WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Ten minutes after the best drive of his football life, Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee stood on the field waiting to give an interview to the Big Ten Network.
Purdue’s band — with the tubas and horns and that giant, loud drum — surrounded him and started playing. The band wasn’t moving. Neither was Lee. He stood in the noise and traffic like he had all night.
Always calm, always understated, Cool Hand Lee rescued the Huskers’ season and coach Mike Riley’s tenure — at least for one week — with a stirring 25-24 comeback win over the Boilermakers. For all the sloppiness in NU’s game — the 95 penalty yards, the nonexistent run blocking, the shoddy tackling on defense — Lee’s 431 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns left Nebraska coaches and players celebrating like they haven’t this season.
“Never, never, never, never, never quit!” Riley told his players in the locker room. “Never! That was beautiful! That can set a tone for who this team is!”
With reporters, Lee didn’t betray much emotion. Not his style. Never his style. He drove NU 70 yards in just over one minute for the game-winning touchdown. He completed seven of eight passes, the last of which went to his fellow New Orleans native, Stanley Morgan, on a quick post, a pass that Lee fit in between three Purdue defenders with 14 seconds left.
“That was a lot of fun,” Lee said. “Been wantin’ one like that. You don’t want to win that way, but we’ve been practicing it every day, the two-minute drill, every day, every day. We finally had a chance to use what we’ve been practicing.”
“That’s a Tom Brady-type drive right there,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “When you have ice water in your veins and make that kind of drive.”
“I don’t like just giving the ball to the quarterback 50 times and say ‘OK, go win the game for us,’” Riley said. “I think we need to help him. But, boy, he was pretty good tonight.”
Nebraska (4-4, 3-2 Big Ten) got a “Go Big Red!” chant from the small sliver of red-clad fans among 41,411 at Ross-Ade Stadium. That announced attendance was likely 10,000 too generous on a cold night. It was Big Ten weather, a test, perhaps for Lee, who played most of his college football at Tulane. A night to run the ball.
But it was Purdue (3-5, 1-4) that ripped off 199 yards on the ground, while Nebraska sputtered to just 40, in part because of three sacks of Lee. Until Saturday night, NU hadn’t won a game in the Big Ten era without running the ball for at least 100 yards. That included a 55-45 loss to Purdue in 2015, when the Huskers also couldn’t run it.
NU turned to Lee. He threw the ball 50 times, completing 32. He got better as the game wore on, making harder and harder throws, including a deep crosser to JD Spielman as he was smacked by a Purdue rusher, and a 27-yard score to tight end Tyler Hoppes under similar duress. Only in the red zone did he struggle, failing to connect on fade passes to the corner of the end zone. Thanks to three straight fourth-quarter stops from the Nebraska defense — which forced eight Purdue punts on the night — Lee got one more chance with 1:22 left. He had no timeouts.
Teammates believe in Lee, in part because he never gets mad and always stays calm.
“T. Lee’s like a coach on the field,” Morgan said. “You get in the huddle and you’re at attention. ‘Yes sir.’ He was fighting all game. Even when we came in at half, he was ready. Before the game, he was ready.”
On the final drive, Lee took advantage of Purdue’s soft coverage. Three times, he threw to running back Devine Ozigbo on check downs. He hit Hoppes for 17 yards; Lee credited Hoppes with a tough catch. De’Mornay Pierson-El ran a perfect out route for 11 yards.
And the 14-yard touchdown pass to Morgan — Lee’s favorite target — was the hardest throw he could have made on the play. Lee had Spielman open in the flat for a first down inside the 10, but Lee and Morgan knew the coverage well. So did Riley, who complimented offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf on the call. Morgan had been running corner routes and outs and fade routes all night. This time, Spielman veered toward the sideline and Morgan ran a post inside.
“He can run it a few different ways, depending on the coverage, and we’ve been coached up on that play just tirelessly, and we finally had a chance to make it work,” Lee said.
Purdue’s final, desperation hook-and-ladder play didn’t work, and Nebraska secured its first win since late September.
“We needed that,” said Barry, who had three tackles and played quite a bit at inside linebacker as NU’s defense again struggled with injuries. Safeties Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams left the game with injuries.
“I think a lot of people, l would’ve said, would’ve been looking for us to quit there in the second half,” linebacker Chris Weber said.
Especially after Purdue took a 24-12 lead, aided by a Husker pass interference penalty that Riley vehemently disputed, since it came on a fake punt and appeared to be a legal play by Dicaprio Bootle, who was flagged even though Purdue punter Joe Schopper’s pass simulated a punt. According to NCAA rules, such “punt” passes are exempt from pass interference because it’s too much of a disadvantage for the defender. After the penalty, Purdue punched in a touchdown that made its lead seem insurmountable.
But Lee answered with a seven-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that culminated in the 27-yarder to Hoppes. NU’s second-to-last drive reached the Purdue 15 before the Huskers turned it over on downs — Nebraska settled for four Drew Brown field goals in their first five trips to the red zone — and Nebraska needed a stop to give Lee one final shot. The Huskers got it. Purdue gained just 69 yards on four fourth-quarter drives.
“They were able to strain for as long as it took, right? Every second of this game the game was on the line, and they strained the whole time and got the win,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “So kudos to them, it was awesome.”
So was Lee, who was brought to Nebraska to play in — and win — games like these. In the first five weeks, when he threw nine interceptions, his performances were rocky. But he’s found pocket presence and a rhythm since a strong night at Illinois that was his top game — until Purdue.
“I think that’s the most yards I’ve ever thrown for, so that’s fun,” Lee said.
“Whoop, whoop!” Morgan said from the side.
Was it his favorite moment in football?
“That was probably the best one,” Lee said. “That was a lot of fun.”
|Yards per carry||5.2||1.5|
Nebraska is 4-3 all-time against Purdue.
|Arkansas State||Sept. 2|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 16|
|Ohio State||Oct. 14|
|Penn State||Nov. 18|
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