WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – It was odd the first time Purdue’s defense took the field Saturday.
The Boilermakers hadn’t had much success through five games as a traditional 4-3 defense, so, with a bye week to work with prior to this game, they made a switch. Purdue came out in a 3-4 with a nose tackle lined up over center.
Saying that Nebraska was surprised is putting it mildly.
“The front they played, we didn’t even practice,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “I don’t even know why we practiced. They did everything completely different. I thought our guys adjusted well, though.”
The 44-7 score seems to indicate that the Huskers as a whole handled it just fine. Tommy Armstrong’s stat line indicates that he did not. The redshirt freshman quarterback, in his first road start, finally looked like a freshman.
Gone were the calm throws and smart option runs from Armstrong on Saturday. In their place were wild tosses, three interceptions, 6-of-18 passing and just 48 total yards of offense.
“After each drive, I talked to (Beck) on the headset and he said it was confusing up there for him, so he knows how it is for us on the field,” Armstrong said
Purdue’s gambit worked in that regard. It made Armstrong look vulnerable rather than in-control, his best trait in his first two starts. Going on the road, even to lethargic West Lafayette, always has the potential to rattle a young quarterback. The switch to a three-man front – which Beck said Nebraska hadn’t prepared for “at all” — added significantly to the degree of difficulty for Armstrong on Saturday.
It’s like, well, it’s like that bad dream we all have at one time or another.
“It’s like taking you and giving you a chemistry test right now,” Beck said. “You’ve not studied for it, you didn’t even know you had it, but I’m going to take you in there and you’ve got to take it in front of 70,000 people. That’s what it was like for our guys today.”
Minus the 70,000 people part, of course. The official numbers say there were 47,203 people in attendance on Saturday. Entire sections populated with just a few fans, many of them wearing red, say that’s a lie, but the Purdue fans who stayed away were, perhaps, the smartest people not in the building.
That’s because even with Nebraska playing through a pop quiz, this thing was ugly. The Husker offense sputtered a bit, yes, but the defense didn’t need a surprise switch to rattle Purdue’s true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. In his first career start, Etling was sacked five times, intercepted once, the victim of a Randy Gregory safety, and just 14-of-35 passing. That’s what happens when your running game can generate only 32 yards on 25 carries, there’s nowhere else for a young quarterback to turn. Stand in there, take your shots, and do your best, son.
Armstrong didn’t have it nearly that bad. He had Ron Kellogg III to come in and calm things down with some jokes in the huddle while going 10-for-13 on the day. He had Ameer Abdullah (126 yards), Imani Cross (two touchdowns), and Randy Gregory (two sacks, fumble recovery) to help keep things cushy. He had an understanding and equally off-balance offensive coordinator.
And, most importantly, he had the right takeaway from this game.
“We won. It was a team win, but I’ve gotta look at it like if it was a better team, a team that was going to play four quarters, and it was neck-to-neck, it could’ve cost us the game.”
It could’ve. But it didn’t. Getting “teachable moments” like that as a young player are always valuable, but they rarely come in a 44-7 win.
That’s the good news from Armstrong’s bad day. Well, that and the fact that he was already aware of it 20 or so minutes after the worst game of his young career.
Better games will come.