WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Scott Frost stood under a light pole that shot up into the air and looked down on the state of Nebraska football. The wind whipped. A band played. A train may have belched the trademark toot of a Purdue program that limped into Saturday’s game with little health and less hope.
But the Boilermakers walked out winners. And the Huskers, on the wrong end of a 31-27 loss to a three-win team, were left again to survey the debris of a game they should have won and a broken season spinning out of control. NU has dropped three straight games — to Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue — and four of its past five, putting a coveted bowl berth in peril.
“The guys are hurtin’ right now,” Frost said.
How does a team that had a 19-yard advantage in average starting field position, two interceptions and two blocked punts lose to a team that had 89 yards in penalties and was down to its third-string quarterback?
How does a team reach opponent territory seven times in the first half and produce 10 points?
How does a defense play so well in the first and third quarters and then wilt, almost on cue, to allow four long, punishing touchdown drives — two in the second quarter, two in the fourth — to lose the game?
“We gave too many chances away,” Frost said. “And that’s on all of us, to figure out how not to do that.”
It started, Frost and quarterback Adrian Martinez agreed, with an offense that slogged its way through 40-degree temperatures and a persistent wind at Ross-Ade Stadium before awakening in the fourth quarter.
Martinez, back from injury, got his first start in nearly a month, and looked rusty, overthrowing receiver Kanawai Noa for a sure touchdown on one drive and throwing an interception near Purdue’s goal line on another because he didn’t see a safety sneaking underneath a wheel route run by receiver JD Spielman.
“There’s no excuse to missing some reads and throws early in the game,” said Martinez, who completed 22 of 39 passes for 247 yards and rushed for 58 yards and two touchdowns in his return. Promising freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey stayed home for this trip with an injury while none of the backups who came to Purdue, including Noah Vedral, appeared.
Martinez’s play was only partially to blame for NU’s failure to score a touchdown after nose tackle Darrion Daniels, with a play that went viral on social media, intercepted a first-quarter Purdue shovel pass and returned it to the Boilermakers’ 2. Nebraska (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) settled for a field goal and didn’t even try to run a power play, attempting what amounted to three passes, although one ended in a sack and another in a Martinez scramble.
The first-down play, a shovel pass to Wan’Dale Robinson, was nearly intercepted by Purdue.
“Maybe I could have outrun the guy to the pylon,” Martinez said. “Otherwise, there was a guy trailing Wan’Dale — I’m sure you guys will see that — and I didn’t want to take a negative play, didn’t want anything crazy to happen.”
Frost was asked if he regretted any of the calls he made near the goal line — either in that sequence or a third-quarter goal-to-go situation that also resulted in a field goal.
“In every single game, there’s play calls you wish you had made differently,” said Frost, who tied the Robinson shovel pass to studying Purdue’s defense all week. “So we’ll look at that and figure it out.”
Frost conceded NU’s 14-10 halftime deficit easily could have been a big lead if not for missed blocks and missed throws, and Frost said the coaches — himself included — have to put “our guys in the best possible situations” to win.
If the defense played winning football in the first and third quarters, it faltered in the second and fourth quarters in stark, revealing ways.
Purdue (3-6 and 2-4) gained 449 yards in the game. A stunning 345 of those yards came on the last two drives of the first half and the last two drives of the game. The Boilermakers scored touchdowns on them all and they accounted for 47 of their 77 plays.
Nebraska’s secondary — forced to use Dicaprio Bootle at safety and Braxton Clark at cornerback because of an illness to starting safety Cam Taylor-Britt — was often scrambling to cover Purdue’s array of weapons.
NU covered deep passes well. The crossing routes — especially to tight ends and Nos. 3 and 4 receivers — were open, and quarterbacks Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell took advantage.
Plummer completed 10 of 11 passes in the first half to lead two touchdown drives. When Plummer got hurt in the fourth quarter — and O’Connell, the team’s No. 3 QB, went in — Purdue finished off touchdown drives with runs.
The last of them, on third-and-5 from the 9, was a nifty reverse call that fooled the Husker defense, and left David Bell, the man who scored, celebrating before he even reached the end zone.
“It was a good play, you know, but we could have done some different things around it,” Clark said. “Set an edge better, run with that motion. We’ll work on it in the film room and just get it better.”
Husker players said they weren’t fatigued on any of the touchdown drives, but safety Marquel Dismuke was in and out of the game, as were Daniels and Carlos Davis. The end-game defensive slump negated two Martinez-led touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, when he started to run more and hesitate less with his reads. Nebraska’s final drive, a four-and-out, was punctuated by a tipped Martinez pass that fell incomplete. The Huskers hustled off the field in relative quiet, and Frost had a long talk with the team before entering the windy tunnel that served as NU’s press conference display.
“We have to keep doing the things we know how to do to get them better,” Frost said. “We have to block a little better, tackle a little better, throw the ball a little better, catch it a little better, cover a little better. Because at least three games this year, if we do anything a little better, the result’s different.”
Nebraska must win two of its last three, and at least one over either Iowa and Wisconsin, to make a bowl game. The Huskers will be underdogs in both of those, and may not be much of a favorite over Maryland, moribund as the Terrapins may be, given the results. NU is 1-8 against the spread this season, which underlines a dogged commitment to playing beneath the expectations of analytics, fans, media and even Las Vegas sharps.
What is it exactly? A couple of players — neither seniors — unpacked it.
“I want to see more guys just unleash, let go, play football,” sophomore tight end Austin Allen said. “We’re kind of timid, I guess.”
“Just fear of failure, I guess,” he said.
Junior defensive end Ben Stille said lapses in attention to detail account for the problem.
“It’s about a 365-day-a-year job,” Stille said. “You work for this your whole year, and to be losing over stupid stuff, yeah, it’s extremely frustrating. You put four years of your life into it and for it to come down to stupid stuff, people not doing their jobs — little things, tackling, things we know how to do — it’s obviously extremely frustrating.”
Frost said the locker room is full of players who care and “want to be great,” who may need “an arm around them,” sometimes as much as they need a butt-chewing. Frost talked of all three phases working together, and players hinted at a practice regimen during their upcoming bye week that may augment Frost’s words. The second-year coach reiterated, again, that Nebraska football — in danger of its first three-year string of losing records since 1961 — will be back. Frost said he won’t accept any other result.
“I came back to Nebraska to get this fixed, and I’m gonna do it,” he said. “Regardless of what has to happen, and if there’s anybody who doesn’t need to be here to make that happen, then that’s the way it has to be. I hope every single one of them stays on board and does what we need to do. We’re going to get it there. I won’t let anything else happen.”
The wind whipped and the light pole loomed. Reporters leaned into Frost’s podium and even moved around a bit to catch the words their recorders had to pick up. The coach, in all the outside noise, was hard to hear.
|Yards per carry||4.0||3.7|
Nebraska is 4-4 all-time against Purdue.
|South Alabama||Aug. 31|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 14|
|Ohio State||Sept. 28|
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