Coming off two straight victories, Nebraska sought a third against Purdue in a prime-time Saturday matchup.
Both teams came into the game tied for the Big Ten West lead, and the contest certainly didn’t disappoint. Nebraska ultimately fell short 43-37, but not before an electric offensive performance.
Here are four takeaways and a question from the loss:
Trey Palmer is one of the best weapons in the nation
There are few words to describe junior wide receiver Trey Palmer — he is simply sensational. Purdue’s secondary will surely have nightmares of Palmer after he disintegrated them with ease. Explosive plays were commonplace as the Boilermakers had no answer for Palmer’s speed and playmaking ability.
His biggest play of the night came on a 72-yard touchdown bomb where he outpaced his defender by nearly 10 yards. Throw in a 37-yard touchdown, as well as 64 and 39-yard completions, and Palmer could have gone home with the best performance of his career on just four catches. He added another three grabs for an incredible total of 237 yards.
It wasn’t just in the pass attack where Palmer shredded the Boilermakers. He was also Nebraska’s leading rusher, compiling all 60 of his yards on one play. He took a jet sweep up the left sideline for a massive gain, single-handedly putting Nebraska in scoring position.
Palmer carried the Husker offense on his shoulders, producing over half of their yards from scrimmage. He set the Nebraska single-game receiving record and now leads the Big Ten in 30+ yard plays. It was ultimately not enough, as even 37 points and 476 yards couldn't keep the Husker offense on pace with Purdue.
Thompson’s inconsistencies hold him back
There is no question as to junior quarterback Casey Thompson’s ability to make plays. Thompson connected on six plays over thirty yards, all of which directly contributed to Husker points including the two massive touchdowns to Palmer. His arm can single-handedly get Nebraska back into games.
However, outside of those six plays, Thompson threw for just 67 yards. He struggled mainly in the intermediate passing game which put a damper on his performance.
Thompson’s most flagrant mistake came on an interception with five minutes remaining in the first half. Backed up in Nebraska territory, and on the first play of the drive, he threw a pick directly into the hands of a defender. Thompson threw a second pick on a pivotal drive in the fourth quarter while trailing by seven, both led to Purdue points and were arguably the difference in the game.
Thompson also missed a wide-open receiver in the endzone in the third quarter on third down. A touchdown would have tied the contest at 27, but Nebraska was instead forced to kick a field goal. Those three mistakes alone swung the difference in the game by 13 points.
The highlight tape will be littered with Thompson's highlights, but his mistakes may overshadow them. To his credit, he got little help from his defense, but as the leader of his team, the statistics mean nothing if they come in a loss.
Nebraska’s run defense looked horrid
The Boilermakers' offense was expected to have a big game through the air. Senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell has diced up defenses for what seems like forever and has dominated the Huskers before. However, Purdue’s rush attack had a massive night as well.
Coming into Saturday, the Boilermakers averaged 119 rushing yards per game. In just the first half, freshman running back Devin Mockobee had 115 yards on his own. The former walk-on looked like he was practicing walk-throughs against a Nebraska defense that seemingly refused to bring him down.
Mockobee finished his career night with 178 yards and a touchdown. He displayed an incredible ability to rush downhill and fall forward at every point of contact. He slowed down a smidge in the second half, but Purdue had no need to run the ball thanks to O’Connell’s display of brilliance.
Injuries can not be an excuse for the ineptitude of Nebraska’s rush defense, but the Huskers were without junior linebacker and leading tackler Luke Reimer. Sophomore linebacker Nick Henrich also left in the first half with an injury.
Purdue was not without its own missing pieces in the run game, however. Junior Dylan Downing was out and senior King Doerue saw limited action. Both have much more experience than Mockobee, but their absence didn’t impact the Boilermakers in the slightest. Purdue finished with 217 yards on the ground, one of their best performances of the season.
Nebraska is not phased by deficits
For the second straight week, Nebraska did not surrender in the face of adversity. Against Rutgers, the Huskers faced a 13-point halftime deficit — this time it was 14. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph has instilled an underdog spirit in this Nebraska team, and they have shown an ability to perform with their backs against the wall.
Although they ultimately fell to the Boilermakers, the Huskers never allowed them to run away with the contest. Four times Nebraska trailed by two possessions, but never by three. They fought back each time, spearheaded by an offense prone to massive plays. Even when trailing by 13 points with six minutes remaining, the Huskers had every chance to come back.
However, the comeback bid failed. The second-half defensive effort that kept Nebraska in the Rutgers game was nowhere to be found against Purdue. It is no surprise that coming back is a challenge when the opposing offense continuously rips through you for five touchdowns and over 600 yards.
How good does Mickey Joseph need to be?
Nebraska is no doubt a better team than they were when Scott Frost was fired. Given a second chance, losses to Northwestern and Georgia Southern seem unlikely. Joseph has turned this program in the right direction, but there may be only so much he can do.
Regardless of who the coach and coordinators are, Nebraska’s defense is abysmal and the offense is inconsistent despite flashing potential. Joseph may not be able to fix those issues within the season, especially with two potentially ranked opponents on the horizon.
Joseph certainly wants to keep this job — his passion and exuberance have shown that. But with big names thrown into the coaching search, Joseph may need to accomplish more than close losses as big underdogs.
For now, Nebraska may have to be satisfied with simply competing against teams like Purdue and squeaking by inferior teams like Indiana and Rutgers. There are winnable games ahead, particularly against Wisconsin and Iowa, but the days of Nebraska sitting atop the Big Ten West are over.
This is why Nebraska fired Frost. Wins are now massive steps in the right direction. Losses? Well, it can’t get much worse than giving up 600 yards to a Sun Belt team in September.