LINCOLN — Midway through the fourth quarter, Purdue Pete the Boilermaker took his sledgehammer prop to a pylon in the corner of one Nebraska end zone. The mascot swung a few times. So did the Big Ten also-ran he represents.
No. 15 Nebraska had a few dents in it after a 35-14 win over Purdue. Dents in its confidence. Dents in an offense that performs like a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another. And, perhaps most important, a little dent in the Huskers’ star, running back Ameer Abdullah, who left the game after the second drive of the first quarter with a left knee sprain and bruise.
Abdullah underwent an MRI before the game had even ended. Coach Bo Pelini said he was “very optimistic” the senior would be ready for a season-defining game at Wisconsin.
Was Pelini certain Abdullah would be good to go?
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “I can’t say for sure.”
“He’ll be all right,” cornerback Josh Mitchell said of Abdullah, who was seen walking gingerly, but without a significant limp, outside the press room after the game. “He’s a warrior.”
Should Nebraska’s offensive line, play calling and quarterback continue to falter as they did against Purdue, Abdullah’s presence alone may not matter.
“Most people think about it as just being a win for us, but I don’t see it that way,” said quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who threw two interceptions and completed just 8 of 21 passes. “Purdue’s Purdue. But if we keep playing like this, we’re going to lose one of our games. It’s unacceptable. I’m embarrassed. ... The way we played, we should have lost.”
The sophomore was indisputably glum, and gaining 297 total yards — and just 111 in the second half — against the nation’s 86th total defense will do that. Like stubbed-toe games against Michigan State and McNeese State, the Huskers’ offensive line was shoved backward and overwhelmed by an aggressive, gap-shooting defense. As in those games, Armstrong and his receivers weren’t always on the same page.
But Nebraska’s defense was better; almost as good, in fact, as it’s been all year, even drawing praise from Pelini, who’s normally stingy with it. Armstrong doubled down.
“Our defense bailed us out here and there,” he said. “They got stops.”
Against a Purdue offense that had caught fire in recent weeks, the Huskers forced seven punts and turned the Boilermakers over on downs five times. Quarterback Austin Appleby completed just 18 of 46 passes. He threw two interceptions. Purdue (3-6 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten) converted just 3 of 22 third and fourth downs in the game.
“Amazing,” defensive end Greg McMullen said.
The Huskers’ special teams kicked in their own bonus, blocking two Purdue punts — one by freshman Kieron Williams and another by wideout Brandon Reilly. Both blocks, Pelini said, with the same play call.
“They sure gave us a big boost,” Pelini said.
And terrific field position. Nebraska had to drive 17 yards for its first touchdown, an Armstrong pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El. NU started its second possession at the Purdue 16 thanks to a long Pierson-El punt return. Not even four minutes into the game, Nebraska had a good shot at a 14-0 lead.
That chance evaporated when Nebraska (8-1 and 4-1) couldn’t score despite first-and-goal from the Purdue 4. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Armstrong fumbled a high, hard snap from center Mark Pelini. Abdullah went to recover it. That’s when he got hurt. It was yet another bad snap for the Huskers; they would botch another snap in the fourth quarter.
“I must be an awful coach if we can’t get a quarterback-center exchange,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We don’t screw up one of them (in practice). Or in most of the games. Why does it only happen sometimes? Why is it occasionally? Why in the last 160-something snaps in the last two games we’ve taken at home, why is it only five plays? Why isn’t it every play? I don’t know. They’re kids. Who knows what they’re thinking?”
Said guard Mike Moudy: “That’s an offensive lineman’s worst nightmare. ... You’re a yard away and you can’t get in.”
Nebraska still led 21-7 at halftime thanks to 65- and 56-yard drives in the second quarter, the last of which was punctuated by a deft 29-yard touchdown run by Armstrong on a fourth-down option play. The Huskers stormed down the field to start the second half, but the drive was thwarted inside the Purdue 10 by an Armstrong interception. Without Abdullah, Nebraska turned to backup running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby, who combined for 108 yards on 29 carries. Abdullah had just 1 yard on six carries.
Beck blamed the struggles on himself; he said he overcoached the offense during the week, preparing for too many contingencies because Purdue’s defense had a bye week to prepare and had thrown some wrinkles at the Huskers last year.
“When you’re trying to show them three different defenses for each set, it’s a little bit confusing at times,” Beck said. “And we played confused. We didn’t play real sharp. That’s where I put the responsibility on me. I’m mad at myself. I should have caught that earlier and said, ‘Too much.’?”
Said Moudy: “He prepared the (best) way he could prepare us. I would just say we spent too much time looking to throw the perfect play at them instead of just running our style, downhill, and trying to get on the ball and lined up as fast as possible.”
However the gears stopped working, Purdue trailed 28-14 when safety Landon Feichter intercepted his second Armstrong pass and returned it to the Nebraska 36 with 9:32 left. The 91,107 fans at Memorial Stadium murmured as the Boilermakers had a chance to stage another McNeese State-style comeback.
The defense stopped Purdue in four plays. The offense punted right back. The defense stuffed Purdue again in four plays. The offense got the ball at the Purdue 23, went backwards 13 yards because of a fumbled snap and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Pelini, and punted again. The defense turned over Purdue after six plays. The offense got the ball at Purdue’s 7 and finally scored a touchdown.
Just your average 21-point win, right? One in which Nebraska’s average starting field position — for the game! — was its own 49, and no possession for either team lasted longer than 4:52.
Armstrong, his voice a low rumble, insisted that this kind of performance won’t work again.
“I feel like I failed,” he said. “We won, but I feel like I failed. Our team got a win, but we play a team like Wisconsin or Iowa upcoming, it’s not going to be pretty.”
|Yards per carry||3.9||3.5|
Nebraska is 4-3 all-time against Purdue.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
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