On a historic day for Tennessee football, the Volunteers rode the arm and feet of Joshua Dobbs and the fearsome rush of Derek Barnett to defeat the Nebraska Cornhuskers 38-24 to win the 2016 Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, a Nashville holiday tradition.
Dobbs, the inspirational senior playing his final game for the Big Orange, cemented his legacy as one of the beloved players of the recent history of Tennessee football. Coach Butch Jones attached his reputation to Dobbs and did not waver from him, nor did Dobbs from Jones. An electrifying MVP performance, Dobbs completed 23-of-38 for 291 yards and one touchdown and rushed for the difference-making 118 yards on 11 carries—some by design and some via the scramble. Nebraska simply had no answer for him.
But early on, it was the same inconsistencies that plagued Tennessee all season that kept them close in this game. A penalty hampered the opening possession, ended with a punt instead of a 50-yard FG attempt due to a prevailing wind early in the game. Two more penalties stymied the next possession without a first down. A pair of drops, each on similar plays, both which would have resulted in touchdowns, halted the third drive. Meanwhile, the maligned UT defense was stout, holding Nebraska to but 34 yards in a 0-0 first quarter.
Tennessee finally got out of its own way early in the second quarter. Starting at their own 27, Dobbs to Malone for 31 yards, Dobbs to Jennings for 11 yards, Dobbs to Kamara for three yards, then John Kelly for 28 yards down the far sideline, four plays, 73 yards, just that quickly 7-0 Volunteers. A quick Nebraska three-and-out, then a long 11-play, 66-yard march capped by a 10-yard scramble by Dobbs made it 14-0 Tennessee. The following possession once again, UT got in its own way, a trick play lost 11 yards leading to a punt.
Nebraska fought back with Ryker Fyfe hitting Brandon Reilly on a beautiful 38-yard scoring pass to cut the Vols lead to 14-7. But Tennessee answered. A nine-play, 75-yard drive capped by another Dobbs touchdown run and it was 21-7 at halftime. The Vols racked up 308 yards of offense in the first half, and without their own mistakes could have scored many more and put the game away then and there.
A Dobbs run up the middle for 28 set up an Aaron Medley 46-yard field goal to make it 24-7. Fyfe then found Reilly for another spectacular touchdown from nine yards out to make it 24-14. For Brandon Reilly, a local recruit for Nebraska, he showed out in his final game for sure. Dobbs’ third touchdown scamper, easing inside the near pylon, gave UT a 31-14 fourth quarter advantage. But Reilly subsequently made his third superior catch of the evening, a 39-yard leaping catch along the far sideline, which led to a 45-yard Drew Brown FG, 31-17.
A nervous moment came next as Tyler Byrd fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Nebraska pounced as Fyfe scored from the nine on a scramble of his own to cut the Volunteer lead to 31-24. But Joshua Dobbs simply would not be denied, finding Josh Malone on the post for a 59-yard spirit-breaking touchdown for the final margin.
The win marks back-to-back nine-win seasons for Tennessee, 25 wins in three seasons, and the first streak of three successive bowl wins since 1994-1996. The true history on this night came as Derek Barnett broke the legendary Reggie White’s sack record, and the celebration was on.