Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Tale of the Tape: Nebraska's Game-Winning Drive at Purdue

November 1, 2017
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Things were looking pretty dire for the Huskers trailing Purdue 24-12 early in the fourth quarter. Nebraska had only ever come back to win in that situation four times previously. 

However, Nebraska answered the Purdue touchdown that stretched the Boilermakers' lead to 12 with a touchdown drive of its own, going 70 yards in seven plays and 2 minutes and 20 seconds to pull within five. Over the next three drives, the Blackshirts bowed up and allowed just 32 total yards on 11 plays over the next three Purdue possessions. The offense failed to capitalize on the first two three-and-outs, but the third time was the charm.

What followed Purdue's last punt was an eight-play, 70-yard, 68-second go-ahead touchdown drive that proved to be the game-winner.

Quarterback Tanner Lee orchestrated the drive masterfully, mixing in perfect throws into tight windows down field with well-timed check downs to keep the drive going, and his playmakers did a great job of getting open, completing catches and then getting out of bounds. Purdue went into somewhat of a prevent defense (thus the easy check downs), but the Boilermakers were still getting solid pressure on the quarterback and Nebraska had to make some great plays to keep the drive alive.

Let's break down that final drive, play by play, to see how Nebraska managed to win the game.

First Play

The drive began at the 30-yard line, giving the Huskers 82 seconds to drive 70 yards. The Huskers spent the whole drive in 11 personnel with Devine Ozigbo at running back, Tyler Hoppes at tight end and Stanley Morgan Jr., De'Mornay Pierson-El and JD Spielman at wide receiver. 

The receivers and tight end all work their way down the field, but Ozigbo slips out of the backfield. The right defensive end bull-rushes Nick Gates back into Lee's lap.

Feeling the pressure, Lee takes the wide open check down to Ozigbo, and just in time as the defensive end gets his hands on him after the ball left his hand. Ozigbo caught the ball 3 yards past the line of scrimmage without a defender near him. Ozigbo secures the ball turns and heads for the sideline.

The chasing defender closes on Ozigbo, turning it into a foot race for the boundary.

Ozigbo wins and the drive is off to a great start with positive yardage and a stopped clock.

Lee did a great job of feeling the pressure and hitting his check down, two things he struggled with mightily during the first few games of the season.

Second Play

Second and 3, 76 seconds to play. Nebraska runs a smash route with Pierson-El running a short in-route and Hoppes running up the seam then breaking for the sideline.

Pierson-El (see the bottom of the screen cap) holds the outside cornerback just long enough, and Lee fires downfield. Notice Gates and the defensive end in his lap again.

The safety is too deep to make a play on the ball and Hoppes left the outside linebacker in his dust when he made his break. The corner, who hesitated a moment with Pierson-El running underneath him, is the only one who can make a play.

However, the throw is an absolute dime by Lee and Hoppes did a great job of going up and making the catch.

I mean, look at that. Lee just dropped the ball in a bucket from 20 to 25 yards away.

Hoppes kept his balance after the catch and angled toward the sideline but the safety comes up and makes contact with him.

If Hoppes had been knocked backwards before going out of bounds, he would have been given forward progress and the clock would have run. However, he put his head down and battled to the sideline, getting there without giving any ground and getting the clock stopped.

Whereas the first play was a check down, this one was an absolute strike by Lee. Like Ozigbo, Hoppes did a great job of reaching the sideline.

Third Play

Nebraska's already gone 24 yards in 10 seconds, and the Huskers get another chunk here. Spielman runs a deep route up the seam while Pierson-El runs an out route to the sticks.  

Oh, hey. Look where Gates and his man are once again. Still, Lee gets the pass out in 2 seconds.

Pierson-El catches the ball and turns toward the sideline.

He steps out, picking up another 11 yards and moving the chains.

The total is up to 35 yards in 15 seconds. Nebraska is making great time.

Fourth Play

This play showed much improved decision-making by Lee. Morgan is going to run a corner route on the boundary side of the field while Spielman runs up the slot on the other side. Ozigbo slips out of the backfield.

You can't see it here but there is a safety over the top but he's closer to the hashmarks than the sideline. Morgan makes his break and there's probably some room to try to squeeze the ball through to him. But Ozigbo doesn't have a defender within 8 yards of him. Once again, Gates has given up a lot of ground here.

Instead of trying to thread the needle to Morgan, Lee takes the check down to Ozigbo. The corner reads the play, peels off of Morgan and closes on Ozigbo as the ball is in the air. Ozigbo catches it and is hit almost immediately.

Ozigbo is a pretty big back, and the corner chooses to go low and try to take out his legs.

But Ozigbo shows his strength and balance by diving forward and out of bounds, landing on the paint to stop the clock.

Lee could have gone with the home run play to Morgan, but instead hit a single and kept the game moving along. 

Fifth Play

For the first time, Nebraska doesn't get out of bounds on this play. However, the Huskers have moved so quickly to this point and they still pick up a first down so it doesn't really matter.

Spielman runs an in-route about 10 yards deep on second and 4.

Ozigbo tries to cut block his rusher, but it doesn't go very well. Notice the man in the black jersey is still on his feet.

The rusher gathers himself and continues on towards Lee, but the quarterback gets the ball out just before the Boilermaker hits him. Once again, 2 seconds and the ball is out.

Lee throws an absolute strike into a window that is about the length of Spielman's wingspan and the slot-back holds on as he's hit immediately on the catch. 

The clock stops after a 10-yard gain in six seconds but will start again after the officials move the chains and set the ball.

Nebraska is still in good shape with just under a minute to play and 19 yards to go.

Sixth Play

After the chains are set, the clock runs for 4 seconds before Nebraska snaps the ball. The two receivers to the left run parallel to each other deep before splitting off in opposite directions. Ozigbo runs into the flat behind them.

There's a chance one of the receivers gets open after his break, but the routes take a bit of time to develop because of their depth and at this point there are a few bodies in the area. Once again, Gates allows some pressure and Lee feels it.

Instead of trying to hold on and let the receivers get open deep, Lee hits Ozigbo in the flat. The underneath defender comes forward to try to get him down...

And fails. The defender went low on him again but Ozigbo put his hand in the turf to catch himself and regained his balance, heading for the sideline where a second defender is heading to cut him off. 

The defender cuts off his path and tries to tackle him, this time going high. But Ozigbo busts out the spin move and keeps on running.

A third defender reaches him a couple yards later and Ozigbo tries his best to carry him to the sideline.

However, he finally goes down and his knee touches the turf before he falls out of bounds. The play went for 6 yards, so the clock continues to run.

Nebraska has to hurry to set up its next play, but the Huskers are inside the 15.

Seventh Play

The seventh play was the only one that didn't net any yards, but after losing 19 seconds between the end of the previous play and the start of this one, the result is actually a positive. The left defensive tackle is going to bull-rush right up the middle against center Cole Conrad.

Conrad offers little resistance and Lee gets drilled as he gets the ball out just 3 seconds after the snap.

Lee's pass skips harmlessly across the turf, a far cry from earlier in the season when it seemed like every time Lee got hit as he threw it ended up as a pick-six. His intended receiver was covered anyway.

Nebraska doesn't make any progress, but the incomplete pass stops the clock with 18 seconds to go.

Eighth Play

Third and 4 from the 13-yard line and 18 seconds to go. Nebraska has probably two, maybe three plays left to work with. Nebraska only needed one, however.

I broke this one down as my Play of the Game last Saturday, but it's worth a second look. Spielman runs a short out-route to the sticks, giving Nebraska an option to move the chains if the touchdown isn't there. Morgan runs a deeper post route.

Lee wants the whole thing. As soon as Morgan makes the first step of his break, Lee is winding up to throw.

Lee makes a perfect throw, fitting it into a tight window. The defenders are guarding the end zone so Lee hits him just outside of it and gives his receiver a chance to finish the play. The defender on the goal line closes on Morgan and tries to keep him out, but Morgan easily avoids him.

Touchdown.

Celebration.

Nebraska went 70 yards and still had 14 seconds to spare. The defense holds and Nebraska wins 25-24.

Tying it All Together

The common message from the players and coaches after the game on Saturday was that the two-minute drive is something they spend a lot of time practicing and is something they're confident in. Conrad reaffirmed that after practice on Tuesday.

"It was awesome," Conrad said. "We practice that stuff almost every day. We have a segment in our practice called 88s where it's eight plays, and that's what it was: it was eight plays, 70 yards or something like that. So it just matched up perfectly with what we've been practicing and that's why practice makes perfect. You keep practicing like that and it shows up in games."

Danny Langsdorf could not have scripted that drive any better (except perhaps getting a bit better protection). 

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