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VOL. 131 | NO. 255 | Friday, December 23, 2016

The Alamo? No, Vols Rally Around Loss to Vandy

BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Tennessee’s football team can’t afford to get too merry when it goes into Christmas break this weekend. Not with the way it finished the 2016 regular season, and not with a chance for some redemption.

Defensive back Justin Martin, right, will be one of several Vols playing in their hometown when Tennessee takes on Nebraska in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.

(Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

UT (8-4, 4-4 SEC) plays its second consecutive game in Nashville when it faces Nebraska (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten) in the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl (TV: ESPN, 3:30 p.m. EST) in Nissan Stadium.

The Vols need a much better showing than their last visit to the Music City.

With a Sugar Bowl bid at stake, Tennessee lost at Vanderbilt 45-34 in the Nov. 26 regular-season finale. A win would have pitted the Vols against No. 7 Oklahoma in New Orleans. The Sooners will now play No. 14 Auburn.

UT coach Butch Jones says his players won’t forget the Vanderbilt loss and what went with it.

“They shouldn’t forget it,” Jones says. “Everyone in our football program shouldn’t forget it, from myself, to coaches, to everyone. Again, it’s a standard and expectation in our football program, and our players understand, and that’s part of the culture.”

UT, preseason favorite to win the SEC East Division, got off to a 5-0 start with victories over Florida and Georgia and climbed to No. 9 in the Associated Press rankings.

It went 3-4 the rest of the season with losses when favored against South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Nebraska had a similar season under second-year coach Mike Riley, whose 2015 team finished 6-7 with victories against Big Ten champion Michigan State and UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl.

The Cornhuskers started 7-0 this year and moved to No. 7 in the AP rankings, but lost three of their last five: to Wisconsin (23-17, overtime Oct. 29), to Ohio State (62-3, Nov. 5) and to Iowa (40-10, Nov. 25).

Like UT, Nebraska is searching for football stability of bygone eras.

Nebraska had two coaches from 1962 to 1997. Bob Devaney went 101-20-2 (.829) from 1962-73; Tom Osborne was 255-49-3 (.836) from 1973-1997.

Devaney won national championships in 1970 and ’71, and Osborne won national titles in 1994, ’95, and ’97.

Since Devaney retired after the 1997 season, Nebraska has had four coaches: Frank Solich (1998-03), Bill Callahan (2004-07), Bo Pelini (2008-14) and Riley (2015-present).

Jones, in his fourth season, is trying to stabilize a UT program left in disarray after Phillip Fulmer’s firing in 2008, Lane Kiffin’s only season in 2009, and Derek Dooley’s three seasons from 2010-12.

Tennessee hasn’t won an SEC championship since 1998 when it went 15-0 and won the NCAA championship under Fulmer.

“The exciting thing about this bowl game is it’s two tradition-rich football programs going at it,” Jones says. “But all you have to do is put the video on, and you see a (Nebraska) football team that’s very, very disciplined.

“They do not beat themselves. They make you earn every yard on offense and they prey on you making mistakes. They’re an offense that’s very, very physical, and can make the big play. And then defensively, same thing. It’s going to take everything we have.”

In his 10 seasons as a head coach, Jones has taken his teams to eight bowl games – including the last three seasons at UT.

Tennessee beat Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl and finished 7-6 in 2014, then went 9-4 last year with a 45-6 win vs. Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

The Vols were 5-7 in Jones’ first season, 2013, and didn’t go to a bowl game.

“If you talk to all the players in our program, they thought that (no bowl) was the turning point because we went right back to work that following Monday in the weight room,” Jones points out. “And we got after it in our offseason strength and conditioning program.”

The Vols took three days for Christmas break, Dec. 21-23, before returning to campus on Saturday, Christmas Eve. The team departs for Nashville the afternoon of Dec. 26.

By then, the Vols should know the playbook for Nebraska.

“We always have the philosophy: ‘We want our game plan in place before we break for the holidays,’” Jones explains. 

“We’ll give our players a couple of days off and let them go home and be with their families, but we want to have the game plan in place before they go home, and then obviously, when we go to the bowl site, all it is [is] we’re fine tuning the game plan.”

3 MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Nebraska QB vs. UT ‘D’

UT isn’t sure if it will see Nebraska senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who’s dealt with injuries this season, most recently a hamstring in the 24-17 win over Minnesota on Nov. 12.

Armstrong didn’t play the next week, a 28-7 win against Maryland, and for the 40-10 loss to Iowa.

The dual-threat quarterback is the team’s second-leading rusher (512 yards, 4.5-yard average, eight TDs) in 11 games and has thrown for 2,180 yards and 14 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He’s completing 51.4 percent of his passes.

If Armstrong is out, the Huskers’ offense suffers. 

If backup Ryker Fyfe starts the bowl game, Tennessee’s defense isn’t faced with the rushing threat of Armstrong. In seven games, Fyfe’s thrown for 315 yards (49.2-percent completion) and two TDs with one interception. He’s gained minus-1 net yards on eight carries.

“Tommy has not practiced yet, and he had that torn hamstring in the Minnesota game, so Ryker Fyfe quarterbacked the next one, and Tommy kind of limped into that Iowa game, and it wasn’t good,” Riley said Monday on Sports Radio WNML’s The Sports Page show.

“He couldn’t do what Tommy normally does, and so we’ve kind of allowed all this time since then (for Armstrong) to heal up. He has not yet practiced. I’m anticipating Ryker Fyfe probably quarterbacking at this time for our team, and we’ll see if Tommy’s even available for that (bowl game).

“That’s where it is right now today. You know how these things go. We’ve got a little less than two weeks before the game, so we’ll see how he progresses when we get to Nashville.”

If Armstrong plays, the UT defense – which has allowed almost 2,000 yards in the last three games against Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt – could be in for another long day.

Nebraska’s chances spike when Armstrong plays well. In the three losses, Armstrong completed 35 percent of his passes with one touchdown and three interceptions. He’s thrown for fewer than 200 yards only four times this year – and three of those games were losses.

Dobbs vs. Nebraska secondary

UT senior Joshua Dobbs takes momentum into the bowl game – even with the loss to Vanderbilt.

Dobbs completed 31 of 34 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns against the Commodores and rushed for 53 yards on 13 carries, breaking his own single-season rushing record for a quarterback (he has the team-high 713 yards this year) and becoming the first quarterback in school history to rush for more than 2,000 career yards.

“(Dobbs) is really an outstanding football player and so versatile, and watching from our vantage point pretty scary,” Riley added. “I just see a team that is very, very explosive offensively, and defensively physically, presents some problems.”

Dobbs accounted for five touchdowns in the 63-37 win over Missouri on Nov. 19 and for five TDs in the 49-36 win over Kentucky on Nov. 12. He threw three TD passes and ran for two touchdowns against both Kentucky and Missouri.

Riley was asked if his team has played a quarterback like Dobbs this year.

“I don’t think we’ve played that guy this year, although I suppose when you look at the versatility of Ohio State’s (J.T. Barrett), I think that presents the same type of problem,” Riley said. “One time against them it’s third-and-10, and we think we’re in pretty good shape, and he runs a quarterback counter for a first down. The problems that a quarterback that is that versatile [causes] is tough on a defense.”

Kamara, Kelly vs. Nebraska run ‘D’ 

Tennessee averaged 312.7 rushing yards in its last three games and moved to eighth in the SEC with a 203.2-yard average per game.

Nebraska was sixth in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 141 yards per game.

The Vols have long moved on from the departure of Jalen Hurd, who quit the team after the Oct. 29 loss at South Carolina.

Junior Alvin Kamara could be playing his last game for the Vols with a chance to enter next year’s NFL Draft. Sophomore John Kelly appears to be the Vols’ feature runner in 2017 and gets a chance to gain traction in the bowl game against Nebraska.

Kamara is the team’s second-leading rusher (565 yards) behind Dobbs and is tied with Dobbs for the team-high in rushing touchdowns (nine). Kamara is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, and Dobbs 5.1 (which includes sacks).

Kelly is third on the team in rushing (560 yards), has four rushing touchdowns, and is averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

5 THINGS TO WATCH

Nebraska’s receivers

The Cornhuskers will be without leading receiver Jordan Westerkamp for the Music City Bowl.

Westerkamp, a senior, suffered a knee injury during practice Dec. 14. He missed back-to-back games earlier this year against Indiana and Purdue due to a back injury but still led the team in receptions (38), receiving yards (526) and touchdown catches (five) this year.

“They’ve already done the surgery and he’ll eventually be good, but not good in time for this game,” Riley explained. “So the one bright spot that is OK is we have pretty good depth at receiver, and the rest of the guys we’ve got to keep them healthy and get them to the game.

“We’ll fill in there probably with Brandon Reilly at the slot back position, and Stanley Morgan will play the split end and De’Mornay Pierson-El and Alonzo Moore will be our flankers,” Riley said. “We have some people there, but we will miss (Westerfield). (Westerfield) is a really good football player, made a lot of plays for us, and I hate it he’s going to miss his last game at Nebraska.”

Barnett’s sacks

UT defensive end Derek Barnett needs one sack to break the program’s career record of 32 set by Reggie White from 1980-83.

Barnett, the Vols’ first consensus All-American since Eric Berry in 2009, was a first-team All-American this year by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and the Associated Press. He was a second-team All-American by Sporting News, the Football Writers Association of America and the America Football Coaches Foundation.

This likely will be Barnett’s last game for Tennessee due to his chances of being a high first-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Barnett is tied with White for second on UT’s career list of tackles for loss with 51. With two tackles for loss against Nebraska, Barnett would tie UT’s career record set by Leonard Little (1995-97).

Nebraska’s secondary

Senior safety Nathan Gerry is a three-time All-Big Ten player, and this season was a second-team selection by the media and a third-team selection by coaches.

Gerry was second on the team in total tackles (74) and had seven tackles for loss, which ranks seventh on the team. His 273 career tackles is tied for sixth for most in school history, and his 13 career interceptions is one shy of the school record.

Junior cornerback Chris Jones was on the All-Big Ten honorable mention team. He led the team in pass breakups (nine) and had three interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown against Indiana.

Who wins the fourth quarter?

Tennessee needs to play a solid fourth quarter against Nebraska, which is third nationally in outscoring opponents in the final quarter.

Its 74-point margin over opponents in fourth quarters rank behind only Penn State and Alabama.

The Cornhuskers rallied for wins against Oregon and Minnesota in the fourth quarter. Against Illinois, Nebraska scored 21 consecutive points for a 31-16 victory, and against Wisconsin scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter before losing in overtime.

“We played well late (in games),” Riley said, “different than a year ago where we had lost a lot of games late, but we won games (this year). And then I think if I was summarizing the whole (season), I’d say we had a good year.

“I really like this team. I thought we played better football in a lot of ways, but we also found out more about where we have to go. We have to beat Wisconsin. We have to beat Iowa. We’re going to have to improve to be in the contest with Ohio State, so we had a good year, and we’re looking forward to that next jump as we go forward.”

Tennessee has outscored its opponents 159-93 (58-point margin) in fourth quarters this year. However, Vanderbilt scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat the Vols.

Historic trends

This will be the third time Tennessee and Nebraska have played in football, and all three have been in bowl games.

Nebraska is 2-0 against the Vols.

The Cornhuskers beat UT 42-17 in the 1998 Orange Bowl after the Vols beat Auburn 30-29 in the 1997 SEC championship game. UT (11-2, 7-1 SEC) finished No. 7 in the AP poll that year.

Nebraska defeated UT 31-21 in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl after the Vols finished the regular season 9-2, 6-2 in the SEC.

UT returns to Music City Bowl for first time since 2010 (Dooley’s first year) when it lost to North Carolina 30-27 in double overtime before a capacity crowd of 69,143, the largest in the bowl’s history.

Tennessee and Nebraska were scheduled to begin a home-and-home series this year, but it was moved back to 2026 and 2027 so UT could play Virginia Tech in the Pilot Flying J Battle of Bristol. 

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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