By Steve Williams
Tennessee’s 38-24 win over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl amounted to putting a Band-Aid over its scratched up 2016 football season.
It hid a little bit of the Vanderbilt beating, but the overall pain resulting from the scarred and injury-riddled campaign hasn’t completely gone away.
It’ll take time and some big wins for many UT fans to really start feeling good again about this football program.
One very happy moment in the return to Nashville saw Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett get his 33rd career sack to break the late great Reggie White’s school record. After coming close a dozen times, the determined No. 9 was credited with the record sack when Nebraska quarterback Ryker Fyfe went down under heavy pressure with a little less than four minutes remaining in the game.
Teammates poured out on the field to congratulate Barnett as Tennessee head coach Butch Jones took a timeout for the special occasion.
I only wish senior Joshua Dobbs, who racked up 409 yards of total offense and four touchdowns, could have walked off to a final standing ovation. But he probably wouldn’t have been comfortable with it … being the team player that he’s been throughout his career.
The highlight of a scoreless first quarter was Trevor Daniel’s punt inside Nebraska’s 1-yard line. The Vols didn’t take advantage of that field position but took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter when running back John Kelly scored on a sweep.
Later in the quarter, with receivers covered, Dobbs pulled it down and scored from the 11 to make it 14-0. Brandon Reilly’s good route and catch of a long pass allowed the Cornhuskers to cut the gap to 14-7.
Tennessee came back before the half ended. A TD catch by Juuan Jennings was ruled incomplete, but Nebraska had committed pass interference on the play. Dobbs scored on the next play from the 2 to give the Vols a 21-7 halftime margin.
Early in the third quarter, Tennessee went for it on fourth-and-one at the Nebraska 36, but Kelly was stopped short. And no wonder – Kelly was lined up on Dobbs’ hip when he got the ball. Sorry, but I can’t stand that formation in short-yardage situations.
Barrett appeared to have made a strip sack shortly afterward, but the loose ball was ruled an incomplete pass on the field and also on the replay review to my surprise.
Aaron Medley’s 46-yard field goal increased the Vols’ lead to 24-7, but Reilly’s second touchdown catch made it 24-14. What made this odd was the fact that Reilly did not have any TD catches this season coming into the game.
The normally sure-handed Jennings whiffed on a bomb, but tight end Jason Croom broke a tackle after making a catch to get to the Nebraska 9-yard line as time expired in the third quarter. Dobbs, bottled up in the pocket, pulled one of his Houdini acts and scored from the 3 to make it 31-14.
The Cornhuskers refused to go away quietly, kicking a 45-yard field goal and recovering a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Fyfe (pronounced Fife as in Barney) scored on a keeper from nine yards out to make it 31-24. Nebraska had the momentum with 10:02 remaining.
But Tennessee had Dobbs.
Josh converted a key first down on third-and-three. Then the quarterback, whose critics have often said couldn’t throw, perfectly dropped a 59-yard bomb into the hands of Josh Malone for six points with 8:45 left. And it was good to see Dobbs share a congratulatory body bump with offensive lineman Coleman Thomas.
Many UT fans like myself spent the remainder of the game pulling for Barnett to get that elusive sack. With time running down, we even pulled for Nebraska to make a first down so Barnett could stay on the field. For once, we were glad to see the Vols’ defense flagged for pass interference on fourth down.
Barnett was asked about that penalty in the post-game interview.
“I think Reggie probably helped out on that,” said Derek, sparking laughter. “I think he was looking down. I think he probably tossed a little (flag) for me.”