Defense, Special Teams Carry Huskers
Lincoln - It wasn't pretty on offense, but No. 15 Nebraska's special teams and defense provided big plays and short fields in a 35-14 win over Purdue at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
With the victory, Nebraska improved to 8-1 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten, while Purdue slipped to 3-6 and 1-4 in the conference.
In the contest, Purdue outgained Nebraska 340-297, but total offense did not tell the story of the game. The Big Red blocked two Purdue punts and converted both into touchdowns in the first half. Punter Sam Foltz helped the Huskers dominate field position, punting six times for a 43.2-yard average including two punts of 60 or more yards. He also pinned the Boilermakers inside the 20 three times, including two times inside the 10.
For the game, Nebraska owned a 21-yard average advantage in starting field position, as the Huskers' average start came at their own 49 for the game, while Purdue's average start came at its own 28. In the first quarter, NU's average start on its five drives was the Purdue 42, while the Boilermakers' average start was its own 17.
The Blackshirts held Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby to just 18-of-46 passing for 216 yards with a pair of interceptions. The Husker defense made life tough for Appleby at both ends, recording 11 pass breakups, nine hurries and three sacks. The Blackshirts held Purdue to just 2-for-16 success on third downs and 1-for-6 on fourth downs in the game.
Senior linebacker Zaire Anderson led the Blackshirts with 11 tackles, including a TFL and a hurry. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins added five tackles, including a sack and three hurries, while cornerback Josh Mitchell also provided big plays with four tackles, including the second and third sacks of his career. He also notched three breakups.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. led a Nebraska rushing attack that managed 179 yards, largely without the services of All-American I-back Ameer Abdullah, who left the game midway through the first quarter with an injury. Armstrong rushed 13 times for 70 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He also completed 8-of-21 passes for 118 yards with a 17-yard touchdown pass to De'Mornay Pierson-El on NU's second offensive play of the game. Armstrong also threw two second-half interceptions.
Junior I-back Imani Cross added 66 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, while Terrell Newby contributed 42 yards and NU's final touchdown of the game. Jordan Westerkamp led the Big Red receivers with three catches for 59 yards, while Pierson-El added three receptions for 45 yards.
In a first half dominated by defense and special teams, Nebraska carried a 21-7 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Kieron Williams provided the first of many first-half special teams highlights for Nebraska, blocking a Purdue punt that Taariq Allen recovered at the Purdue 17. Two plays later, Armstrong hit Pierson-El in the back corner of the end zone with a 17-yard touchdown pass to give the Big Red a 7-0 lead just 1:35 into the game.
After a second Blackshirt three-and-out against the Boilermaker offense, Pierson-El provided some special teams explosiveness of his own with a 42-yard punt return to set the offense up with another short field at the Purdue 16.
However, the NU offense was unable to cash in. After converting on 4th-and-1 for a first down, the Huskers were faced with a 4th-and-Goal at the Purdue 1, but a low snap to Armstrong hit the turf after it hit the sophomore's hands. Abdullah scooped it up in the backfield and tried to pound his way into the end zone, but was denied to give the ball back to the Boilermakers at their own 2.
Abdullah was injured on the play. He returned to the game on the next drive, but left the game after that, carrying the ball just six times for one yard in the opening minutes.
The Blackshirts forced another three-and-out following the failed fourth-down attempt by NU, but a strong wind helped set the Huskers with their third straight drive start inside the Purdue 35 to open the game, beginning at the Boilermakers' 31.
But the Nebraska offense was again unable to capitalize, as Drew Brown missed a 46-yard field goal wide right with 6:05 left in the quarter.
The two teams exchanged defensive stops before Foltz unleashed a 62-yard punt in the air with the wind at his back that actually took the Purdue return man to the turf at the Purdue 8.
The Blackshirts held Purdue to just one first down as Nebraska took a 7-0 lead to the second quarter. However, with the wind at their back, Purdue was able to string together some positive plays and turned a strange play into points to tie the score at seven with 11:48 left in the half.
Nebraska appeared to end a Purdue push into Husker territory with a Byerson Cockrell interception. But after Cockrell's interception, he was hit and fumbled to give the Boilermakers the ball back at the NU 32. Three plays later, Appleby uncorked a 25-yard touchdown run.
But Armstong and the Husker offense rose to the occasion with a pair of strong drives. NU answered Purdue's score with an eight-play, 65-yard march that included a 27-yard run by Armstrong to help set up a two-yard Cross touchdown blast with 8:09 left in the half.
After another Blackshirt stop, Brandon Reilly, who nearly blocked the first Purdue punt that Williams got both hands on, gave the NU special teams its second blocked punt of the day to set the Huskers up at their own 49.
The Big Red converted both blocks into points, as Armstrong capped a six-play, 51-yard drive against the wind with a 29-yard touchdown run to convert 4th-and-4 and give the Huskers a 21-7 lead with 3:35 left in the half.
Purdue threatened to answer that Nebraska score, but sophomore safety Nate Gerry intercepted his fourth pass of the season by laying out for an Appleby pass in the end zone to stop the threat. It was Gerry's third straight game with an interception.
Nebraska continued to dominate the third quarter, extending its margin to 28-7 with Cross' second short touchdown run of the day to cap a 10-play, 45-yard drive with 4:19 left. It was NU's third straight touchdown against the wind.
Purdue maintained possession the rest of the quarter, driving inside the Husker red zone to open the fourth with 4th-and-7 at the NU 17. The Boilermakers elected to go for it, and after a hurry by Anderson, safety Corey Cooper broke up an Appleby pass to end the Purdue threat.
Although Purdue was turned away on its first play of the quarter, the Boilermakers cut NU's margin to 14 with 10:18 left when Appleby connected with Cameron Posey on a 23-yard touchdown pass.
On the ensuing drive, the Boilermakers threatened to make it more interesting as Armstrong was intercepted for the second time on the day by linebacker Landon Feichter. But the Blackshirts turned the Boilermakers away to maintain the two possession lead.
Nebraska added a seven-yard Newby touchdown run with two minutes left after the Blackshirts held on 4th-and-21 at the NU 7 to give the offense another short field.
The Huskers will enjoy next weekend off before traveling to Wisconsin for a key Big Ten West Division clash with Wisconsin on Saturday, Nov. 15. Kickoff time and television coverage have not been announced.
Final: #15 Nebraska 35, Purdue 14
Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014
Memorial Stadium (Lincoln, Neb.)
First Quarter (7-0)
NEB - 13:25 - De'Mornay Pierson-El 17 pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. 16 run (Drew Brown kick), 2 plays, 17 yards, 0:35 - NEB 7-0
Second Quarter (Nebraska, 21-7)
PUR - 11:48 - Austin Appleby 25 run (Paul Griggs kick), 3 plays,32 yards, 0:50 - 7-7
NEB - 8:09 - Imani Cross 2 run (Brown kick), 8 plays, 65 yards, 3:39 - NEB 14-7
NEB - 3:35 - Armstrong 29 run (Brown kick), 6 plays, 51 yards, 2:28 - NEB 21-7
Third Quarter (Nebraska, 28-7)
NEB - 4:19 - Cross 1 run (Brown kick), 10 plays, 45 yards, 4:52 - NEB 28-7
PUR - 9:10 - Federico 41 FG, 6 plays, 51 yards, 2:58, NEB 28-10
NEB - 6:35 - Jordan Westerkamp 4 pass from Armstrong (Brown kick), 5 plays, 24 yards, 2:23 - NEB 35-10
Fourth Quarter (Nebraska, 35-14)
PUR - 10:18 - Cameron Posey 23 pass from Appleby (Griggs kick) - 7 plays, 32 yards, 3:06 - NEB 28-14
NEB - 2:00 - Terrell Newby 7 run (Brown kick) - 1 play, 7 yards, 0:06 - NEB 35-14
Final: #15 Nebraska 35, Purdue 14
Time of Game: 3:28
Game Start: 2:37 p.m. (central)