Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Play of the Game: Aidan O’Connell’s Fourth-Down Scramble

October 16, 2022

Nebraska proved again that it’s never out of the fight under Mickey Joseph on Saturday night, but after two straight comeback wins the Huskers came up short against Purdue in a 43-37 loss.

The Huskers dug themselves a 17-point hole in the first half but rallied to make it a one-score game in the fourth quarter. One stop would have give the Huskers a chance to march down the field and take the lead, but the defense couldn’t pull it off.

This week’s Play of the Game is Aidan O’Connell’s fourth-down scramble to move the chains with three minutes to play.

Trey Palmer’s fifth explosive play of the game, a 64-yard bomb through the air, set up a 1-yard touchdown from Anthony Grant two plays later, pulling the Huskers within six of the Boilermakers with just under six minutes to play.

After a touchback, Purdue started its drive at the 25. The Boilermakers quickly moved the chains with gains of 7 and 9 yards on the ground. Purdue kept it on the ground with Devin Mockobee for a third straight play, and he gained 5 yards.

Then Purdue began to pass the ball. A second-down incompletion set up third-and-5, and Purdue threw it again as O’Connell hit his tight end, Payne Durham, for a gain of 4 out to midfield.

Purdue called a timeout, then lined up to go for it on fourth-and-1 with 3:06 to play. Once again, Jeff Brohm put the game in the hands of his sixth-year quarterback. Purdue lined up in a tight formation with three receivers to the left, a tight end to the right and a back next to O’Connell in the shotgun.

On the snap, O’Connell dropped back while Nebraska sent five including inside linebacker Ernest Hausmann blitzing around the left end. Purdue ran a mesh route in the middle of the field with Charlie Jones over the top and Durham underneath, which is where the play got a little wacky. Jones essentially ran right through and de-cleated Myles Farmer trying to follow Durham across the field. Eteva Mauga-Clements then hip-checked Durham to the ground. The officials didn’t throw a flag on either team, so play on.

Nebraska had the three receivers who didn’t end up on the ground locked up, so O’Connell didn’t really have anywhere to go.

The offensive line stonewalled the Huskers rushing up the middle while the right tackle bumped Hausmann 10 yards deep in the backfield in a looping rush. With no one open, O’Connell began moving to his left as Ty Robinson disengaged from the offensive line and made a break for the unprotected quarterback.

However, O’Connell — who has minus-25 yards rushing on the season — planted his foot, cut it back up the middle and sent Robinson running right on by him as he lunged forward for a gain of 3 to move the chains.

“That guy doesn’t make mistakes with the football,” Mickey Joseph said of O’Connell. “He’s been in the system for six years, thanks to COVID. He’s been in the system for six years. That guy doesn’t make mistakes. And I said before, we had to execute in all three phases of the game and I’ve got to get that fixed. This is on me.”

A run for a loss and an incomplete pass set up another third-and-long, but Robinson got whistled for roughing the passer on a play where O’Connell completed the ball to Charlie Jones anyway, giving Purdue another set of downs that it used to kneel out the rest of the clock.

Nebraska had nearly six minutes of game time to force a punt, turnover or turnover on downs, and the Huskers couldn’t do it. They had many chances throughout the game to make big defensive plays and couldn’t get the Boilermakers to the ground with a number of missed tackles. Nebraska finished with just two tackles for loss and no sacks.

“Tonight, including myself, I didn’t do a very good job tackling tonight,” Isaac Gifford said. “As a unit we need to be better. Gave up too many ex- plays from missed tackles. But I think we’ve improved a lot. We just have to keep improving every day.”

After two straight solid performances under Bill Busch, the defense had no answers on Saturday. Purdue out-snapped Nebraska 101 to 52 and held the ball for 42:42 of the 60 minutes. O’Connell completed 65% of his passes for four touchdowns, with his lone interception coming on the first drive of the game. Purdue, 10th in the Big Ten in rushing at 119.2 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry, ran the ball 47 times for 217 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and another touchdown. Purdue went 9-for-18 on third downs (a good chunk of them being third-and-long) and 2-for-2 on fourth downs.

A shallow defense to begin with was without both of its starting linebackers as Luke Reimer didn’t suit up and Nick Henrich left the game. The coaches have had to shuffle guys around in the secondary and options are limited up front. That unit had to play far too many snaps on Saturday, and it’s hard to expect them to do something on play 100 that they couldn’t do on play 10, 20 or 30.

“I know we were on the field a lot today and that was on us, honestly,” Gifford said.

Despite giving up 43 points and over 600 yards of offense, Nebraska’s defense had one last opportunity to get off the field and give its quick-strike offense a chance to win the game. The Huskers couldn’t make the play, and now Nebraska sits at 2-4.

That’s why Aidan O’Connell’s fourth-quarter fourth-down scramble is this week’s Play of the Game.

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