LINCOLN — Nebraska was scuffling offensively Saturday night, then put together its best drive to finish the third quarter.
The Huskers were being shown up on special teams, then used Nate Swift's 88-yard punt return to continue their comeback.
But after giving themselves a chance against Virginia Tech, they just as quickly gave it away in a 35-30 loss to the Hokies before a record home crowd of 85,831 at Memorial Stadium.
NU aided Virginia Tech's clinching drive with personal-foul and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties on the same play. After the Hokies had managed just 2 yards on a third-and-4 play from the Huskers' 37, the Huskers gift-wrapped a first-and-10 at the 11.
Virginia Tech scored on quarterback Tyrod Taylor's 2-yard sneak three plays later, and the 35-23 lead with 2:28 remaining would be enough to offset a Nebraska score 56 seconds later.
"I told our guys it's over,'' NU coach Bo Pelini said. "There's nothing we can do about this. We lost the football game and it's time to go back to work. We've got to come back tomorrow and have the attitude to get better.
"And I told them that my approach and our approach as a staff and as a football team can't change whether you win or lose.''
The loss opened a three-game stretch that will tell NU a lot about itself, with highly ranked Missouri and Texas Tech next to start Big 12 play.
It didn't start well.
Offensively, Nebraska (3-1) reached the midway point of the third quarter with just 118 total yards and five first downs. Defensively, it spent an unhealthy amount of time on the field, but did find a way to make the Hokies (4-1) settle for field goals on four consecutive trips inside the Husker 25.
Still, there remained a very real opportunity for the Huskers to overcome their shortcomings when Swift broke loose on the fourth-longest punt return in school history with 7:52 left. The two-point conversion failed and NU trailed 28-23.
"If they don't get their punt return, that thing is probably over," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
Then came the sequence that will leave the Huskers wondering "what if?"
Taylor led the Hokies to a pair of first downs, but the sophomore was taken out of bounds by NU defensive end Pierre Allen at the NU 35-yard line with about four minutes left. They faced fourth-and-two and the likelihood of a punt.
A flag flew. Nebraska nose tackle Ndamukong Suh had piled on Taylor out of bounds. Fifteen yards and an automatic first down.
Pelini, who had a close-up look at the play, was asked if he thought the hit was late. "What do you think?" he said. "You all saw it.''
Taylor, however, seemed confident it was the right call.
"I was laying down already, '' he said. "Trust me. Actually, (tight end) Greg Boone was trying to help me up when I got hit.''
Taylor led the Hokies to the line for their next play, and then another flag took flight. The NU sideline had squawked too much about the late hit call. Statistically it went as a 9-yard penalty and Virginia Tech had first-and-10 from the 11.
"I was surprised he threw the flag,'' Pelini said. "I've got to be smarter than that.''
Taylor scored three plays later amid a chorus of boos. Suh was even flagged for another personal foul on the Hokies' extra point.
"We played hard and we thought we had a third-down stop, '' NU linebacker Cody Glenn said, discussing Suh's late hit. "To get that call, that late in the game with the game that close, it's heartbreaking.
"But we've got to come back from it. We still had an opportunity. If we got a turnover or held them to three points, the game wasn't over."
Virginia Tech had 377 total yards and controlled the football for 34:44. The Hokies didn't turn the ball over while NU threw an interception and lost a fumble, not to mention the first-half difference in special-teams play.
"They're a good team,'' Ganz said. "It's not like we're playing New Mexico State. Nothing against them, but this is Virginia Tech and they're the big boys.''
Nebraska spotted the big boys a 9-0 lead without making them accomplish much offensively.
Stephan Virgil blocked Dan Titchener's punt midway through the first quarter, and the Hokies had a safety when it bounced out of the end zone. The Huskers had started that drive on their own 6-yard line after a Virginia Tech punt.
Nebraska's next offensive series lasted just one play: Victor Harris intercepted Ganz at the 20 and returned it 15 yards. Tailback Darren Evans scored three plays later.
At that point the teams had combined for 31 total yards through the first 10 minutes. But Nebraska then struck quickly with a three-play, 68-yard scoring drive.
Ganz started it with a 27-yard pass to Mike McNeill and finished it with a 32-yard throw to the sophomore tight end.
Virginia Tech made progress with each of its next four possessions — all lasting at least eight plays — but settled for field goals of 19, 38, 27 and 36 yards by Dustin Keys. Evans' 19-yard run then put NU in a 28-10 hole before the Huskers' 12-play, 75-yard drive finishing the third quarter.
Nebraska failed to establish any sort of ground game in the first half, attempting just 12 runs and gaining 23 yards. It averaged just 2.2 per carry in finishing with 55 yards.
The Huskers also struggled with special teams in the first quarter, muffing a punt and allowing long punt and kickoff returns in addition to the blocked punt.
"We gave them a lot,'' Pelini said. "They earned some things, but we made a lot of mistakes out there. We didn't play well enough to win the football game against a talented football team.''
Another talented one comes next weekend. Missouri went into Saturday ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll and stands to benefit from losses by three of the top five teams.
"Missouri . . . they need to watch out, because we've got a lot of anger right now, '' NU I-back Marlon Lucky said.
|Yards per carry||3.7||2.2|
Nebraska is 1-2 all-time against Virginia Tech.
|Western Michigan||Aug. 30|
|San Jose State||Sept. 6|
|New Mexico State||Sept. 13|
|Virginia Tech||Sept. 27|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 11|
|Iowa State||Oct. 18|
|Kansas State||Nov. 15|
Nebraska has played 11 games on Sept. 27. See them all »
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