Outback Bowl Preview: Northwestern’s defense vs. Tennessee’s offense

Huzaifa Patel, Reporter



Senior All-Big Ten cornerback Nick VanHoose will miss the Outback Bowl due to a finger injury, likely to be replaced by a rotation of sophomores Keith Watkins II and Marcus McShepard. Otherwise, Northwestern’s defense, barring any unexpected wrinkles, will feature largely the same unit that finished fourth in the nation in Football Outsiders’
defensive S&P+ ranking.

The Cats feature three stalwarts at each level of the defense. Senior defensive lineman Dean Lowry anchors a defensive line which has been stout against the run, plugging up holes and allowing sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker and company to make big plays. With VanHoose out, the secondary is headlined by sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike, who trailed only Walker in tackles on the season.

Northwestern Defense
Position Starter
Left Defensive End Dean Lowry (Sr)
Defensive Tackle C.J. Robbins (Sr)
Defensive Tackle Tyler Lancaster (So)
Right Defensive End Deonte Gibson (Sr)
Will Linebacker Nate Hall (R-Fr)
Mike Linebacker Anthony Walker (So)
Sam Linebacker Drew Smith (Sr)
Cornerback Keith Watkins II (So)
Cornerback Matthew Harris (Jr)
Safety Godwin Igwebuike (So)
Safety Traveon Henry (Sr)

On the other side, the Volunteer offense is led by a two-headed monster at running back: sophomores Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. In addition, junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs made significant strides in 2015, throwing for more than 2,000 yards and rushing for more than 600, adding an additional dimension to the Tennessee rushing attack.

Tennessee Offense
Position Starter
Tight End Ethan Wolf (So)
Left Tackle Kyler Kerbyson (Sr)
Left Guard Jashon Robertson (So)
Center Coleman Thomas (So)
Right Guard Dylan Wiesman (Jr)
Right Tackle Chance Hall (Fr)
Wide Receiver Josh Malone (So)
Wide Receiver Von Pearson (Sr)
Wide Receiver Josh Smith (So)
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs (Jr)
Running Back Jalen Hurd (So)

Up front, the Volunteers are anchored by sophomore offensive lineman Jashon Robertson, who is a huge part of the zone running scheme employed by offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. Robertson missed two games in November due to an ankle injury and the Volunteer run game wasn’t quite the same when they played South Carolina with Robertson absent, finishing with 153 yards on a 3.7 yards per carry average.

Rounding out the Volunteer attack are multiple receivers, though none have exceeded 400 yards this season as Dobbs has spread the ball around fairly evenly. Sophomore receiver Josh Malone, a 6-foot-3 former five-star prospect, leads the team in receiving yards, followed by senior Von Pearson and fellow sophomore Josh Smith. A key name to follow leading up to the game is Marquez North, a talented junior who showcased his talent last season but has battled injuries in 2015 and caught only five balls on the season. If North can be ready by Jan. 1, he is a dark horse candidate to be an offensive game-changer.

Film Review: Previewing the Tennessee offense

With the combination of playmakers listed above, how does it all come together for the Volunteers?

At its core, Tennessee is a running team, with a somewhat similar set-up to Northwestern. The Cats defense can expect plenty of inside and outside zone running; stopping these fundamental plays will be the first step toward stopping the Volunteer attack as a whole.


Hurd and Kamara are immensely talented and deadly in their own ways. Hurd is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound downhill runner who compares favorably to Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden. Hurd is difficult to bring down with arm tackles, especially if he gets in the open field and combines his size with a killer juke move. Just take a look at this catch and run against Georgia and another run against Missouri.




But it is Kamara who might present the biggest problem to Northwestern’s defense. Kamara, a 5-foot-10, 215-pound former Alabama recruit, has elite lateral quickness and breakaway speed to combine with strength inside the tackles. Looking at how Iowa’s Akrum Wadley gashed the Northwestern defense moving laterally with the stretch run, Tennessee will probably look to put Kamara in similar situations, testing the speed and edge containment of the NU defense.


To top it off, both backs are versatile and dynamic catching the ball out of the backfield, with Kamara also a factor in the return game. Oh, and the Cats might want to watch out for this.


Building from the foundation of the zone run game, the Volunteers utilize the option and screen game and love to put Dobbs, who is a skilled thrower outside of the pocket, on the run to make plays with his arm and legs. In a 31-24 overtime loss against No. 4 Oklahoma, the full Tennessee arsenal was on display.


This bubble screen shows a nice use of disguise. With the zone run and read option established, Oklahoma is committing a vast majority of their defenders to stopping the run. Thus, there is essentially a screen pass built into a run play, with two offensive linemen pulling as if it’s an outside power play.

Based on the numbers that Dobbs sees inside the box, he can either hand it off or throw the quick screen. Because of the running threat of Hurd and Dobbs, Oklahoma has committed seven guys into the box, with one outside linebacker specifically containing Dobbs through the process of the handoff. With one corner occupied on the nearside receiver as well as a deep safety to prevent a big play downfield, both receivers on the far side are in one-on-ones. This is a favorable look for Dobbs to run a screen, as one easy block from the slot receiver gives his outside receiver a one-on-one, and he gains a quick seven yards.

Topping it all off is Dobbs’s accuracy both inside and outside of the pocket. Take these two throws against Oklahoma as an example of how Tennessee can limit the impact of pass rushers with Dobbs’ accuracy on the run.



Key Matchup: Northwestern front seven vs. Tennessee run game

With all of the weapons Tennessee possesses, what will be the key to stopping them? Given how Northwestern’s offense has performed this year, an NU win will probably look something like the Stanford game early in the season.

“I saw a team (Stanford) ranked X amount of spots ahead of us that we beat,” Fitzgerald said in his press conference following the Northwestern-Illinois game. “Pop on the tape, and watch the film. Our kids dominated that game.”

The Cats bottled up the Cardinal rushing attack and quarterback Kevin Hogan all day, limiting Heisman runner-up running back Christian McCaffrey to just 66 yards on the ground and Stanford to just six points. The surprising takeaway from that game was how the NU front four dominated the game and forced the Cardinal offense into third and medium or long situations all day. This will need to happen for NU against Tennessee, perhaps not to the same level, but at least to the extent that the Cats do not have to commit extra guys in the box to stop the run.

Prediction: 24 Tennessee offensive points

It’s tough to project how these matchups will play out on Jan. 1.

As as reference point, when comparing the Northwestern defense to similarly ranked SEC teams Tennessee has faced, the Cats trail only No. 1 Alabama in overall defensive S&P+, ahead of teams like No. 5 Florida, No. 11 Georgia and No. 12 Oklahoma. The Volunteers averaged 25.75 points per game against those four teams; expect a similar result against Northwestern’s defense in the Outback Bowl.

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