Mickey Joseph told the Huskers they’d have to win the second and third quarters. Not just the middle 8 minutes, the whole quarters. The interim head coach told them they needed to win in all three phases of the game but especially in those middle quarters.
While the fans filed for the exits at Memorial Stadium and a southern wind blew debris across Tom Osborne Field following Nebraska’s 20-13 loss to Minnesota on Saturday, Joseph thought of that objective.
“That didn’t get done,” he said.
Nebraska’s offense scored 10 points out of the gate under backup quarterback Chubba Purdy. He then lost his grasp for the game and the offense disappeared. The Huskers went 45 minutes, 29 seconds of game time between scoring drives. They managed just 43 yards in that span, including just 26 in the second quarter and 14 in the third quarter. Six consecutive three-and-outs, five of them ending in punts and the final an interception that ultimately forced Joseph and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple to pull Purdy for good. Minnesota, meanwhile, scored 20 straight points to take the lead.
Purdy started when Casey Thompson didn’t dress for Saturday’s game. Thompson, banged up all season, took a shot midway through the second quarter against Illinois that delivered nerve damage. Joseph said on Thursday that Thompson lobbied coaches to play throughout the week. He could feel his throwing hand fingers better on Saturday but playing him against Minnesota made Joseph uncomfortable. So in came Purdy, who was successful right up until he wasn’t.
“I thought he saw it earlier,” Joseph said. “But I didn’t think he saw it toward the end of the game so that’s why there was the change with Logan (Smothers). I thought he gave us a better chance.”
Smothers found Trey Palmer near the sidelines for a 7-yard pass when Nebraska needed it. That was Nebraska’s first completion since Purdy’s 7-yard throw to Rahmir Johnson midway through the second quarter. Smothers re-entered the game with a 28-minute drought between completions and tried to mount a comeback. He quarterbacked three plays in the third quarter, his third-down throw dropped by Oliver Martin. That was enough for coaches to pull him in favor of Purdy.
Coaches stuck with Purdy in the second half of the Illinois game because Purdy gave Nebraska the best chance to win. Smothers ended the first half but when the Illini took the lead, Purdy — the throwing quarterback — stayed in the game. Coaches stuck with Purdy through the first three quarters on Saturday against Minnesota even as the offense hiccuped. Over that stretch were crucial drops from Martin, Travis Vokolek and Trey Palmer.
Minnesota opened the second half with a field goal so Purdy took over with a touchdown cushion. Four yards and a punt. Minnesota tied it with a heavily wrapped Mohamed Ibrahim. Nebraska managed 7 yards before punting. Then 3 yards and a punt. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple decides who the quarterback is in his system. Joseph tells Whipple if he believes there should be a change but it’s Whipple’s call. Joseph said they were on the same page throughout the game and held the same regrets in the end.
“We probably should have earlier,” Joseph said about pulling Purdy. “But we figured we had to throw the ball down the field. And then when he wasn’t seeing it then we had to make a change.
“In this league you can’t do that. You can’t go six three-and-outs. You can’t do it. Because they’ll eat the clock up.”
There were throws intended for Trey Palmer, Marcus Washington, Travis Vokolek, Nate Boerkircher and Palmer again. All incomplete on consecutive drop backs. Half of them on 3rd down.
So what throws could Purdy make that Smothers isn’t capable of? Purdy threw one interception after consecutive misfires. Smothers delivered Nebraska’s best pass of the game, a 32-yard sideline grab by Marcus Washington. He finished 5 of 8 for 80 yards while Purdy went 6 of 16 for 41.
“He made some good throws today,” Joseph said. “He’s just got to be more consistent in practice but he stood up today.”
Washington said there wasn’t much difference in catching a throw from Purdy or Smothers. They’re both capable of delivering throws in a rhythm. And all the receivers have confidence in both to deliver those throws. It just didn’t work for the majority of Saturday afternoon.
It was simply a day with questionable decisions. Smothers also threw the ball away on 3rd down at midfield when he could have scrambled for the first. He told the coaches after the drive he regretted not doing that. Smothers had 4 rushing yards while Purdy had 24. Anthony Grant surpassed the 100-yard mark with 115 on 21 carries to lead the Huskers.
Nebraska’s defense did the most it could. The Gophers went to the locker room with 31 total yards, including -7 rushing. A reloaded attack gained more yards and the Husker defense couldn’t withstand it.
“At the end of the day I came here to play defense, I know everyone else did to,” defensive tackle Ty Robison said. “No matter what my job’s to get the offense the ball back and I’m happy to do that whether they’re three-and-out or it takes 5 minutes off the clock for them to score.”
Minnesota finished with exactly 300 total yards and possession for 34 minutes, 41 seconds. Nebraska, meanwhile, had as many first downs as points (13).