Northwestern’s Season Ends with 45-6 Loss in Outback Bowl

The Northwestern Wildcats’ season came to a painfully abrupt end on New Years Day, with a 45-6 loss to the Tennessee Volunteers in the Outback Bowl.

outbackbowlrecapphotoClayton Thorson saved his worst game of the season for the biggest one, unfortunately, with 57 yards on 8-20 passing, two interceptions and no scores. Justin Jackson only saw 14 carries for 74 yards as Northwestern offense’s blemishes blossomed just in time for the national stage.

Tennessee was led by Outback Bowl MVP Jalen Hurd, who shredded Northwestern’s defense with 130 yards on 24 carries and one touchdown. Quarterback Josh Dobbs gained 214 all-purpose yards and added two rushing touchdowns in the victory.

Northwestern’s offense struggled early and never really found any kind of rhythm. Thorson was 1-6 for seven yards through the air in the first quarter, which was not helped by a couple of dropped passes and an interception thrown midway through the quarter.

Luckily for the Wildcats, the interception led to a missed field goal by Tennessee. Not to be outdone, Jack Mitchell, who would also miss an extra point later in the half, responded with a missed 42-yard field goal try of his own. In fact, it looked to be a defensive battle until Dobbs broke things open with a 42 yard pass to a wide open Alex Ellis in the middle of the field, leading to a 14 yard touchdown run by Dobbs to put Tennessee up 7-0 early.

Northwestern was finally able to put together a scoring drive late in the second quarter, a 12 play, 75 yard drive capped off by a five yard touchdown run by Jackson. Of the 12 plays on this drive, nine of them were run plays by Jackson, Thorson and Warren Long. The Wildcats hoped that this drive would be a turning point in the game as they cut the Tennessee lead to 10-6, but the momentum wouldn’t last long.

The Vols responded immediately with a 9 play, 75 yard drive of their own, which led to an 11 yard touchdown run by Alvin Kamara to put Tennessee up 17-6 heading into halftime.

Tennessee put together yet another long drive on Northwestern in the third quarter leading to a touchdown, and Thorson’s second interception of the game on the next Northwestern drive iced this one for the Wildcats.

Northwestern’s defense faced their toughest battle of the season as well, as Tennessee almost completely neutralized the defensive line; the majority of Northwestern’s tackles came down the field by their safeties, led by Traveon Henry. They gave up 420 total yards, including 226 yards rushing (double their season average), and 45 points was the most points they had given up in a game all season.

This game also exposed every single one of Northwestern’s offensive shortcomings, from their lack of offensive weapons, to their questionable play calling (which yet again abandoned the run once they faced a deficit) to their not-ready-for-prime-time quarterback. Over the course of the season the defense has been able to carry the offense, but the Vols were even able to break that group down. As good as the defense has been, they are not good enough to compensate when there is absolutely no support coming from the offense, as was the case in this one.

It was a tough game for the Wildcats’ seniors, playing in their final game. Dan Vitale and Christian Jones, Thorson’s top two targets this season, combined for zero catches and Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson had almost no impact on the game as the defensive line was dominated by Tennessee’s offensive attack.

There were very few bright spots in this game, but notable were the performances of Anthony Walker, Godwin Igwebuike and Keith Watkins, who will all be integral pieces of this defense next season. But this game showed just how much work this offense has to do going into the off-season, and that starts with Thorson and his wide receivers.

Despite leading his team to a ten win season, Thorson will have to earn that starting quarterback spot back again next year. Losing Vitale, Jones and Miles Shuler is going to put even more focus on who is going to step up into those roles. Jackson will be a junior next season, but as we saw today, there is only so much he can do if the offense is one-dimensional. Thorson will need to develop some kind of game in the pocket if he wants to maintain the job he won at the start of this year.

One bad game (and don’t get me wrong, it was bad…) should not overshadow a season that was leaps and bounds above expectations. Getting to the Outback Bowl was a major accomplishment for Northwestern. But given the way they played, it is glaringly obvious just how far they still have to go to be a force in the Big Ten.