NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A reporter at Thursday’s news conference at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, home this week for the Nebraska football team, asked coach Mike Riley one final time about the status of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr..
The question wasn’t if Armstrong, sidelined by a hamstring injury, would start, but merely if he would suit up for Friday’s Music City Bowl against Tennessee.
Riley said he hadn’t yet made that decision but acknowledged the possibility of having Armstrong in uniform if needed to play in an emergency situation.
“That means he’s starting tomorrow,” quipped Tennessee coach Butch Jones, seated next to Riley.
“I don’t think he will,” Riley responded, drawing laughter from the media.
Other light moments from the final news conference before the bowl game included each coach receiving a guitar – rather than a key from the city – from dignitaries of the Music City Bowl, a bowl named for Nashville’s most famous industry.
While Nebraska’s offense will miss Armstrong and senior receiver Jordan Westerkamp, it will face a Volunteer defense that’s been crumbling late in the season, and one that’s had its own injury issues.
Meanwhile, Tennessee has defeated Iowa and Northwestern in its last two bowl games and is looking for its first three-game bowl winning streak since 1994-96.
Jones expects a tussle, noting Nebraska is a more “complete football team” than the last two Big Ten teams the Volunteers have faced in bowl games.
“They make you earn everything that you get, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, they force you to execute,” Jones said of the Huskers. “They challenge your physicality.”
Here’s a closer look at Tennessee, which enters with an 8-4 record after going 4-4 in Southeastern Conference play.
Volunteers on offense
The most notable player is quarterback Josh Dobbs, who ranks first in Tennessee history with 2,042 career rushing yards, first with 29 career touchdowns and third with 8,951 career total yards of offense.
Over his last four games, Dobbs has completed 69 of 86 passes – that’s a mindboggling 86 percent – for 969 yards and 11 touchdowns, with merely one interception. His 2,655 passing yards in 2016 is a career best.
“Obviously, Tennessee has very good personnel,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker said at Thursday’s news conference. “I think the only thing that’s held them back has been consistency and injuries. Everything starts with the quarterback, both in the run game and passing game, and leadership, and everything goes from there.”
Nebraska will be dealing with a high-tempo Tennessee offense. The Volunteers have 53 touchdowns drives this season that averaged 1 minute, 57 seconds, which was the fastest pace in the SEC.
That’s part of the reason the Volunteers have been able to mount comebacks from large deficits this season, too. Tennessee trailed by double digits in seven of nine games, and erased that deficit in five of those games.
Tennessee has a potent rushing attack, too, led by redshirt junior Alvin Kamara, who’s scored a touchdown in six consecutive games.
“We understand between their offensive line and the running backs they have, it will be a long day if we don’t handle their run game and make them as one-dimensional as possible,” Banker said.
Tennessee has also fumbled 28 times this season, and has lost 13 of those fumbles. That ranks 119th out of 128 FBS programs.
Another key matchup Banker noted is Nebraska’s defensive perimeter players against Tennessee’s offensive perimeter players. Junior receiver Josh Malone has caught 10 touchdowns this season and averages 18.9 yards per reception.
Volunteers on defense
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Tennessee is fielding what, statistically-wise, is the second worse defense in school history.
Tennessee ranks last in the SEC in total defense (536 yards per game) and next-to-last in yards per play (6.69) in conference games.
After allowing Kentucky and Missouri to run for more than 400 yards, Vanderbilt torched Tennessee’s secondary for 416 passing yards. In eight conference games, Tennessee was shredded for 4,288 yards — the most in program history.
This is where it’s fair to note the Volunteers have dealt with a plethora of injuries. To wit: Tennessee started its 10th different combination in the secondary in the season-finale against Vanderbilt.
Yet Jones is expressing confidence in his defense entering Friday’s game.
“Our players have had very, very good energy,” Jones said Thursday. “When I look back at the season, there was one game in particular, and I won’t talk about that, where I just didn’t think we held up the standard and expectations of our team, in terms of energy and effort and mentality.
“That’s driven us, that’s driven me personally. But our players have had a very good energy, a very good focus. Now it comes down to the details, getting off blocks, tackling.”
The carousel of players the Volunteers have used has “been a little tricky” for Nebraska’s preparation, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Thursday.
“I think they’d like to be a substitution team, bounce in and out of a base group,” Langsdorf said. “I think with the injuries, they haven’t had the ability to do that all year, so we’ve kind of had to look through each game and make sure we’re getting a good read on whoever’s in the game.
“That’s taken some time. The injury part of it, you always have to look pretty deep into who some of these guys are. You might not have seen that much on film, but they are talented. They’ve got a lot of good depth at each position. We’ve had to make sure we’re ready to go with whatever they’re going to give us.”
One key player who won’t miss the game is junior defensive end Derek Barnett, a consensus All-American who needs just one sack to break Reggie White’s program record of 32 career sacks. Barnett has 12 sacks this season, tied for third-most in Tennessee history.
Generally speaking, Tennessee has been a pressure team, and with Nebraska starting back quarterback Ryker Fyfe, who’s making only his third career start, Langsdorf expects more of the same from the Volunteers.
The key: Can Fyfe find the same holes other teams have found lately in the Tennessee secondary? Coaches like how the senior walk-on has been dialed in during bowl preparations.
“Ryker, he’s got a nice, quick release. That’s one of his best attributes,” Riley said. “I think through this time he’s built up some good confidence. I think he’s also kind of a ball player. My thought about him is he can make some plays, and I think he’s always talked about and seen as maybe more of an opposite of Tommy, but I think he’s a better athlete than people know.”
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