There is no other word to describe what Nebraska Cornhusker fans were feeling after their 16-15 loss at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
The Hokies were thoroughly outplayed by the Huskers on both sides of the ball, however the story of the day for the Huskers was mistakes — such as penalties while near the goal line and blown coverage late in the fourth quarter.
The Huskers were dominant on defense — allowing only 194 total yards until 2 minutes left in the game — with the exception of the final drive. On offense, the team moved the chains — playing especially efficiently in the run game (207 yards) — but couldn’t turn that movement into touchdowns.
However, not matter what anyone wants to say, the Huskers lost the game well before the fourth quarter, let alone the 81-yard pass from Tyrod Taylor to Danny Coale. The Huskers made it to the redzone five times — and a sixth time to the 21-yard line — and came away with five field goals and a punt.
The team’s inability to put the ball in the endzone proved deadly for their chances to pick up their first road win against a Top 20 opponent since 1997.
The most painful drive and result for Husker fans was in the third quarter. The Huskers got the ball with 5:27 left in the third, and proceeded to march 76 yards, from their own 18-yard-line to the Va. Tech 6-yard-line. However, this is where the wheels fell off.
On the next play, NU quarterback Zac Lee dropped back and found a wide open Mike McNeill in the endzone for what seemed like a 6-yard touchdown. Instead, this was called back for a blatant holding call going against Ricky Henry. Then before the next snap, the Husker offensive line was called for a false start and moved back another five yards.
On the next play, Lee placed a perfect pass to Menelik Holt — who did a heck of a job to come down with it in the endzone. However, when he hit the ground the ball popped out — which by a new NCAA bylaw, means it was incomplete. Next, on second-and-goal from the 21-yard-line, the Huskers were called for another holding penalty — moving them back another ten yards.
NU got their next play off, but it resulted in an incomplete pass, which was immediately followed by a false start to put the Huskers in a third-and-goal from the 36-yard line — meaning a field goal would be 53 yards. On the third down, Lee was dropped for another yard loss, and the Huskers decided to punt the ball. You could tell, the momentum had switched.
A previously confident Husker offense, now was timid and couldn’t understand what happened. And as an observer and journalist, I couldn’t begin to understand what had just happened. How does a team that seems to be clicking that well go from first-and-goal from the six-yard-line to a fourth-and-goal from the 36? It was unimaginable.
To that end, anyone watching had to credit the Hokie defense for its defensive pressure and — probably even more than the defense — the crowd for disrupting the Husker offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Hokies were saddled all day by the Nebraska defense. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was in the backfield all day. Fighting through constant double and triple teams from the Va. Tech offensive line, Suh was still able to get to the quarterback and running backs in the backfield.
It was obvious that Suh was too much to handle, and for the majority of the game, so was the rest of the Nebraska defense. The secondary did a good job of handling the Hokies’ receiving corps. It was a good display from the Husker defense — although against a suspect Hokie offense.
The overall performance, however, was ruined by one play with about 1:30 left in the game. On a second-and-six from the Va. Tech 16-yard-line, Taylor was able to buy himself enough time with his feet to allow for Coale to get open behind the Husker secondary. Taylor — who was inaccurate for the majority of the game — threw a perfect pass to Coale, who then ran to the Husker three-yard-line.
That set up an 11-yard TD pass by Taylor to Dyrell Roberts to give the Hokies their 16-15 lead — and subsequent win.
Now, it’s time to analyze this game.
The Huskers were the better team for 58 minutes, however, that didn’t matter in the end. They couldn’t finish in the redzone, and Lee looked off the entire game when it came to the passing game. However, they were able to run on the Hokies and should have come away with a win.
There were two plays that stand out in my mind, where I must question what Husker head coach Bo Pelini, and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson were doing.
First came on the frustrating drive I detailed above. Yes, penalties had pushed the Huskers back to the 37-yard-line and it would have been a 54-yard field goal. However, Alex Henery has shown he has the leg to make a field goal from this distance and sitting with a 12-10 lead at the time, I don’t know why you don’t try the field goal.
Some might argue that if Henery misses the attempt, then the Huskers turn the ball over to the Hokies in great field position. But I counter with the fact that the Huskers had stopped the Hokie offense time and time again. With a field goal that was within range, and a chance to put points on the board, you have to be willing to try. This attempt could have won the game for the Huskers.
The next play in question is one that most people wouldn’t have questioned during the game — but I did.
What was going through Watson’s mind when he decided to punt on fourth-and-one from the Hokie 40-yard-line with less than two minutes left? The Huskers were moving the ball effectively and could have easily pushed for that last yard. If they would have gotten the first down, the game would have been over — it would have turned into a milk the clock situation.
Once again, the argument against it was that if unsuccessful the Hokies would get the ball in great field position. In fact, Watson said after the game that his decision to punt was made easy by his faith in the defense to stop the Hokie offense from producing the points needed to win the game.
I counter with this: if you have such confidence in the defense to come up with the stop, then why not go for the first down?
Seriously, that justification doesn’t work at all. If you go for it on that fourth down, and don’t make it, then the defense at the 40-yard-line is the same as it was when the Hokies have the ball at the 12.
In the end, these are only questions we can think upon and wonder about. It doesn’t matter anymore, because the game is over, and in an ugly battle, the Hokies ended on top. Yes they were lucky to win in a way. However, they earned the victory with their redzone defense. The only conclusion you can reach as an observer is it is hard to win a game when you can’t convert touchdowns and you can’t perform in the redzone.
Both teams have a ways to grow, but I come away from the game more concerned about the Virginia Tech offense than either side of the ball for Nebraska. But both teams have a ways to climb before they reach the nation’s elite.