WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — For the second straight week, Nebraska put its boot on an opponent’s throat early in the game.
For the second straight week, this time armed with the return of their starting quarterback, the Huskers had a chance to run away and hide when the defense started fast, on this day forcing a pair of turnovers and setting up the offense in prime position repeatedly.
For the second straight week Nebraska not only failed to bury a foe, this time Purdue on a choppy track at Ross-Ade Stadium, but let it up and let it back in the game.
Again, the Huskers lost a game they felt like they should have dominated, but, as has become all too common for Scott Frost’s second NU team, failed to do so because they made far too many mistakes in a 31-27 loss to the Boilermakers.
Clinging to a 27-24 lead in the closing moments of regulation, the Nebraska defense allowed third-string Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell and the Boilermakers to drive 82 yards and score the game-winning touchdown on a deceptive reverse play to David Bell.
“I’ve been in a lot of games at Nebraska already where if we make one more play, we win the game and one more play right there (wins the game),” Frost said afterward. “But the defense played well enough to have the game put away in the first half and the offense didn’t play well. … We’ve got to get to a point where all three phases are playing well, and that’s on the coaches, that’s on me, that’s on the players, that’s everybody.
“These are games we should win.”
This fall, they haven't. They dominated Colorado for a half and had a blowout in sight before blowing a tire in the fourth quarter. They had Indiana on the ropes early last week at Memorial Stadium, but broke down in the red zone. Again Saturday, under a cloudy sky and swirling wind, the Huskers had a chance to wallop the Boilermakers and instead took the knockout blow in the waning moments.
Nebraska took a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, who turned in an up-and-down performance in his return to action after missing two games with a left knee injury.
Purdue responded quickly, though, led by O'Connell, marching promptly down the field to reclaim the lead in a game that at one point had "lopsided" written all over it.
“There’s no question our defense played really well, we even had a blocked punt in the first half and we were put in good field position,” said Martinez, who completed 22 of 39 passes for 247 yards and an interception, and added 58 rushing yards and two rushing TDs. “I take the blame. A lot of those plays should have resulted differently if I did my job the right way and I executed to the fullest of my ability. I didn’t do that today.”
The Huskers cruised down the field and scored on their first possession of the game, then had a golden opportunity to double their lead when senior nose tackle Darrion Daniels intercepted Jack Plummer's shovel pass and returned it to the Purdue 2-yard line. Instead of punching it in, though, NU went backward on three pass attempts and settled for a Barret Pickering field goal and a 10-0 lead.
“We studied them all week and had a little shovel pass to Wan’Dale (Robinson) dialed up and we missed a block on the backer that took it away,” Frost said of the sequence. “On second down we ran a (run-pass option) that they switched it off, we need to either hand that off or throw it away and not take a sack. Then we get it down to the 1-yard line and at that point I want to go up two scores and so we kicked the field goal.”
At the same score, Martinez drove Nebraska to the Purdue 21 before he made a bad throw into coverage in the back corner of the end zone that was easily intercepted by safety Corey Trice.
NU got the ball back again thanks to a Lamar Jackson interception, but went three-and-out, hampered by a holding penalty, a fumbled exchange between Martinez and a running back and then Martinez missing senior wide receiver Kanawai Noa for what looked like a sure touchdown up the left seam.
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What might the score have been? 17-0? 21-0? Even 24-0? Against a two-win team that’s struggled to get on track offensively and remained without star sophomore Rondale Moore for a fifth straight week? That’s how a game gets out of hand.
“Just so many times this season I think we’ve had a ‘shoulda’ conversation,” wide receiver Kade Warner said. “We ‘shoulda’ had 28, we should have had however many points against Minnesota. We should have had. And we get in that conversation too many times, I think, for our team. And going forward, we have to fix those things. And instead of being a ‘shoulda’ we need to make those things happen at the time.”
Instead, at a manageable 10-0 margin, the Boilermakers mounted scoring drives of 89 and 95 yards in the second quarter and took a 14-10 lead to the locker room instead of a multi-score deficit.
“We gave too many chances away," Frost said. "That’s on all of us to figure out how not to do that. The defense played great and gave us a bunch of opportunities in the first half to take control of the game and I don’t think it would have come down to what it came down to. We made too many mistakes, should have really been ahead at halftime, probably ahead by quite a bit, and instead we find ourselves in the hole at halftime. Sooner or later, that stuff’s got to stop.”
After Purdue’s first five drives covered just 34 yards in 15 snaps and ended with three punts and two interceptions, the Huskers' defense wilted, allowing 185 yards and 14 points on the final two drives of the half.
More of the same followed in the second half, however. NU took the ball down the field on its first drive of the second half, but saw a 72-yard march stall inside the 10 and settled for a field goal. The second drive again pushed well into Boilermaker territory before the Huskers turned it over on downs when Martinez was stopped short on a third-down run and overthrew a ball into coverage on fourth down.
The Huskers dominated the field position game, starting at an average of its own 46 on its first 10 drives and taking nine of them into Purdue territory — six times to the 31 or deeper — and came away with just 13 points.
“Coaches and I have to do a lot better job continuing to work to put our guys in the best possible situations that we can,” Frost said. “We need to get better and at that point we just have to make some plays."
The defense rallied and started the second half strong, forcing punts on Purdue’s first two drives. The Boilermakers scored on their final three marches, though, a field goal and a pair of touchdowns, the second a game-winning drive led by walk-on quarterback O’Connell, who completed all six of his passes for 62 yards on the march.
“Obviously extremely frustrating. It’s about a 365 day-a-year job, and so you work for this your whole year and so to be losing over stupid stuff, it’s extremely frustrating,” junior defensive lineman Ben Stille said. “You put four years of your life into it and for it to come down to stupid stuff, people not doing their job, little things, tackling, things that we know how to do, it’s obviously extremely frustrating.”
Martinez and the offense had a last chance beginning with 68 seconds remaining, but went four-and-out, putting Purdue in victory formation.
The Huskers have now lost three straight games — to Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue — and must win two of their final three to avoid missing bowl eligibility for the third straight season. The past two games, where the result is in the balance late into the game, are going to sting for some time.
“The core of our team and the vast majority of our team plays for each other and they play for their brothers, and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble keeping the team together,” Frost said. “If we have one or two, then we have one or two. But I came back to Nebraska to get this fixed and I’m going to do it, regardless of what has to happen. If there’s anybody that doesn’t need to be here to make that happen, that’s the way it needs to be. I hope every single one of them stays on board and does what we need them to do.
“We’re going to get it there. I won’t let anything else happen.”