By Steve Beideck
LINCOLN – If the Huskers can forget those first 10 minutes of Saturday’s win over Purdue, so can you.
While you’re at it, purge the first couple minutes of the second half from your memory and focus instead on that celebration sprint down the west sideline that turned a potential disaster into a moment to remember.
Tommi Hill and Quinton Newsome trading high-fives to revel in the touchdown Newsome was about to score off a blocked Boilermakers’ field goal was one for the books.
And ultimately, so was victory No. 5 – a 31-14 win over Purdue – in a season that is making Nebraska fans feel much warmer than the temperatures.
Not reflecting on the less-than-desirable plays to start both halves helped the Huskers keep a positive mindset that led to plenty of success later in the game.
Nebraska is now 5-3 through the first two-thirds of Matt Rhule’s inaugural season as the Huskers’ head coach. NU has not gotten to five wins this fast since 2016, when the Huskers won their first seven games before finishing the season 9-4 with a loss in the Music City Bowl.
As has been well-documented, the Huskers haven’t been to a bowl game since that 2016 trip to Nashville. Nebraska now needs just one win in its final four games to reach the six-victory plateau for the first time since, you guessed it, 2016.
Because Nebraska now has won five of its past six games after opening the season 0-2, fans can be excused if they begin peeking at bowl projections on myriad websites.
Rhule might admonish those who look ahead, but in case you were wondering, Nebraska and the Guaranteed Rate Bowl have appeared together a couple of times already in those lists. To get a peek at the venue, watch games three and four of the World Series later this week.
Now that win No. 5 is in the books, it might actually serve everyone well to take a look at some of the things that didn’t go right for NU against Purdue before sending them to the shredder.
The first 10 minutes were a brutal display by Nebraska’s special teams and offense; a lesson on how not to start a football game. Once again, Nebraska’s defense saved the day, stuffing Purdue’s first three drives to offset the ineffectiveness of the other two units.
After fumbling away the opening kickoff, Nebraska’s first drive against the Boilermakers went for minus-13 yards on three plays. The Huskers then couldn’t make hay after an interception by the Blackshirts; three more plays produced just five yards before a 32-yard punt.
Even the set-up to what was about to become the best drive of the season still made Husker fans wince. It took an official’s review of the
punt Nebraska muffed after the Blackshirts had shut the Boilermakers down following an eight-play, 27-yard drive.
Alex Bullock bobbled the ball then lost it into a pile of players. Fortunately, Newsome was just outside the scrub. After quickly covering the ball, Newsome was covered by teammate Ty Robinson, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound defensive lineman who wasn’t about to let any Boilermakers near the ball.
The Nebraska faithful were about to get a reason to stop shivering and start cheering. That’s because the NU offense put together the kind of clock-chewing, third-down-converting march Husker fans have been longing to see all season.
Beginning with 4:35 remaining in the first quarter and successfully ending 4:17 into the second quarter, the Huskers drove 87 yards in 15 plays to score their first touchdown of the game. It was a 1-yard pass from Heinrich Haarberg to tight end Thomas Fidone, and the PAT by Tristan Alvano put the Huskers ahead 7-0.
Nebraska converted all three of its third down opportunities in that drive, and all three were pass plays by Haarberg. The drive accounted for half of his pass completions as Haarberg was 6 of 11 for 122 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a net of 22 yards on 19 carries.
Four plays later the Blackshirts picked off Purdue quarterback Hudson Card, and Nebraska did what opponents have been doing to Nebraska all too often the past six seasons: Making them pay for those mistakes with points.
The Purdue defense forgot to account for freshman wide receiver Jaylen Lloyd. The Omaha Westside graduate blew past every Boilermaker defender down the east sideline, and Haarberg dropped the ball into Lloyd’s hands on the way to a 73-yard touchdown for Nebraska’s longest play of the season.
Nebraska’s Blackshirts got another three-and-out to start the second half, but a 54-yard punt by Jack Ansell pinned the Huskers on their 12-yard line. On the first snap from scrimmage Haarberg fumbled the ball – one of the four Nebraska lost – and the Boilermakers were presented with their best chance to score.
The Blackshirts bowed up once again, giving up a 4-yard run and forcing an incomplete pass before Jimari Butler and MJ Sherman combined on an 11-yard sack of Card. The Boilermakers lined up for a 37-yard field goal, but the attempt was blocked by a crashing Elijah Jeudy.
Newsome scooped up the bouncing ball and sprinted home for a 68-yard touchdown return. Hill was his escort for the final 15 yards into the end zone when they traded high-fives.
“I love Quinton Newsome,” Rhule said. “We might have battled a little bit on some things here and there. But he’s standing exactly where he’s supposed to be standing. He gets to the level of the kicker and he turns in at the ball.
“The ball comes to him, he scores a touchdown. Whether he wants it or not, it will be on my teaching tape for the next 10 years.”
Alvano made a 55-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to put the Huskers ahead 24-0 before Purdue scored its first points. Jayden
Dixon-Veal caught a 29-yard TD pass from Card, and less than three minutes later linebacker Kydran Jenkins picked up Nebraska’s final fumble and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.
Any hopes Purdue harbored for a comeback disappeared with just under four minutes remaining in the game. Redshirt freshman running back Emmett Johnson, who led all players with 76 yards on 13 carries, went through the center of the line and went untouched for a 28-yard touchdown.
Nebraska next travels to East Lansing to play Michigan State on Nov. 4. The game is scheduled to kickoff at 11:01 a.m. CDT and be televised by FS1.