LINCOLN — Nebraska’s 27-14 slog over palooka Purdue was full of massive, intractable piles of Husker and Boilermaker linemen. So it made sense that, at game’s end, NU and PU’s collection of wide bodies wrestled, shoved and committed personal fouls to a steadily emptying Memorial Stadium.
The teams had tired of each other. Husker fans had tired of a four-week appetizer of overmatched Big Ten foes who tried — and failed — to put a wrench in Nebraska’s undefeated season.
Even smilin’ Mike Riley had to admit he sounded like a “broken record.” He was happy to win. He wish it had looked a little cleaner than it was.
The game itself resembled a broken record.
The Huskers started OK, slumped for a quarter, revived themselves and eventually wore down and wore out a lesser, unranked team. The performance often left the 90,546 fans at Memorial Stadium sounding less raucous than like leaves rustling across an autumn lawn.
You’re ready for a new tune, and you’re about to get two: major road games at Wisconsin and Ohio State. The No. 10 Badgers — 17-9 winners at Iowa Saturday — are first. Control of the Big Ten West division will be at stake.
“It will be great for our team and great for our league,” Riley said.
“Of course we need it,” wideout Stanley Morgan said. “We want to prove something. That’s the time to prove it.”
These last four wins — even road victories at improving Northwestern and Indiana — haven’t been a proving ground so much as pop quizzes designed to test Nebraska’s sharpness and consistency.
NU tends to ace certain sections and struggle with others. That was true again on Saturday.
>> The offense eventually produced 409 yards and had its share of splash plays — including a 40-yard, third-quarter touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong to De’Mornay Pierson-El — but the run game was a muddle. NU ran for 157 yards, but 74 came in the fourth quarter, and I-back Terrell Newby was often left searching for holes in a Purdue defense that stationed eight and sometimes nine defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage. PU had 10 tackles for loss, creating scrum after scrum with Husker linemen.
“There weren’t any,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf deadpanned when asked why Newby couldn’t find good running lanes. “The lanes he’s trying to hit are covered.”
Purdue’s defensive linemen “were doing a good job of stunts and different pressures and stuff like that,” tackle Cole Conrad said.
Nebraska’s beat-up offensive line couldn’t muscle the Big Ten’s worst run defense, which, on top of being not good, was also missing its best player, tackle Jake Replogle. Husker left tackle Nick Gates started, but seemed severely limited by an injured right ankle. Other healthy starters looked about as good as Gates did. Right tackle David Knevel left hurt for the third straight game.
“We’re pretty thin there right now, but we’re not going to talk about that too much, because when we go out there we expect to look better than that and play better than that as a group,” said Riley, clearly tiring of the narrative that Nebraska’s offensive line can’t do any better because of its injuries.
NU was eventually bailed out by its receiving corps — Brandon Reilly, Pierson-El, Morgan and Alonzo Moore — who each had a play longer than 20 yards. Moore’s came on a 24-yard jet sweep that scored the final touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Moore tiptoed the sideline to stay in bounds.
“My pinkie toe is smaller than the rest of my toes,” said Moore, offering a joke and a fact.
>> The Husker defense caused a turnover on the game’s first play — when safety Kieron Williams picked off an ill-conceived quail of a halfback pass from running back Markell Jones — that set up an Armstrong 22-yard touchdown run just 16 seconds into the game. NU’s secondary was then torched by quarterback David Blough, who hit a 44-yard post to set up one touchdown and a slant pass to wideout DeAngelo Yancey that turned into an 88-yard touchdown. Purdue took a 14-10 lead with that score.
“Just a bust in coverage,” said Williams.
After that, the Blackshirts suffocated Purdue (3-4 overall, 1-3 in the Big Ten). The Boilermakers’ final nine drives netted just 126 yards. Just two reached Husker territory, and none closer than the 37. Williams got another interception. NU forced four punts, and Nebraska got three fourth-down stops, including its dousing of an elaborate fake punt pass.
“We just got back to ourselves,” said linebacker Josh Banderas, who had a game-high 13 tackles.
Purdue gained just 24 yards rushing.
“They gave up on it quick,” said defensive tackle Kevin Maurice, who had one of NU’s three sacks. “They had success throwing the ball early, and they kind of fell in love with it.”
After its opening touchdown, Nebraska (7-0, 4-0) often threw the ball out of necessity. It wanted to love the run, but couldn’t. Newby’s first five runs of the third quarter went as thus: 0 yards, 0, 3, -2, -1.
So the passing game took center stage.
Armstrong — who finished 17 of 31 for 252 yards with one touchdown and an interception — became the school’s all-time completions leader on a 28-yard pass to Morgan, whose leaping third-down grab exemplified NU’s day.
The Huskers converted 7 of 15 third downs — a good ratio — but often did so on third-and-long. Reilly caught a 28-yarder on third-and-9 and a 24-yarder on third-and-16. Sam Cotton caught a 12-yarder on third-and-12.
Can Nebraska really get away with this at Wisconsin? A spate of personal foul penalties gives some pause, as does a bizarre rugby rollout by punter Caleb Lightbourn that resulted in a NU’s third blocked punt of the season. This one rolled forward 28 yards.
Two years ago, NU similarly slogged through a 35-14 win with Purdue, then lost 59-24 in Madison.
Different time, different team. Different result?
Banderas thinks so. He sees in Nebraska a team with a will to win. It has revealed itself in the fourth quarters of games, which, thus far in 2016, the Huskers have owned. They did again on Saturday, possessing the ball for more than 11 minutes and outgaining the Boilermakers 114-52.
“These games, they haven’t been pretty,” Banderas said. “My heart’s been going in a lot of them.”
Big Red blood will be pumping this week. Nebraska’s Big Ten top 10 test is finally here.
“We’ll be working overtime,” Langsdorf said.
|Yards per carry||1.1||4.2|
Nebraska is 4-3 all-time against Purdue.
|Fresno State||Sept. 3|
|Ohio State||Nov. 5|
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