TAMPA, Fla. — The architect of Tennessee’s resurgence won’t be happy until the Volunteers are perennial championship contenders again.
Butch Jones, nevertheless, is proud of the progress the Vols have made in his three seasons as coach and confident the program is on solid footing as it moves into 2016.
Friday’s 45-6 victory over No. 12 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl not only capped Tennessee’s best season in eight years, but showcased some of the young talent that gives the Vols a chance to keep climbing.
“The road to success is always under construction, and we need to continue to recruit and develop, and continue to grow and elevate our football program,” Jones said. “But where we’ve come in three short years is amazing.”
Joshua Dobbs threw for 166 yards and ran for two touchdowns, while Outback MVP Jalen Hurd rushed for 130 yards and one TD for the Vols (9-4), who finished with at least nine wins for the first time since 2007.
Evan Berry put a punctuation mark on the team’s sixth consecutive win by returning one of Tennessee’s four interceptions 100 yards for a TD in the closing seconds.
“’’It’s huge, we talked about finishing the season strong. It shows we’re on the rise,” Dobbs said. “We realize our potential. We have to grind to reach it, but this was a good step.”
Northwestern (10-3) sputtered offensively and was unable to keep up the stronger, faster Vols defensively in falling short on a bid to finish with a school-record 11 victories.
“This is one game at the end of a spectacular season. You just move on. You learn, you grow,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You take all the great lessons we learned today, all the great lessons we learned throughout the season, and you learn and you grow and get better next year. That’s what we expect.”
Dobbs completed 14 of 25 passes. The dual-threat quarterback ran 12 times for 48 yards, including a highlight-reel burst around right end in which he dove for his second TD after picking up a bobbled snap and tight-roping his way up the sideline to make it 31-6 early in the fourth quarter.
Hurd scored on 3-yard run in the third quarter and, despite playing with a sore hamstring, became the first Tennessee player to top 100 yards rushing in two bowl games. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore ran for 122 yards in the Vols’ victory over Iowa in last year’s Taxslayer Bowl.
The 100-yard performance was the ninth of Hurd’s career, sixth this season.
“I battled a little hamstring pull at the beginning of the week, but I did treatment all week and I put it in my mind that I was going to play either way,” Hurd said. “There was nothing really that was going to stop me from playing.”
Both teams ended the regular season on five-game winning streaks, Tennessee finishing strong after a 3-4 start that included losses to Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas by a combined 17 points and Northwestern rebounding from lopsided Big Ten losses to Michigan and Iowa in consecutive weeks in October.
“This football team defines resolve,” Jones said. “There were a lot of individuals that wanted to bury us, wanted to look for everything out there in this team. ... Actually, the adversity brought us closer and closer, united us. “
The Vols won the only previous meeting between the schools, 48-28 in the 1997 Florida Citrus Bowl. They improved to 3-1 in the Outback, where Tennessee beat Boston College on Jan. 1. 1993 and Wisconsin to finish with a 10-4 record eight years ago — the last time the Vols appeared in the SEC championship game and won at least nine games.
Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, one of just eight freshmen in the Football Bow Subdivision since 2008 to lead his team to 10 wins, was 8 of 20 passing for 57 yards and two interceptions.
The Wildcats, whose three losses came by a combined score of 123-16, were outgained 420 yards to 261. Justin Jackson averaged over 5 yards per carry in rushing for 74 yards and one TD, a 5-yard run that finished a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the second quarter to trim Tennessee’s lead to 10-6.
The Wildcats missed the extra point, and it was pretty much downhill from there.
“I look at our body of work. Ten wins with a rookie quarterback, I’ll take it,” Fitzgerald said.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. Today is a very strong indication of that,” the Northwestern coach added. “But I’m keeping it in perspective because it should be kept in perspective. You win 10 football games, it’s a darn good football season. It doesn’t matter what league you’re in, what level you’re at.”