Fitting that a strange day should end in a strange way.
Not strange in that the end result was unwanted. Strange in that Nebraska has been searching for this, and searching for it consistently, for so long to no avail. Head coach Scott Frost has been trying to find this since returning to Lincoln. Strange that such a potentially momentous win comes for just the second time in six games and comes in an empty stadium with a team occupying the other locker room that’s also now just 2-4, but this one felt like a moment.
You saw it in the way linebacker Garrett Nelson and corner Dicaprio Bootle photobombed their coach during his postgame interview on BTN. You saw it in the smile on the head coach’s face immediately after. And in the embrace leaving the field between corner Cam Taylor-Britt, wideout Wan’Dale Robinson, and quarterback Adrian Martinez.
Smiles all around. Someone after the game commented and said, “Feels pretty good!”
In a 37-27 road victory, Nebraska found plays to win Saturday against Purdue rather than ways to let things slip away.
“You’ve got to play well in all three (phases) to win every week,” Frost said. “The punt block really set the tone. We talked about knocking out the rush so we could focus on (Purdue’s) passing game. Can’t say enough about the way we held them down in the run game. Without that 89-yard play where the two guys ran into each other, I thought the defense played really well.
“Offensively, we made plays when we needed to. I thought we threw it a lot better. We got good things in all three phases.”
Consider the following:
Through the first three games of the year, Robinson had 49, 32, and 71 yards of offense. “He’s one of our best—if not the best—playmakers in the offense,” Martinez said. In the last three, he has 120, 117, and 119. Robinson had 114 receiving yards Saturday and tied a career-high for receptions in a game with nine. He had nine a week ago, too.
Through the first four games of the year, Nebraska’s opponents converted 54% of their third-down tries, 34-of-63. In the last two games, Nebraska’s opponents have gone 4-of-14 and now 3-of-13. Purdue averaged a shade over 9 yards to go on those attempts Saturday.
Through the first four games of the year, Nebraska’s opponents had run for an average of 5.3 yards per carry against it. (That number factors sacks and kneel-downs out.) In the last two games, Iowa and Purdue have averaged a combined 2.9.
Through the first two starts of his junior season, Adrian Martinez was 24-for-42 throwing the football. He was averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt, hadn’t thrown a touchdown, and had turned it over in crucial moments in both games. In his last two starts, Martinez is 41-for-50, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, and arguably just played his best game in some time.
“Our plan was to play Luke (McCaffrey) like we did last week and rotate them, but we had so much momentum and I thought Adrian was playing well,” Frost said. So Frost let it ride. At one point in the second quarter, Martinez had completed seven straight throws.
Nebraska’s offense is starting to hum in ways it hasn’t this year.
Frost said they’ve been preaching “practice makes perfect” for three years, and he thought that hit a little different after the way the Iowa game ended last Friday. This past week, he thought, they had some of their cleaner practices in the middle portion of the week.
“I don’t think we adjusted much, we’re just executing a lot better,” said wideout Levi Falck.
Fast-forward to the opening possession of the third quarter, Nebraska put the foot down. It bled 5 minutes off the game clock and methodically marched 75 yards in 11 plays.
Now, the drives that followed featured a three-and-out and then a six-play, 21-yarder that also ended in a punt. There’s work to be done there for sure; don’t mistake progress for perfection or achievement for arrival. But then there was that first drive of the fourth quarter for Nebraska.
Purdue had just hit with an 89-yard bomb to the explosive talent that is wideout David Bell. Nebraska had done well to keep him in check—of his 10 catches on the game, the other nine only gained 43 yards. Safety and cornerback collided with each other at the catch, and Bell raced the other way to cut what was once a 34-13 lead to just seven points.
Nebraska teams of the past have clenched. One Husker reporter said the play had shades of 2019 Colorado.
The ensuing kickoff featured a holding penalty, a targeting review, and an injury that required the medical cart come onto the field. Then there was an unsportsmanlike conduct, then back-to-back holding calls on the offensive line, then a personal foul, then a pass interference call, and later an illegal chop block. Nebraska was flagged four times.
And yet the drive went 79 yards in eight plays, burned five more minutes off the clock, and restored a two-score lead for Nebraska.
“That was one of the weirdest drives I’ve ever seen, watching or coaching football,” Frost said. “I thought our offense was calm and relaxed and business-like going out there, which is what you need to do.”
Added Martinez: “A point of emphasis for us this week was focus. We weren’t gonna let it slip.”
Purdue went three-and-out on its next possession. Taylor-Britt went Air Jordan on a third-down deep shot to Bell and broke it up. Without the acrobatic play, Bell might have had another long score that would have tied things.
And then Purdue went four-and-out on its next possession. The pocket collapsed on a fourth-and-six and defensive lineman Casey Rogers got to the quarterback.
Nebraska kneed on the ball three times to run the remaining 1:41 off the clock and walk off victorious in a road game under Frost for just the third time.
“It’s something we haven’t done a ton of in my time here,” Martinez said. “It’s a good feeling. It’s always nice to win. It’s nice to win on the road. I think this team, proving we’re capable of winning in a style like that is huge for us moving forward.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.