Well, that was certainly fun.
For the first time since Phil Fulmer roamed the sidelines in Knoxville, Tennessee finished a season with nine wins. The Vols dominated a game but outmatched Northwestern team, scoring 6 touchdowns, intercepting 4 passes, and running for more than 200 yards against a solid Wildcats defense.
In the opening half, both teams struggled with focus-- the Vols missed a field goal, committed several personal foul penalties on defense, and struggled to move the ball consistently. Northwestern's aggressive run defense stifled Tennessee's rushing attack, with star linebacker Anthony Walker leading the way. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald had his defense ready to bottle up the Vols' inside run game, filling the rush lanes and using a spy on quarterback Josh Dobbs.
At the break, Tennessee led Northwestern 17-6, but it felt like it could and should have been more. The Vols racked up two rushing touchdowns (one each by quarterback Josh Dobbs and Alvin Kamara) and a short field goal from Aaron Medley, but also came away empty handed following an interception of Wildcats' quarterback Clayton Thorson.
In the second half, however, Tennessee's offensive coordinator Mike Debord adjusted to Northwestern's defensive strategy, mixing in mid-range passing plays and misdirection running plays with hard-nosed inside zone running to keep the Wildcats' defense off-balance. Two long scoring drives by the Vols' offense, one in the third quarter and the other at the beginning of the fourth, put the game out of reach. On both drives, Tennessee's two-headed rushing attack wore down Northwestern's defenders, with Dobbs doing just enough in the passing game to keep the defense from selling out to stop the run.
With the score 31-6, Butch Jones opted to empty the bench, inserting backup quarterback Quinten Dormady, third-string tailback John Kelly, and numerous others. The backups promptly drove down the field and scored, making it 38-6.
The final margin was provided courtesy of a 100-yard interception return by Evan Berry, seemingly adding insult to injury.
Even though the final score was lopsided, Northwestern gave Tennessee all it could handle on defense for two-and-a-half quarters. The Vols were the better team today, but Wildcat players and fans should be encouraged by an unexpected 10 win season, not discouraged by running into a team that gave two of the Playoff teams all they could handle.
For Tennessee, today's dominating bowl victory caps an almost-elite season and perhaps gives the Vols some much needed momentum in recruiting. If it's the last time they don the orange-and-white, possible early NFL Draft entrants Alvin Kamara and Jalen Reeves-Maybin put on a show for Tennessee fans. For elder statesmen like redshirt senior Brian Randolph and young guns like Kahlil McKenzie, today's win cements a permanent place of pride in Tennessee football lore for team 119.
It seemed unimaginable during the dark days of Derek Dooley's tenure, but the resilience, perseverance, and pride of this Volunteer football team has led Tennessee back close to the top of college football.