By Maurice Patton
Special to InsideTennessee
Ryker Fyfe was shocked to realize that Derek Barnett’s sack with 3:29 remaining in Friday’s Music City Bowl was the only one the Tennessee junior defensive end recorded in the Volunteers’ 38-24 win.
“That was his only one? It seemed like he was back there all night,” the Nebraska quarterback said following the contest, and to his credit, Barnett was credited with four hurries.
“It felt like I had to know where he was every play.”
With good reason. His only sack of the game was the one that gave him the UT all-time record with 33 career sacks – pushing him ahead of the legendary Reggie White, who had 32 from 1980-83. It was his 13th of the season, a mark that ranks third behind White (15, 1983) and Jonathan Brown (13.5, 1997), and with the one tackle for lost yardage, he ranks second all-time with 52, ahead of White’s 51 and behind Leonard Little’s 53 from 1995-97.
“Obviously you know he’s coming,” Fyfe said. “Then in the fourth quarter when they know you’re going to throw, he’s ready to tee off. Late in the game, he really teed off. He had me seeing stars. I think I was concussed. I’m not sure.”
After coming close on a couple of occasions, the 6-3, 265-pounder finally got home on a third-and-26 play from the UT 43-yard line. Following the play, Barnett’s teammates were so excited for his accomplishment that Butch Jones felt compelled to call a timeout.
“I was afraid we were going to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty,” Jones said regarding the team’s sideline celebration. “That just shows the respect they have for him, because they knew that was a milestone.”
Despite not being able to bring Fyke down for more than three quarters, Barnett never considered letting up in his efforts to do so.
“You’re not going to get home every time,” he said. “The guys beside me keep working. I’m going to keep working. The football gods will reward you.
“It wasn’t tough to keep working. If I’m hurrying him, getting pressure, that’s the same as getting sacks – being disruptive.”
It’s that mindset, Jones said, that elevates Barnett.
“In my opinion, he’s the best defensive end in the country – the best defensive player in the country,” the coach said. “He’s relentless, very competitive, and he knows the harder you play in this game, you’ll be rewarded.”
With LaTroy Lewis, Jonathan Kongbo and Corey Vereen each adding sacks, Tennessee wound up limiting Nebraska to 318 offensive yards – nearly half the total allowed in its regular-season finale against Vanderbilt (608), in the third of three consecutive dismal outings where the unit gave up a combined 1,983 yards.
“It’s rewarding, coming off a loss when we didn’t play well at all,” said Barnett, who finished with six total tackles and a pair of pass breakups. “It’s very rewarding to win and be Music City Bowl champions.”