This wasn’t quite the December football that those involved in Nebraska’s program envisioned they’d be playing three years into the tenure of head coach Scott Frost.
In fact, Saturday’s 37-27 Nebraska triumph at Purdue was just about as far away from anything that one would have previously imagined a late-season game would look like. But, due to the stop-and-start nature of this pandemic-riddled Big Ten football season, games like the one between the Huskers and Boilermakers have become all the more commonplace.
Special teams miscues, penalties and poor offensive execution — all likely storylines had these two teams played to open the 2020 season as originally planned — marred this late-season contest between struggling Big Ten outfits. When two teams enter a game with a combined 3-7 record with next to nothing on the line other than improved seeding for a week nine crossover game against a Big Ten East opponent, games like Saturday’s really become a question of motivation.
I mean, what motivation exactly did Nebraska have entering Saturday? The Huskers’ season appeared to possibly reach a turning point following a thrilling 30-23 victory over Penn State in mid-November, but quickly went back into a tailspin following a blowout loss to Illinois and another close loss to Iowa.
And if Nebraska didn’t have anything to play for, Purdue’s pregame motivation had to reach sub-zero levels. After two victories to open the season against Iowa and Illinois, the Boilermakers entered Saturday losers of three in a row, the most recent of which was a 37-30 loss to Rutgers last week.
Perhaps the storylines surrounding Boilermaker defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who served one forgettable year in the same position at Nebraska in 2017 under Mike Riley, could serve as motivation for the Boilermakers to one-up his former place of employment — albeit with nearly none of the same faces on the Nebraska sideline.
Whatever was said to Purdue leading up to Saturday’s game came nowhere near close enough hitting home.
Much like last weekend’s loss to Iowa, Nebraska found itself on the defensive on the game’s opening drive. Unlike last weekend’s loss to Iowa, Nebraska forced a Purdue punt instead of allowing an opening score. Really unlike last weekend’s loss to Iowa, Husker senior wide receiver Levi Falck blocked the Boilermaker punt, which senior running back Dedrick Mills punched in for a one-yard score on the ensuing play.
Another Nebraska defensive stand on Purdue’s next drive led to a short Purdue punt, which set the Huskers up in great field position following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Boilermaker bench. Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, who, lost in all the postgame chatter from Nebraska’s victory, had one of his finest games as the Huskers’ quarterback, broke an impressive 13-yard touchdown run to cap Nebraska’s second offensive possession.
Just like that, it was 14-0 Nebraska without even elapsing five minutes of gametime.
“That was key. We’ve started some other games off not so well,” Frost said postgame. “This one we caught a couple of breaks and made a good play on special teams.”
However, we should’ve known that Frost’s bunch haven’t yet quieted the ghosts of Penn State and Colorado past. Early leads, while nice, aren’t necessarily safe with a Nebraska team still learning how to put opponents to bed.
Case-in-point, the end of the first half. Nebraska, now up 27-10, had stopped Purdue junior running back Zander Horvath on three consecutive short-yardage situations on the Husker 31-yard line to get the ball back with 45 seconds remaining in the first half. The Boilermakers had one timeout remaining, and Nebraska would start the second half with the ball.
Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick didn’t need to push the envelope. The Huskers were in the process of demoralizing Purdue, and with Nebraska receiving the ball to start the next half, the Boilermakers could’ve found themselves potentially down 24 points by the time they got the ball next.
Instead Martinez threw two incompletions and ran the ball once, the last of which came on third down and was followed by a Purdue timeout. The Boilermakers had Nebraska stopped, but the Huskers weren’t in any immediate danger. If Nebraska got even a half-decent punt off, the Boilermakers would be faced with an uphill battle to come away with points.
Nebraska didn’t get the punt off.
Sophomore punter William Pryztup’s punt was blocked, and the Boilermakers were able to steal three points entering halftime. While ultimately insignificant in the grand scheme of how Saturday’s game played out, mistakes like that can ultimately come back to harm a team late in the game.
It almost did, too. The Huskers’ 17-point lead evaporated into a mere seven-point advantage on an 89-yard Boilermaker touchdown bomb from sophomore quarterback Jack Plummer to sophomore wide receiver David Bell. Purdue had been dead for nearly the entire game, but it was suddenly down seven points with nearly the entire fourth quarter to play.
Husker fears became more apparent at the beginning of Nebraska’s next offensive drive, as back-to-back holding penalties forced a second-and-21 from Nebraska’s own 11-yard line. Things looked incredibly bleak, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Purdue propelled Nebraska forward, and the Huskers overcame a 15-yard penalty on junior tight end Austin Allen to score the game’s final points courtesy of senior kicker Connor Culp.
“That was one of the weirdest drives I’ve ever seen watching or coaching football,” Frost said. “[Purdue] had penalties, we have to make sure we don’t get those penalties… But, we managed to go down and get points and felt a lot better about it as a two-score game.”
It’s important that Nebraska ultimately triumphed, but the mistakes it made against the Boilermakers can’t be avoided. Beating the Purdues of the world is one thing. Eliminating clock management errors, special teams mistakes and penalties, of which the Huskers collected nine for 107 yards, are the steps the Huskers will need to take if they want to beat the Big Ten’s elite.
After all, for as much as Nebraska tried to shoot itself in the foot, it seemed that Purdue did so two-fold. The Boilermakers were penalized 11 times for 126 yards and showed a consistent lack of discipline when they needed to make a play.
However, this wasn’t meant to be a negative recount of what otherwise was a solid victory for a program in desperate need of one. Martinez was incredible for the second weekend in a row, completing 23-of-30 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown. He ran for two scores and perhaps, most importantly, didn’t turn the ball over.
Sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson eclipsed 100 receiving yards. Falck and freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts had productive afternoons. Wyatt Liewer, a sophomore wide receiver and O’Neill, Nebraska native, found the end zone in the second quarter on a screen pass from Martinez. The Husker offense was 6-of-6 in the red zone, which resulted in four touchdowns and two Culp field goals.
Saturday’s box score may indicate that the Blackshirts had a poor outing, but Nebraska’s defense was largely up to the task against the Boilermakers. The Huskers held Purdue to -2 rushing yards and made a big stand at the end of the first half to hold the Boilermakers to a field goal instead of a touchdown. Junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt had impressive moments in pass coverage, senior defensive lineman Ben Stille wreaked havoc behind the line of scrimmage and Nebraska’s linebacking core had another productive contest.
“I can’t say enough about how our defense held down Purdue in the running game… I thought offensively we threw the ball better and made plays when we needed to.” Frost said. “We got good things in all three phases and things we need to clean up in all three.”
It’s important that Frost recognizes that.