Northwestern Bowl Preview: Wide Receiver

In our preview of the Outback Bowl quarterback battle we previewed to men, Clayton Thorson and Joshua Dobbs, who know how to create offense on their own with their legs. But what we did not consider is the weapons each player has through the air. Dobbs has more options down the field, while Thorson may have the most reliable receiver on both teams.

pearsonThe Volunteers’ wide receivers finished the year with 204 receptions for 2,388 yards, 11.7 YPC and 17 touchdowns. The receiving corps is far deeper than Northwestern’s, three players had over 300 yards receiving on the season, and more versatility than Northwestern as well.

The Vols are led by senior Von Pearson. Pearson overcame some controversy this off-season as the focus of a sexual assault investigation. Once an investigation did not show sufficient evidence to sustain prosecution, his interim suspension was lifted and Pearson joined his team. He led the team in receptions with 36, and tied for the lead in touchdowns with three.

Aside from Pearson, Tennessee’s weapons include Josh Malone, who led the team in passing yards with 388 and was one of four receivers to average more than 13 yards per reception. They can beat you with the short pass to Alvin Kamara or the deep bomb to Josh Smith or Ethan Wolf. The Northwestern secondary will have their hands full.

The Wildcats’ wide receivers did not make the same impact, finishing with 160 catches for only 1,672 yards, 10.5 YPC and eight touchdowns. Their only real reliable receiver this season has been senior super back Dan Vitale. Vitale led the team in receptions with 33, yards with 355 and touchdowns with four.

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Wide receiver was Northwestern’s weakest position this season. Senior Christian Jones, coming off a knee injury last season, was supposed to step in as their number one target but he under whelmed. Jones never quite found a rhythm with Thorson and had an issue all season with dropped passes.

We saw flashes of potential from Austin Carr and Mike McHugh at times, but nobody was able emerge as a consistent option other than Vitale. The receivers were so ineffective that defenses didn’t even really have to game plan much for them.

The key to stopping Tennessee’s receivers is putting pressure on the offensive line and getting to Dobbs. Dobbs doesn’t force a lot of throws and was sacked 19 times this year. Dobbs is most dangerous when he is unpredictable and that’ll be the case more often than not when he is given time in the pocket to read the defense and make the best decision. With Nick VanHoose out, the pressure will be on Northwestern to take the receivers out of the game.

The key to stopping Northwestern’s pass game is simple; force them to pass. The receivers have trouble getting open and when they are they have had trouble hanging onto the football. Thorson is playing in the biggest game of his young career and will likely be very conservative, depending on short passes to Vitale, but the Wildcats’ having so few options down the field make them very easy to defend.

Advantage: Tennessee