NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It wasn’t quite the dismantling of a Big Ten team that Tennessee fans have enjoyed the past two years in the postseason.
But Tennessee did enough to finish off an up-and-down season on a high note in the Music City.
The Vols (9-4) fought off a slow start, and some scary moments in the fourth quarter, to pull away late in a 38-24 victory over Nebraska (9-4) in front of a sold-out Nissan Stadium on Friday afternoon.
“I thought our bowl preparation was outstanding,” Butch Jones said following the game. “We didn’t have one poor practice. These players came every single day. We asked a lot out of them and they delivered that. We had obviously critical plays at critical moments of the game.”
After a sloppy, scoreless first quarter, Tennessee showed off its athletic advantage in the second.
Sophomore running back John Kelly got to the left edge for a 28-yard touchdown run to cap off a four-play, 73-yard drive to put the Vols up 7-0 at the 13:20 mark of the second quarter. The defense got a quick three-and-out. The offense then quickly expanded the lead. It drove the down the field in 11 plays, covering 66 yards, and found the end zone on a 10-yard scamper by quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
That was one of four scores on the afternoon for Dobbs, who wrapped up his UT career with a masterful performance – 409 yards of total offense against the Huskers. He finished the season just 13 yards shy of Peyton Manning’s single-season record for total yardage (3,789).
While Dobbs fell just short of that mark, defensive end Derek Barnett was able to become Tennessee’s all-time leader in sacks, breaking Reggie White’s school record (32) with his 33rd career sack – one that finally came in the fourth quarter after countless hits on Nebraska backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe. After at least a half a dozen close calls, it looked like it might not be in the cards for the Nashville-area native, who said he will sit down with his family to discuss his NFL future.
Barnett said that’s just part of the being a pass rusher. You have to keep going.
“I don’t think it was tough to keep working it,” Barnett said. “As a D-lineman, you have to have that mind-set and you’re not going to get home every time. I know the guys beside me, they are going to keep working. I know I’ve got to keep working. The football gods will reward you if you keep grinding.”
And the Vols had to keep grinding themselves after Nebraska made it interesting in the fourth quarter.
After holding a relatively comfortable two-score lead for much of the game, Nebraska cut it to 31-24 in the fourth after freshman Tyler Byrd coughed up a kickoff return in UT territory. It took the Huskers five plays to cover 31 yards, punching it in to cut the lead to one touchdown with 10:02 remaining in the game.
Dobbs had one more big play in him, however. The senior quarterback threw one of the best passes of his career – a 59-yard strike to junior receiver Josh Malone, who got past his defender and glided into the end zone to push the Vols’ lead back to 14 with 8:45 to play in the game.
“As an offense, we stepped on the field with full confidence that we’re going to go down and score every time, no matter what possession it is and no matter how close the game is,” Malone said. “We came in the huddle just cool, calm and collected and just ready to go put up some more points on the board.”
Tennessee’s much-maligned defense, which was regularly gashed during season, stood tall in the final minutes, never allowing Nebraska to seriously threaten from that point forward.
Friday’s win wrapped up a wild 2016 campaign that certainly produced a few different narratives. Jones, as he normally does, was quick to point out the positives. The Vols have now won 15 of their last 19 games. They won their third consecutive bowl game for the first time since 94-96. It’s also the first time that UT has won nine games in consecutive seasons since 2006-07.
There’s been clear and convincing progress for this program since Jones stepped on campus in December of 2012.
But even as the Vols checked off some of those accomplishments on Friday, the backdrop of Nashville and Nissan Stadium stood as a looming reminder that 2016 wasn’t what many expected and hoped for. No tangible championships were worn, a likely trip to the Sugar Bowl was snatched away during UT’s last trip to Nashville after a loss to Vanderbilt, and the dream season never materialized despite the Vols having the ingredients to contend for titles this year.
All UT could do, however, on this Friday was finish strong. And that’s what the Vols, in Dobbs’ and the seniors’ final game, and perhaps the final contest for Barnett, Alvin Kamara and Malone, did.
The result is certainly up for interpretation. Was it just another average bowl win against a mediocre Big Ten team – one that was missing several key players – that isn’t something to celebrate at this point in Jones’ tenure? Or was it a sign that the Vols continue to head in the right direction, despite some of the noticeable setbacks in 2016?
Fans will have different opinions on that.
The players on the postgame interview podium all said they are confident in the direction of the program.
“I feel like the future is very bright,” Dobbs said in a sentiment that was reflected by Barnett and Malone. “Our seniors and upperclassmen, since the underclassmen have gotten on campus, the sophomores and freshmen, we’ve instilled in them our drive, our hard work, our work ethic. Because you know, we know what it’s like to go 5-7 and not go to a Bowl game and be in there Monday morning after the last game doing workouts and just wanting to go home.
“So we have felt that, and so we’ve instilled that in them. So they understand, you know, what to do, how to take the reigns, how to work hard, how to continue to grow, how to approach each practice as if it’s a game and make the most of each rep. I’m definitely excited to see what the future holds for the University of Tennessee football program.”
And so are many others. Excited, but perhaps a bit apprehensive as well. There will be a lot of fresh faces and new challenges in 2017. The final test of 2016, however, was passed.