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September 27, 2008


We learned a lot about the Nebraska football team Saturday night as it came close to passing a major test on ABC-TV against Virginia Tech. There were some pleasant discoveries. There were a few disappointing ones.

The bottom line is that Nebraska has come back a long way from the end of the 2007 season, but it has not yet learned how to win a close game against the type of team that it used to smack around in the 1990s.

Nebraska will line it up and fight you for 60 minutes, which is a nice change from last year. The Cornhuskers made too many critical mental mistakes on defense to win a tight game against a quality football program like Virginia Tech, but they showed an endless reservoir of desire and determination in coming back from an 18-point deficit to get within five points late in the game.

This is a team that will not give up. It will commit an untimely penalty because it’s pushing beyond its limits on defense against teams with more talent and depth (see Tom Osborne’s teams of the late 1970s), but it will never pack it in. The Huskers missed their chance to vault into the Top 25, but this team could pull off a big upset before the season is over.

To do that, the Huskers will need to get a better performance from senior quarterback Joe Ganz. Several times as he escaped a pass rush, Ganz seemed unsure whether to tuck the ball and run or whether to continue searching for a receiver. Ganz is a gutsy kid, but he showed why no one outside the state of Nebraska mentions him in a discussion of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12.

Virginia Tech sophomore Tyrod Taylor, who was supposed to sit out as a redshirt this season, was more composed and decisive than Ganz. Taylor had more than 250 yards of total offense and made several crucial third-down conversions to keep the ball away from Nebraska late in the game. He handled the noise from an all-time Memorial Stadium record crowd of 85,831 and never turned the ball over. Ganz, on the other hand, threw a first-quarter interception that was returned to the Husker 5-yard line, resulting in a touchdown that the Huskers could never quite overcome.

We found out that Nebraska is not a physical enough team yet – at least not on offense. Ganz didn’t get enough help from his offensive line. The Virginia Tech front four started pressuring the Husker signal caller late in the game without needing help from a blitz, and Barney Cotton’s front five could produce only about 50 yards rushing, not nearly enough to win a game like this.

It’s apparent that the Huskers don’t have much depth yet in their defensive line. The front four of Zach Potter, Ndamukong Suh, Ty Steinkuhler and Pierre Allen played almost the entire game. The Cornhusker defense showed courage in the red zone, but gave too much ground between the 20-yard lines, allowing Virginia Tech’s Dustin Keys to kick four field goals.

The Nebraska defense did not earn its Blackshirts back yet. It gave up too many rushing yards and it could not force a turnover when it desperately needed one. It is improving quickly, but has quite a ways to go.

Virginia Tech, noted nationwide for its kicking game, blocked a punt for a safety in the opening minutes and had a big advantage in that department early in the contest, but NU closed the gap as the night wore on. The Huskers gave themselves a chance to win with Nate Swift’s churning, snaking, 88-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter that cut Tech’s lead to 28-23. Still, the Hokies finished with a narrow edge in the kicking game.

Bo Pelini’s lack of head coaching experience cost Nebraska on this night. When the Atlantic Coast Conference officials blew a call late in the game and gave the Hokies a first down they didn’t deserve, Pelini lost his composure.

With Tech leading 28-23 and facing a third-and-four at the NU 37 with four minutes left, Taylor could gain only two yards before being forced out of bounds at the 35. Suh, in hot pursuit, was already airborne as Taylor went out of bounds, and he hit Taylor with his hand as they landed. It was incidental contact, but someone threw a flag, and Pelini erupted on the sideline.

Instead of Tech being faced with a field goal attempt of about 52 yards, they had the ball first and 10 on the Husker 11-yard line after the penalty for the personal foul was stepped off and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Pelini was tacked on. Taylor scored three plays later to increase the Hokies’ lead to 12, and the gap was too much for the Huskers to overcome, although they battled to the end and scored on a Ganz-to-Todd Peterson touchdown pass with 1:32 left.

Pelini’s temper is a two-edged sword at this point early in his career. His fiery attitude has helped the Husker defense retool much quicker than might have been expected, but it might occasionally cost Nebraska some penalty yardage. In the long run, I think the tradeoff will work in Nebraska’s favor.

Pelini and his team learned a lot against Virginia Tech. The loss is a painful one, and it could have been avoided, but in the long run, it will be productive. We’ll see the evidence by November.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. | Archive