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Tennessee runs over Northwestern in Outback Bowl

Tennessee Volunteers running back Ralph David Abernathy IV runs the ball through Northwestern defense as the Northwestern Wildcats take on the Tennessee Volunteers during the 30th Annual Outback Bowl on Friday afternoon, January 1st, 2016 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The Volunteers took home the win, with a final score of 45-6, keeping their win streak alive. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]

Tennessee Volunteers running back Ralph David Abernathy IV runs the ball through Northwestern defense as the Northwestern Wildcats take on the Tennessee Volunteers during the 30th Annual Outback Bowl on Friday afternoon, January 1st, 2016 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The Volunteers took home the win, with a final score of 45-6, keeping their win streak alive. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Jan. 2, 2016

TAMPA — In one of Tennessee's first practices for its Outback Bowl preparation, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd pulled his hamstring running in the open field. Hurd spent the rest of his time in Tampa in the training room instead of on the practice field, and coach Butch Jones doubted whether his leading rusher would even be ready for the Volunteers' New Year's Day matchup with Northwestern.

Hurd, though, didn't question it for a minute.

"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. Even if it hurt, I really didn't care."

That much was evident Friday afternoon as Hurd stiff-armed the 12th-ranked Wildcats, running for 130 yards and a touchdown on his way to game MVP honors in the Volunteers' 45-6 victory before an announced 53,202 at Raymond James Stadium. It was the largest margin of victory in Tennessee's bowl history, and the first time it has won back-to-back bowl games since 1996-97.

Coming into the game, Tennessee (9-4) had a formidable rushing attack that averaged 223.5 yards. But the Wildcats (10-3), who came in ranked 11th in total defense, seemed as if they could be a match for it.

Early on, Northwestern was, and each team struggled to get anything going offensively in the first quarter. Even after Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson's first interception of the game, the Volunteers couldn't cash in, and Tennessee missed a 49-yard field goal.

Tennessee got on the board with 14 seconds left in the first quarter, scoring on a 14-yard run from quarterback Joshua Dobbs. In the second quarter, it kicked a 35-yard field goal and scored a second rushing touchdown, an 11-yarder by Alvin Kamara.

Despite the two-score lead, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald thought his team — which scored its only touchdown on a 5-yard run from Justin Jackson — still had some momentum. The Wildcats held UT to 73 first-half rushing yards, and they had some success getting to Dobbs, who was sacked twice before the break.

But when the third quarter began, Northwestern's hopes quickly began to fade.

"We came out in the second half and just turned it over, and we couldn't get off the field, get third-down stops," Fitzgerald said. "As the game went along, obviously it got to be three scores, and at that point, with Tennessee's running game, it was going to be pretty challenging and difficult to get back in it."

Thanks in part to its dominance at the line of scrimmage, Tennessee's running game slowly began to pick up in the second half and Hurd scored on a 3-yard touchdown run. Early in the fourth quarter, Dobbs bobbled a snap but picked it up before running 18 yards for a touchdown that put the game out of Northwestern's reach.

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"It was a low snap. I wasn't able to catch it cleanly," Dobbs said. "But we talk about, if there's a bad snap, just get back into the play, so I just did that. … Once I picked up the snap, it was just a foot race to the pylon."

In all, Tennessee rushed for 226 yards and five touchdowns — John Kelly scored on a 1-yard run later in the fourth quarter — and with eight seconds to play, the Volunteers found the end zone once more when Evan Berry picked off Zack Oliver and took Tennessee's fourth interception 100 yards for a touchdown.

For Jones, a third-year coach for the Volunteers, the victory wasn't just a statement about this year's squad, but a positive step for a Tennessee program eyeing the perennial success it once experienced.

"Any time you can win a bowl game … I think it adds credence to what you're doing. Now it's what you do with it," Jones said. "I'm excited and very proud that we're getting back to where this football program deserves to be."

Contact Kelly Parsons at kaparsons@tampabay.com. Follow @_kellyparsons.

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