1. Lee lives up to the hype
Given the wild amount of preseason hype generated over Tanner Lee, it’s understandable that Nebraska fans were a bit disappointed when the junior quarterback opened the year by throwing a nation-leading 10 interceptions.
But after two solid individual performances in otherwise ugly losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, Lee came up with by far his best outing as a Husker in Saturday night’s comeback win over Purdue.
Facing a heavy pass rush and getting little-to-no help from his running game, the former transfer from Tulane lit up the final stat sheet by completing 32-of-50 passes (64 percent) for 431 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner to Stanley Morgan with 14 seconds to play.
“Tanner was outstanding,” head coach Mike Riley said.
2. Huskers keep bowl hopes alive, for another week at least
Until the moment that Lee hit Morgan for the game-winner in the final seconds, it looked as if Nebraska was on its way to hammering the final nail into its 2017 season's coffin, and possibly even more.
Had the Huskers not been able to rally back to tie the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in school history, they would have dropped to 3-5 for the second time in three seasons under Riley and been well on the outside looking in for a potential bowl berth.
But when the season and Riley’s fate were on the line, NU managed to stay afloat for one more week and take a big step closer to postseason play.
“This team’s had it in them all the time, it just hasn’t come out like it did tonight…” Riley said. “I’m pretty excited about this group. There was just some real good fight and some real good composure, and they never gave up.”
3. Offensive line takes another step back
As good as Lee was, much of his performance came in spite of a rough all-around night for Nebraska’s offensive line.
The Huskers only mustered 68 rushing yards on 28 carries for a whopping 1.5 yards per attempt, and Lee was sacked three times in the game and pressured on nearly every drop back he took. The o-line also committed a combined five penalties for 45 yards.
This was all against a Purdue defense that ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rushing defense (168.6 ypg) and ninth in total defense (369.3 ypg).
“Obviously our run game wasn’t where we needed it to be,” junior left guard Jerald Foster said. “We’re going to improve on it, because this game, not only did we get the win, but we’re going to learn from it definitely and figure out our problems.”
4. Morgan rewrites record books again
Not only was Morgan one of the heroes of the night for his game-winning touchdown catch, he also moved his name up a few more notches on Nebraska’s all-time record books in the process.
With six receptions for 112 yards, the junior wideout moved to 10th on the career catches list and is now just six grabs away from becoming just the 10th Husker ever to notch 100 career receptions.
Morgan also recorded his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season, tying Johnny Rodgers’ marks in 1971 and ’72. With just 35 more yards, Morgan will move into the top 10 on NU’s career yardage list.
“It was great to come through for the team,” Morgan said. “The team was looking for big plays and big play-makers, and they see me as one of those. As a leader, that felt great.”
5. Bradley makes his mark
Nebraska’s coaching staff had hinted for the past two weeks that they wanted to get true freshman running back Jaylin Bradley more involved in the offense going forward, starting with Saturday’s game at Purdue.
That certainly played out more than most anyone had expected, as Bradley led the Huskers with seven carries for 42 yards and three catches for 31 yards in the most extensive action of his young career.
With veteran backs Devine Ozigbo (10 carries for 12 yards) and Mikale Wilbon (1 carry for three yards) struggling to get anything going on the ground, Bradley provided the spark NU’s backfield needed vs. the Boilermakers.
“Oh yeah, Jaylin went dumb today,” Ozigbo said. “I liked it. I liked it. Jaylin’s going to be a beast here. He’s just going to continue to grow and get better, and I think people saw that from him today.”
6. Hoppes was finally a factor
For a guy who Riley labeled maybe the best receiving tight end he had ever coached, Tyler Hoppes’ production in Nebraska’s passing game left quite a bit to be desired over the first seven games.
The senior came into the Purdue game with just 14 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown, numbers that were OK but far from what many had expected given his preseason praise.
Well Hoppes finally had his breakout performance on Saturday night, setting career highs with five catches for 105 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown that brought the Huskers to within 24-19 early in the fourth quarter.
Hoppes became the first NU tight end to register a 100-yard receiving game since 2007, when Sean Hill had three catches for 129 yards in a win over Ball State.
7. Despite injuries, Blackshirts 'man up'
For a defense that had just been torched over its past six quarters and was battered and bruised with some key injuries going in, the Blackshirts certainly did their part in helping Nebraska to a desperately-needed victory.
It was hardly a perfect effort, but the Huskers still managed to hold Purdue to 363 total yards and just 164 yards through the air. The Boilermakers entered the game boasting the conference’s fifth-best offense (386.0 ypg) and passing offense (239.4).
Granted, Purdue left some big plays on the field with dropped passes and penalties, but NU still took a lot of pride in the grit its defense showed when the team needed them the most.
“You’ve got to man up,” sophomore linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “Every team in the nation is injured, so that’s not an excuse if you try to make it an excuse. Just manning up, next man in doing their job.”
8. Brown comes through with perfect night
While Nebraska certainly would have preferred to score touchdowns rather than field goals on its many trips inside the red zone, it was senior kicker Drew Brown who kept the Huskers within reach.
Going a perfect 4-for-4 on his field goal attempts, including a season-long 44-yarder on NU’s opening drive, the senior kicker was able to help NU chip away at Purdue’s lead and eventually was the difference in a one-point win.
Not only that, Brown increased his career field goal total to 57, tying his older brother, Kris, for second place on the school’s all-time list. He’s now 11 field goals shy of tying Alex Henery’s NU career record of 68 made field goals.
“You never really know that those first points of the game with that kick I had are going to make a difference at the end,” Brown said. “You’ve got to take every single kick like they’re going to win the game at some point.
"Obviously we weren’t scoring touchdowns early in the red zone, but we were able to stay within striking range f winning the game, and ultimately it did win us the game.”
9. Jackson steps up with tackling
Nebraska’s cornerbacks had deservedly received their share of criticism over the past few weeks for their recent lackluster tackling efforts, and sophomore cornerback Lamar Jackson had gotten the brunt of that as much as anyone.
But with a game- and career-high eight tackles on Saturday night, Jackson took a big step towards ridding himself of that label.
Those eight stops weren’t just chase-down plays down the field, either, as Jackson was as aggressive as he’s ever looked in stepping to attack the ball on the perimeter.
Part of that had to do with NU utilizing far more man-press coverages than it has all season, and Jackson showed he was up to the task of kicking up the physicality.
10. Riley not out of the woods yet, but win provided needed positivity
For a team and a coach that had been surrounded by nothing but negativity over the past three weeks, Saturday’s victory did wonders just in terms of providing some positivity within the program.
However, in terms of Riley’s future at Nebraska following this season, the reality is the game didn’t change a whole lot.
The Huskers are still facing an uphill battle to even qualify for a bowl game, let alone do enough over the final four games to convince new athletic director Bill Moos to stick with Riley for a fourth season.
That being said, a turnaround has to start somewhere, and there’s no reason that going on the road and pulling off 12-point fourth-quarter rally can’t be that spark NU has been looking for.
But any good vibes gained on Saturday night could easily go flying out the window if Nebraska doesn’t pick things up in a big way next week vs. Northwestern.