Rapid Reaction: Purdue survives Nebraska's best shot and advances in the B1G West race
Purdue, plagued by injuries all year, keeps producing reasons to feel better.
Quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who missed a game 3 weeks ago, looks to be near full health again, as does Purdue’s standing in the Big Ten West.
Despite a big challenge from visiting Nebraska, the Boilermakers kept their train rolling Saturday night at Ross-Ade Stadium, downing the Huskers 43-37. It took some luck and 2 key 4th-down conversions, but they got it done.
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With its 4th straight win, Purdue (5-2, 3-1) moved into a tie with Illinois atop the division standings.
Mickey Joseph fell to 2-2 as Nebraska’s interim head coach, as his quarterback couldn’t quite match O’Connell in the long run.
Casey Thompson started hot, matching O’Connell throw for throw deep into the third quarter. But he threw bad picks in each half and missed a wide open receiver in the end zone in the third quarter, costing the Huskers a tying touchdown. He was also sacked 4 times in the first half, though Purdue’s pass rush seemed to run out of gas after that.
Thompson hit a couple deep shots to set up first-half scores, as the Huskers rallied to tie the game 10-10 at one point. A strong drive to open the second half had Thompson and the Huskers again within 1 score at 27-20. After the missed end zone shot, Nebraska closed to 27-23 with a field goal.
The transfer from Texas hit Oliver Martin for 45 yards, setting up a Jaquez Yant 1-yard touchdown run for Nebraska’s first points. On the Huskers’ next possession, Thompson’s 39-yard connection with Trey Palmer set up a field. He hit Palmer again for 37 yards to cap a 4-play, 71-yard drive to open the second half.
But after O’Connell hit favorite target Charlie Jones for 31 yards and a go-ahead score in the second quarter, Purdue never lost the lead. Thompson threw a bad interception to gift Purdue a field goal. Then he took 2 sacks the next possession, and Purdue turned advantageous field position into yet another score, a 1-yard run by Devin Mockobee.
At the break, Purdue led 27-13 and O’Connell was 14-of-25 for 167 yards, with 2 TDs and an interception. The numbers would have been better but for a couple of dropped passes. Jones, held in check in recent weeks after a blazing start to the season, had 6 catches for 83 yards. That was already the Iowa transfer’s best yardage total since a Sept. 17 loss to Syracuse.
Purdue hasn’t lost since its last-minute collapse against the Orange. And the positive vibes extend beyond the 6th-year former walk-on quarterback and his childhood friend and teammate who catches many of his passes this year.
Mockobee, a 6-0, 195-pound freshman, has been a revelation. He cranked out 115 yards and a TD on 17 carries before halftime. That just doesn’t happen in Jeff Brohm’s offense, which hasn’t averaged even 90 rushing yards per game in the past 3 seasons. Mockobee, though, has 2 100-yard efforts in the past 3 games. That’s all the more impressive considering Mockobee is playing behind a patchwork offensive line.
Injuries have shuffled Purdue’s front 5 this season, but the current group seems to be coming together. O’Connell was pressured a few times but never sacked in the first half. Purdue owned a 296-169 advantage in total yards and led time of possession by more than 5 minutes at the break.
Nebraska had won 2 straight under Joseph, who replaced Scott Frost and took a pasting from Oklahoma in his debut. The Huskers posted wins over B1G East weaklings Indiana and Rutgers, winning the second half of each of those games 14-0.
But Purdue broke that Nebraska defensive streak with a 6-play, 75-yard TD drive late in the third quarter. O’Connell went 3-for-3 for 46 yards and the score, putting Purdue back up 10 at 34-23. At that point, he was 24-of-38 for 292 yards and 3 TDs — well on his way to his 4th 300-yard game in 6 outings this season. He had connected with 8 receivers to that point, with Jones leading the way with 9 catches for 100 yards.
Thompson kept rallying the Huskers, hitting Palmer for 37- and 72-yard touchdowns in the second half. Palmer also had a 60-yard run in the third quarter, producing well over half of Nebraska’s total yards. By the end of the third quarter, he already had 233 yards from scrimmage.
For Purdue, starting running back King Doerue returned from a 4-week injury absence and got 4 carries in the second quarter and made some key receptions in the second half. But for now, Mockobee seems too hot to lose the job. In addition to more than 130 rushing yards, he had a couple receptions to help keep the offense humming. Depth at any position is something Purdue will surely embrace after this season’s various injuries.
O’Connell looks ready to go the distance in the B1G West race. His 4th TD pass of the night nestled perfectly into Jones’s arms midway through the fourth quarter, giving Purdue breathing room at 43-30. O’Connell’s yardage total was up to 372 at that point.
But Thompson wasn’t done. He hit Palmer for 64 yards to set up a 1st-and-goal. An Evan Grant plunge got the Huskers — who at one point trailed 27-10 — back within 1 score for the 3rd time in the second half. Palmer was up to 237 receiving yards and 297 from scrimmage at that point. Thompson was 16-of-29 for 354 yards with 2 TDs and 2 INTs.
O’Connell finished with 391 passing yards. Mockobee had 178 on the ground. Purdue was able to burn the final minutes off the clock to deny Nebraska a final chance.
Next up for Purdue
The Boilermakers (5-2, 3-1 B1G West) play at Wisconsin (3-4, 1-3) at 3:30 ET next Saturday. The Badgers lost 34-28 to Michigan State in double overtime, as the good mojo from a coaching change lasted only 1 game. Braelon Allen ran strong against the Spartans (29-123, 2 TDs) but QB Graham Mertz had another mediocre outing (14-25, 131 yards, 2 TDs, INT). In what should bode well for O’Connell, MSU’s Payton Thorne went 21-of-29 for 265 yards and 2 TDs against the Badgers’ defense.
Next up for Nebraska
The Cornhuskers (3-4, 2-2 B1G West) have a week off before hosting No. 24 Illinois (6-1, 3-1). The surging Illini have won 5 straight. They took down Minnesota 26-14 with dominant back Chase Brown racking up 180 yards on 41 carries. The Huskers will be a major underdog in that one.