You can't blame the defense.
Yes, senior safety Matt O'Hanlon got beat deep for the single biggest offensive play for Virginia Tech, which set up the touchdown that would pull victory from the jaws of defeat. And yes, Nebraska made a pretty ordinary looking quarterback look very good in the first quarter, Tyrod Taylor completing three out of his first four attempts on third and long.
But this isn't on the defense.
Some were calling junior quarterback Zac Lee the best passing quarterback since Vince Ferragamo of the 70s' Husker teams.
One interception, five touchdowns and over 550 yards. Those were his stats coming into this game.
It seemed convenient enough to assume that Arkansas State and Florida Atlantic weren't as bad as they looked. Maybe Lee was just that good.
He wasn't, and while he seemed very poised early in
the game, his efficiency in the passing game simply wasn't there. Eight straight
incompletions, a woefully overthrown ball which resulted in an interception, all
resulting in a final day that statistically was less than
11 of 30 for 136 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
But we can't put this all on him.
Lee got plenty of help in setting up the passing
game from junior running back Roy Helu Jr. All he did was set career highs in
both yards and carries for a game, toting the ball 28 times for 168 yards. And
Helu got ample help from an offensive line that when it comes to run blocking,
as you'd have to say they were efficient, the Huskers averaging
almost six yards per rush.
But in pass protection, that's a different story, and unfortunately most of the breakdowns came from the right side, where it was either sophomore Marcel Jones or junior D. J. Jones, getting beat off the edge.
Most of that came courtesy of defensive end Jason Worilds and linebacker Cody Grimm, who both seemed almost unstoppable against either Husker tackle. The tandem combined for seven of the eight quarterback hurries, all of those coming from the right side of the offensive line.
So, Lee didn't have as much time as he could have
had or should have had. But Lee simply didn't have a good day. Even the pass to
a wide open Curenski Gilleylen late in the game, where Nebraska was up, 12-10,
has an asterisk firmly affixed. The safety assigned to help over the top made
the wrong read and left the sophomore receiver all by himself. But even then
Gilleylen had to do some fancy toe work to make sure to stay in bounds, because
Lee threw it to his outside shoulder. If he throws it to his inside, Gilleylen
may have scored. Ultimately, Nebraska winds up with a field goal.
Back to the defense, though, one big play in the
end seems to have drowned out what was nothing short of a stellar performance,
especially from the second quarter on. Led by senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who cemented his status as one of if not the best defensive lineman in the
country, almost completely shut down the Hokies for more than a half of play.
Virginia Tech opened the game with a 76-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Yeah, that's a big play. And Virginia Tech hit wide receiver Danny Coale for an 81-yard play which gave V. Tech first and goal at the Nebraska three. Yep, another huge play. But sandwiched between those two huge plays was a game filled with Hokie frustration on offense, which you can see here by the eventual outcome of every single drive between those two dramatic plays:
Suh led the team with eight tackles and an amazing
four passes deflected at the line of scrimmage. His cohort to the left,
sophomore Jared Crick, finished second with seven tackles, including a sack.
Nebraska finished the game with four sacks to none for the Hokies, and Virginia
Tech totaled 86 yards on the ground.
Point of fact, if you are of the mind that in order
to win games you have to run and stop the run, Nebraska did more than enough in
stopping the Hokies from doing that, but for its part the Husker ground game
rumbled along for 207 yards.
Heck, even Nebraska's special teams has to have the
nod in this game against a team noted for great special teams. Outside of the
kickoff return given up to start the game, it was Nebraska who finished with the
edge, led by junior Alex Henery, who if not for Suh, would easily be the team's
Not only did he score all of Nebraska's points,
connecting on all five field goal attempts, he actually saved a potential
disastrous play, running sideways from what seemed to be a potential punt block,
Rugby kicking it, watching it go 76 yards and into the end zone on the other end
of the field.
Fellow junior kicker Adi Kunalic did his part, too,
as all his kickoffs sailed into the end zone, even the first one which was taken
And in the return game, check again as Niles Paul
had a monster game, his first punt return going back the other way, 55 yards,
giving Nebraska first down at the Virginia Tech 22.
But here comes some futility on offensive drives of
their own, Nebraska five times finding drives ended inside the Virginia Tech
30-yard line, the Huskers having to settle for field goals each and every time.
The offensive woes were only exacerbated by an
apparent touchdown throw by the Huskers which was ruled incomplete and never
reviewed by the officials. Then woeful became frustratingly comedic as Nebraska
had first and goal on the Virginia Tech six-yard line, Nebraska up 12-10 with a
real chance to put this game away.
What followed had to be one of the most frustrating
things second-year Head Coach Bo Pelini has seen since he arrived, and for Shawn Watson, the mastermind behind an offense which has proven itself since the day
he took over the play calling duties, frustration probably doesn't quite
1st and goal on Virginia Tech 6-yard
line – Penalty. Holding on Nebraska
1st and goal on Virginia Tech 16-yard line – Penalty, False start on Nebraska
1st and goal on Virginia Tech 21-yard line – Zac Lee incomplete to Menelik Holt
2nd and goal on Virginia Tech 21-yard line – Penalty, holding on Nebraska
2nd and goal on Virginia Tech 31-yard line – Zac Lee incomplete
3rd and goal on Virginia Tech 31-yard line – Penalty, False start on Nebraska
3rd and goal on Virginia Tech 36-yard line – Zac Lee rush for a loss of one
Hardly a microcosm of the entire game, but perhaps
a microcosm of the last few years: Nebraska comes close, but once again, comes
up short and much of the reason their own miscues. Hard to imagine Nebraska has
any feet left after having shot them as many times as they have, not just in
this game, but many big games over just the last few years.
Overall, the defense had a few plays it probably
wants back, but the passing game has almost an entire contest it would probably
want to redo. This certainly isn't the first time Nebraska has snatched defeat
from the jaws of victory, but this ranks up there in terms of just how dramatic
this loss was.
What we have learned, though, is that Zac Lee isn't
Superman. He has his off days, and he had a big off-day today. But he's the
starter as well he should be, and while I believe there should always be open
competition for every spot, Lee has to start the next game and get back on the
horse that bucked him off more than a few times against the Hokies.
He'll learn from this, as well as the fans have
learned that playing at home against the Sun Belt isn't the same as playing in
Blacksburg against a top-15 team.
But Nebraska could have won. They should have won.
But they didn't.
And I know coaches are going to say that everybody didn't do their job, because you win as a team and you lose as a team. But one bad play by O'Hanlon doesn't take away from the obvious, and that is the painful truth of this matter:
Virginia Tech and Nebraska both had the same idea
coming into this game – try to make the quarterback beat you.
Lee didn't. Taylor did
The rest of the stats are moot.