Outback Bowl: Match-ups to Watch

Outback-Bowl-2016We are a day away from the Outback Bowl where the Northwestern Wildcats, coming off their record-setting 10-2 season, will face the Tennessee Volunteers. Northwestern has the better defense and Tennessee the better all-around offense, and with several weeks to do nothing but scout each other, there should be no surprises on either side.

We’ve broken down both teams by position group, so now we look at a few of the key match-ups to watch on New Years Day.

Joshua Dobbs vs. Northwestern’s Front 7

 Dobbs is one of the very few duel threat quarterbacks Northwestern has seen this season. He kept defenses honest, running the ball 134 times for 623 yards and 9 touchdowns on the season. This is going to turn the focus to Northwestern’s linebacker group, led by breakout star Anthony Walker.

Walker was the team’s leader on defense all season, tallying 113 tackles with 19.5 TFL. In fact, he saw his best outing against the only real duel threat QB they saw this year, Thomas Sirk of Duke. Walker recorded a season-high 19 tackles against the Blue Devils, with his eye on Sirk the entire game. This is the kind of outing they are going to need from Walker in order to limit what Dobbs can do with the offense.

Northwestern’s defensive line will be counted on to put pressure on the offensive line and get to Dobbs, who was sacked 19 times this season. Northwestern’s D-Line is anchored on either side by Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, who both had phenomenal season for one of the nation’s best defenses. Gibson led the team in sacks with eight, and Lowry came up with three sacks of his own, as well as 13.5 TFL and an interception.

Tennessee receivers vs. Northwestern secondary

 Tennessee doesn’t necessarily have a top tier wide receiver, but they do have multiple players with the ability to make plays for them on offense and a quarterback who makes very few mistakes. Dobbs only threw five interceptions on the year while running one of the most efficient offenses in the SEC.

On one side of the ball are three wide receivers who recorded over 300 yards each on the season, Josh Malone (388), Von Pearson (377) and Josh Smith (307). Dobbs knows these guys well and will look to spread the field and get on the board early against a Northwestern team that struggles through the air.

On the other side is the second best pass defense in the Big Ten, only giving up 138.2 passing yards per game. While the secondary still has weapons, they will be without their biggest star Nick VanHoose, who will miss this game with a finger tendon injury. The man attempting to fill his shoes is Matthew Harris, who has had an outstanding season of his own for Northwestern. Harris has snatched four interceptions to go with 16 pass deflections and has been a nightmare for opposing wide receivers trying to get open. With VanHoose out, he’ll need help from safeties Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike, who was second on the team in tackles with 73.

Justin Jackson vs. Mick McCall

Looking at what made Northwestern successful on offense this season, it doesn’t take a football expert to see it starts and ends with Justin Jackson. Northwestern finished their season 10-2. In the ten wins, Jackson ran the ball at least 20 times in each of those games. In the two losses, he ran the ball 22 times combined.

The play calling on offense is going to be something to watch in this game, and if Northwestern wants to have a shot to win, Jackson will need somewhere in the ballpark of 28 carries. The real test will come if they wind up behind early or if Tennessee’s defense targets Northwestern’s run game early. Will McCall and company stick with their strength or go to the air the way they did when they fell behind early against Michigan and Iowa?

Jackson’s success and Northwestern’s commitment to the run game has a ripple effect on the rest of the team. If they can move the ball on the ground it extends drives, takes the pressure off of Thorson and keeps the defense off the field longer. But if McCall’s play calling is too predictable early, their lack of skill players on offensive and limited playbook could become a detriment.

Clayton Thorson vs. Clayton Thorson

Nobody may feel as much pressure going into this game as the red shirt freshman. And why wouldn’t he, playing in a New Years Day Bowl game in his first season as a college quarterback for a team that continues to obliterate expectations. Thorson has had his ups and downs this season but one thing he has managed to do consistently is not give games away. He has been, at best and at worst, a game manager; struggling to put up points but rarely giving away the game.

He has been exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road player this team needed, throwing seven touchdowns to match his seven interceptions. He is just as likely to get a score as he is to turn the ball over.

With a player like that, the focus needs to be on the rest of the team putting him in the best position to succeed. He will be looked to for his judgment and patience, both of which have developed over the course of the year. But it will be on him to not let the pressure get to him. He has to avoid the temptation to force throws, especially with the lack of talent in his wide receiver corps.

Northwestern does not need Thorson to lead them to victory through the air – he only threw for multiple touchdowns once this season, three against Ball State. He’ll be looked to to pick up the occasional first down, and perhaps gain a few yards with his legs (he ran for five touchdowns on the year) if they can get the read option working. But the biggest threat to Clayton Thorson is Thorson himself. He’ll need to limit his mistakes as much as possible and continue doing what he has been doing all season – just enough to win.

Final Prediction: Northwestern – 17, Tennessee – 13