Huskers Bear Down When It Matters Most
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Only minutes after the Nebraska football team arrived at Rose-Ade Stadium late Saturday afternoon, senior receiver DeMornay Pierson-El walked through the southwest entrance and onto the field.
Pierson-El went to the back of the end zone, near the exact site of his gruesome leg injury two years ago that shortened his sophomore season and slowed his junior season.
He stood for a few seconds, then knelt, touched the ground and pointed to the sky, and then he walked away.
Several hours later, in that same end zone, Nebraska scored its winning touchdown to cap a thrilling, therapeutic 25-24 victory over Purdue.
Had Pierson-El only been the one who caught that pass, and not Stanley Morgan Jr. this story would have come full circle.
Yet when the situation is dire, when times are tough, who can afford to be choosy?
“You need every game,” Morgan said, “but this one came big for us and should really get the juices flowing.”
Nebraska (4-4, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) hadn’t tasted victory in four weeks. Two lopsided losses and a bye week preceded Saturday night’s rally from 12 points down in the fourth quarter.
What’s more, the Huskers are again in the picture for bowl eligibility, while Purdue (3-5, 1-4) took a step in the opposite direction in what’s been a feel good season under new coach Jeff Brohm.
Morgan caught the winning pass, a 13-yard strike from quarterback Tanner Lee, running a post route with 14 seconds remaining.
“It was great to come through for the team,” Morgan said. “They need big playmakers and see me as one of those, as a leader and stuff, so it felt real great.”
Pierson-El, meanwhile, caught an 11-yard pass earlier in the eight-play, 70-yard drive, part of his five receptions for 62 yards that moved him into the top 20 of Nebraska’s career receiving yards list with 1,119.
Lee threw for a career high 431 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and he orchestrated the two-minute drill to perfection for the game-winning score. He was 7-of-8 passing on the drive, with completions to six different receivers.
“We needed it,” Lee said. “When it mattered most, the O-Line beared down, the receivers beared down, and I just made plays when it mattered most to get the job done. We knew we were moving the ball all night, and we had a chance on that last drive.”
Offensive players knew they need chunks of big plays, and they needed them in a hurry, and what with Purdue shutting down the Nebraska running game to the tune of 40 yards, they knew those plays would need to come through the air.
“We had to rely on him because we weren’t getting much on the ground,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “It became apparent there where we just had to say, ‘That’s enough, let’s let Tanner throw the ball and let’s try to win the game this way.”
Nebraska did, and with little drama. The only third down on the drive came on the touchdown play, when the Huskers needed 4 yards to keep moving.
“Nobody every blinked on the sideline, and there were times it felt like it was going to be a little hairy, it could be awkward, and it got harder,” Riley said. “Everybody kind of kept the pedal down and kept going. I thought Purdue was really fired up themselves. It was really a competitive game, but I felt the momentum go our way in that last 7 or 8 minutes. I just felt good.”
Nebraska also counted a breakthrough performance from senior tight end Tyler Hoppes, who had career highs of five catches and 105 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown reception that started the comeback with 11:03 remaining.
“We’ve kind of been waiting to have that game (for the tight ends), and I hope it continues,” said Hoppes, who also had a 17-yard reception for the longest play on the game-winning drive. “We’ve been really focused on getting the tight end the ball more. I think it opens up the offense more. It feels nice.”
The Blackshirts, meanwhile, kept the comeback hopes alive by forcing a pair of three-and-outs. The offense looked poised to take the lead on its second to final drive of the game, but after moving the ball to the Purdue 15, Lee fired a pair of incompletions on third and fourth down.
But the defense stepped up again, and with the help of two timeouts, got the ball back to the offense with 1:22 remaining.
“Great stop by the defense,” Riley said, “beautifully executed drive in the two-minute situation.”
In addition to the lack of a running game, Riley was also disappointed Nebraska didn’t finish more drives with touchdowns.
Yet Drew Brown, who only attempted two field goals over Nebraska’s previous three games, and never more than two in a game all season, was happy to catch up on some work. The senior connected on field goals of 44, 21, 37 and 25 yards, and he did so with a new holder.
“People probably didn’t even notice Zack wasn’t playing, and Isaac just did an unbelievable job,” Brown said. “I mean, that was his first game playing as a Husker. He’s just as important a part of the operation as I am.”
Brown now has 57 career field goals, tying his brother, Kris, for second place on the Nebraska career field goals list. He also contributed another solid tackle on kickoff coverage, proving he can be physically tough, too.
But on this night, Brown was more impressed with his team’s mental makeup.
“It just proves how mentally tough all of us are,” Brown said. “A lot of teams would’ve folded after that first fourth down we didn’t get at the end. But we stuck with it. We said we’re going to win this game, and we believe that.”
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.