WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Pull down the dusty old book of football lore and look at it as long as you like, you won’t find the recipe for Nebraska’s 25-24 win over Purdue in there. I don’t know if it’s as old as the game itself, but for a long time at least the conventional wisdom has been that the team that runs the ball better tends to win, all other things being equal.
Purdue ran the ball much better, 199 yards and 5.2 yards per carry to the Huskers’ 40 and 1.5. With no real run threat to speak of, Nebraska threw the ball 50 times. Since 2004, the first year throwing the ball 50 times became much of a possibility for the Huskers, Nebraska has reached 50 pass attempts seven times and it won exactly one of those games. (Iowa State, 2005). A Mike Riley Nebraska team had never attempted half-a-hunnerd, to borrow a term from Barry Switzer. The Huskers were 0-9 prior to Saturday when attempting more than 40 passes.
You can now say they’re 1-9, and what a good time for that one to come, strange as it may have been.
“The difference between us winning that game and losing that game is massive,” said kicker Drew Brown. He had four field goals through the first three quarters and the Huskers needed every one of them to pull off the unlikely comeback.
Here’s how unlikely. Since 2015, 102 college football teams have attempted 50 or more passes while also allowing at least 199 yards rushing. It’s sort of the classic example of a defense getting beaten up on the ground and the offense having to sling the ball around the yard to try and catch up. In those 102 games, the sling-it-around team won 14 times. Not great odds.
But if you want to remove those priors from the conversation, you can also look at time, field position and deficit. According to ESPN’s win probability graph, the Boilermakers had a 93.6-percent chance to win before it punted the ball back to Nebraska with 1:29 remaining. Purdue had an 89.2-percent chance to win when the Huskers took over at their own 30.
As Tanner Lee started completing passes – 7-of-8 on the game-winning drive – the Huskers’ chances, which had yet to be higher than 54 percent at any point prior, climbed. His seventh completion of the drive, a 13-yard strike in a tight window to Stanley Morgan Jr., meant the game everyone had been watching was no longer how this game was going to be remembered.
Prior to that point, it had been almost exactly as billed, a punt-y game between two 3-4 teams that only a Big Ten completist could love. The key difference, of course, being that Purdue’s 3-4 record in year one of the Jeff Brohm era represented progress. Nebraska’s 3-4 record did not.
So you do wonder what Bill Moos, taking in his first game as Nebraska’s new athletic director, thought of that. For 59 minutes and change there was really only one way to read it.
Now there’s yet more uncertainty. Should there be? Perhaps. There are four more games to go. Pulling this game out of the fire didn’t change what the Huskers have been. Can it change what they will be in November?
Maybe, but it’s still going to be a tough road to navigate. Nebraska looked like Nebraska most of the way here until it didn’t. Nothing comes easy in 2017.
Bob Diaco has a word for that. He uses it a lot, before games, after games, in wins and in losses. “Strain.”
“Winning football games is a real challenge in 2017, you could look all over the country,” he said. “To come on the road in the Big Ten, to strain against all odds, against all odds, all odds, it’s been a challenge.”
That’s a lot of emphasis on “strain,” but it’s accurate. It has been a fight to get to 4-4. It will be a fight to get every win Nebraska may get over the remaining four. It’s what the Huskers are right now, and that’s still the central question as it pertains to the future of this football program.
Does it have to be this hard? Should it be?
There were no answers to be found to those questions in West Lafayette, so Husker Nation will turn its eyes back to Lincoln. Northwestern’s coming to town to play off for sole possession of second place in the West. Based on past games between the two, it’ll be a strain. Maybe it will be strange as well.
Saturday was both.
“We’re going to a bowl game,” one happy Husker fan yelled as Nebraska ran off the turf. “Maybe.”
Stranger things have happened.