The Tennessee Volunteers continued their impressive late-season surge with a dominating 45-6 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats in the 2016 Outback Bowl.
Jalen Hurd was Tennessee's offensive star, which is hardly a surprise. The sophomore running back finished with 130 rushing yards and one touchdown on 24 carries. He also did something no other running back in school history has done before, according to Jimmy Hyams of WNML Radio in Knoxville:
The Vols didn't get much out of their passing game, throwing for 194 yards, but five rushing touchdowns and 226 yards on the ground allowed them to dominate time of possession with eight more minutes of ball control than Northwestern.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs opened the scoring for Tennessee with a 14-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. Aaron Medley added a field goal early in the second to give the Volunteers a 10-0 lead.
The Wildcats got back in the game with a 12-play touchdown drive capped by Justin Jackson's five-yard run, but they missed the extra point. Tennessee responded on the next drive with an 11-yard touchdown run by Alvin Kamara.
Things were quiet for most of the third quarter until Hurd scored from three yards out to finish a 14-play, 67-yard drive that gave the Volunteers a 24-6 lead.
There was some concern before the game that Hurd might not be his usual effective self due to a hamstring injury, though Nathanael Rutherford of Rocky Top Insider noted it didn't seem to be a problem:
Hurd generated significant praise on the ESPN2 broadcast, as noted by Dan Kadar of SB Nation's Mocking the Draft:
It's certainly lofty company for any running back to keep. Hurd is built like Eddie George, listed on ESPN.com at 6'4" and 240 pounds, but he shows more pure speed than the former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner.
When Hurd wasn't scoring touchdowns for the Vols, he set them up nicely. He had 40 of the team's 80 yards on a drive that ended with Dobbs' 18-yard score, which made it a 31-6 game with 11:42 to play.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones had his defense ready to play. The Vols limited Northwestern to just 261 total yards. Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson got nothing through the air, prompting this observation from Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports:
Thorson was replaced by Zack Oliver in the fourth quarter. The senior didn't fare much better, with two interceptions, including a 100-yard pick-six by Evan Berry in the game's final seconds, in 13 attempts.
Jackson was the lone bright spot offensively. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry, but his 74 yards were the fewest he's had in a game since Oct. 24 at Nebraska.
Jackson was, however, able to add another milestone in a tremendous sophomore season, according to Inside NU:
This wasn't the ending Northwestern was hoping for after winning 10 games during the regular season, but this was a great year for the Wildcats, who won a combined 10 games in the previous two years.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald's two 10-win seasons since 2012 equal the number of double-digit win seasons the team had from 1892 through 2011, according to Sports-Reference.com.
The Volunteers, on the other hand, got the ending to this season they wanted and are trending in the right direction. They earned their first nine-victory season since 2007, winning their last six games to hit that mark.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports noted the Vols were close to having an eight-game winning streak:
Being able to finish has been a problem for Tennessee under Jones, most notably this year in a September loss to Oklahoma in which the Volunteers were outscored 28-7 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
If Jones has learned from games like that, Tennessee—with the impressive array of talent it's accrued—will be a dangerous threat to represent the SEC East in next year's conference title game.
Per Greg Ostendorf of ESPN.com, Jones said there are "always ... expectations when you're at Tennessee."
Jones also put on his recruiting hat, per Wes Rucker of 247Sports:
Next year is a solid season for recruits in the state of Tennessee, with 247Sports listing eight players rated at four stars. Two of them, linebacker Daniel Bituli and offensive tackle Ryan Johnson, have given their commitments to the Volunteers.
Jones talked about Hurd's injury situation, per Dustin Dopirak of the Knoxville News Sentinel:
Hurd discussed the process of getting ready to play, per Dopirak:
Even though Jones tried to downplay next season, Dobbs referenced it, per Ostendorf:
Hurd echoed those sentiments, per Dopirak, saying, "Just like last year, this win is a confidence booster." The Vols blew out Iowa 45-28 in last year's TaxSlayer Bowl.
On the other side, Fitzgerald gave a lot of credit for his team's struggles to Tennessee's performance, per Rucker:
Fitzgerald was able to keep a sense of humor about things in the postgame press conference, per Rucker:
He took a more serious tone before it ended, though, explaining what he will do to have his team prepared for next season:
Sometimes, all you can do after a loss like this is roll up your sleeves and go back to work. Friday wasn't indicative of how good Northwestern was this season. The Wildcats handed Stanford one of its two losses and won five straight after ugly back-to-back losses against Michigan and Iowa.
There are still a lot of holes for Fitzgerald to fill, starting at quarterback, but he's built this program in his image and is not far from having it in the mix for a Big Ten championship.