BLACKSBURG, Va. — Nebraska’s return to national prominence — or at least talk that the Cornhuskers are on their way back — seemed just seconds away Saturday.
Virginia Tech’s 31-game non-conference winning streak at Lane Stadium was almost history. Nebraska’s 16-game road losing streak against teams ranked inside the top 20 was about to be yesterday’s news.
Then, disaster struck for the Huskers.
Needing to drive 88 yards for a touchdown with just 1:44 to play, Virginia Tech’s struggling offense came alive just in time to snatch glory away from Nebraska. After taking advantage of a busted coverage for an 81-yard pass play, quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Dyrell Roberts with 21 seconds left lifted the No. 13-ranked Hokies to a stunning 16-15 victory over the No. 19 Huskers.
“I’ll take responsibility for not finishing the deal,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “You’ve got to finish the job and we didn’t do that. Each and every guy that walked onto that field to play had a hand in us not winning that football game, coaches included.
“They made the plays and we didn’t, pretty simple. In a game like that, you’ve got to make the play.”
For Virginia Tech (2-1), that playmaker was Taylor. Bottled up for most of the contest, the junior used his elusiveness on his winning TD pass, which just slipped past the fingers of diving Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara into the arms of Roberts in the end zone.
The winning score came on a play that lasted more than 10 seconds with Taylor scrambling to his right. A pump fake that froze Nebraska All-Big 12 defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh bought Taylor just enough time.
“We don’t win that without a quarterback that can throw the football and can keep a play alive,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “There are some throws he would like to have back and there were some throws that got dropped, but bottom line, we don’t win this game without a quarterback as athletic as Tyrod.”
But like most games, Pelini said this one was about more than just one play.
“That isn’t why we lost,” Pelini said of Taylor’s game-winning scoring pass. “(Taylor) was scrambling and he got them to stop and hesitate and the guy made a play. Good job by them.”
Virginia Tech’s scoring drive was aided by a breakdown in coverage by the Huskers (2-1). Playing a cover-two defense, Nebraska cornerback Anthony West let Coale run past him, presumably handing off responsibility for his coverage to safety Matt O’Hanlon.
However, O’Hanlon wasn’t able to get to the sideline in time as a wide-open Coale hauled in the long pass from Taylor, who was drilled by Suh just as he released the ball.
“I, personally, had a great shot, but I didn’t get there in time,” Suh said. “I can only hope that the next time I’m in that situation, I make the play.”
Pelini wasn’t blaming any one player.
“You saw what happened,” Pelini said when asked about the 81-yard pass play. “Let’s go to the next question — It’s pretty obvious what happened on that.
“I’m not going to sit there and belabor the point.”
O’Hanlon was able to force Coale out of bounds at the Nebraska 3-yard line with 1:11 to play, but the damage was done. O’Hanlon sacked Taylor for an 8-yard loss on the next play and Taylor was forced to throw away his second-down pass before coming through on third down.
The final minutes ruined what had been a solid defensive day for Nebraska. Despite 107 yards rushing for freshman Ryan Williams, the Huskers limited Taylor to minus-22 net yards rushing, including four sacks. He finished 12-of-27 passing for 192 yards — nearly half of it coming on one play.
“We played defense,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. “It’s a crime. It’s a crime.”
But it wasn’t enough.
“In the end, we didn’t make the play,” Bo Pelini said. “I don’t measure it on yards or how you play, you’ve got to win the football game. We didn’t win the football game, so we didn’t play good enough in any phase of the game.
“I measure it on results. That’s how we measure things around here.”
Nebraska’s offense certainly shared in the defeat. Despite driving inside the Virginia Tech 20 on five different occasions, the only Husker points came on five Alex Henery field goals, tying a Lane Stadium opponent record.
Nebraska squandered a prime opportunity late in the third quarter after quarterback Zac Lee’s 17-yard run gave the Huskers a first-and-goal at the Virginia Tech 6. Not only was Lee’s 6-yard TD pass to tight end Mike McNeill wiped off the board due to a holding penalty on guard Ricky Henry, but NU was also flagged for another holding call and a pair of false-start penalties.
The Huskers wound up having a fourth-and-goal on the Hokies’ 37 and were forced to punt.
“Obviously, that hurt us,” Pelini said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that was a key point in the football game. If we would’ve scored there, I thought we’d be in good shape, but it didn’t happen.”
Nebraska didn’t score a TD despite 343 yards of total offense. Even with Lee’s struggles in his first road start (11-of-30 passing for 136 yards and two interceptions), the Huskers found success with the running game after the first quarter as I-back Roy Helu Jr. rushed for a career-high 169 yards.
“(The feeling) was this game should be a little more one-sided than it is,” Nebraska center Jacob Hickman said. “We should have about 30 points — or maybe even more — right now and not 15.
“If we would’ve finished our drives, it could’ve been where it wasn’t a game at all, but you’ve got to give them credit because they stuck in there and made the play at the end.”
The Huskers trailed 7-3 after the first quarter, despite being held to zero yards of total offense — 1 yard rushing and minus-1 yard passing — in the period. Nebraska’s first score was set up by Niles Paul’s 55-yard punt return.
Nebraska led 12-10 at halftime thanks to four Henery field goals. The junior converted on kicks of 40, 27, 19 and 38 yards to equal his previous career high for field goals in a game in the first half alone.
Virginia Tech’s heralded special teams play showed itself from the onset as Roberts returned the opening kickoff 76 yards to the Nebraska 24. Taylor then completed a key 21-yard pass on a third-and-20 play to the Huskers 13, helping to set up a 1-yard TD run by Williams to give the Hokies a 7-0 lead with 11:15 remaining in the first quarter.
“We talked about it going into the football game: There would be the initial surge by Virginia Tech with the emotion, the energy and, obviously, the kickoff return didn’t help things,” Pelini said. “But then our guys settled down and we were fine.”
Trailing 9-7, Matt Waldron briefly put Virginia Tech back in front 10-9 on a 39-yard field goal with 2:30 left before halftime. Williams’ 46-yard run on a third-and-2 play to the Nebraska 26 set up the score.