NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A smoke-colored Camaro might not be your brand of cool, but Tennessee sure ran circles around Nebraska’s pickup truck.
The Volunteers shook, rattled and rolled the Huskers 38-24 in the Music City Bowl, which featured a sold-out crowd, a score made closer thanks to UT dropping two sure touchdown passes, and an on-field celebration for the one Tennessee defender — All-America end Derek Barnett — whom Nebraska couldn’t block. Barnett ran around and through Husker linemen. He jawed with them all game. He was a player NU didn’t have and probably needs to make a habit of beating teams like Tennessee.
One of many, in fact. Tennessee’s offense was flush with speed and quickness, and the much-maligned Vol defense wasn’t shabby. It’s part of why UT gained 521 yards to NU’s 318, why Nebraska didn’t sniff a sack of elusive Vol quarterback Joshua Dobbs while Tennessee had four sacks, why NU ran for just 61 yards and why Barnett was standing in the middle of a team mob — wearing those “Smokey Grey” uniforms — before the game was over.
Barnett set the UT school record for sacks — nudging out Hall of Famer Reggie White — with a fourth-quarter smothering of quarterback Ryker Fyfe, who’d spent the game eyeballing everywhere Barnett lined up. After the sack, Tennessee called time out and staged an on-field, teamwide huddle, with Barnett in the center.
Fyfe groggily left the field.
“My head was just — I was seeing stars,” Fyfe said. “I thought I was concussed. I think I might have a mild concussion.”
Fyfe said it with such a deadpan comic delivery that a few reporters actually drew a smile. Minutes before, Fyfe had a better zinger when a reporter told him Barnett received credit for just one sack.
“That was his only sack? It seemed like he was back there all the time,” Fyfe said.
Sure seemed like it.
And when Tennessee’s offense needed to answer a Husker touchdown, it did. All three times. Dobbs — bowl game MVP — dazzled in his final game with 291 passing yards, 118 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. He danced around and through the many blitzes Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker lobbed at him. He threw to open backs and receivers who frequently made the first Husker tackler miss. Sometimes the second and third, too. One Vol, tight end Jason Croom, just plain trucked linebacker Dedrick Young.
“Our tackling was very suspect,” Banker said. “We missed a lot of tackles.”
“It wasn’t necessarily a lack of effort,” Banker said a minute later. “We were just gassed at times.”
Head coach Mike Riley said Dobbs’ athleticism “gave them a lot of extra opportunities.”
UT’s receivers — when they weren’t dropping touchdowns — generally torched Nebraska’s secondary. The best of them, Josh Malone, slammed the door shut on any NU comeback hopes when, like a sports car, he ran effortlessly by cornerback Joshua Kalu on a post route, caught the ball, and pranced in for a 59-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. That made the Volunteers’ lead 38-24.
“That flattened a lot of guys’ momentum and confidence,” said senior defensive end Ross Dzuris, who made NU’s best defensive play with a tackle for an 11-yard loss.
Tennessee (9-4) had every edge from the start — including most of the 68,496 fans at Nissan Stadium. Though the first quarter was scoreless, UT was already putting dents in the Blackshirts with big plays and a fast tempo. The Vols scored touchdowns on their fourth and fifth drives. NU punted on its first five possessions before Fyfe — a fifth-year senior from Grand Island getting his third career start — heated up. He hit tight end Cethan Carter for 33 yards, then wideout Brandon Reilly for a 38-yard touchdown. Reilly made an acrobatic catch for the score, and, with 96 seconds left in the first half, NU (9-4) trailed just 14-7.
UT answered with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took 87 seconds. Dobbs completed four of six passes on the drive and ran 2 yards for the touchdown. Banker said NU couldn’t use its usual two-minute defensive package because of an injury to safety Antonio Reed, who was playing for the suspended Nate Gerry. The Vols led 21-7 at the break.
In the second half, Nebraska got within 24-14 and 31-24. Both times, Tennessee had an answer. UT averaged 6.85 yards per play and 6.1 yards per rush. Dzuris said the Volunteers’ interior linemen were the best NU had faced this season. Freshman cornerback Lamar Jackson, picked on often, was impressed with Tennessee’s skill players.
“That was grown men out there,” Jackson said. “They had grown men strength.”
This disparity — obvious enough that even proud coaches and players copped to it somewhat — left Banker peppered with questions about what NU has to do to match up better with teams like the Volunteers, who routinely produce top 10 national recruiting classes.
“The bottom line is just strength and speed is what is necessary,” Banker said. “And that’s what happens when we get against these more elite teams. And if we’re going to be an elite team, that’s what you need to be. You need to be big, strong and fast, and to dominate people physically. It’s not just a finesse game. And we need to improve in that category.”
On offense, Nebraska’s run game was stuffed again. Tennessee gave up an average of 231 rushing yards per game heading into Friday. If Devine Ozigbo hadn’t busted a 42-yarder in the third quarter, it would have been worse. As it was, the Huskers’ 61 rushing yards were the second-fewest for the team in the Big Ten era, and the third game in the last five in which Nebraska fell short of 100 yards on the ground.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf was mildly frustrated.
“We leave the D-tackle unblocked on two runs,” Langsdorf said. “We just miscalled it. You can’t live like that. It’s one thing to have a safety down in the box and tackle you for a 4-yard gain, but when you’re getting hit for minus-2 when you don’t have a defensive tackle blocked, it’s not very good.”
Said Riley: “You don’t plan to not run the ball and not succeed. It becomes just a fact as you’re going. We’ll look at every way we can to do better going forward.”
NU’s line — left tackle Nick Gates, right tackle Cole Conrad specifically — weren’t any better at blocking Barnett.
“He’s running around us, and then he’s in our heads,” Langsdorf said. “We’re false-starting because we’re worried about him.”
Langsdorf said whatever NU tried, it didn’t work. Backs, tight ends, sliding over offensive linemen. One elite player wreaked such havoc on NU’s offense that, one time, Fyfe was looking directly at Barnett as an early snap hit him in the arm.
But Langsdorf and Riley put none of the errors on Fyfe, who completed 17 of 36 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. He scored a running touchdown, too. As Fyfe came into the postgame interview room, Riley pointed to him and said “this guy played a heck of a game.”
“He just about made all the plays he could where there was any semblance of time for him to do it,” Riley said.
Fyfe made the most of his last game. The man he replaced, quarterback Tommy Armstrong, stood at midfield well after the game, dressed in team gear, waiting for the last of his teammates to walk off. His time as a Husker was up.
So is NU’s season. Seven wins to start. A heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the middle. Three double-digit losses near the finish. And three walk-ons — Dzuris, Fyfe and Reilly — sitting with Riley at the postgame interview podium.
“That kind of defines this team a little bit,” Dzuris said. “A lot of hard-working guys who maybe weren’t as respected as we thought we should have been. But we didn’t care about that. We kept working hard, and that’s kind of what this team’s mentality has been. Keep grinding. Nothing’s given.”
True enough. Some teams — like Tennessee — just go ahead and take it.