WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — You may hear, in the coming days, the phrase “rock bottom” and presume that Nebraska’s football team hit it in a 55-45 loss at Purdue. Perhaps so. After all, the Huskers lost with gusto — five turnovers, many missed tackles, four penalties on extra point tries — to a Boilermaker team that previously had won just one Big Ten game in nearly three seasons.
But rock bottom often comes with reckoning and tears, perhaps even anger, and an acknowledgment of the expansive failure at hand. It arrives with a sober willingness to admit: Whatever this is, it’s not working, and it must reverse course immediately, or risk being lost to the void.
There was no particular fire from the men in red pants and windbreakers. The pain stewed inside of them, but the outward emotions observed were shock, resignation and sadness. No weeping and gnashing of teeth, no singular, fed-up voice. Just a blankness as large as Nebraska’s 3-6 record overall and 1-4 record in the league.
“We’re focused on the progress right now to fix our issues", defensive end Jack Gangwish said. “My message is: Our guys are doing well and working hard.”
“You’d be naive not to know this is not a good thing,” coach Mike Riley said.
Has the worst come? Is this rock bottom — or just a pit stop on the way to the void?
In front of a sparse, scattered Ross-Ade Stadium crowd well south of the announced figure — Nebraska now inspires apathy from opposing fans — Purdue staved off a Husker comeback by shoving the ball right into Nebraska’s sagging, fourth-quarter gut. Husker heads hung, or, in the case of fullback Andy Janovich, shook a few times. Coaches and players used their inside voices.
Fans a few rows up jeered.
“We won the yardage battle!” said one. “Woo!” This was true: Nebraska gained 484 yards to Purdue’s 457. Of course, those five turnovers — four of which led to Boilermaker touchdowns — helped the Huskers achieve that statistical anomaly.
“That’s ridiculous! You might as well let him score!” said another Husker fan as Purdue running back Markell Jones carried Husker defenders toward the goal line. That fan didn’t have to worry — two plays later, Jones indeed scored a touchdown.
See, whenever Purdue’s offense had to make a big play, it did that, converting all six red zone opportunities into touchdowns, including third-and-goal plays on three drives. And when Purdue’s defense had to offset its own obvious weaknesses, it did that, too, by first shutting down Nebraska’s running game — NU ran for 77 yards — and then by taking advantage of inexperienced quarterback Ryker Fyfe, making his first career start.
Fyfe threw for 407 yards — fifth-most in Husker history — and four touchdowns. But he tried to pick up a bad first-quarter snap instead of falling on it, which led to a turnover, and he threw four interceptions. Purdue started drives at the NU 16-, 22-, 19- and 6-yard lines as a result. All four drives became Boilermaker touchdowns.
Fyfe, who filled in for injured starter Tommy Armstrong, played about like the team as a whole, Riley said. “A mixed bag.”
“I think he handled things pretty well,” receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. “Ending up throwing for over 400 yards. I thought he played a pretty darn good game. Mistakes here and there, but that’s normal. Part of the game.”
Said Fyfe: “I put us in some tough spots. I’ve just got to learn from that, throw the ball away. Do what I can do. I can learn from that. I just wanted to go out there and play.”
Riley said Nebraska’s offense went through a “rough spot” during the middle of the game. Purdue outscored the Huskers 35-13 in the second and third quarters.
Purdue’s quarterback, redshirt freshman David Blough, was starting only his third career game, but played a gem, completing 28 of 43 passes for 274 yards and four touchdowns. He ran for 82 yards, which included a 56-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw that Nebraska failed to cover. The Boilermakers (2-6, 1-3) designed a game plan that had Blough constantly rolling out and throwing short and long to receivers on one side of the field. The dinks and dunks were eventually punctuated by an 83-yard touchdown strike to DeAngelo Yancey in the third quarter.
“I am the point guard for these guys,” Blough said.
Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas said Purdue’s coaching staff called the “perfect offense” for the “perfect defense” on at least one of the Boilermakers’ touchdowns.
“Otherwise, they just executed and we didn’t,” Banderas said.
Blough’s final touchdown pass of the game — which came in the third quarter — gave Purdue a 42-16 lead. Nebraska scored 29 points in a fourth quarter that featured a combined 42 points in 42 plays. NU never got closer than the game’s final margin.
Above the field of action, in a suite adjacent to the press box, Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst watched, and he knelt next to an elderly Husker fan in the suite for some of that fourth quarter, talking quietly. Eichorst, a firm believer in the power of positive thinking, tabbed Riley to take over the program in part because of his experience, in part because his approach is even-handed and typically positive.
Riley lauded the support received from Eichorst and other administrators.
“The whole department is very interactive, all the way through,” Riley said.
At Oregon State, Riley took a perennial loser and produced its best 10-year stretch in decades.
But NU, at this point, appears no more robust than the Beaver program he piloted out of the void.
NU’s roster is littered with injuries and depth issues, riddled with inconsistency and, in Riley’s parlance, creating new stories on how to lose with each game. Riley said he wants better offensive balance, and he wants the defense to stop giving up so many big plays. But, aside from a win at Minnesota, Nebraska hasn’t done that. Riley is not getting his formula for success.
In an equipment shed outfitted with ancient wooden school chairs and a white janitor’s bucket for reporter microphones, Riley declined a chair and stood in front of a phalanx of media. In this environment, Riley maintained his even voice.
“We’re just going to keep coaching them,” he said. “That’s what we need to do.”
Players echoed that positivity.
“Obviously not the result we want, but we kept fighting, we never quit, you know?” Fyfe said of the offense. “We never got mad and reacted at each other. We just responded and went out and played football. That’s all you can do.”
Said Banderas: “When I was a fan, this would be tough. But we’re not giving up. So I guess I’d just ask the fans not to give up, either. There’s always an upside. The sun’s going to come up. It’s just — when is it going to come up? We’re not giving up, we’re going to keep trying, and we’re going to go in to next week.”
No sunshine here. Gray skies, all day, and not long after Banderas was done talking, it began to steadily rain, which put at some peril the postgame feast put before the Nebraska players, coaches and staff members.
There were chicken sandwiches in boxes and bags, and there were platters of cookies. Plump and studded with chocolate chunks, the cookies for these Huskers, who took typically two or three as they passed. As it began to rain, one thing became clear: The cookies couldn’t get wet. Staff members quickly found lids for the platters.
It was the best Husker coverage all day, and it all seemed comfortably numb.
|Yards per carry||4.9||2.7|
Nebraska is 4-4 all-time against Purdue.
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|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
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