For the only the second time since 2001 (the other time was at Miami in 2006), the Virginia Tech offense rose up at the end of a football contest and put the game on their shoulders to win, finishing off the Nebraska Cornhuskers 35-30 in the hallowed ground of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
To be honest, the offense executed better than it had the entire season in the toughest environment (Nebraska had only lost 3 home games at night in its storied history) and against the toughest team yet. In fact, it was the defense and special teams that broke down at critical junctures in the game and kept Nebraska in it until the very end, putting on display just how much youth this Hokie team has on the field.
On the Hokies first series, the offense's youth was more than evident. Tyrod Taylor read a busted coverage and threw a ball to Dyrell Roberts that should have been a TD down the far sideline. Taylor unfortunately led Roberts to the outside instead of to the inside for the score. It was still a catchable ball and Roberts got lazy with his footwork and didn't bring the ball down in bounds. It should have been a big play and both young players didn't execute. Fortunately Brent Bowden did execute (other than one critical shank near the end of the game, his punting was outstanding the entire night and kept Nebraska pinned deep in their own end) and he put the Huskers on their 6-yd line. The Hokies defense made their traditional huge stop early in the game, to keep the home crowd from getting going, and Nebraska had to punt after a 3 and out (the Hokie D produced five 3-and-outs during the night which is fantastic). And then Stephan Virgil busted through and blocked the ensuing punt out of the end zone for a safety and the game's first score, to make it 2-0.
That was big, but the Hokies couldn't move the ball on offense after the free kick and had to punt it again. However "Sunshine" Bowden pinned the Huskers on their 11 and then Macho Harris made a veteran play, grabbing a pick off of Husker QB Joe Ganz after disguising his coverage. The Hokies' Darren Evans punched it in, the Hokies went up 9-0 and things were looking great,
Unfortunately, the Huskers began throwing deep passes down the middle, which is where VT has been so vulnerable this year, and marched right back down the field to score on a broken play. I originally was furious at Kam Chancellor for blowing his assignment, but in rewatching the footage, it was actually another Nebraska tight end who fell down right in the path where Chancellor was running to cover his man. Chancellor was tripped up by the fallen player and his guy got free for the easy score. Chancellor has done a nice job getting the Hokies in the correct alignment most of the season, but his individual play in the pass game has been sorely lacking thus far. He's been good in run support (minus the ECU game) but he needs to make better plays out in space against passing teams as the season marches on.
As was on display the entire game, these young Hokies managed the crowd and the game by bouncing right back. All good teams answer a score with a score and the Hokies did just that, led by a magical play from the Wizard himself. Taylor escaped the Nebraska rush and hit TE Andre Smith deep down the field to give the Hokies first and goal. Unfortunately Taylor followed that up by missing a wide open Greg Boone in the end zone by about two feet and the Hokies had to settle for the FG.
I noticed, between the Roberts throw on the first series and the missed throw to Boone that Taylor just seems to be trying to make the throw too "pretty". He appears to try a little too hard on a few of his throws instead of just delivering the ball. I'd like to see Coach O'Cain work with him on getting more comfortable or "natural" with some of these throws instead of overthinking it. He obviously has the accuracy and arm strength so it's up to Coach O'Cain to get him comfortable more often.
Anyway, the Huskers and Hokies exchanged a few more FG's and the Hokies ended the half up 18-10. Talking about youth, Hokie kickoff man Justin Myer is a true freshman who has the leg to boot the ball out of the end zone, but for some reason, his kicks were short all night and that wasn't helping the field position battle throughout the night. Fortunately, the third quarter saw the Hokies extend the game to 28-10 behind some great run blocking and some big-time stops on the Nebraska run game. However, in that 28-10 score there were some hidden problems that pointed to this game not being over like it should have been.
First, the Hokies were awful in the red zone, having to settle for four straight FG's, although Dustin Keys did deliver on all four in a big way. Again, just like the UNC game last week, Keys was just flat-out clutch on his kicks, in front of the biggest hostile crowd he'd ever seen. But the offense should have punched a few more of those in for TD's. Also the defense was showing more signs of being weak down the middle in the passing game (Brett Warren, you have got to start getting depth in your drops on the passing game and read the QB better) and that was exploited over and over again in the fourth quarter, while the Huskers mounted their comeback. There was a disturbing lack of focus once VT was up 28-10 on defense and special teams and following the fourth longest punt return in Nebraska history, which saw an embarrassing tackling effort from at least three Hokies (Cris Hill, Cody Grimm and Greg Boone) the Huskers brought it back to 28-23 with 7:52 left in the game.
All the ingredients for a melt down were there - hostile crowd, momentum shifting to the home team, seeing an 18 point lead drop to 5 points and the offense had been stagnant for two straight drives. In stepped Tyrod Taylor who made a huge 15-yd scramble on 2nd down deep in Hokie territory and an even bigger throw on 3rd down later in the drive. Then Nebraska melted down by hitting Taylor after he ran out of bounds on a 3rd down play and new head coach Bo Pelini made it even worse by overdoing his argument with the ref. The two personal fouls added up to Hokie ball on the 11 and two incredibly tough runs by Darren Evans later, the Hokies faced third and one from the 1 1/2-yd line. Taylor muscled the ball in on a QB sneak and the Hokies led 35-23. That is what I meant at the beginning when I said the offense put the team on its back and carried them to victory at the end of a game and it's been all too rare. I can give some of that credit to Coach Stinespring. Although the playcalling was far from imaginative the entire game, the execution was better. But I still firmly believe that Taylor is pulling rabbits out of the hat with his poise and athletic ability and that's far more responsible for the offensive success than Stiney. That being said, 35 points is 35 points and I'll take it.
Unfortunately the defense did not ice the game and the Huskers flew down the field to make it 35-30 and the Hokies had to have a big onside kick recovery from Greg Boone (who also had a very nice game) to finally put the game out of reach.
Overall the Hokie offensive line run blocked and pass blocked the best it had to date this season. Sergio Render was pushed off the ball some by the Huskers' star DT Ndamukong Suh, but overall the line was very solid. The Hokie defensive line was also very potent, at least when the first string line was in. Unfortunately the backup defensive line is a major weakness for the Hokies right now and generated no pressure on Ganz. And the LB's were great in run support, though I still don't understand why Purnell Sturdivant doesn't break down and tackle very well. He seems to go for the kill shot instead of making a good tackle and that's frustrating because he missed QB Joe Ganz twice because of it on big plays. Coach Foster preaches that you tackle with your feet and I saw him on the sidelines on several occasions ready to eat his headset
The receivers grew up a lot tonight. The trio of Dyrell Roberts, Danny Coale and especially Jarrett Boykin made some very bigtime catches and blocked well. The tight end play from Andre Smith and Greg Boone was top notch, and the whole night should have gone a long way towards addressing what I was referring to last week when talking about the lack of confidence in the receivers that Taylor exhibited earlier this season. Keep in mind that Nebraska played a lot of man defense and that requires a lot less of the QB and receiver in terms of having to read the defense. The results speak for themselves, but the receivers are still going to face many more zone and matchup zone defenses later this season, so that area still needs improvement without a doubt.
In the end, Nebraska played a helluva game. They were disciplined in their pass rush on Taylor, and contained him effectively 75% of the game. It's only due to his ability that he was able to still make enough plays to move the offense. Nebraska QB Joe Ganz is a gamer and if they would have turned loose the deep passing game earlier in the game it may have been a different outcome. The Huskers didn't give up when they were down 28-10 and proved that under Coach Pelini they are going to be a force to reckon with by the time next season's game in Blacksburg rolls around. I suspect these young Hokies will be much better by then, as well, and that will make for a game that garners even more national attention next year.
Now it's on to Western Kentucky, although without the services of Rover Davon Morgan who really seemed to be coming on this year. He tore his ACL on a cut on a kickoff return (I really hate any form of artificial turf) and is out for the season. Our condolences go out to him, but now it's time for Dorian Porch to step up and be the man.