew around the field. The five Tennessee wide receivers to catch a pass combined for just 77 yards. Both Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins -- starting in place of the injured Nick VanHoose -- played well. The real damage through the air came on passes to tight ends in the middle of the field.

But in the matchup between the Volunteer rushing attack -- ranked 21st in the nation -- and Northwestern's rush defense -- ranked 13th -- Hurd and co. dominated. In total, Tennessee ran for 226 yards, the most given up by the highly ranked Northwestern defense since Iowa gashed it for 294 in October. The Wildcats' front four rarely penetrated Tennessee's backfield and even when it did, stopping Hurd, Dobbs and Alvin Kamara, another Volunteer running back, proved too difficult. The defensive line combined for just 17 tackles, just over 20 percent of the Wildcats total stops.

As the game wore on, Tennesee offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson said, the Volunteers' three-yard runs started turning into seven- and eight-yard gains, mentioning that Northwestern players were "taking a knee during timeouts, bending over, hands on their hips." Tennessee racked up 153 rushing yards in the second half alone.

"They're a good team," Kerbyson added. "They have good athletes on the defensive line. They play more of a basic defense. In the SEC, they do a lot of different stuff as defenses. Northwestern just likes to be good at one thing and they were really good at it. And it was really hard to find those gaps, to find those holes and we had to push the pedal to try to get where we wanted to go."

The bookend games of Northwestern's 2015 season could not have been more different. Northwestern dominated the line of scrimmage against physical Stanford offensive and defensive lines, lines that, as the season went on, proved to be some of the best units in the country. Tennessee, though, dominated the battles up front on both offense and defense, and when it did, the Wildcats had no answer.

"There were three games this year where we didn't win the line of scrimmage," Fitzgerald said. "It was today, Iowa and Michigan. So I think there's a theme there. For us to be successful, we have got to win on the LOS. And, ten times we did. I don't think we're that far away."