NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In a game that was on the verge of a blowout, Nebraska battled back in the Music City Bowl to make it close in the fourth quarter but it wasn’t quite enough.
Tennessee ran away from Nebraska to win 38-24 behind quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ 291 passing yards and 113 rushing yards and 4 total touchdowns.
Nebraska (9-4) failed to reach the 10-win mark for the fourth straight year. Tennessee also finished 9-4.
Here are five things we learned about Nebraska in the loss:
1. Nebraska still had some fight left
This game could have been a blowout. On paper, it kind of was.
Tennessee outgained Nebraska, was better on third down and won time of possession.
But Nebraska fought back.
Down 21-7 in the first half and 24-7 and 31-14 in the second half, Nebraska stormed back behind backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe to make it 31-24 with 9 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
A quick Tennessee touchdown after Nebraska pulled within seven blew away chances of a comeback, but the fact remains: Nebraska didn’t roll over.
Nebraska’s fight was gone at Iowa. It was never there against Ohio State. But against Tennessee on the road, in a stadium 70 percent filled with Tennessee fans, the Huskers at least came back and made it a game.
And for that, you have to give them some credit.
2. Nebraska still can’t tackle
It’s been a key all season. And after a month of practice between the 40-10 loss to Iowa and the Music City Bowl, it didn’t get any better.
Time after time, Tennessee’s playmakers slipped through Nebraska’s defense.
The Vols averaged 7.6 yards per carry in the first half and 10.2 yards per catch.
And a lot of those catches came from the backfield or in the flat. Whether it was Josh Malone or Alvin Kamara, Tennessee playmakers bounced off first contact and turned 5-yard plays into 10.
Tennessee averaged nearly 7 yards per play on offense.
Tackling should be Nebraska’s No. 1 priority during the offseason.
3. Nebraska’s rushing attack needs work
In Tennessee’s final three games of the season, its opponent averaged better than 5 yards a carry.
Nebraska: 3.3 yards per carry on Friday.
With a healthy Devine Ozigbo and a healthy Terrell Newby, and the healthiest that Nebraska’s offensive line has been all season, the Huskers still couldn’t run the ball.
From the start of the season, head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf preached and preached that Nebraska needed to run the ball well to have a successful season.
Overall, the Huskers failed in that regard.
4. The absence of safety Nate Gerry made a huge difference
Nate Gerry’s presence wouldn’t have fixed Nebraska’s tackling issues.
But having the senior certainly would’ve helped on Friday.
Ruled academically ineligible last week, Gerry was replaced by junior Antonio Reed. When Reed went out with an injury, junior Kieron Williams filled in. But neither could do the things Gerry could do.
Gerry could see plays before they happened. He was second on the team in interceptions and second on the team in tackles. He was the leader of that Blackshirt defense, and his absence severely hurt Nebraska on Friday.
5. Ryker Fyfe is not your average backup
Fyfe didn’t have a perfect game. But the senior quarterback’s 2 touchdown passes to Brandon Reilly were perfect throws, and overall he played well on Friday.
Both touchdown passes were high and away, both were balls only Reilly could catch, and both were throws that only a seasoned quarterback could throw.
Had Tommy Armstrong played in this game, the results might have been a little different. But nothing Fyfe did in this game led to Nebraska losing.
He was calm in the pocket, didn’t turn the ball over and made good decisions. He’ll finish 1-2 in his career when starting, but this was his best game of his career.
Nebraska’s issues from early in the season were never answered.
Nebraska struggled to score early, struggled to run the ball and struggled to stop the run. All three factored into the loss.
How much will 2017 Nebraska look like 2016 Nebraska?
With redshirt junior Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien now battling for the starting quarterback position, does the offense change that much?
Will Nebraska’s offense improve enough to compete with teams the caliber of Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Tennessee?
Will the defense be able to slow anyone down? Can the junior corners take the next step into being senior lockdown corners?
What it means
In the grand scheme of things, not much.
Nebraska was a 10-point underdog entering Friday’s game, and with Fyfe at quarterback, no one really gave Nebraska a chance.
But what this loss means more than anything is Nebraska is still behind other top-tier programs.
Nebraska’s losses this year were to Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee. All blue-blood programs. All games Nebraska should be competitive in. Yet, they were competitive in only two of them.
There are a lot of questions entering the 2017 offseason, but there’s one that stands above the rest.
When will Nebraska take the next step?