After the Wildcats and Volunteers traded three-and-outs to open the game, the Northwestern offense found some success on the ground, converting a few first downs, but still left the field without points on the board. An early Clayton Thorson interception on the Wildcats’ own 22 would seemingly set the Volunteers up for a golden scoring opportunity, but it was squandered by a personal foul that forced Aaron Medley to attempt a 48-yard field goal, which clanked off the right upright. The Vols would have to wait. After committing a few late hits on the following Northwestern drive, the Volunteers had handed the ‘Cats a golden scoring opportunity of their own - which also fell to the wayside as a 42-yard FG attempt by Jack Mitchell also sailed wide right.
With the minutes winding down in the opening quarter, and zeros still on the board for both teams, Tennessee built momentum off a 42 yard completion from Joshua Dobbs to Alex Ellis. The completion into Northwestern territory sparked a 7-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 14-yard touchdown run by Dobbs. After a 35-yard field goal with 10:45 left in the second quarter pushed the Vols’ ahead 10-0, Northwestern rediscovered their earlier success on the ground - piecing together a 12-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 5-yard touchdown run by Justin Jackson. Mitchell would miss the extra point as well, and the score was cut to 10-6. Little did anyone know at the time, it would be the only time Northwestern would score.
Soon after the ‘Cats got themselves on the board, Tennessee was able to steal the momentum back for good. Having seemingly sacked Dobbs on 3rd and 8, the Wildcats’ were dealt a holding penalty. Two plays later, the Volunteers made their way to the Northwestern 30. Five plays later, the Volunteers had scored again on an 11-yard touchdown run by Alvin Kamara. Instead of having the opportunity to build off the momentum of a touchdown and a stop, and potentially even take a halftime lead, Northwestern found itself heading to the locker room, trailing 17-6, with Tennessee receiving the ball in the second half. “It (the touchdown) was big, you know, and we knew that we were going to get the ball to start the second half, so any time you can have momentum going in is very, very important,” said Tennessee Head Coach Butch Jones.
Equally important for the Vols today was their sophomore running back Jalen Hurd. Hurd ultimately became the Outback Bowl MVP with 130 rushing yards and a TD. Even more impressively, Hurd was a game-time decision after injuring his hamstring in practice earlier this week. Butch Jones was impressed by Hurd’s tenacity, saying, “We talk about T-tough. He was T-tough, and he said, ‘I can go.’” Hurd added, “I put in my mind that I was going to play either way, and that’s what I did tonight."
The final Tennessee score came off an interception with eight seconds left in the game. Northwestern’s backup QB Zack Oliver attempted to get the Wildcats on the board a second time, but found Tennessee’s Evan Berry in the endzone instead. The sophomore was able to return the interception all the way to the house, capping the Vols effort at 45-6.
While both teams hope to improve in 2016, the Northwestern Wildcats are now tasked with finding answers to take the next step forward in the B1G and on a national level. “We haven’t been to 10 wins a lot. We’re trying to become a team that puts themselves consistently and competitively at the top of our league, and competes the same way nationally, and obviously with today’s outcome, we’re far from where we need to be,” said Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald. He added, “You credit those three teams that beat you (Iowa, Michigan and Tennessee), and then you spend the whole offseason looking at the areas that you did well, and then you look at those games and you pound your head against the post and you figure out why it didn’t work out this week, why it didn’t work this game, and then you try to create solutions and find ways to fix it.”
For Tennessee, the focus shifts to the momentum they will undoubtedly carry into their 2016 campaign. Three of the four teams the young Vols lost to in 2015 are currently ranked. Tennessee was in position to beat all of them, but had the opportunities slip away. Two of those teams, Oklahoma and Alabama, participated in this season’s College Football Playoff. Alabama will be playing in the National Championship against Clemson on January 11th. “The road to success is always under construction, and we need to continue to recruit and develop, and continue to grow and elevate our football program,” Jones said. “But where we've come in three short years is amazing.” Dobbs, the Vols’ quarterback, added, “To come out today and compete like we did, hold them to the points we did, and do what we did on offense, that was great. The sky’s the limit. We just need to put in the work this offseason to reach our potential.”
According to Jones, the fourth and final aspect of building a successful football program is handling and building off of success. With Tennessee closing the season with six straight victories, including a January bowl game against a higher-ranked opponent, the Volunteers certainly have plenty to build off of heading into 2016. Tennessee should be the preseason favorite to win the embattled SEC East, and can easily be considered a College Football Playoff dark horse - a team just on the periphery, but one to still keep a close eye on. With seven months separating us from the next college football season to see if the Vols can live up to their potential, one can only imagine we saw a glimpse of what the Volunteers are truly capable of in Tampa today.