A season that felt so promising is now …
About as expected?
Still full of hope?
Despite Purdue’s 25-24 loss to Nebraska Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium, the Boilermakers technically still can become bowl eligible and achieve a surprising season.
It’s just much, much tougher now after another loss in a game Purdue was favored to win.
Nebraska (4-4) scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead score with 14 seconds remaining, to shock the Boilermakers, who drop to 3-5 with four games to play. That means Purdue must win three of its final four games to reach the magic number six — and two of those final four are on the road at Northwestern and Iowa.
Afterward, all quarterback David Blough could do was repeat the word “frustrating.”
As in: Purdue’s offense played better Saturday — it scored three touchdowns after being limited to only one in the previous two games — but couldn’t deliver when it absolutely needed to.
As in: Purdue’s defense was solid for the first three quarters Saturday — it held the Cornhuskers to 283 yards, including only 44 rushing — but allowed Nebraska to march 70 yards in 1:08 and score the go-ahead touchdown.
As in: Purdue missed opportunities on both sides of the ball, and it meant a potential season-changing loss.
“Sometimes on certain teams, you’ve got to learn how to win. I don’t think we know how to win yet,” Coach Jeff Brohm said. “That’s everybody. It ain’t just one person. We have to learn how to win, learn how to finish, learn how to be confident playmakers throughout the entire game and learn how to hang in it and win it in the end. Right now, we’re not good enough to do that.
“I like the makeup of our team, and I think they’ll respond. We just have to go back to work. We’ve got a long ways to go. Sometimes when your backs are against the wall, you get a little tougher and you find a way to improve. Sometimes that’s enough to get a win. Nothing is guaranteed here. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of improvement to do. I do think our guys will hang tough and have a good week of practice. We’ve just got to try to go win the next game.”
For now, though, it’ll be hard for players not to dwell on the what-ifs from late Saturday night.
Less than 30 minutes after the game had finished, linebacker Markus Bailey, who had five tackles and a sack, said he already was replaying pieces of the game in his head.
There were a lot of them being rewound in his mind from that final drive.
Nebraska used its final two timeouts on defense, and after fair-catching a punt, it had the ball on its own 30 with 1:22 left. It needed a touchdown, trailing 24-19.
Tanner Lee, who’s had a remarkable second-half turnaround, led a drive that produced just that.
If only Purdue’s defensive players could have kept Nebraska receivers and running backs in bounds, to keep the clock churning. But they couldn’t.
Lee completed an underneath pass on first down for seven yards.
He completed a ball to the tight end Tyler Hoppes— over two leaping defenders — on the sideline for 17.
He watched De’Mornay Pierson-El break off a route in front of cornerback Kamal Hardy to pick up a quick 11 yards before getting out of bounds.
He got the ball out quickly to a running back for six yards before the back stepped out.
He completed a 10-yard pass over the middle of the field — but it was good enough for a first down, so the clock stopped to move the chains.
He completed another ball to a running back, and nickel back Antonio Blackmon missed a chance to get a tackle in bounds and allowed the back to scoot out.
Finally, he had an incomplete pass, but Nebraska had moved to Purdue’s 13-yard line with 18 seconds to play.
Then, on third-and-four from the 13, Lee found Stanley Morgan, who had lined up to the left of the formation and broke his route inside against Purdue’s zone, for a completion and a touchdown with 14 seconds left. Morgan was one of two receivers to hit 100-plus — he had 112, Hoppes had 105 — as Lee had 431 yards passing on 32 completions.
“It’s very disheartening,” Bailey said. “We realize that the coaches are counting on the defense to be the strength of the team right now, and we didn’t execute at the end. Too many times guys got out of bound. We need to understand the situation better, keep running backs and receivers in bounds so the clock keeps running. Then we’ve just got to make plays on the ball.
“The last play, too, I had a chance to make a play on the ball, even though it wasn’t necessarily directly on me, but I’ve got to make a play on the ball. I got my hand on it, I’ve got to knock it out and make the play. That goes for a lot of guys on the defense. We played well all game, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t finish the game.”
Blough was lamenting the same thing about Purdue’s offense.
Nebraska turned the ball over on downs after Blackmon broke up a pass in the end zone, giving Purdue the ball on its own 15 with 3:44 to play. D.J. Knox rushed back-to-back plays and gained 12 yards to move the chains.
But then the unit sputtered.
Richie Worship gained only one yard, and Nebraska called its second timeout with 2:20 left.
Then, on second-and-nine, Blough kept the ball on what appeared to be a designed run, though a bit awkward looking, and gained only a yard. Nebraska called its final timeout with 2:15 left.
Then, on third-and-seven, Worship ran again, but he gained only four.
That forced Purdue to punt with 1:29 remaining.
“We get one first down and the game is over. That’s the most frustrating part of it: As an offense, we had a chance to end it,” Blough said. “I’ve got the utmost confidence in our defense every time they take the field. They’ve come to the plate this year. They’ve been phenomenal. If it happens again next week, they’ll get the stop. It’s not on them. It’s on us not being able to close it out as an offense.”
Purdue still has a chance to close out the season on a good note, even though the prospects are more daunting now than they were three weeks ago. The Boilermakers have lost three in a row and have Illinois, perhaps the Big Ten’s worst team, up next week at home.
But this program certainly isn’t in position to take any team for granted.
And, though Purdue didn’t finish Saturday, it did show some maturity as a team to respond, generally, to a dud at Rutgers.
It’s about small steps for a program in rebuild mode.
“When things are going hard like this, we have to keep fighting and pushing through. Nothing positive is going to come from us having our heads down and sulking in this loss,” Bailey said. “Our next opponent is not going to care. So we’ve got to come back to work (Sunday) and find a way to win games. There’s still a lot of hope left for this season, so we’ve got to keep building on the positives from this game and correct the negatives and get back to work.”
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