Blacksburg, Va. - In a game featuring two of the best special teams units in college football, Nebraska's Alex Henery took center stage by booting a career-high five field goals, but Tyrod Taylor's 11-yard touchdown pass to Dyrell Roberts with 21 seconds left allowed the No. 13 Hokies to escape with a 16-15 win over the No. 19 Huskers at Lane Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Playing in front of 66,233 fans and an ABC television audience, the Huskers got off to a slow start in the first quarter but controlled the action until Virginia Tech's final drive.
Henery's five field goals appeared to be enough to give the Huskers their first road win over a top-20 team since 1997, while also giving NU its first win without scoring a touchdown since beating Kansas State, 3-0 in Manhattan, on Nov. 27, 1937.
But Taylor, who had been stymied by a relentless Blackshirt defense throughout the game, connected with Danny Coale on an 81-yard pass with 1:11 left to take the Hokies to the NU 3. Matt O'Hanlon made a game-saving tackle on the play, then registered an eight-yard sack of Taylor on Virginia Tech's next snap to take the Hokies back to 2nd-and-goal from the NU 11. The Blackshirts blitzed again and forced Taylor to throw the ball away to set up 3rd-and-goal. With the clock running and pressure coming, Taylor scrambled for several seconds before finding Roberts in the end zone for the winning score with 21 seconds left.
Virginia Tech improved to 2-1 with the victory, while Nebraska slipped to 2-1 on the young season.
"It's disappointing we lost the game. We just didn't make enough plays to win," Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. "I take my hat off to Virginia Tech. They made enough plays to win and we didn't. We didn't do what was necessary to win the football game. We had a lot of opportunities and we didn't capitalize on them. It's a shame."
Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer, who is the third-winningest active coach behind Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, said Nebraska was impressive, especially on defense.
"I think you give Nebraska credit. People thought I was blowing smoke when I said they were back, but I think they are back. That is a tough way for those guys to lose, but I really believe they are back on course and are going to be a factor in the Big 12.”
Henery, a junior from Omaha, went 5-for-5 on field goal attempts on the day, covering 40, 27, 19, 38 and 38 yards, extending his streak of consecutive field goals made under 50 yards to 19. The Lou Groza Award candidate also unleashed the fourth-longest punt in Nebraska history with a 76-yard bomb in the first quarter. For the game, Henery punted six times for a 41.5-yard average, including two punts inside the 20 and two touchbacks.
"He did a great job. He has been automatic and he stepped up today," Pelini said of Henery after the game. "We shouldn't have to send him out there that many times."
While Henery's leg did all the scoring for the Huskers, the legs of Roy Helu Jr. and Niles Paul covered most of the ground to set up Nebraska's scores. Helu Jr., a Doak Walker Award candidate, rushed for a career-high 169 yards on 28 carries and added a team-high four receptions for 33 yards to account for 202 all-purpose yards.
Paul set up Nebraska's first score with a 55-yard punt return to give the Huskers their first three points to cut Virginia Tech's lead to 7-3 after one quarter. NU got on the board despite having negative one yard of total offense in the opening quarter. For the game, the junior from Omaha had 86 yards on six punt returns, while adding 71 yards on kickoff returns and one reception for 19 yards to account for 176 all-purpose yards.
Virginia Tech's opening score was also set up by an outstanding special teams play, as Roberts unleashed a 76-yard kickoff return to open the game, which eventually led to Ryan Williams' one-yard touchdown plunge just 3:45 into the game. Williams finished with 107 rushing yards on the day.
Henery pulled the Huskers within 7-6 just over two minutes into the second quarter with a 27-yard boot, capping a six-play, 48-yard NU drive. After the Blackshirts shut down the Hokies, Henery struck again to give NU its first lead of the day on a 19-yard field goal after a 10-play, 77-yard drive for the Huskers.
The Hokies answered with a 39-yard field goal from Matt Waldron with 2:30 left in the half, but NU quarterback Zac Lee quickly marched the Huskers 50 yards in five plays to set up Henery's fourth field goal of the opening half with 18 seconds left.
Both defenses controlled the action in the third quarter, before Henery booted his career-best fifth field goal with 4:33 left. Henery's 38-yard boot capped a 10-play, 54-yard drive that consumed more than five minutes.
The Huskers had driven deep into Hokie territory, setting up 1st-and-goal at the Virginia Tech 6 on their final drive of the third quarter. Lee appeared to have connected with tight end Mike McNeill on a six-yard touchdown pass, but a holding call brought the play back.
After a pair of incompletions and two false start penalties, Lee lost a yard on a quarterback draw on 3rd-and-goal from the Tech 36, and Nebraska was forced to punt from the Hokie 37.
However, the Blackshirts shut down Taylor and the Hokies on their next two drives to set up Henery's final kick. After that field goal, the Blackshirts again stuffed Virginia Tech, forcing three straight incompletions to give NU field position at the Virginia Tech 46 with 2:07 left. NU gained just over nine yards to the Tech 37 on its drive, and forced the Hokies to burn all their timeouts. Henery came on to punt and knocked a 25-yarder to pin the Hokies at their own 12 to start their winning drive with 1:44 left and not timeouts.
Senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh led a strong effort by the Blackshirts, registering a team-high eight tackles, including a shared sack. He also batted down four Taylor pass attempts on the day, setting the NU position record for defensive tackles previously held by Jeremy Slechta against Missouri on Sept. 30, 2000. Jared Crick and Will Compton each added seven stops for the Huskers.
The Huskers suffered their first loss of the season despite holding Virginia Tech to just 11 first downs on the day, including just four first downs in the final three quarters. The Blackshirts held Taylor to just 10-of-24 passing for 104 yards until the final drive, before he connected on 2-of-3 attempts for 88 yards on the final drive to finish 12-of-27 for 192 yards. Taylor, who rushed for nearly 100 yards in a Hokie win in Lincoln last season, was sacked four times and was held to negative-22 yards rushing.
Overall, the Blackshirts held the Hokies to just 86 rushing yards and just 278 total yards on the afternoon, with 112 of those yards coming on Virginia Tech's first and final drives of the game.
Nebraska managed 343 yards of total offense, including 207 on the ground. Zac Lee completed just 11-of-30 passes for 136 yards and threw two interceptions, but neither turnover led to Virginia Tech scores. The Huskers were unable to force a Hokie turnover on the afternoon.
Nebraska returns to Lincoln next Saturday to celebrate Homecoming and one of the most remarkable streaks in all of college sports, as the Huskers battle Louisiana-Lafayette in the 300th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. with live pay-per-view coverage provide by Fox Sports. Nebraska's NCAA-record sellout streak dates back to 1962.
First Quarter (VT, 7-3)
VT - 11:15 - Ryan Williams 1 run (Matt Waldron kick) - 7 plays, 24 yards, 3:45, VT 7-0
NU - 0:56 - Alex Henery 40 FG - 4 plays, -1 yards, 1:29, VT 7-3
Second Quarter (NU, 12-10)
NU - 12:49 - Henery 27 FG - 6 plays, 48 yards, 1:49, VT 7-6
NU - 5:23 - Henery 19 FG - 10 plays, 77 yards, 4:32, NU 9-7
VT - 2:30 - Waldron 39 FG - 7 plays, 58 yards, 2:53, VT 10-9
NU - 0:18 - Henery 38 FG - 5 plays, 50 yards, 2:06, NU 12-10
Third Quarter (NU, 12-10)
Fourth Quarter (VT, 16-15)
NU - 4:33 - Henery 38 FG - 10 plays, 54 yards, 5:01, NU 15-10
VT - 0:21 - Dyrell Roberts 11 pass from Tyrod Taylor (Pass failed) - 5 plays, 88 yards, 1:23, VT, 16-15
Final: #13 Virginia Tech 16, #19 Nebraska 15
Time of Game: 3:20