It ended the way it started: on a balmy field, just a handful of purple jerseys in the stands, with the cock-eyed optimism only possible on the untainted grass of a new year. If the 'Cats could beat Stanford, known for churning out names like Harbaugh and Luck, and if they could shut down eventual Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey, what was Tennessee? NU pulled off that Week One upset with a quarterback no one was sure of, a ball carrier who ran like a live Wildcat, a coach who looms larger than a team and a great defense. But the defense that coach molded to play to the level of his former All-American self couldn’t quite stop the most powerful offense they had faced since opening day on Saturday afternoon in Tampa.
No. 13 Northwestern (10-3, 6-2 B1G) fell to The Tennessee Volunteers (8-4, 5-3 SEC) 45-6 in the Outback Bowl to close out one of their best seasons in the last 20 years. The stout Northwestern defense was unbreakable early but couldn't contain a team that had thrice scored more than 50 points, and a Northwestern offense that over 13 weeks varied between electric, resilient and soporific gathered little energy to overcome a defense that held Alabama to 19 points.
All the elements that made this one of the most dynamic teams since Fitzgerald wore a jersey for NU were on display early with the tackle-shucking 15-yard sprints from Justin Jackson and the improbable 20-yard scrambles from Clayton Thorson. Keith Watkins stepped up for injured cornerback Nick Vanhoose to make multiple deflections downfield. The defensive line kept Volunteer quarterback Joshua Dobbs under pressure all afternoon, and Anthony Walker, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Nate Hall combined for three sacks.
But all the elements were that led to 30 point blowouts at the hands of Michigan and Iowa were also on display. Thorson under-threw twice to give UT easy picks. Jack Mitchell muffed an extra point on NU's line touchdown. Shoddy punts gave Tennessee great field position and blown coverages allowed them to march downfield. By the fourth quarter, Thorson was benched and Zack Oliver was throwing interceptions (including a 100-yard pick six) in his stead. Thorson finished with just 57 yards through the air on 20 passing attempts.
The game began as a defensive trench fight, the kind the ‘Cats rode to victory against Stanford and Duke when they were still unranked underdogs. Northwestern forced three and outs on Tennessee’s first three drives, holding them to a combined -1 yard of offense. Against an aggressive Tennessee team, Northwestern looked poised and focused. After a Thorson pick gave Tennessee the ball in the redzone, Tennessee receiver Jauan Jennings pushed Watkins out of bounds, earning an unsportsmanlike conduct call that put the Vols all but out of field goal range. After they missed the 49-yard attempt, two more unsportsmanlike calls gave the Wildcats 30 more yards.
However, Northwestern couldn’t advance much farther and Mitchell missed a 42-yarder. Tennessee had 67 penalty yards to Northwestern’s seven, but the Wildcats couldn’t take advantage.
Then Tennessee started driving. The Vols drove 75 yards downfield and Dobbs rushed untouched 14 yards into the endzone. After a Wildcat three and out, UT grabbed a field goal to go ahead 10-0.
With the game running away from him, Fitzgerald took a risk on the following drive. With 4th and 1 on NU's 34, he went for it instead of punting. Jackson just pushed over the line, setting up a 75-yard drive that he finished off with five-yard touchdown run. It would be the only touchdown of the day for NU.
Northwestern’s defense patrolled the skies, but they couldn’t stop the infantry. Dobbs and Tennessee’s runningbacks (including 6'4" monster Jalen Hurd) combined for five rushing touchdowns as a what initially seemed to be a close matchup quickly became a blowout.
Jackson finished with 74 yards on 14 carries, pushing the sophomore to fifth all time in Northwestern history.
With the loss, Northwestern fell to 2-10 in bowl games all time. They have one victory across more than six decades, a 34-20 win over Mississippi State on January 1, 2013.