The only previous meeting between Tennessee and Northwestern came 19 years ago in the January 1, 1997 Citrus Bowl. It remains one of the best offensive performances in Tennessee bowl history, and one of the greatest passing displays in Peyton Manning's storied career. Back then Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald. And both programs were in the midst of their best run of the modern era.
The Good Year After The Great Year
In 1995 Tennessee went 11-1, ending a ten year winless streak against Alabama and finishing second in the coaches' poll. The Vols capped it by winning the Citrus Bowl over Heisman winner Eddie George and #4 Ohio State, still in my opinion the most talented team Tennessee has ever faced. With National Championship aspirations in 1996 the Vols lost 35-29 to eventual champion Florida, then lost for the first and only time to Memphis State on a fluke no-call during a should-have-been-ruled-down kickoff return. That second loss knocked the Vols out of the running for the Bowl Alliance (the BCS predecessor) and sent Tennessee back to Orlando for a second consecutive year.
Waiting was Northwestern, still riding high on one of the all-time turnaround stories. The Wildcats hadn't won the Big Ten since 1936 before coach Gary Barnett led them to a stunning 10-1 campaign in 1995. Northwestern opened 1996 ranked 13th, lost a stunner at Wake Forest in the opener, then ripped off seven straight wins before falling to Penn State. The Wildcats finished the year 9-2 and claimed a share of the Big Ten title, following their Rose Bowl season with a trip to the Citrus Bowl. The game in Orlando would be the program's third bowl appearance ever; the Wildcats' win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl following the 2012 season was their first and only bowl win since 1948.
On January 1, 1997 the Vols were ranked 9th and Northwestern 11th, meaning Tennessee will have faced two of the three best Northwestern teams of the modern era if not all-time.
The ABC telecast opens with Mark Jones (who will call this year's Outback Bowl as well) calling Pat Fitzgerald "The Human Roadblock". This includes a straight up 90s intro with Fitzgerald and Manning in the first 90 seconds that's well worth your click. The conversation for Tennessee quickly turns to Peyton Manning, widely believed to be playing his last collegiate game as his junior year rolled to a close. Unlike the following year with Ryan Leaf, there was no debate about the best quarterback on the board: Virginia Tech's Jim Druckenmiller would ultimately be the first QB taken in the 1997 draft, but not until the 26th pick. Manning's decision to ultimately stay in school for his senior season led to the New York Jets trading their first overall pick to the St. Louis Rams, who would take Orlando Pace.
Star Wildcat corner Hudhaifa Ismaeli was suspended for failing a drug test, and in pregame it's reported 15 Northwestern players have the flu, including star running back Darnell Autry. Uh oh.
The Vols get it first, with color commentator John Spagnola saying Manning has the best technique of any college quarterback he's ever seen. The third play of the game features a sentence you may find less than believable in 2015, but it was true in 1997: Peyton Manning rolls out, jukes a defender, and scrambles for six yards. We were all young once. Fitzgerald gets a shot on Manning on the next play, but not before he hangs in long enough to dump it to Jay Graham for a big gain. And on the next play, Manning hits Peerless Price deep for 43 yards and six points. Five plays, all pass calls, 7-0.
Darnell Autry's first carry is a four yard loss. Northwestern ends up going for it on 4th and inches at their own 29, picking up the first down on a sneak. But two plays later a Steve Scbnur pass is batted at the line, batted in the secondary, and intercepted by defensive tackle and all-name team captain Buck Buxton. The Vols moved to 3rd and 2 at the Northwestern 10, where David Cutcliffe called for another Manning bootleg and the quarterback walked in for the touchdown. 10 plays total, eight passes plus a Manning boot, 14-0. Mark Jones says Peyton Manning has watched more videotape than Bob Saget, which now takes the lead for most 90's moment of the game.
Northwestern punts it back and this time the Vols grind Northwestern downfield, ending with a Manning to Joey Kent strike from 11 yards out to make it 21-0 in three drives and 13 minutes of game time. A stat I hadn't heard or had forgotten: Kent was the first player in SEC history to have back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons as a wide receiver.
John Chavis, in his second season as Tennessee's defensive coordinator, repeatedly sent linebackers up the middle on the blitz and sacked Schnur twice in the first quarter. The second led to another three and out for Northwestern, and the Vols opened their fourth drive with the rarely seen end around to tight end Dustin Moore (featuring an attempted block by Peyton Manning!). That didn't really work, so on the next play they brought in Jermaine Copeland under center and tried a double reverse pass with Tee Martin. Maybe we were bored. That didn't work either, leading to the Vols' first punt of the day.
A Furious Rally
A third down screen to Darnell Autry kept the next drive alive and sparked the Wildcats. The broadcast mentions many wanted the Vols to hire future Alabama head coach Mike DuBose as defensive coordinator instead of John Chavis, who came on board in 1995. The Wildcats moved in range, thanks in part to yellow flags, and Autry punched it in on the option to put the Wildcats on the board. And then Gary Barnett called for an onside kick, which Northwestern recovered to immediately change the tone of the game.
The Vol defense held, but Tennessee's eighth penalty of the first half forced the Vols to punt out of their own end zone. Northwestern would start their next drive at the Tennessee 31 yard line, move to the 20 and then find Brian Musso over the middle for a score to make it 21-14. Then Jay Graham fumbled on the second play of the ensuing drive, giving Northwestern the ball this time at the Tennessee 28 with less than three minutes to play before halftime. And on the first play, Autry went all 28 yards through the Tennessee defense to tie the game, capping a brilliant six minute stretch for the Wildcats.
However, they left Peyton Manning too much time.
The Vols started at their own 33 with 2:19 to play before halftime. On 2nd and 10, Northwestern sent two defensive backs on a blitz. Big mistake: Manning hit Joey Kent for 67 yards to immediately retake the lead. Manning at this point: 12 of 16 for 231 yards and a trio of touchdowns, plus the bootleg.
A stop by the Vol defense gives it back to the Big Orange at their own 15 with 1:11 to play. The Vols back it up five with their eleventh penalty of the first half, think about going to the house but then Jay Graham gets 14 yards on a first down run. During a timeout a graphic shows the Vols have, at this point, the eighth best winning percentage in the 90's. They would end the decade fourth, winning 81.3% of their games in that span.
Manning would complete five passes in the final minute to move the Vols into field goal range, where Jeff Hall knocked one home to put Tennessee up 31-21 going to the locker room. Northwestern's defense gave up 20.9 points on average during the regular season and surrendered more than 30 just once in their 34-9 loss to Penn State. The Vols, despite their 11 penalties, went up and down the field on them with ease.
On the third play of Northwestern's first drive of the second half, Vol linebacker Tyrone Hines intercepted a pass and raced back 30 yards to put the Vols in front 38-21, effectively ending the threat. The Wildcats were excellent in those six minutes in this game, but everything else belonged to the Vols.
A Northwestern scoring chance was ended late in the third quarter when Bill Duff registered a sack to cost the Wildcats 14 yards and move them out of field goal range. Jeff Hall added another field goal in the fourth quarter to make it 41-21. With under five minutes to play Northwestern scored on a fade route to D'Wayne Bates to make it 41-28. A failed onside kick attempt allowed Manning one more chance, dropping in a score to Dustin Moore for the final of 48-28.
Peyton Manning finished 27 of 39 for 408 yards (10.4 yards per attempt) and four touchdowns, the second 400+ yard day of his career (which made it the second-best passing performance in school history at the time). Today it's number four on the all-time list behind Tyler Bray's 530 against Troy in 2012 and Manning's 523 against Kentucky in 1997 and 492 against Florida in 1996. The Orlando crowd implored Manning to return for "ONE MORE YEAR! ONE MORE YEAR!" in the final minutes, and our quarterback played along nicely, pretending he couldn't make out exactly what the crowd was saying. This moment was made even sweeter two months later when Manning decided to return for his senior season.