Nebraska football earned its second win of the season on Saturday with a 37-27 win over Purdue.
The Huskers hit several season-firsts in the game. Nebraska had its most points all season, its first 100-yard receiver of the year, its first game without a turnover and its first game where a quarterback didn’t lead the team (or tie for the team lead) in rushing yards.
While it isn’t possible for the Huskers to have a winning regular season at this point, the team showed multiple signs of progress.
Here are three takeaways from the win:
Adrian Martinez solidifies his starting spot
Throughout the year, Nebraska has gone back-and-forth at the quarterback spot between junior Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey.
Martinez earned the start for the second week in a row, and likely locked the job up for the rest of the season. Following up on an impressive performance last week against Iowa, he completed 23-of-30 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown, Nebraska’s third touchdown pass of the year.
He also rushed 13 times, picking up 45 yards and two more touchdowns. Overall, it was the most passing yards Martinez had in a game since a 247-yard performance against Purdue last year. On top of that, it was just his third career start without a turnover in 24 starts, the last coming in a win against Northwestern last year.
Of course, Purdue’s lackluster defense should be taken into consideration here. The Boilermakers rank in the bottom five of the conference in opponent completion percentage and passing yards. Additionally, Saturday’s final marked Purdue’s third consecutive week giving up at least 34 points.
With that being said, the performance was encouraging given that Nebraska, led by McCaffrey, struggled just two weeks ago against Illinois’ pass defense, which is also one of the worst in the conference.
Head coach Scott Frost expressed confidence in Martinez, as McCaffrey only played at quarterback while Martinez was getting an injury checked out on the sidelines.
While Frost has said that McCaffrey is the team’s future, if Martinez can keep putting up performances similar to the ones he’s had this week and last week, he may be the best option for a few seasons yet.
Special teams, penalties play crucial role
Under Frost, Nebraska has been plagued by two seemingly smaller, but important parts of the game: special teams and penalties.
While Nebraska didn’t escape those issues, those two things made a big impact in the Huskers’ win, and went in favor of Nebraska more than a few times.
After forcing Purdue to attempt a punt on its opening drive, senior wide receiver Levi Falck blocked the punt, which set the Huskers up at the Boilermaker 1-yard line. The next two drives started at Purdue’s 17 and 43-yard line, respectively, as a result of below-average punts and a sideline interference penalty on the Boilermakers.
After senior kicker Connor Culp finished off the latter of the two drives with a field goal to put the Huskers up 17-0, a few penalty calls helped the team maintain it. Purdue was called for two holding penalties on the next drive, a rare sight for Nebraska opponents.
However, those things also helped Purdue stay in the game in the first half. On the Boilermakers’ first scoring drive, which was also the drive that saw them draw the first two holding penalties, Nebraska was called for a facemask.
The Huskers then went up 20-3 with another field goal, and followed that up by allowing a 41-yard kickoff return. That drive ended in a Boilermaker touchdown. On the next Purdue drive, with the score at 27-10, the Huskers had two unsportsmanlike penalties on the same play that turned a six-yard gain into 36 yards. Purdue ended up punting on that drive, but stuck the Huskers at their 10-yard line.
Nebraska had two more special teams mistakes in the second quarter, one much more costly than the other. After a Nebraska punt, junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt ran into the punt returner before the ball had arrived for a 15-yard penalty. That drive ended in a turnover on downs.
On the Huskers’ last drive of the half, they attempted a punt, but this time the Boilermakers got a block of their own. That helped Purdue get a field goal before halftime and draw within two scores at 27-13.
Nebraska also caught a few breaks in the second half while trying to hold onto the lead. Purdue had two more drives stalled by holding penalties. Along with that, after the Huskers had a second-and-21 on their own 11-yard line up by seven in the fourth quarter, the Boilermakers committed two 15-yard penalties in three plays. Nebraska, which had three penalties of its own on the drive, used this to score a field goal that put the score at 37-27, which is also where it stayed for the remainder of the game.
Overall, a lot of weird things happened in the special teams and penalties department. Each team had a punt blocked, Purdue’s two punts that traveled inside the Nebraska 20 were both done by the quarterback and the two teams combined for 233 penalty yards.
In the end, Purdue’s mistakes proved more costly.
Defense comes up big when it matters most
The main reason Nebraska’s mistakes didn’t prove costly was a strong defensive performance.
On paper, it may not look like it. Purdue scored 27 points, had a solid 332 yards and the defense had multiple costly penalties. The Blackshirts gave up three touchdowns of over 20 yards, including an 89-yard score. Purdue also didn’t have a single turnover for the first time all year.
However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Purdue went 3-of-13 on third downs in the game, and 1-of-3 on fourth downs. That fourth-down conversion was followed by a punt four plays later.
Nebraska also shut down Purdue’s rushing attack. The Boilermakers are a pass-heavy team, but junior running back Zander Horvath has three 100-yard rushing games on the year. Purdue had its worst game on the ground this season against the Huskers, totaling -2 yards. That total was helped by three sacks of sophomore quarterback Jack Plummer for a loss of 21 yards.
The only other time this season the Boilermakers have been held under 85 rushing yards was against Northwestern, in which the Wildcats also had three sacks and allowed two rushing yards.
Even through the air, the Huskers had five pass breakups, including a crucial leaping tip by Taylor-Britt in the fourth quarter.
While there is still a lot of room for improvement for Nebraska’s defense, making plays when it matters most has been the commonality between both of the Huskers’ wins.