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T A D    S T R Y K E R
September 19, 2009

With about five minutes left in Nebraska’s deflating 16-15 loss at Virginia Tech, a foreboding thought hit me: “They’re not going to pull a Kansas City Royals finish, are they? They’re not going to waste a great performance by Zack Grienke, are they?”

A little background is in order here. As a lifelong Kansas City Royals fan, I’ve had that thought a lot this summer. If you’ve had the stomach to watch the Royals play during the second half of this season, you know that they wasted one tremendous Grienke pitching effort after another during July and August, losing by scores like 1-0 and 2-1.

Nebraska, which played a lot of good defense Saturday but didn’t display any scoring punch, will be a national contender much sooner than the Royals, but the Cornhuskers are not quite there yet. Not quite ready to be taken seriously by the national media yet.

It may happen later this season. There are pivotal games — like the Missouri and Texas Tech games — just ahead. Now Nebraska needs to go into Grienke country and beat the Tigers on ESPN on a Thursday night. But it hasn’t happened yet.

That is largely due to a sub-mediocre performance by Nebraska’s own Zac, who wasted an overall encouraging performance by the Husker defense. Junior quarterback Zac Lee and the Huskers are not quite ready for prime time. Yes, it was his first start in a big-time atmosphere, and on the road. Yes, he is inexperienced. But other inexperienced quarterbacks, like Michigan’s true freshman, Tate Forcier, apparently are ready.

The Tech defense began to disrespect Lee and the Huskers’ medium- and long-range passing game more and more as the game went along. That strategy worked. Missouri will do the same thing Oct. 8 in Columbia. Will Lee be ready by then?

With the opportunity for a big-game victory staring them in the face, Lee and the Husker o-line had a five-point lead and the ball at the Hokie 46 with 2:07 left and could not get a first down to seal the game.

Bo Pelini was characteristically blunt in his postgame press conference — and for good reason.

Pelini preached “execution, execution” all week, and when push came to shove, Nebraska failed to execute at critical moments, especially in the red zone. The result? A holding penalty by the Huskers that ripped a third-quarter touchdown off the board. Then three more penalties by an undisciplined line that moved NU out of field-goal range. A busted coverage by two experienced defensive backs late in the game. A one-point loss.

“We all take responsibility for not finishing the deal,” Pelini said. “You’ve got to finish the deal, and we didn’t do that. They made the plays, we didn’t. Pretty simple. In a game like that, you’ve got to make the play.”

Pelini protected his quarterback after the game.

“I thought Zac did some good things,” he said. “It was his first game on the road. He has some things he has to fix. It was like any other week.”

The Blackshirts gave up three big plays — a completion on third-and-20 that extended the Hokies first touchdown drive, a 46-yard run by freshman Ryan Williams in the second quarter which led to a field goal, and the devastating 81-yard pass play from Tyrod Taylor to Danny Coale in the waning moments of the game that led to the final touchdown.

In some ways, it’s an honorable defeat. (It was better than losing at Seattle, like Southern Cal did, but probably worse than Tennessee’s stout showing at the Swamp in Gainesville.) Still, in the final analysis, it’s a terrible waste of a good defensive effort.

Nebraska missed the opportunity to become a national contender. The Huskers still have not defeated a top 20 team on the road since 1997. A national contender finds a way to finish a couple of those drives against Tech.

The Nebraska offensive line looked good — very good — at times, and Roy Helu Jr. ran tougher than he has ever run, rushing for 169 yards on 28 carries. But the offensive line looked bad — very bad — at other times. The Husker front simply self-destructed when the Huskers had the ball first and goal at the Tech 6-yard line. One holding call, two pass incompletions and two false-start penalties later, the Huskers ended up punting from the 38. Shades of the late Solich era. Did anyone else have a flashback to the 2002 season, when Nebraska could run the ball well at times but often had a devil of a time completing a forward pass? Zac Lee’s passing stats in Blacksburg (11-for-30 for 136 yards and two interceptions) looked a lot like Jammal Lord’s. Going in, I thought that if Nebraska played Tech even in the running game and in turnovers, the Huskers had a great chance to win. But although NU outrushed the Hokies 207-86, it lost. You’ve got to put a lot of that on the quarterback. When you fail to nail down a victory, you open yourself up for whatever miracles may happen late in the game. It was a day of wasted opportunities for the Huskers. More opportunities lie ahead.


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