Frankly, this is a game that looked worse and felt worse than the score indicated. It’s what Husker fans probably feared deep down, though they were hoping that the same Tennessee team that lost to Vanderbilt five weeks ago would appear once again in Nashville.
Instead, Nebraska got something closer to the version of Tennessee that was in the top ten of the rankings. And Nebraska went into the game without three of their leaders and most acclaimed players. And it showed.
Boy did it show.
Disappointing? Absolutely. Surprising? You probably shouldn’t have been. Outside of the second drive of the game and a 42 yard burst by Devine Ozigbo in the third quarter, the ground game was pretty much ineffective. Tennessee came into the game ranked 110th nationally in rush defense, giving up 232 yards a game.
The Huskers rushed for just 61. Against a team that gave up more than 400 rushing yards each to Missouri and Kentucky last month.
In that light, it’s amazing that Nebraska only lost by 14 points. With that, we’re onto the report card by position. As always, your comments are welcome.
QB: I’m not sure Ryker Fyfe bears much responsibility for how badly the Music City Bowl went; he pretty much did as much as he could do under the circumstances. Would a healthy Tommy Armstrong fare better? I suspect the added dimension of a second running threat would have helped; it certainly couldn’t have hurt. After Fyfe suffered an apparent concussion, Zack Darlington finished the game out and did get a couple of completions. Grade: C
I-Back: The running game was atrocious, but that’s not all on the backs. In fact, I really don’t blame the backs that much...especially when they have to fight off multiple defenders before they get to the line of scrimmage. When they did have a hole, there was some yardage. But those were the exception, not the rule. It certainly would have helped if Nebraska tried to run the ball more out of shotgun spread sets instead of multiple tight end sets under center. Bringing more blockers inside also brought more defenders into the box, and those were battles the Huskers lost all game long. The biggest criticism I have of the backs was the lack of pass protection; Ozigbo has had better games with that. Grade: C-
Wide Receivers: Brandon Reilly picked a fine time to finally get his first scores of the season; the Huskers really needed receivers to come through in this game. You may have missed Reilly’s tribute to Sam Foltz after his first touchdown.
I thought De’Mornay Pierson-El also played well; that fumble was more of a great defensive play than a Pierson-El mistake. Cethan Carter had another one of his frustrating games; a huge 33 yard catch in the second quarter to set up a score certainly shows why fans want Carter involved in the passing game. But his drop on the opening series of the game highlighted my biggest frustration throughout his career; he’s a great weapon blocker and running the ball after the catch, but he’s a really poor pass catcher. (On Nebraska’s advanced stats, Carter’s success rate is one of the worst on the team. Please, don’t keep harping on "I was open for four years" because there was a BIG reason why quarterbacks didn’t throw the ball his way.) Perhaps someone at the next level can help him out here; his measurables at the NFL combine will give him that opportunity. Grade: B-
Offensive Line: Let’s give Derek Barnett kudos right up front; he looks like a Top Ten pick in the upcoming NFL draft. On the other hand, Nick Gates looked that a scout team player trying (that’s being generous calling it "trying") to block him. Eventually, he resorted to holding after realizing the referees weren’t going to call it, which in turn drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag from a frustrated Barnett. Barnett then flipped to the other side for a while, where Cole Conrad arguably did a little better (or maybe just slightly less awful job) blocking him. But then Barnett split out a little wider, and simply ran around Gates nearly untouched to harass Fyfe. And while our attention was focused on the ineptness at tackle, it wasn’t hard to notice that the rest of the line was having a bad afternoon as well. Don’t give me the talent issue here; Tennessee gave up over 400 yards rushing twice in November to teams with worse records than Nebraska. This line was NOT ready to play, and Mike Cavanaugh HAS to be the next assistant on the hot seat now that Hank Hughes and Bruce Read have been dismissed. Grade: Considered a "0", but we’ll settle for a big fat F.
Defensive Line: For all of the defensive ineptitude out there, I thought the defensive line wasn’t all that bad. Ross Dzuris had three tackles for loss and Freedom Akinmoladun was all over the field when he wasn’t being held. (Which probably tipped off Nebraska’s offensive coaches that the Husker offensive line probably could use their hands a little more in this game.) Grade: C
Linebacker: I’m going to come out and say it: I think Dedrick Young has regressed since about the midway point of last season; certainly this season. If he was healthy, this was one of Young’s worst games as a Husker. I’m not sure what ghost distracted him on John Kelly’s 28 yard touchdown run because that’s a play that should have been made at the line for little or no gain. Josh Banderas finished up his up and down Nebraska career with a down game; he’s had worse, though. Michael Rose-Ivey did make a few plays, though he too had his share of mistakes. Grade: F
Secondary: Lamar Jackson had mixed results in his first start; eight tackles to tie for the team lead, but many more missed. Chris Jones had a Keystone Kops afternoon. I thought Antonio Reed was playing OK (well, comparatively speaking)until he had to leave the game in the second quarter. Really, though, the only defensive back who arguably had a acceptable game was Joshua Kalu, who had three passes broken up along with eight tackles. And across the board, it was awful, shoddy tackling everywhere you looked. It’s a poor excuse to blame this debacle on a lack of speed or athleticism; this performance squarely failed on lack of fundamentals. Grade: F
Special Teams: Other than an offsides call, Nebraska’s special teams improved greatly without having Bruce Read around to screw things up. The fake two-point conversion formation has been rightfully relegated to the shredder, and Caleb Lightbourn was more consistent than he’s been all season long. And hey, look! A forced fumble by JoJo Domann on a kickoff! Grade: B-
Overall: D- The effort to overcome the loss of three senior leaders was spotty at best. The basics of blocking and tackling were left in Lincoln...or maybe more accurately, left in October.
Elsewhere in College Football
Arkansas: F What an epic second half meltdown.
Underdogs: A- With the Huskers being a notable exception, underdogs have done well in the bowl games. 12 upsets and 23-9 against the spread.