We wanted reasonable improvement from the defense, and we got it: Nebraska had 318 yards on 70 plays, 4.5 yards per play. It was statistically Tennessee’s best performance of the year against a power five opponent; the Vols also held Appalachian State (4.4), Ohio (4.2), South Carolina (4.6), and Tennessee Tech (3.0) to under five yards per play. The Cornhuskers still hit some big plays which led to most of their 24 points, but today the Vol defense did too.
Almost everyone on the defensive line got a sack before Derek Barnett did. The future first round pick chased Ryker Fyfe all afternoon in incredibly compelling television for Vol fans, tied with Reggie White for Tennessee’s career sack record and looking to own it for himself. And finally, with 3:29 to go on 3rd-and-26 after a Jonathan Kongbo sack, Barnett got him.
Barnett’s 33 sacks now stand alone, as does the man himself as the best Tennessee defender of at least this decade and best defensive end of at least this century. And his record-seeking counterpart on the other side of the ball didn’t disappoint either.
Josh Dobbs was 23-of-38 for 291 yards, 7.7 yards per attempt and several drops costing him a much bigger day. He ran the ball 11 times for 118 yards and three touchdowns, setting the single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a Tennessee quarterback with a dozen. He could have had Peyton Manning’s single-season total yardage record had the Vols not elected to take a knee on their final possession.
And beyond the numbers, Dobbs was Tennessee’s catalyst on the game’s biggest plays one more time.
On 3rd-and-9 with the Vols up 7-0 at the Nebraska 29, Dobbs ran for 14 yards. Two plays later he took it in himself from 10 yards out to put the Vols up 14-0. When Nebraska scored to make it 14-7 with 1:36 before halftime, Dobbs led the Vols on a 9-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 21-7 at the break. Up 24-14 and facing third-and-goal at the three yard line, Dobbs improvised on a pass play and ran it in for a score and another three-possession lead.
And in the game’s biggest sequence, after the Vols had fumbled a kickoff and let Nebraska back within a touchdown with nine minutes to play, Dobbs scrambled for 11 yards on 3rd-and-3 from the Vols 30, then launched a 59-yard bomb to Josh Malone for the clincher on the very next play.
One of the greatest frustrations of the second half of Team 120’s season is that Dobbs and Barnett (and Kamara and Sutton and all the seniors) will leave with no team hardware, no division title or New Year’s Six appearance, nothing that’s going to call them back to Knoxville for the 10th anniversary of something. But Dobbs and Barnett will not be forgotten, and will be remembered for far more than being part of the group that moved Tennessee from three consecutive seven-loss seasons to two straight nine-win seasons. These two chased records held by Peyton Manning and Reggie White today. That’s all you need to know.
Tennessee will leave a complex 2016 behind to face the future without those two but with most of their supporting cast returning. The writing on the wall suggests changes are coming to the staff. The SEC is in 8-4 gridlock behind Alabama; the Vols do find themselves firmly back in that second tier and will now try to rise above it with new leadership on the field. The defense played well enough to give you hope November was the injury-riddled exception and not the rule, but they’ll have to get to the quarterback without Barnett. The offense was once again strong - 521 yards on 38 runs and 38 passes - but will have to do both without Dobbs. Tennessee will enter 2017 with as much uncertainty and as much cause for optimism as anyone in the SEC not named Alabama.
We’ll spend the next eight months trying to figure out what Team 121 can do. But for one last time, Team 120 carried the fight and came away victorious. And it couldn’t have happened any more appropriately than on the shoulders of Josh Dobbs and Derek Barnett.