Photo Credit: John Peterson

Late-Game Quarterback Change Gives Husker Offense a Spark

November 05, 2022

In the fourth quarter, Nebraska coaches decided they had seen enough.

Chubba Purdy, the starter for Nebraska’s game against Minnesota with Casey Thompson out, launched a poorly-thrown ball toward a receiver breaking toward the left sideline. The pass was underthrown, and a Golden Gopher defensive back came to intercept it.

The Huskers were already down 13-10, and Minnesota took advantage of the short field to score a touchdown. The interception also marked Nebraska’s seventh straight drive without points and its sixth consecutive without a first down. Purdy had completed six of his 16 passes for 41 yards and the pick, following up a similarly bad performance in the second half against Illinois.

So for the next drive, in came Logan Smothers.

“I didn’t think (Purdy) saw it towards the end of the game, so that’s why it was the change with Logan,” interim head coach Mickey Joseph said postgame. “I thought Logan gave us a better chance.”

And Smothers proved Joseph right on the final two drives. He came in for a drive earlier in the third quarter with Nebraska still leading, rushing for two yards and throwing a third-down incompletion. This time, he opened with a five-yard rush then completed a pass for seven more. That was the team’s first completion and longest play since a third-down completion with 6:40 remaining in the second quarter, meaning it had been nearly two quarters of game time without a completed pass.

The Huskers followed that up with two good runs for Anthony Grant for another first down, but faced fourth-and-10 after Smothers was dropped for a loss of a yard and Rahmir Johnson gained it back on the next two carries. A turnover on downs would’ve made a comeback nearly impossible, but Smothers connected with Marcus Washington for 31 yards. The receiver made an impressive sideline grab, one that was called incomplete at first but overturned on review.

The Huskers ended up settling for a field goal, and got the ball back after a review overturned a game-sealing Minnesota first down and the Gophers opted to punt on fourth-and-inches.

Smothers, who had been listed as the co-backup alongside Purdy but clearly took a backseat to the transfer, had the task of going 88 yards in two minutes and 25 seconds while the team had no timeouts. The third-year quarterback converted a third down with another 31-yard completion, and threw one for five more yards on the next play. The comeback fell short as Smothers’ final three throws were incomplete, and Trey Palmer dropped the last one.

“He’s got to grab that,” Joseph said. “He’s got to squeeze it, it’s a bang-bang play, it’s going to be a catch and a hit at the same time, he’s been in those situations before, we expect him to catch those balls.”

In just two drives, Smothers had twice as many passing yards as Purdy and the offense moved the best it had since the first quarter. Joseph said that he and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple considered leaning on Smothers earlier than they did, and that it may have been a better decision in hindsight.

“We probably should’ve,” Joseph said. “But we figured we had to throw the ball down the field.”

The coach’s words were in line with what he and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple have said in the week since Thompson went down against Illinois. They see Purdy as having the better arm, while Smothers would be more successful with his legs. That may have been why Smothers entered for a drive in the third quarter, too, as successfully running the ball with the lead and burning clock would be advantageous.

The game offered a view that was opposite of the coaching staff’s judgement. Purdy’s biggest plays came with his legs, including a short touchdown run and two scrambles for third-down conversions. Smothers was more successful through the air, and he and Joseph even thought he made a mistake when he opted to throw the ball away on the final third down rather than potentially run for the conversion.

Wide receiver Marcus Washington expressed confidence in both quarterbacks, acknowledging the offense’s success on the final two drives.

“Logan definitely balled out when he got his opportunity,” Washington said. “He did his thing, you guys saw that as well.”

Who the quarterback will be next week for the Huskers against Michigan is still to be determined, and the head coach didn’t give any hints. Joseph said Thompson had more feeling in his hand today after last week’s nerve injury, but he was still held out. If he can’t go for a second straight game, it’ll be up to the backups once again. Joseph and his offensive staff will surely evaluate the situation throughout the week.

“(Smothers) made some good throws today,” Joseph said, being asked what throw Smothers couldn’t make that his fellow backup could. “He’s got to be more consistent in practice for what we see, but he stood up today.”

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