They don’t make it easy, do they?
After going up 14-0 in the first five minutes, Nebraska held off a surging Purdue squad, winning 37-27 for its second win of 2020. Nebraska’s defense was able to get Purdue off the field on one last stand after failing to convert on a fourth down, sealing a much-needed victory.
So in looking back at Nebraska’s win in West Lafayette …
Rush defense. Don’t look now, but the Blackshirts have put up two straight impressive performances against B1G rushing attacks. Against Iowa and Purdue combined, Nebraska has allowed a total of 127 rushing yards on 62 rushing attempts, averaging 2.05 yards allowed per rushing attempt.
Yes, that includes quarterback sacks – which is a nice problem to have. Even including that, though, that’s pretty stingy.
That’s my quarterback. It’s understandable why Adrian Martinez was benched against Northwestern. He was 12-for-27 in that game, including a bad interception. That led to Luke McCaffrey starting against Penn State, leading to Nebraska’s first win of the season. But Nebraska’s offensive limitations with McCaffrey under center were clear against a reeling Penn State – and became all-too-obvious when Illinois bullied Nebraska the following week.
Martinez came in at the end of that Illinois game and led Nebraska on a sharp (if ultimately meaningless) scoring drive. But then against Iowa and Illinois Martinez has been a combined 41-50 for 416 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers won’t knock your socks off – 8.32 yards per attempt is good but not spectacular.
But it’s efficient, and it provides far more of a threat to opposing defenses. And the lack of interceptions in two games means that Martinez has also been smart and safe with the ball.
Receiving options. In the last two weeks, Nebraska has found a groove in getting Wan’Dale Robinson involved both in the rush and the pass game. Against Iowa, Robinson was both Nebraska’s leading rusher and leading receiver. He was far less involved running the ball against Purdue, but his nine receptions for 114 yards more than made up for it.
What’s more encouraging is how freshman wideout Xavier Betts seemed to find his spot in the offense. Betts had five receptions for 36 yards, and only one of them was of the touch-pass jet sweep variety. If Nebraska is able to find a way to include a weapon like Betts into the offense, perhaps some version of the high-powered Central Florida offense can finally start to emerge.
Ending halves. It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider where Nebraska’s 2020 season could be if it was better at ending the first half. Against Ohio State, Nebraska was down 17-14 in the Horseshoe with 3:14 left in the second quarter. If Nebraska could hold the ball and get into field goal range, NU could go into the half tied against the mighty Buckeyes.
Instead, Nebraska went a feeble three-and-out, and Ohio State had enough time to score a touchdown and go into the half leading 24-14. Then Ohio State took the ball to start the second half, and scored another touchdown, being up 31-14 over Nebraska before NU was able to touch the ball.
Nebraska faced a similar circumstance against Purdue. With 2:52 left in the second quarter, Nebraska had the ball and led 27-10. With Nebraska set to take the ball at the start of the second half, a score on this drive had the potential to put the game out of reach.
Instead, Nebraska went three-and-out – and then had its punt blocked, giving Purdue the ball at Nebraska’s 40. A strong defensive stand held Purdue to a field goal, but the difference between 30-10 and 27-13 is substantial.
Special teams. Yep, that punt block we just talked about is just one in an uncomfortably-large collection of special teams catastrophes that have endangered Nebraska’s chances to win. Against Iowa and Northwestern, special teams mistakes (particularly on kickoffs and kickoff returns) were a huge factor in close losses. Against Purdue, Nebraska’s special teams took a game that could have been a blowout and made it competitive into the fourth quarter.
Making it tough. This picture says it all.
This shows my heart rate during Saturday’s game. I wasn’t on a treadmill, or doing a bunch of yardwork, or anything else physically strenuous – apart from watching and being emotionally invested in a Nebraska football game.
Anyone who has been on this roller-coaster called Nebraska football for the last couple of decades knows what I am talking about. Even a game that Nebraska really had – or, more accurately, should have had – under control ended up being a cardio workout just watching.
AND THE NEXT GREAT EXPERIMENT
Hey, remember when Nebraska held on for a win over Penn State, and it felt like a turning point? Nebraska was a double-digit favorite over lowly Illinois at home, and felt good enough to go full Darth Vader with its Blackshirts alternate uniforms.
We all remember how that went.
Nebraska is now a double-digit favorite over Minnesota at home – a team that has bullied and dominated Nebraska two of the last three years the teams have played. So once again we will get an opportunity to test Nebraska’s maturity as a team by seeing how it handles success.
We have some idea of how Nebraska handles adversity – let’s face it, Nebraska’s had lots of practice with that over the last few years. What it doesn’t have a lot of practice at is handling itself when things are going well.
So if the Nebraska-Minnesota contest is able to be held (which is still in question based on Minnesota’s COVID problems), then we will see if Nebraska has learned its lesson from its lackluster and entitled performance against Illinois earlier this season.