The Blueprint: Music City Bowl Edition
Nebraska (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten) vs. No. 21 Tennessee (8-4, 4-4 SEC)
Friday, 3:30 PM ET
Nissan Stadium (69,143) – Nashville, TN
Series Record: Nebraska leads 2-0
Our “blueprint” takes a deeper look at UT’s upcoming matchup, and focuses on what UT needs to do to win the game. It’s not necessarily indicative of how we expect the game to g
Tennessee and Nebraska both rank within the top 15 winningest programs in college football history. Tennessee is ranked 12th all-time in wins (828-375) while Nebraska is ranked ninth (889-371). The two teams have only played twice with Nebraska having won both meetings in 1998 (42-17 victory in Orange Bowl) and 2000 (31-21 victory in Fiesta Bowl). Both schools also have a combined 11 national championships (UT 6, Neb 5).
When Nebraska is on offense
Heading into the Music City Bowl, the Cornhuskers will be without a few key players. Leading receiver Jordan Westerkamp has been ruled out after having knee surgery. The biggest loss, however, may be with quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who appears unlikely to play due to a hamstring injury. Armstrong is a four-year veteran who has thrown for over 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns this year. Head coach Mike Riley has confirmed that backup senior quarterback Ryker Fyfe (315 yds, 2 TDs) will start in the bowl game. Armstrong could be available in an emergency, but he’s highly questionable, at best.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf is a respected play-caller in the collegiate ranks. Former stints include being the offensive coordinator with Mike Riley at Oregon State and working with Eli Manning and the New York Giants as quarterbacks coach. Nebraska comes in ranked 91st in passing offense and 60th in rushing nationally.
Langsdorf likes to run a balanced offense. He uses multiple sets to create the balanced attack. The Cornhusker offense is somewhat similar to Tennessee’s in regards to an offensive emphasis, which is running the ball. Successful run plays can set up the passing game. Nebraska and Tennessee both utilize zone-run schemes, including read option plays. Similarly, Nebraska will also throw short, quick passes for the receivers to make plays in space. Another aspect Langsdorf likes to throw in is the use of play-action. That also requires the quarterback to be mobile, especially in rollouts and designed runs. With Armstrong out, Nebraska might be limited in what it can do offensively.
Quarterback Ryker Fyfe does not have a ton of experience. The most extensive playing time he’s had all season was against Maryland where he threw for 220 yards and a touchdown. He’s just below a 50% passer on the season, so the passing game for Nebraska could be limited. Armstrong was a threat on the ground, but Fyfe is not. With Tennessee’s seasoned defensive ends like Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen, you could see Fyfe get uncomfortable and force some errors. Barnett is eyeing Reggie White’s school sack record, so it would not be surprising if he’s constantly disrupting the tackles and getting in the backfield, especially with a less mobile quarterback.
Nebraska’s rushing attack is suspect at times. In the Big Ten, not one Cornhusker running back ranks within the top-10 league rushers. Nebraska, however, has been hit with injuries in the running backs corps. The team’s leading rusher is senior Terrell Newby who has rushed for 864 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. However, Newby missed parts of bowl preparations early in the week. In addition, freshman Tre Bryant suffered a hamstring injury before the team left for Nashville. Nebraska will have to count on sophomore Devine Ozigbo to provide depth behind Newby.
Tennessee has been historically bad on defense this year, especially against the run. Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis commented that for Tennessee’s run defense that he thinks they have not “done a great job of run fits in a lot of areas.” The Vols will, once again, be without Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie upfront. However, Kendal Vickers and Jonathan Kongbo, who’ve had a good several weeks of practice, have played fairly well especially down the stretch. As Davis pointed out, the Vols’ defensive line must play its gap and zone assignments well or it will give up more big runs like fans saw towards the end of the season.
With Westerkamp and Armstrong out, the Nebraska passing game will be challenged. But the Huskers do still have some options. They will have to look to Stanley Morgan Jr., Alonzo Moore, and De’Mornay Pierson-El on the outside. The receivers aren’t total playmakers, but they do showcase athleticism and speed, which could be challenging for a Tennessee secondary that has struggled all year. Led by senior Cam Sutton, Tennessee’s defensive backs are going to have to be locked in because Nebraska’s receivers will stretch the field and create space for the majority of the game.
When Nebraska is on defense
Nebraska is ranked 23rd in the nation in total defense. However, it will be without its best defensive playmaker in safety Nate Gerry due to academics. Still, this is a unit that has played very well for the majority of the season, excluding blowout losses to Ohio State and Iowa.
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker likes to run a 4-3 defense. In 2015, the Huskers allowed 37 plays of 30 or more yards. This year, that number decreased down to just 14 thanks to Banker’s “gap cancellation” scheme. Nebraska has some solid defensive linemen in Kevin Maurice, Ross Dzuris and Mick Stoltenberg. They play the gaps well and create disruptions for the offense. For Tennessee, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem having a dual-threat quarterback in Josh Dobbs and running backs like Alvin Kamara and John Kelly. Between the three, it should help keep Nebraska’s defensive line honest.
The Husker linebacking corps are led by senior Josh Banderas, who is also the team’s leading tackler. Banker prides himself in his linebackers, and they seem to fly to the ball on almost every play. They hit hard and play fast. Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord will definitely have to balance an offensive attack between the pass and run in order to keep Nebraska’s linebackers in check. A healthy mix of passing plays and QB draws, screens, and play-action should do the trick.
Nebraska’s biggest question lies with its secondary. Without Gerry, the Huskers will need to look for someone to step up among the defensive backs. Banker mentioned earlier in the week that he is “worried” about the mismatches Tennessee’s receivers pose against his smaller defensive backs. Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings are both 6-3. Malone is one of the top receivers in the SEC and Jennings is a mismatch against almost any defensive back. Along with those two, the Vols can also rely on the speedster Tyler Byrd in the slot. Tight ends Ethan Wolf and Jason Croom also drew praise from Banker earlier in the week due to their respective size and play-making ability. Expect Tennessee to throw the ball quite a bit against this questionable secondary.