Just when you think you’ve seen all of the weird ways in which a football game can unfold, another week rolls around, they keep playing games and––what do you know?––a new permutation presents itself.
In West Lafayette, Indiana, on Saturday night, it was this new permutation: Nebraska averaged 9.2 yards per play and lost.
It’s unusual. Since 2000, there have been 662 games involving an FBS team with one team averaging 9-plus yards per play. That team that did won 638 of those games, a winning percentage of .964.
That Nebraska didn’t isn’t shocking if you watched the game. The Huskers ran 52 plays to Purdue’s 101. That alone is rare, triple-digit plays. It has happened, on average, about four times a year this century. The Boilermakers were plenty good on those plays, averaging 6 yards each time, but they needed to be that good to finally put this new version of Nebraska away and that’s the story.
The story isn’t one of “how do you average 9 yards per play and lose?” The “how” here was obvious, but it is also redolent of the previous regime. It felt like almost every game of the Scott Frost era was one where something or other didn’t add up.
The Mickey Joseph interim era, at least to this point, adds up. Minus that Oklahoma game, the Huskers enter their second bye week looking like a team that’s going to get the most out of whatever it has.
It’s like being invited over for a humble-but-happy family meal. Maybe the ingredients aren’t the fanciest. Maybe the entrée is a little overdone this time. Who cares? Whoever put that meal together, it was clear they put everything into it and, as is human nature, they’ll try to make it better tomorrow doing the best they can with what they have.
This is an inherently sappy point of view. It’s basically the basis for every holiday tale anyone cares to remember, and the holidays are when almost anyone trends toward warm-and-fuzzy. So what?
Nebraska is a flawed team and that was true at the start of this season, though the unlimited promise of a new campaign always makes that easy to ignore. Every fan in the country wants to view their team in the best light until proven otherwise.
The good light was extinguished in Week 0, before even most of college football had kicked things off. Nebraska has an offensive line that is almost hard to fathom for a power conference team. Its defense struggles to stop teams consistently, though lately it’s getting just enough timely stops to give itself a chance. The Huskers’ offense can hit for big plays, particularly if they involve wide receiver Trey Palmer, but that in itself can be pretty chaotic.
On top of these flaws, this season has only heaped complications, the kind every team deals with (key injuries) and the kind few do (coaching changes), on top. That’s the hand Joseph, the rest of the staff and the team was dealt a month ago.
And that all seems fine to me? It does in the current context. Flaws like those are impossible to fix in the middle of a season and hard to even paper over. Nebraska didn’t get or generate ideal conditions for avoiding its weaknesses against Indiana. Won anyway. It didn’t get or generate ideal conditions against Rutgers. Won anyway.
It definitely didn’t get or generate ideal conditions at Purdue this week. Almost won anyway.
This also isn’t a story of moral victories. Win this game and Nebraska’s still tied for first place in the division with its fellow division leader coming to its place in two weeks. Lose this game, as the Huskers did, and the dynamic completely changes.
But how this loss to Purdue unfolded––with the Husker offense running just a third of the total plays run, with the defense needing maybe just three or four more plays to go its way to change the outcome––was perhaps as encouraging as anything.
Nebraska was a two-touchdown underdog. There were multiple times on Saturday when it looked like Purdue was well on its way to winning as expected.
That it didn’t might serve as a credit to both teams. Nebraska may not be favored in another game this season and perhaps the best thing I can say about the Joseph era to this point is that my gut reaction is, “That’s OK.”
It’s OK because I’ll be more surprised over the games to come if the Huskers don’t find some way, hard as it may be to forecast, to give themselves a chance. That’s progress.
In another life, Nebraska’s 43-37 loss at Purdue would’ve been just another one-score loss. Throw it on the pile over there.
Not anymore. The Huskers gained ground on Saturday, just not enough in the only stat that matters.
Could’ve been more if they’d just had the ball more, but so it goes.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.