The game is little more than a curiosity now, an insignificant piece of history in the West Division of the Big Ten. Nebraska has played Purdue, Saturday night’s opponent, only five times. And all but once have the teams been division rivals.
The Huskers went to West Lafayette in late September of 1958, encouraged by a season-opening, 14-7 upset of Penn State at Memorial Stadium the week before.
Though Purdue was a clear favorite, Nebraska fans had hope, misplaced as it turned out. A crowd of 42,914 at Ross-Ade Stadium watched the Boilermakers win 28-0.
So much for optimism. After opening Big Seven play with a 7-6 victory against Iowa State in the next game, Coach Bill Jennings’ second Husker team would win only once more, upsetting No. 14-ranked Pittsburgh (and end Mike Ditka) 14-6 in the next-to-last game of the season.
A crowd of only 24,107 was on-hand at Memorial Stadium. There was no Tunnel Walk, no consecutive-sellout streak, no Blackshirts, no bowl-game expectations. A .500 record, as in Coach Bill Glassford’s final season (1955), would have been applauded. A 6-5 record and bowl game, as in Glassford’s turbulent next-to-last season, would have been . . .
But I digress.
College football was so much different then, no free substitution and quick kicks on any down. Nebraska used only 24 players at Purdue; Boilermakers Coach Jack Mollenkopf used 45.
Nebraska’s 45-man roster included just 11 players listed at 200 pounds or more. Sophomore tackles Russell Edeal and Dennis Doyle were the heaviest, at 219 and 217 respectively.
Nebraska would be shut out twice more, at Syracuse (38-0) and against Missouri (31-0), made all the more frustrating because of its being the Huskers’ Homecoming game.
Anyway, then, as now, field position was important. Nebraska never got beyond its own 42-yard line in the first half at Purdue and had only one meaningful drive, coming in the fourth quarter, after the Boilermakers had scored their four touchdowns.
Running the ball was also important. In fact, running defined the game then. Purdue ran 87 plays, only seven of which were passes – one complete. The Boilermakers rushed for 354 yards.
Three Huskers threw a combined six passes, four complete, one intercepted. Harry Tolly completed all four, in four attempts, for 43 yards. He was tackled for 14 yards in losses.
Protecting the quarterback was important then, as now.
In addition to the interception, Nebraska lost three fumbles and had only 33 rushes. Senior fullback Dick McCashland was the Huskers’ leading rusher, with 28 yards on nine carries.
The Boilermakers controlled the clock, punting only once.
Nebraska has lost to Purdue just once since that warm afternoon in 1958, falling 55-45 at West Lafayette in Coach Mike Riley’s first season.
The Huskers can’t afford to lose again on Saturday night. That’s opinion not fact. But another loss following back-to-back losses by a combined 94-31 would mean Nebraska would have to win three-of-four remaining games, the third of which is at No. 2-ranked Penn State to be bowl eligible.
In addition, the emotional impact of three consecutive losses combined with the constant discussion regarding Riley’s job status would almost certainly affect Nebraska’s focus.
The Huskers have expressed optimism this week, as reflected after practice on Tuesday. “We’ve been practicing really well,” junior left tackle Nick Gates said of the potential for finishing well. “We’ve been more physical the later games, other than that Ohio State game was a little rough.
“But we didn’t . . . get to run the ball too much because we had to pass because we were coming from behind a lot of time. But just us being physical and ready to go.”
At 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, Gates would have been a monster in 1958. The game was so much different. But running the ball was at least as important then as it is now.
That’s a place to start on Saturday night.