Strong run games of Northwestern, Tennessee meet in Outback Bowl

Outback Bowl
Northwestern (10-2) vs. Tennessee (8-4)
Tampa, Florida
Jan. 1, 2016

Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker (18) celebrates with safety Godwin Igwebuike (16). (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker (18) celebrates with safety Godwin Igwebuike (16). (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

The Outback Bowl is a battle of two teams riding five-game winning streaks: Northwestern and Tennessee.

Northwestern bounced back from back-to-back blowout losses to Michigan (38-0) and Iowa (40-10) to reel off its last five over mediocre Big Ten competition to reach the 10-win mark for the second time in Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure.

The Wildcats’ margin of victory in those games was a combined 27 points, so they haven’t exactly been beating up on their opponents. Instead, Northwestern has stuck with a familiar formula of excelling defensively and doing just enough on offense to pull out victories.

The Wildcats are 11th in the nation in total defense, have registered a pair of shutouts and limited ranked teams Stanford and Wisconsin to just six and seven points respectively.

All-Big Ten sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker leads the way for the Northwestern defense with 113 tackles and 19 tackles for loss. Matthew Harris leads the NU secondary with four interceptions, but his counterpart, senior Nick VanHoose (41 tackles, 3 INT), will miss the game due to a finger injury.

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Northwestern’s 13th-ranked rush defense has the challenge of containing the heavy rushing attack of Tennessee.

Led by running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and quarterback Joshua Dobbs, the Vols used their 21st-ranked rushing offense (223.5 rushing yards per game – second in the SEC) to bounce back from a 3-4 start and finish the regular season at 8-4.

At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Hurd is a load to bring to the turf and is extremely effective in the red zone. He led the team with 1,158 yards and 11 touchdowns while Kamara, a junior college transfer who began his career at Alabama, rushed for 645 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs. (Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs. (Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

Dobbs has had an up-and-down season as a passer. He averages only 177 yards per game and has completed only 59 percent of his passes, but he can kill a defense with his legs (623 yards, 9 TDs). That skill was on display when he rushed for 118 yards and two scores in a comeback win over Georgia – the win that sparked Tennessee’s current winning streak.

Like Tennessee, Northwestern’s offense mainly relies on the run. Justin Jackson was second in the Big Ten with 1,344 yards and freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson led the Wildcats with five rushing touchdowns to go with his 374 yards.

Could the game come down to which side stops the run? It could be that simple. Neither team has a receiver with more than 400 receiving yards.


Graham: Northwestern is on the cusp of its first 11-win season in school history and I don’t think they pass up that opportunity. Tennessee has been a disappointment this year and that disappointment continues. Northwestern 17, Tennessee 10.

Nick: Will Tennessee see a repeat of last season against another Big Ten team? The Vols demolished Iowa in the Taxslayer bowl at the end of the 2014 season. I can't see Northwestern getting blown out. Vols win to elevate its preseason expectations once again. Tennessee 27, Northwestern 20.

Sam: I don't know what exactly it is about Northwestern, but that team always just finds a way to win. The Wildcats aren't spectacular in any facets, but I think they find a way to frustrate and beat the Vols. I think. Northwestern 24, Tennessee 21. 

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Sam Cooper is a contributor for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!