The picture for this article nearly made me vomit. True story. I wanted to write this article on Saturday night, when my depression, angst, and anger were all at a fever pitch. That article would probably have packed quite a punch, but it wouldn't have been fair to the Huskers for me to write while alcohol and so much ill will coursed through my veins.
Nebraska should have won this game. The statistics all point to a dominant defensive effort by the Blackshirts, and Roy Helu turned in a memorable performance. Nebraska could have won this game, if they had substituted a touchdown for one of their five field goals. Nebraska would have won this game, if they could have gotten one more first down.
But there are no moral victories in football. The stats, the effort, the gameplan, all of it can be commended, but it is an ineffective strategy to help one cope with the cruel reality of what the scoreboard read: Virginia Tech, 16. Nebraska, 15.
There will be many images from this game that I'd like to forget but will be unable to. The 3rd-quarter penalty debacle that not only cost us a touchdown but pushed us out of field goal range. Meno Holt's dropped touchdown pass. And that lonely #19 in maroon and orange, somehow behind our secondary, the feeling of desperation and the realization that yes, he was going to catch the ball, that somehow, Nebraska is just destined to blow these games and tear out the heart of it's collective fan base.
I'm not sure what Nebraska did to anger the college football gods. Perhaps we were too blessed in the 1990's, maybe we were so spoiled that it wasn't enough just for us to lose our identity, our bowl streak, and our national respect the past few years. Maybe we needed to lose games like this in the most heart-breaking ways imaginable to remind us of just how special those glory days were. But at what point does karma evening things out go too far? To lose would be one thing, but to stand on the precipice of a great victory, only to have it torn from us, seems especially cruel.
This loss will sting for a long, long time. I still remember with particular frustration the feeling I had when we lost to Texas at home in 2006, when Terrence Nunn fumbled away a game-clinching first down? Now, is it fair to Nunn that this moment, one bad play, will be what we remember most about his career at Nebraska, a career that includes being among the top-5 pass catchers of all time? No, it's not. But all it takes is one bad play in the wrong situation, and your legacy at NU is forever altered.
And so I arrive at Matt O'Hanlon. I'm not trying to beat a dead horse here, because even that horse's corpse can't have much left on it after what Husker fans have been saying the past two days. I know Matt is well-respected among his teammates, he works hard, and I'll always appreciate his effort during his time at NU. That said, he had no business being on that field. I know, he came back and made a sack on the next play, but that in no way excuses the brain fart of Biblical proportions he suffered on the 81-yard play before it. And this isn't just me tearing into Matt, because everyone makes mistakes. But in that situation, you have to be telling yourself before and during the play, that NOBODY GETS BEHIND YOU. NOBODY.
My question is this: throughout camp, the staff talked at length about the strides that Ricky Thenarse had made, that he was one of the best players on the defense, and he was listed as co-#1 at safety. In addition to Thenarse, Eric Hagg was described by defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders as "the best lockdown guy we have", and in addition to that praise, he is capable of playing both corner and safety. Oh, and did I mention that both of these players are measurably more athletic than Matt O'Hanlon?
I don't know what the staff's thought process is with #33. For some reason, he manages to find himself on the field at the most key points of the game despite the fact he is, in my estimation, our fourth-best safety. I know that O'Hanlon undoubtedly feels like jumping off a building after Saturday, and I'm sure he's aware that people in this state will remember his gaffe for the rest of their lives. He understands our fan base enough, he's aware of that. So while I'm angry and astounded by his failure to do his job, I do legitimately feel awful for him. That said, he shouldn't have been out there in the first place.
In the end, it's not just Matt's fault. His mistake only cemented what was a day of missed opportunities and Nebraska's failure to finish and make a play when they needed it most. When we needed a touchdown (or a first down on the final drive to kill the clock), the offense couldn't do it. When the Huskers needed a turnover or a stop at the goal line, they couldn't do it. For a brief while, NU showed they are capable of playing with great teams, that they are on their way back to where they used to be.
But on the way isn't where we hoped to be today. We wanted to be back. And that, unfortunately, is going to have to wait. We outplayed Virginia Tech, and I fiercely believe we are the better team. But my hat is off to VT, because the team that deserved to win did. Now, NU must figure out a way to move past this knee-buckling stomach punch and look forward to the rest of the season. There may be a hangover, but I don't think Bo Pelini will let them dwell on it. In fact, I take a great deal of solace from reading this quote from Phillip Dillard, the senior Husker linebacker:
"There's only two ways you can go - you can either go up or you can go down," Dillard said. "This team's going to choose to go up, and we're going to keep fighting and we're going to keep proving ourselves, because it's not over.
"It's a long season. I believe in my teammates, and everyone else should. Regardless of whether we won or lost, you saw the fight in us. That's something you didn't see in us for a long time."
There's still a lot of football left to be played, and I hope the rest of the team follows Dillard's lead and uses this game as motivation to avoid having to feel this kind of gut-wrenching loss the rest of the season.