In the third installment of the Ten Greatest Tennessee Games of the Past Decade series, we’ll be revisiting the Vols’ 2016 Outback Bowl win over the Northwestern Wildcats. Check out RTT’s Evan Winter’s No. 9: 2012 North Carolina State here.
2015 was a fun year. Despite losing four games during the regular season, Butch Jones and the Vols made several strides in his third year at the helm. It was a season of “firsts” as Jones had the Vols ranked since 2012 and defeated the Georgia Bulldogs for the first time since 2009.
Close losses to Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama - three games that saw the Vols lose in the final minute(s) - as well as noticeable improvement at specific positions had fans feeling good as the Vols went down south to take on the Northwestern Wildcats.
The Wildcats were no slouch in 2015. They finished with a 10-2 record that included victories over Stanford, Penn St., and Wisconsin and were ranked as the No. 12 team in the country heading into the game
Leading rusher Justin Jackson finished 2015 as one of the nation’s most productive running backs and was the key to Northwestern’s offensive success. If the Vols wanted to prove they were really on the right track with a big win - stopping Jackson was priority number one.
It didn’t take long for the Vols’ own rushing attack to steal the spotlight from Jackson. Joshua Dobbs started the scoring off in the first quarter with a 14-yard run into the endzone to give the Vols the lead, 7-0.
Northwestern responded quickly with a five-yard score by Jackson himself, but it would be the last time that the Wildcats sniffed the endzone.
The Vols would go on to run for over 220 yards and five rushing touchdowns on the day, obliterating Northwestern 45-6. Tennessee shut down the vaunted running attack after allowing just 132 yards for the entire game. To put the performance into context, Jalen Hurd ran for 130 yards by himself and the Wildcats averaged 188 yards per game on the ground for the season.
The quarterback play for the Cats was horrendous, but that also had a lot to do with the Tennessee defense. Zack Oliver and Clayton Thorson combined for a miserable 14/33 for 129 yards and four interceptions - the last one coming on a 100-yard pick six by Evan Berry to cap off the day.
The Vols outgained Northwestern 420-261 in total offense and gave the Cats a hangover that would last far beyond New Year’s Day.
What made this game so great was the promise and hope that - the same as just about every year for Vols fans - it unlocked for the 2016 season. After losing those three aformentioned games by the slimmest of margins, fans and players felt like 2016 would be the year that the Tennessee would go back to Atlanta.
What a fun time it was and here’s to hoping we can get back to that feeling sooner than later.