The Vols found out on Sunday evening that they will be taking on the Northwestern Wildcats on January 1st at noon in the Outback Bowl in Tampa Bay, Florida. The match-up pits the No. 23 Vols against the No. 13 Wildcats in what will be Tennessee’s second-straight bowl appearance and second-straight bowl game against a Big Ten opponent.
There are already plenty of story-lines to look into early into the scouting process for this one, and here are five early observations for the Vols’ match-up against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
Feelin’ Like ’97 and ’07: The meeting in Tampa Bay will be the first time the Vols and Wildcats have played since they met in the same state in Orlando on January 1, 1997 in the Citrus Bowl. The Vols prevailed over the Wildcats in that game 48-28 behind Peyton Manning’s masterful performance, completing 27-of-39 passes for 408 yards and four scores. Manning even added a rushing touchdown in that game.
A win over the Wildcats this season would give the Vols their 9th win this year, their most wins in a season since 2007 when they capped off a 10-win campaign with a victory over Wisconsin in, appropriately enough, the Outback Bowl.
Just Like Last Game: Or the last two games to be exact. The Vols have faced two teams with potent defenses and putrid offenses in their last two games when they faced Missouri and Vanderbilt to close out the season. Those two games resulted in 19-8 and 53-28 victories respectively for the Vols.
The match-up with Northwestern bodes similarly from a statistical standpoint for the Vols. The Wildcats are ranked in the top 25 in the NCAA in passing defense, rushing defense, total defense, and scoring defense but are 112th or worse in passing offense, total offense, and scoring offense. Those numbers are eerily similar to both Missouri and Vanderbilt, teams the Vols handled to close out the season.
If the Vols can execute on offense like they did against Vanderbilt, then they should be in for a win on New Year’s Day.
Runnin’ Wild: Although Northwestern may not have the most electric offense the Vols have faced this season, they can do one thing really well: run the ball.
The Wildcats have run for 2,319 yards this season, just 363 yards shy of Tennessee’s mark this year. Similar to the Vols, the Wildcats’ main back is a bruising sophomore who has carried the bulk of the load for Northwestern all season. Justin Jackson has carried the ball 298 times for 1,344 yards and four scores this year, following up a freshman campaign in which he ran for 1,187 yards on 245 carries and scored 10 times. Jackson is easily Northwestern’s best weapon on offense, and he will be one of the better running backs the Vols have faced this year.
Also like the Vols, Northwestern has a dual-threat quarterback. Although not as effective through the air as Josh Dobbs, freshman Clayton Thorson has run for 374 yards on 88 carries and has 5 rushing touchdowns. He’s the team’s second-leading rusher and most notably ran for 126 yards in a game against Nebraska earlier this season.
Better Protection: Over the last two games, the Vols have done a much better job of keeping quarterback Josh Dobbs’ uniform clean. The Vols’ offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack in two games, and they have a chance to keep that streak alive against Northwestern.
Neither Missouri nor Vanderbilt could sack Dobbs over the last two games, and Northwestern has similar numbers to what the Tigers and Commodores finished with in terms of defensive disruption. The Wildcats’ defense earned 28 sacks in the 2015 regular season while Missouri finished the season with 27 and Vanderbilt with 26.
Tennessee’s offensive line has improved drastically from last season’s historically bad performance, and they have another chance to prove they’ve taken a step by slowing down Northwestern’s pass rush.
A Chance for a Record: With one more kickoff return for a score, sophomore Evan Berry would tie Willie Gualt’s career mark of 4 touchdowns and break his single-season mark of 3 scores. And Berry just might have his chance against the Wildcats.
Northwestern has been extremely stingy on punt returns this season, allowing a mere 2.1 yards a return on punts. But their kickoff coverage has been a little more leaky, allowing opponents to return the ball an average of 20.7 yards a return. And the Wildcats have already allowed one kickoff return score this season, letting Michigan return one 96 yards for a score in a 38-0 drubbing over Northwestern on October 10th.
Berry has ripped off three touchdowns on kickoff returns this season and has been dangerously close on several other occasions. He just might get his chance to break that record against Northwestern.