KNOXVILLE — Five of the nine assistant coaches on Tennessee's football staff spent time coaching in the Big Ten Conference.
Thus the Volunteers should have a pretty good idea about what to expect when they face Northwestern in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on New Year's Day.
"They play to their defense," said Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling, who has coached at Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State and Michigan.
"Northwestern's, I think, a team that wants to run the football," he added. "There's been games where they've run the ball over 60 times, so I think that's going to be their mentality. (It's) obviously the Big Ten mentality of running the ball and controlling the line of scrimmage. That's the first thought in their mind is we've got to stop the run."facebook
The Wildcats figure to rely on their physical ground game, led by running back Justin Jackson, and a tough-nosed defense in trying to knock off the Vols and earn a third bowl win in program history.
Tennessee likely will make Jackson the focus of its game plan defensively, and for good season. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore finished second in the Big Ten with 1,344 rushing yards, trailing only Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. His 298 carries were the third-most in the country, behind only Alabama's Derrick Henry and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey. Jackson had 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman in 2014.
"I just have a lot respect for what they do," Vols defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "They do what their personnel allows them to do, and you can just see that they've put a lot of really good thought into it.
"They've won 10 football games, and they're going into this bowl game to try to win the 11th, and that's the most in their program's history. I know they've going to be motivated, I know they're going to be well-coached, their kids are going to be ready to go. And we're going to be ready to play as well."
The Vols won't be fazed by Jackson after clashing with the likes of Henry, Georgia's Sony Michel, Alex Collins of Arkansas and the Oklahoma duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
"He's good," Stripling said. "I think we've had the chance to play some really good running backs this year. But he's really good."
Quarterback Clayton Thorson is the second-leading rusher (374 yards, five touchdowns) in Northwestern's spread offense, which won't force Tennessee to opt out of its base nickel defense in favor of a more tradition three-linebacker look, a formation in which the Vols have struggled some this season.
"Any bowl game, you know you're going to get some things you haven't prepared for," Stripling said, "so right now we're playing the what-if game a lot and trying to prepare for a lot of things."
Tennessee's offense has spent the month preparing for an encounter with another tough defense. Northwestern ranks seventh in the nation in points allowed and 11th in total defense.
"They're ranked really high as a total defense, and I always think that's a stat you want to look at at the end of the year," said Tennessee defensive coordinator Mike DeBord, a former Michigan assistant.
"After the first two or three games, that doesn't mean a lot. When they've gone through the Big Ten schedule, and they're one of the best defenses in the country, then that says something. And that's what they are.
"They're very physical, and they're very well-coached."
DeBord noted the longevity of Northwestern's defensive braintrust.
Pat Fitzgerald coached defensive backs and linebackers in Evanston for five years before he became the head coach of the Wildcats in 2006, and Mike Hinkwitz, who coordinated defenses at Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado and Texas A&M, has been the defensive coordinator since 2008.
"This system's been in place for a long time," said DeBord, who was Northwestern's offensive line coach for one season in 1992. "They know the system. They know how to coach the system, and they know when somebody's starting to hurt them what they can go to to counteract that. It's a tough defense."
The Wildcats are one of seven Big Ten teams in the top 26 of the national total defense rankings.
"Defensively what catches your eye right away is their front seven," Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. "They have a lot of individuals on this football team that we're very familiar with with the recruitment process at Cincinnati. We're very, very familiar with a lot of their personnel.
"They're a typical Big Ten team, but they have very good athleticism and speed (and) they play to the strengths of their players.
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