WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - If Nebraska was going to walk away with a win at Purdue on Saturday, they knew it probably wasn't going to be pretty.
The pesky Boilermakers have lost to Michigan, Wisconsin and Louisville this season, but nobody has blown this team out. They play a physical brand of defense and have an offensive minded head coach that will cause you problems.
Down 24-12 with 14:23 left in the game, the Huskers looked finished. This was not the first impression head coach Mike Riley was probably hoping to give new Athletic Director Bill Moos.
The Huskers were about to lose to Purdue for the second time in three years, and it was going to set the stage for another ugly week in Lincoln.
Then some how, some way this team found something. Quarterback Tanner Lee put together two masterful fourth quarter drives where he looked like the NFL quarterback many people talked about back in August. Riding the arm of Lee, the Huskers found a way to get a 25-24 win on Saturday night.
“We needed it. We needed it bad,” senior corner Chris Jones said. “I just felt that we just needed this to boost our confidence and say ‘yeah we can finish this season out on top.’
"We don’t have to worry about anything. We just have to come to work every day, and finish out this season and get wins, go to a bowl game and win that too.”
The other thing that really stood out was this team fought for Riley. I think that is important to note.
There has been a narrative painted by some this team was mailing it in after tough losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State. By getting a win against Purdue, this season still has a chance to finish the right way and give Riley a fourth year in Lincoln.
“It’s hard to ignore,” senior Chris Weber said of the noise out there of Riley's future. “You try to silence it out, but it is what it is – we don’t live in a vacuum that much. We want to play hard and we want to get wins for our coach – absolutely.”
An emotional Riley told his team in the locker room 'he knew they had this in them' and that 'this could be the start of something' to finish out this season.
“It says we want to play for this coach. We are going to fight for (Riley) and we are going to fight for the guys in the locker room,” Weber said. “I know as seniors we have four games left together. I’ve got four games left in my college career and that’s my button I’m pushing to fight.
"Even during the bye week guys where practicing hard and good things are going to happen like tonight when that happens.”
Now on to the breakdown....
What I saw on Saturday
***This was the Tanner Lee we expected to see. He made several NFL throws on Saturday, and he's still only thrown one interception since his pick six against Rutgers.
***Bob Diaco did his best to hold in his anger on the botched pass interference call that allowed Purdue to go up 24-12 vs. giving the ball back to the Huskers with a chance to take the lead down 17-12. The NCAA rule book clearly states an interference flag should not have been called there.
“There is no interpretation,” Diaco said of the call. “There is nothing to interpret.
***Even without his normal holder, Drew Brown was money tonight for the Huskers. Zack Darlington did not travel this week because of the flu.
***Tyler Hoppes looked more like the tight end many envisioned back in August. He's the first tight end to go over 100 yards receiving at NU since 2007.
***We saw the good and bad with Jaylin Bradley tonight. He clearly can give this offense something in the running game, but he also missed a key pass protection assignment late in the game that got Lee sacked. I don't think I've ever seen running backs coach Reggie Davis so animated after the play. None the less, Bradley should get more opportunities going forward.
The final grade out
Rushing offense: F
Nebraska is not going to win very many games when they get just 54 yards rushing from their backs on 20 carries. Purdue brought a lot at Nebraska's offensive line, and NU did not have an answer on the ground. Thankfully they had the arm of Tanner Lee to rely on.
Passing offense: A
You aren't going to see a quarterback play much better than what Tanner Lee gave Nebraska on Saturday night considering the circumstances. Lee was able to give NU 431 yards on 32-of-50 passing. He made some real NFL type of throws, and looked like the guy many hyped back in August. They don't win this game without Tanner Lee.
Rushing defense: C
The Huskers had a hard time early with Richie Worship, but when it mattered in the end they produced some critical stops in the fourth quarter. Purdue still ran for 199 yards on the ground and averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
Passing defense: C
Nebraska's pass defense only allowed two plays over 20 yards, but they were very fortunate Purdue missed on many opportunities where they had the Huskers beat deep. NU was also able to overcome a lot of injury adversity at safety.
Special teams: A
I am not going to down grade Nebraska for the fake punt that was executed by Purdue. The referees admitted after the game the call was blown. A pass interference penalty should not have been thrown in that situation per the NCAA rule book. Overall, Drew Brown was as big as any player tonight for the Huskers. His four field goals kept the Huskers in the game, and his final kickoff that hung in the air to the 1 yard line forced Purdue to return it, and it took off valuable seconds for the final possession and they started on 19 yard vs. the 25 yard line. Caleb Lightbourn was also very consistent. JD Spielman gave NU a good threat in the kick return game.
Sean Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be heard each day at 6:45 am and 5:05 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap-Up Tuesday's at 7 pm.