Northwestern enter's the Outback Bowl with one of the nation's most efficient defenses, one that has held opponents to just 310 yards per game and 16.4 points per game behind sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker's 113 tackles and a solid front seven that puts pressure on the quarterback and creates mismatches in the run game.
Teams have been hard-pressed to run on the Wildcats, including run-heavy opponents like Stanford, which were only able to notch 86 total yards on the ground against Northwestern in a 16-6 opening-season loss. Pat Fitzgerald's team held Heisman finalist Christian McCafery to just 66 yards, while teams average just 116 yards per contest on a stout Wildcat defense.
So what makes them so effective defensively, especially in a Big 10 conference that prides itself on crushing defenses? Consistency for one. Fitzgerald has been the head coach at Northwestern for nine years now, with defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz on staff for eight seasons.
"They're very physical. They're very well-coached," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "This system has been in place for a long time. They know the system. They know how to coach the system. They know when somebody starts to hurt them, what they can go to to counteract that."
That continuinty has provided Northwestern with one of the most consistent defenses in college football. Between stuffing the run and being proficient at limiting the pass to just 162 yards per game, the Wildcats will be yet another stiff test for a Tennessee team that will face its fourth Top 25 total defense Jan. 1.
"It's a tough defense. It's a defense that plays with great leverage all over the field," DeBord said. "They maintain great leverage over the football and then they play with great pad leverage. I couldn't compare them to anbody really ... but it's an excellent defense."
Shy Tuttle made sure to live up to the hype in his freshman season, embracing spring football as an early enrollee before transitioning into the fall as a productive member of the defensive line. In six games, Tuttle racked up 10 total tackles and began to emerge as a run-plugging force whose athletcisim was apparent to anyone who watched his 6-foot-2, 311-pound frame move in the trenches.
But the North Carolina native's season was abruptly cut short in October when he broke his fibula and tore ligaments in his ankle in the fourth quarter of Tennessee's come-from-behind win over the Bulldogs.
"It was exactly at the point where he started to separate himself from people, and really showing up on the football field and then he got nicked up," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "We're looking forward to getting him back."
That won't come any time soon, as Tuttle is still rehabilitating, but according to Stripling, the healing process is going well. Losing Tuttle just one month after Curt Maggitt's seasonw as lost to a bone chip in his hip served as a major blow to the D-line, but the freshman was still able to garner mental reps while he rehabs.
"They come to every position meeting, so they're sitting there and watching and learning," Stirpling said. "A lot of times while we go on the field, they get their rehab and recovery and all those things ... The way I look at it, we got it over with," Stripling said. "We won't have that situation (again)."
When Alvin Kamara joined Tennessee this season, he didn't just improve the rushing stats. Kamara's 645 yards and six touchdowns combined with Jalen Hurd to help make Tennessee the No. 3 rushing team in the SEC this season, but that's not the only thing the former Scout five-star assissted with.
His presence in the backfield also motivated Jalen Hurd to push himself in practice daily, resulting in Hurd becoming the first true sophomore to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,158) for an average of 96 yards per game.
"Competition has made Jalen better," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "This league is built on the best running back groups, guys that have depth and versatility. I think Alvin brought the best out in Jalen. The way he competes in practce, also having Alvin to be able to come in the game and add a spark to the offense makes you hungry the next time you touch the ball. Both of those guys have brought out the best in each other, and I think our younger guys have benefitted from those older guys as well."