Northwestern’s offense struggled throughout 2015. It’s first game of 2016 wasn’t any different.
The Cats had nothing happening on the offensive side of the ball Friday, and a defense that was one of the nation’s finest this season was dominated by the Tennessee rushing attack in a 45-6 loss in the Outback Bowl.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson didn’t play well, bothered by many of the same issues that plagued him throughout his redshirt freshman campaign. Thorson was completely shut down by the Tennessee defense, completing eight of his 20 passing attempts for just 57 yards and a pair of interceptions. And even an oft-reliable rushing attack led by Justin Jackson was snuffed out Friday. Jackson carried the ball just 14 times for 74 yards, the Cats totaling just 132 yards on the ground.
In the end, it meant only 261 total yards and just six points as Northwestern failed in its goal to win 11 games in a season for the first time in program history.
But while offensive struggles could’ve been predicted, Northwestern’s defense allowing a big day was far more surprising. The Cats boasted one of the country’s best defenses this season, but the Volunteers had little trouble carving it up, totaling 420 yards of offense. Running back Jalen Hurd went for 130 yards on the afternoon as quarterback Joshua Dobbs combined for 166 passing yards and 48 rushing yards. Tennessee had 226 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns as a team.
After a bit of early punt-trading, Thorson made the game’s first big mistake, throwing an interception on the first play of a Northwestern drive, setting Tennessee up at the Cats’ 22-yard line. But the Vols followed by committing an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that pushed them back to the fringes of field-goal range, and Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley missed a 49-yard attempt.
The Cats took over and moved down the field in a hurry thanks to two more personal-foul penalties on the Vols. But just like Tennessee did moments earlier, Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell missed a 42-yard field goal to keep the game scoreless.
That missed opportunity immediately punished the Cats, as Dobbs found tight end Alex Ellis for a 41-yard gain down the middle of the field. Several plays later, Dobbs strolled into the end zone from 14 yards out to give his team a 7-0 lead at the close of the first quarter.
After another three and out by the Northwestern offense, Tennessee marched right down the field, picking up four first downs before the Cats defense stopped the Vols in the red zone. Tennessee settled for a 35-yard field goal to boost its lead to 10-0.
Northwestern responded, though, with a 12-play, 75-yard drive featuring a heavy dose of Justin Jackson. The sophomore running back converted a big fourth-down attempt by the Cats, gained 16 yards on the ensuing carry and scored from five yards out to cap the touchdown drive. Thorson also had a big pickup on the ground during the march, going for 21 yards on a scramble. Mitchell clanked the extra point off the upright, the score slicing the Tennessee lead to 10-6.
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Northwestern gear right here]
The Vols responded in kind, going 75 yards in nine plays. Matt Harris’ holding penalty on a third down negated an Anthony Walker sack, and two plays later Dobbs hit Ellis for another big gain, this one of 22 yards. Before long, Tennessee was all the way to the Northwestern 11-yard line, and Alvin Kamara easily ran into the end zone from there to put the Vols ahead 17-6, where the score stood at halftime.
After Tennessee’s first drive of the second half ended in a ridiculous failed fake field goal, the Vols eventually did strike in the third quarter. A 14-play, 67-yard drive featured a big 26-yard pass play by Dobbs and was capped with a three-yard touchdown run by Hurd after he picked up a first down on fourth and one two plays prior. That score boosted the Tennessee lead to a commanding 24-6.
Just a few plays following that score, Thorson threw his second interception of the game, bringing a quick end to a critical drive with the score what it was.
Dobbs and Hurd continued to light up the Northwestern defense, as Hurd rushed for 40 yards on an 80-yard drive capped by a terrific play by Dobbs, in which he fumbled the snap, picked the ball up and scampered 18 yards for a touchdown. That score extended the blowout to 31-6.
After Zack Oliver entered in relief of Thorson and promptly threw an interception of his own, Tennessee added a late touchdown with backups in the game, bringing the score to 38-6, and another Oliver interception was taken back for a touchdown in the game's final minute, making it 45-6.
Northwestern's season ended with a thud, but it was still one of the most successful in program history. The 2015 team joined teams from 2012, 1995 and 1903 as the only Cats groups to win 10 games in a single season.