NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For a brief moment, it looked like Nebraska was going to steal a victory.
When Nebraska senior QB Ryker Fyfe ran into the end zone to make it 31-24 midway through the fourth quarter, it looked like the Cornhuskers had a comeback in them in the Music City Bowl.
But a few plays later, Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs threw a 59-yard bomb to Josh Malone to put the Volunteers up two scores, and that was that.
That was kind of how Nebraska’s day went on Friday. Good in brief moments, but overall not nearly enough of them in the 38-24 loss to Tennessee from the SEC. The Huskers finished the season with a 9-4 record, losers of four of their last six games.
Here’s how we grade the Huskers’ performance, on a scale of one star to five stars:
Offense (3 stars)
Fyfe really did have a decent game, considering it was just his third career start. The senior completed 17 passes on 36 attempts for 243 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
After a few dropped balls at the beginning, Nebraska’s receivers played moderately well, particularly Brandon Reilly. But Nebraska’s offensive line and tailbacks just didn’t get it done.
Nebraska really struggled to block Tennessee DE Derek Barnett, who finished with only one sack, but was in the backfield seemingly every play.
Nebraska averaged a measly 2.2 yards per carry. Senior RB Terrell Newby left the game with a leg injury, and sophomore Devine Ozigbo had 66 yards on seven carries, though most of those came on a 45-yard run.
Nothing worked, and though the Huskers were without their two best offensive weapons in senior QB Tommy Armstrong and senior WR Jordan Westerkamp, Tennessee dominated Nebraska’s line and the game.
Defense (2 stars)
It’s a tall task to stop Dobbs and the second-best total offense in the SEC. Nebraska never slowed down Tennessee.
The Volunteers did pretty much whatever they wanted on offense, rolling up 521 yards. Dobbs found his playmakers in space, and threw it deep to Malone a handful of times. And when that didn’t work, Dobbs would tuck and run, which he did for 113 yards. He also threw for 291 yards.
Mobile quarterbacks continue to haunt Nebraska, as they have for years now. Dobbs was brilliant.
Special teams (4 stars)
If you’re looking for anything to be happy about from Friday’s game, it’s the Nebraska special teams. In the first game since firing special teams coordinator Bruce Read, Nebraska’s special teams unit fared well.
Kicker Drew Brown nailed a 45-yarder easily. And most importantly, freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn had seven punts that averaged 42.7 yards.
The only reason why Nebraska doesn’t get five on this category is its didn’t return any punts. Brown will return next year, and will continue to be accurate. Lightbourn will continue to improve. Nebraska needs to figure out how to make return man De’Mornay Pierson-El scary again.
Coaching (3 stars)
When it came to an offensive game plan, Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf had few options.
There was no Armstrong, no Westerkamp, and two hurt running backs. Those were just a few of the reasons why Nebraska couldn’t do anything offensively.
On defense, there really weren’t any excuses for its performance. Not having Nate Gerry was a factor, but the amount of missed tackles by Nebraska across the board was astonishing.
The Volunteers averaged nearly 7 yards per play on offense, outgained Nebraska by almost 200 yards and ran for more than 150 more yards.
Giving up 521 yards is never good. It was a tough day foe defensive coordinator Mark Banker and his group.
Overall (2.5 stars)
The excuse list is long, but there’s no doubt this game should’ve been closer.
Nebraska’s defense had opportunities to get off the field near the end of the first half and failed to do so. That led to a 21-7 halftime deficit. Nebraska had chances to get off the field near the end of the second half, down just one score, but failed again. The opportunities were there against a Tennessee team that had underachieved all season.
Nebraska yet again disappointed on a major stage against a major team. Losing four of six games after starting the season 7-0 put a major damper on all the early successes. What this game proved is that the Huskers still have a long way to go to contend for titles — and even bowl games against comparable foes.