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CORNHUSKERS END THE YEAR IN STYLE

The Nebraska Cornhuskers' two-year national championship reign ends this week, and they went out in style on New Year's Eve.

Defensive tackle Jason Peter returned a fumble 31 yards for a touchdown and Nebraska scored on its first four possessions in the second half to beat Virginia Tech 41-21 in the Orange Bowl.The game, sponsored by FedEx, was the first Orange Bowl played in December and the first held at Pro Player Stadium, and the departure from tradition hurt attendance. The crowd of 51,212 was the smallest in 50 years.

No. 6 Nebraska (11-2) earned its third consecutive bowl victory and reached 11 victories for the fourth year in a row. The Cornhuskers' bid for an unprecedented third straight national title ended with an upset loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game.

"These were difficult circumstances," Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said. "At times it almost felt like a non-game because of the interest and lack of intensity, and I feel sorry about that."

No. 10 Virginia Tech (10-2) lost despite Jim Druckenmiller's three touchdown passes and Ken Oxendine's 210-yard effort. Oxendine, voted the Hokies' most valuable player, rushed for 150 yards in 20 carries and added 60 yards on three receptions.

"We just didn't play well enough against a great team," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who had billed the game as the biggest in school history. "We missed some tackles, but it gets back to who you're tackling."

Nebraska rushed for 279 yards and committed no turnovers. Damon Benning, the Cornhuskers' MVP, rushed for 95 yards and scored on runs of 33 and 6 yards.

"Everybody asked if we were going to come to play, and how we were going to get motivated," Benning said. "It was ridiculous. When you come from a program like we come from, you always come prepared, especially for the Orange Bowl."

Nebraska, a 17-point favorite, struck for 17 points in a 10-minute span in the second quarter, including one score by the defense when Tech tried to run the option on third-and-37.

Druckenmiller was about to pitch when he was hit by Mike Rucker, and the ball squirted free. The 285-pound Peter picked it up and ran 31 yards untouched for the touchdown.

"I wanted so bad to start high-stepping. My speed was so unbelievable, I was in the end zone before I knew it," Peter joked.

"That probably had to be the turning point. Our defense thrives off making big plays every game, and that was the one."

The Hokies lost despite rolling up 407 yards and holding an edge in time of possession.

"We didn't have an error-free game, and the one error really hurt," Oxendine said. "We ran the ball on them. They couldn't stop us until the fourth quarter."

Virginia Tech couldn't stop Nebraska, either. The Cornhuskers led 17-14 at halftime, then cranked out scoring drives of 74, 61, 76 and 55 yards in its first four possessions of the second half.

Scott Frost threw for 136 yards and added 62 rushing, including touchdown runs of 5 and 22 yards.