Northwestern will return to the Citrus Bowl for the first time in 23 years, and this time Pat Fitzgerald will be on the sideline.
The last time NU went to Orlando, the back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year anchored the Wildcat defense in his final collegiate game.
The 1996 ‘Cats (9-2), fresh off their second straight Big Ten title, came into the game ranked 11th and faced ninth-ranked Tennessee (9-2).
The Volunteers, who finished just behind eventual national champion Florida in the SEC East, were led by junior quarterback Peyton Manning, whom many scouts projected as the number one overall pick in that spring’s NFL Draft. Manning later decided to stay at Tennessee for his senior year and was drafted first by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998.
Northwestern was dealing with a flu bug, which hit star running back Darnell Autry, as well as 14 other players. Autry had just completed his second straight 1000-yard season, and his potential absence loomed large. Fortunately for Gary Barnett and the Wildcats, he suited up.
Right from the start, the Vols seized control. Tennessee marched down the field for an opening drive touchdown and then punched in another after intercepting a tipped pass from NU quarterback Steve Schnur that set them up at the 11-yard line.
Down 21-0, Northwestern’s offense came out firing in the second quarter, marching right down the field and scoring NU’s first points on a 2-yard pitch to Autry.
Three series later, after returning a punt to the UT 31-yard line, Brian Musso caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Schnur to make it 21-14.
With under three minutes to go in the half, Northwestern defensive back Mike Nelson Jr. recovered a fumble from Tennessee running back Jay Graham, and Autry tied things at 21 with a 28-yard scamper on the very next play.
Regroup at halftime after a drunk 30 minutes, right? Manning had other ideas. He found Joey Kent for a 67-yard score and, after a quick stop, Tennessee added a field goal as time expired to take a 31-21 lead going into the break. UT out-gained Northwestern in total yards, 340 to 96.
Turnovers plagued NU in the second half as the Wildcats tried to mount a comeback. On their first drive of the second half, Schnur threw a pass late to the inside of a receiver running an out route that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
Musso converted on a fourth-and-five attempt on the ensuing drive, only to cough up the ball in the red zone on the very next play. Schnur was intercepted throwing deep into double coverage early in the fourth quarter for his third pick of the day.
NU’s only points of the second half came on a 22-yard score to D’Wayne Bates. Tennessee defeated Northwestern 48-28.
Manning, named the game’s MVP, finished 27-for-39 for 408 yards and five total touchdowns.
Schnur went 25-for-45 for 228 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions. Autry ran for 71 yards on 17 attempts with two rushing touchdowns. Bates and Musso each caught 10 passes and a touchdown, for 97 and 91 yards, respectively.
Twenty-four years since he played in the game, Fitz will attempt to wash a Citrusy taste out of his mouth against a different SEC foe.