TEMPE, Ariz. -- This was supposed to be his party, an opportunity to close out a storybook career. 22-2 as a starter entering the game, Tee Martin was supposed to finish the final chapter in a Tennessee uniform just the way he did as a junior in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- as a winner.
It looked like he was going to have one final highlight to add to his resume early in the second half when he pulled his Tennessee Volunteers to within three points, but Nebraska was too much for the senior from Mobile, Ala.
The Huskers were too much for Martin and the Vols on Sunday.
"It really hit me when there were five minutes left on the clock and Nebraska kept getting first downs," Martin said. "We had just gotten into a rhythm as an offense, just started moving the ball and finding out a way to score, and the game was over."
Martin took over as the Volunteers' starting quarterback in 1998 facing not only the pressure of leading a national contender, but also replacing a legend in Knoxville, Peyton Manning.
His fans, teammates and coaches were quick to jump on his bandwagon as he led the Vols to their second-ever national championship last year.
But on Sunday night, Nebraska's defense made it a difficult closure for the 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior, who will play in the Senior Bowl in his hometown on Jan. 22. The Huskers wouldn't allow Tennessee to run the ball with success (averaging just 1.7 yards per rush), and Martin wasn't able to scramble outside of the pocket.
"You have to give credit to our defense," said Nebraska nose tackle Steve Warren. "We had 11 players flying to the ball. Eleven players all with the same goal."
On the Vols' first eight possessions of the game, Tennessee had five first downs and 100 yards of offense. Martin was not much help. The senior quarterback was 3-for-10 for 74 yards, including two interceptions. On the ground, he had been sacked once and rushed for minus-4 yards.
"I knew it was big in their game plan to keep me in the pocket and not allow me to get outside of the pocket," Martin said. "It happened a few times where I was about to scramble and get out of the pocket, and I got tripped a few times. Their guys just play hard -- crawling, scratching -- whatever they have to do to get to the quarterback."
When Nebraska kicked a field goal with 3:11 to go in the first half, things looked bleak for the team in orange.
Nonetheless, in just 1 minute, 19 seconds, Martin changed the complexion of the game. Completing six-of-seven passes (the lone incompletion being an intentional spike), Martin directed a scoring drive that sent Tennessee into the locker room, down just 17-7.
"We felt like things were turning," said receiver Cedric Wilson.
"I don't want to be critical of anybody, but I think that we should have realized that the passing game would win the game earlier," Martin said. "Obviously, we got into the two minute drill when we needed to, but if we had recognized that it would have won the game, we would have gone to it earlier. It would have been a different ball game. But I understand (offensive coordinator Randy) Sanders' shoes: you don't want to throw the ball all the time. If you get three incompletions, it puts the defense on the field."
In the second half, Martin continued to show his moxie, completing two of his first three attempts in the third quarter to pull the Vols within three, 17-14.
After Nebraska was forced to punt, Tennessee had an opportunity to take its first lead just five minutes into the second half. But after hitting Donte' Stallworth for a 13-yard gain on the first play of the next drive to move into Husker territory, Tennessee would not threaten again until Wilson and Stallworth hooked up for a score with 7:25 remaining in the game. By that time, Nebraska was still holding a 10-point cushion.
"We just didn't make the plays we should have made," Martin said. "We didn't have enough time to come back."
Tennessee never touched the ball again as Dan Alexander and Eric Crouch ran out the clock to close out the game. It truly meant the end for Martin as a Volunteer.
"Tee did awful well," Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We certainly are going to miss him. Tee's athletic ability and ability to throw the ball and manage a game and be a quarterback is obvious. You watch him play, and you know he's a great player."
Rocky Top is going to be sung again in Knoxville, but No. 17 will no longer be scrambling and passing. As Martin said on Sunday, "it's going to be hard to say good-bye."