WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Third down in the final minutes and Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm kept the offense on the field. The Boilermakers led on the scoreboard but no lead was safe Saturday night in West Lafayette, Indiana. Double-digit favorite Purdue couldn’t afford giving the ball back to Nebraska with an interim coach and a depleting depth chart.
The lines dug their claws into the natural grass at Ross-Ade Stadium as those who filled it anticipated the run. Instead, Brohm relied on sixth-year senior Aidan O’Connell to put the game away. Even with an incredible time (42:42 to 17:18), play (101 to 52), yardage (608 to 476) every conceivable statistical advantage, Purdue needed to make a play in order to beat Nebraska.
And they got it. With 2 minutes remaining at midfield, O’Connell dropped back and found go-to receiver Charlie Jones for 14 yards when Purdue needed 11. A sold out Ross-Ade exhaled, applauded and left. O’Connell knelt the game away and Purdue survived a feverous Nebraska charge, 43-37. Nebraska erased different 10- and 17-point leads and nearly pulled out an improbable win. They just ran out of time.
“I really believe if we got the ball back we would have gone down the field and Trey Palmer would have scored,” Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson said. “Or we would have ran it in.”
Interim head coach Mickey Joseph said: “I take my hats off to our boys. Our boys fought and that’s what we asked them to do.”
The Huskers fought through immediate adversity. Linebacker Luke Reimer watched Saturday’s game from the sidelines. Senior Eteva Mauga-Clements to make his first start. Then came the efficient Purdue offense Brohm is known for. The Boilermakers went 80 yards in nine plays and 3 minutes and 40 seconds on the opening drive. Former walk-on Devin Mockobee sparked that drive for Purdue with a 17-yard catch, followed by an 18-yard run into open space. Purdue moved forward and sixth-year senior Aidan O’Connell connected with TJ Sheffield for the 2-yard score. Instead of countering, Nebraska went backwards. Thompson fumbled on a blindside sack and center Trent Hixon jumped onto potential further disaster. The doomed drive ended in a punt and Purdue regained possession.
But instead of doubling their lead, the Boilermakers couldn’t get into the red zone. A stop at the doorstep, touching the Nebraska 20, forced a field goal. Mitchell Fineran came on and nailed it for 37 yards. Another game, another early deficit. And another answer for the Huskers. A set of short-yard, physical plays gave way to something big. Swift, physical rock collisions created a spark and Thompson’s 45-yard dime into Oliver Martin’s lap. Suddenly, the Huskers were at the Purdue 13. Five plays later, Jaquez Yant dove over the pile and the goal line to put the Huskers on the board. Hopes of consecutive touchdown drives and a go-ahead ended on a third-down sack. As a result, Timmy ‘Bleekrode came on to tie the game at 10.
Thompson hitting the dirt wasn’t anything new. And it certainly got old on Saturday. Purdue sacked Thompson four times in the first half alone — once early, once on that drive to limit Nebraska to 3 points and on consecutive plays the following drive for a cumulative loss of 22 yards. The consecutive sacks came on second and third downs midway through the second quarter as part of a physical Purdue flurry.
O’Connell took advantage of the field position from the two sacks and marched the Boilermakers into the end zone. His short slant pass to top receiver Charlie Jones broke wide open for a 31-yard strike when Jones broke a tackle and turned upfield. Thompson’s rebuttal ended abruptly when his pass intended for Travis Vokolek went directly into the hands of linebacker Branson Deen. Purdue couldn’t crack the end zone in three plays but Fineran’s 37-yard field goal extended the lead to two possessions. Mockobee then took over with a 7-play, 61-yard drive of his own that ended in the end zone. Purdue led 27-10.
What could the Huskers do? A team determined to flip the script this season only to get caught up in it. Through coaching shakeups and injuries the Huskers battled their way back to a two-game winning streak and 3-3 overall record coming into West Lafayette. But now, shorthanded with injuries and down three possessions on the road, the Huskers fought out of instinct. And with 35 seconds left the Huskers found points. Rahmir Johnson’s first all-purpose yard this season on a 17-yard run and Thompson galloped for 31 yards to get the Huskers in field goal range. Bleekrode delivered a 43-yard lift to close the first half.
“Just stick to the game plan, try to see if we can force a turnover and keep playing,” Joseph told the defense at halftime. “Just keep playing, don’t look at the scoreboard.”
On the road with a skeleton crew at linebacker and a struggling offensive line the Huskers came out aggressive. Thompson hit Vokolek for a physical 30-yard catch and run before finding Trey Palmer from 37 yards out. Purdue’s ensuing drive ended shy of midfield. The following one got into field goal range but Fineran’s 41-yard attempt sailed wide left.
Suddenly the Huskers had the ball after a stop with a chance to tie. Instead, calamity ensued.
The Huskers couldn’t crack the end zone on their next drive and settled for chip shot field goal. That cut the lead to 4 points. On the flip side, a missed tackle sprung TJ Sheffield for a 28-yard touchdown pass from O’Connell. That capped a six-play 75-yard drive that took 3 minutes. Thirty-four seconds later, Trey Palmer jogged into the end zone for his second touchdown catch of the night to pull the Huskers back. Palmer set a new single-game school record with 237 receiving yards on seven catches.
Purdue muscled and fought for a field goal, taking 15 plays and nearly 7 minutes of game time, but Nebraska couldn’t seize the advantage. Thompson threw his second interception and the explosive offense missed a chance to take the lead. In turn, O’Connell found Jones for a 2-yard strike. A missed extra point, however, gave the Huskers an opening and a little hope. The Huskers turned to Palmer on the reverse and he ran to the 3. Anthony Grant punched it in from the 1.
“I just go game by game and I just play football,” Palmer said. “I’m blessed to have the opportunity to play football.”
Purdue got the ball back with just under 6 minutes remaining. The Boilermakers were unable to contain Palmer. The offense gathered on the sidelines ready to score and snatch an improbable upset.
“Just one more chance and we go make the play,” Palmer said.
The chance never came. Purdue pulled out the stops, converted on third and fourth downs, and kneeled into victory. Time ran out on the Huskers. And they’ll have to sit on another tough loss over a bye week. This one, though, came with more promise.