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VOL. 8 | NO. 53 | Saturday, December 26, 2015

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Dave Link

Northwestern Defense Tough, But Give Edge to UT

By Dave Link

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There’s nothing like spending the Christmas holidays in Florida, and Tennessee’s football team will savor every minute of it for the second consecutive year.

The Vols (8-4) board a flight Saturday morning to Tampa, Fla., where they will spend almost a week before the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Northwestern (10-2).

It’s a step up from the last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., but nobody was complaining about that one – especially after the Vols left with a 45-28 victory over Iowa.

Tennessee might be hard pressed to put up 45 points against No. 12-ranked Northwestern, which boasts one of the nation’s top defenses.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for coach (Pat) Fitzgerald and what he has built there at Northwestern,” UT coach Butch Jones says. “Both teams are very similar, coming in with a five-game winning streak. They finished 10-2 and lost to some very good football teams like we have.

“They are a very disciplined football team. They don’t beat themselves. That shows in their penalty yardage, just like us. Their defense is one of the best in the country.

“They are top 15 in the NCAA in just about every statistical category that you can imagine. They are very good on special teams. They do a great job with tempo and different schemes offensively and their players know how to win.”

Make no mistake: Northwestern relies on defense.

The Wildcats have allowed only five passing touchdowns this season – the fewest of any Football Bowl Subdivision team – and rank third in the nation in pass efficiency defense. They are seventh in scoring defense, 11th in total defense, and 14th in rush defense.

In 10 of its games this year, Northwestern had at least 10 tackles for loss.

“Northwestern is stout up front and very disciplined,” says Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs. “They do a great job of limiting big plays and are just a good defensive football team. Their numbers show, their rankings show, the records show, so we have to be ready to go and ready to compete with our A-game.”

Here is a look at how the Vols match up against the Wildcats, and then my prediction for the game.

Quarterbacks

Tennessee: Dobbs, a junior, started all 12 games and was seventh in the SEC in passing efficiency, completing 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,125 yards and 15 touchdowns with five interceptions. He was seventh in the SEC in passing yards per game (177.1), and UT was ninth in passing offense (199). Dobbs was often criticized for off-target passes – don’t forget, first-year offensive coordinator Mike DeBord tweaked Dobbs’ mechanics last spring – and he played much of the season with a hurt foot.

The Vols rely on Dobbs’ legs as much (or more) than his arm. He’s the Vols’ third-leading rusher with 623 net yards and had nine rushing TDs, second-best on the team.

Northwestern: Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson won the starting QB’s job in the preseason and started all 12 games. Like Dobbs, Thorson presents a threat to run – in his case more than pass. He completed only 51.6 percent of his passes for 1,465 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions while rushing for 374 net yards (503 total) and five touchdowns.

Northwestern was last in the 14-team Big Ten in passing offense (139.3 yards per game). Thorson was the team’s second-leading rusher and tied for the team-high with five rushing TDs.

Edge: Tennessee

Running backs

Tennessee: There was no sophomore slump for former Hendersonville Beech star Jalen Hurd, who was chosen to the All-SEC second team after rushing for 1,158 yards, fourth-best in the SEC and 12th most for a Vol in a single season. He’s the first UT running back to earn All-SEC honors since Montario Hardesty in 2009, and his 11 rushing TDs rank fifth in the SEC.

At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Hurd is a bull of a runner, and combined with sophomore Alvin Kamara gives the Vols two backs with totally different looks. The 5-11, 195-pound Kamara, who redshirted at Alabama in 2013 and played the last season in junior college, rushed for 645 yards on 96 carries – averaging a team-high 6.7 yards per carry – and six TDs.

The shifty, speedy Kamara was second on the team in catches with 31 for 272 yards and three touchdowns, while Hurd caught 21 passes for 190 yards and two TDs.

Northwestern: Sophomore Justin Jackson was a consensus All-Big Ten second team selection after rushing for 1,344 yards, second most in the league behind Oklahoma State’s Ezekiel Elliott (1,672). Jackson, who rushed for 1,187 yards and 10 TDs as a true freshman, became the fifth player in Northwestern history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He scored four rushing touchdowns this season, including three in the last three games, and also caught 19 passes for 147 yards.

Jackson is clearly the Wildcats’ go-to running back. Thorson is the team’s second-leading rusher ahead of 6-0, 210-pound junior Warren Long (56 carries, 321 yards, five TDs) and 5-10, 190-pound Soloman Vault (55 carries, 159 yards, no TDs).

Edge: Tennessee

Offensive lines

Tennessee: Injury woes hit the Vols’ O-line before the season started when senior guard Marcus Jackson suffered a biceps injury in training camp and missed the entire season.

Starting right tackle Brett Kendrick and left guard Jashon Robertson also missed time due to injuries. Senior left tackle Kyler Kerbyson was the Vols’ only offensive lineman to start every game at the same position. Kerbyson, former Knoxville Catholic all-state player, was selected to the All-SEC second team (Associated Press) and ESPN.com’s All-SEC team.

Coleman Thomas was a steady starter at center, same as Dylan Wiesman at guard. Wiesman was on the All-SEC second team (AP). True freshman Chance Hall earned a starting job at right tackle and earned All-SEC freshman honors. UT was second in the SEC in rushing offense (223.5) and gave up 21 sacks, seventh-most in the league.

Northwestern: There was plenty of shuffling on the O-line during the season for the Wildcats. Right tackle Eric Olson was the only starter in the opener against Stanford who started the same position through the season and into the regular-season finale against Illinois.

Due to injuries – perhaps the biggest was to left tackle Geoff Mogus in Week 4 –Northwestern used eight different offensive line combinations through the 12 games, and there was never much stability in the unit.

Left guard was the biggest weakness where seven players started. Still, the Wildcats were fourth in the Big Ten in rushing (193.3 yards per game) but pass protection was an issue. The Wildcats gave up 25 sacks, tied for 10th most in the league.

Edge: Tennessee

Wide receivers/tight ends

Tennessee: This was supposed to be a bounce-back year for UT’s receivers, but injuries and Pig Howard’s dismissal curtailed those expectations. Jason Croom, who had 21 catches for 305 yards and four TDs in 2014, didn’t play due to a knee injury/surgery in preparation for last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl.

Promising freshman Vincent Perry didn’t play due to a knee injury, and freshman Preston Williams finished with seven catches after hurting his hamstring in an October practice. Also hurt and limited were Marquez North (five catches for 46 yards) and Johnathon Johnson (nine catches for 107 yards).

Senior Von Pearson was the Vols’ top receiver with 36 catches for 377 yards and three TDs. To put Pearson’s numbers in perspective, Vanderbilt’s Trent Sherfield was 10th in the SEC in catches with 51. Sophomore Josh Malone of Station Camp High in Gallatin was third on the team (behind Pearson and Kamara) with 29 catches for 388 yards and two TDs.

Sophomore Josh Smith, former Christian Academy of Knoxville standout, was next with 23 catches for 307 yards and two touchdowns followed by sophomore tight end Ethan Wolf with 21 catches for 277 yards and two touchdowns. True freshman Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackmon High made the switch from quarterback to receiver in preseason and caught 13 passes for 142 yards.

Northwestern: Some say this was the Wildcats’ weakest performing position group, but is it all on them given Thorson’s passing? His rating of 99.7 is one of the worst in the Big Ten as is his 51.6-percent completion percentage. Slotback/fullback/tight end Dan Vitale, chosen to the All-Big Ten second team, was the Wildcats’ top pass catcher with 33 for 355 yards and four TD catches.

Austin Carr had 14 catches for 276 yards and two touchdowns, and although his numbers weren’t impressive, he made some clutch catches. Christian Jones was second on the team in receiving with 23 catches for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Much more was expected from Jones, even though he had ALC surgery; Jones had 14 catches for 157 yards in the first five games, then his numbers tailed drastically.

Justin Jackson was third in catches (19) out of the backfield, while Mike McHugh had 16 catches for 160 yards. Miles Shuler had 13 catches for 132 yards and a huge catch in the victory over Stanford, but wasn’t the home-run threat the Wildcats were hoping for.

Edge: Tennessee

Defensive lines

Tennessee: Left end Derek Barnett, a sophomore from Brentwood Academy, was a consensus All-SEC second team pick after being a freshman All-American in 2014. Barnett had nine sacks (fifth in SEC in average per game, 0.75) and 11.5 tackles for loss (tied for 14th in SEC) despite not having senior hybrid end/linebacker Curt Maggitt rushing off the other end. Maggitt, an All-SEC second-team player in 2014 with 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, suffered a hip injury in the second game against Oklahoma and didn’t return.

After Maggitt’s injury, junior LaTroy Lewis got five starts at left end and junior Corey Vereen got four starts. Vereen was sixth on the team in tackles (35) and Lewis was ninth (29). Tennessee’s defensive tackles were stable most of the season. Sophomore Kendal Vickers started every game at a tackle spot. Senior Owen Williams started 11 games at tackle and finished with 30 tackles. Junior Danny O’Brien was a starting tackle for the opener, was suspended for the Oklahoma game, and never returned to the starting lineup. Vickers moved to his spot and had 19 tackles. The Vols were eighth in the SEC in rush defense after allowing 153.4 yards per game.

Northwestern: The Vols will have their hands full with senior defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Lowry, 6-6, 290 pounds, was on the All-Big Ten second team after posting three sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss; he’s got 12.5 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss for his career.

Gibson, 6-3, 265 pounds, was on the All-Big Ten third team and had a team-high nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2015. Sophomore Tyler Lancaster started every game on the interior of the line and had 30 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Two more staunch D-linemen are senior C.J. Robbins (15 tackles), a starter in 11 of 12 games, and true freshman Jordan Thompson (13 tackles). Junior end Ifeadi Odenigbo is another pass-rush threat and has four sacks and four tackles for loss. The Wildcats were fifth in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing 117.8 yards per game.

Edge: Northwestern

Linebackers

Tennessee: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a junior from Clarksville Northeast High, emerged as the Vols’ defensive leader and earned All-SEC second-team honors. Reeves-Maybin started all 12 games at weak-side linebacker and finished with a team-high 99 tackles (eighth in SEC), 66 solo tackles (sixth), and 13 tackles for loss (seventh). His 21 tackles against Oklahoma was a career-high.

UT’s biggest void in the front seven from 2014 was middle linebacker A.J. Johnson. True freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. of Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis solidified his role as the starter for the fifth game against Arkansas. Before that, sophomore Colton Jumper got three starts and Kirkland Jr. one. Kirkland Jr. was fourth on the team in tackles (60) and had five tackles for loss and two sacks.

The Vols went with their nickel package with two linebackers in nine games. In the other three games, Maggitt got the start at strong-side linebacker (against Bowling Green in the opener), and Kenny Bynum started against Arkansas and Georgia in games five and six, respectively.

Northwestern: Anthony Walker Jr. had a breakout sophomore season at middle linebacker and earned All-Big 10 first-team honors and All-American honors by the AP and Sports Illustrated. His 19.5 tackles for loss rank second in the nation and is the third most for a Northwestern player in a regular season. His 113 tackles (58 solo, 55 assists) rank fourth in the Big Ten.

The Wildcats had to replace two-year starter Chi Chi Ariguzo at one outside linebacker spot. Junior Jaylen Prater started the first nine games at outside linebacker before suffering a season ending knee injury.

Third-year sophomore Nate Hall started the last three games in place of Prater. Hall played in every game and was fifth on the team in tackles (50). Junior Drew Smith, who started seven games in 2014, started every game this season at the other outside linebacker and was fourth on the team in tackles (54) and tackles for loss (eight). Junior Joseph Jones played in every game as a backup linebacker and finished with 16 tackles.

Edge: Northwestern

Secondary

Tennessee: The Vols’ secondary took hits in the preseason when starting nickel back Rashaan Gaulden was lost for the season with a foot injury and strong safety LaDarrell McNeil missed the first three games with a neck injury. Although the unit was settled most of 2015, it was shaky. UT was 11th in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 217.2 yards per game, and big plays were a big problem.

Junior Malik Foreman, former Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett player, was the starter for nine games when UT was in its nickel package. Junior Cameron Sutton started all 12 games at left cornerback, while Emmanuel Moseley started the first seven at right cornerback with Justin Martin starting the last four. Sutton has NFL aspirations and may bypass his senior season.

Fifth-year senior Brian Randolph started every game at free safety and was the Vols’ second-leading tackler with 67 total. Sophomore Todd Kelly Jr., former Knoxville Webb standout, started two games at strong safety when McNeil was hurt, had the team-high three interceptions, and saw significant time in the secondary.

Northwestern: Senior cornerback Nick VanHoose was an All-Big Ten selection and headlines one of the league’s more experienced backfields. VanHoose, who had 41 tackles, intercepted three passes and tied for the team-high with 12 pass break-ups.

At the other cornerback, junior Matthew Harris was on the All-Big Ten third team after getting a team-high four interceptions and tying for the team-high in pass breakups (12). Sophomore Keith Watkins started two games at cornerback and had 38 tackles, third-most for a Wildcat cornerback. Sophomore Marcus McShepard played in every game as a backup cornerback and had 12 tackles.

Senior Traveon Harris started for the third season at strong safety and was third on the team in tackles (58) and had three tackles for loss and two interceptions. Third-year sophomore Godwin Igwebuike started every game at free safety and was the team’s second-leading tackler (73) and had four tackles for loss. Igwebuike was the backup in 2014 behind Ibraheim Campbell, now a rookie with the Cleveland Browns. The Wildcats were seventh in the 14-team Big Ten in pass defense, allowing 192.7 yards per game.

Edge: Northwestern

Special teams

Tennessee: Aside from inconsistency by place-kicker Aaron Medley, UT’s special teams were outstanding.

Kickoff returner Evan Berry was chosen to multiple All-America teams, and punt returner Cam Sutton was a first-team All-American by the Sporting News. Berry leads the nation in kickoff returns with a 38.3-yard average and is one of four players in the nation with three kickoff returns for touchdowns this year.

Sutton leads the nation in punt return average (18.7 yards) and has two returns for touchdowns this year. Kamara also has a punt return for touchdown (against Western Carolina.) UT was second in the SEC in punt return average (18.3 yards).

Trevor Daniel averaged 45.6 yards per punt, sixth-best in the nation and second in the SEC. Medley’s misses are the major blemish on UT’s special teams play; he was 5 of 11 from beyond 40 yards, and missed all three from beyond 50.

Northwestern: Junior Jack Mitchell is a two-year starter at place-kicker and had the game-winning 35-yard field goal to beat Penn State 23-21 on Nov. 9. However, Mitchell missed from 39 and 47 yards before his winning kick against Penn State. He was 18 of 26 on field-goal attempts, but only 2 of 7 from beyond 40 yards (he didn’t attempt one from beyond 50).

The Wildcats’ punt return average was 8.3 yards – 10 less than UT’s – and ranked ninth in the 14-team Big Ten. Miles Shuler is the top punt returner with 11 for a 10-yard average and a long of 55 yards. Solomon Vault is a threat at kickoff returner after averaging 27 yards per return and taking two for touchdowns. Thus, the Wildcats are second in the Big Ten in kickoff return average (25.5 yards). Hunter Niswander was 13th in the Big Ten in punting average (38.3 yards on 78 punts).

Edge: Tennessee

Prediction: Tennessee 24, Northwestern 13

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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