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Ugly but undefeated: Huskers are stressed in win over Purdue

Biackshirts shine, o-line struggles as NU prepares for Wisconsin showdown


For Nebraska football, victories in October have been a precious commodity over the past decade. So for that reason alone, Nebraska’s unconvincing 27-14 win over a weak Purdue team is nothing to sneer at.

But I can’t deny it. This thought crossed my mind more than once as Nebraska’s beat-up offensive line kept misfiring its way throughout a gorgeous autumn afternoon in Lincoln: “Is this really an undefeated, Top-Ten team?”

For one more week, it certainly is. The Cornhuskers had just enough to beat a Purdue team that just lost its head coach and entered the game with one of the worst defenses in the nation. Ugly wins count in the standings just as much as blowouts, don’t they? (I see Hawkeye fans nodding in agreement.)

Impressive or not, it evened Nebraska’s October record at 19-19 over the past 10 seasons.

Nebraska has a chance to close out its first undefeated October since 2001, but it has a lot to prove next weekend in Madison, Wisconsin.

As Mike Riley pointed out in September, the stakes keep getting higher. Nebraska is 7-0 overall, 4-0 in the Big Ten and can get a stranglehold on the Big Ten West if it wins at Wisconsin. All the Blackshirts have to do is hold the Badgers to nine points, and victory is likely. Or hold them to 19 points, and victory is possible.

Can anyone see a way to more than 20 Nebraska points against the Badgers? It would surely involve a pick-six, or a punt return touchdown from De’Mornay Pierson-El.

The 2016 version of the Big Red looks a bit like one of Tom Osborne’s teams from the mid-1980s. This bunch of Huskers plays hard and has a lot of heart, but they’re about to run into a couple of teams with more talent, especially on defense. Osborne’s teams used to win some of those tussles against speedier, more athletic Oklahoma and Florida teams, but not many.

To beat Wisconsin, the Huskers need the return of Jordan Westerkamp, Cethan Carter and Devine Ozigbo, but more than that, they need steady play from their offensive line, which was playing at less than full strength. Tackles Nick Gates and David Knevel both need to heal after suffering ankle sprains. Knevel left the game for the third consecutive week. Gates, who missed two practices and was not cleared to play until Saturday morning, hung in there and played the entire game, but played below his usual level.

This is the kind of game that a Top 10 team puts away by the end of the third quarter, and gets valuable snaps for its second-stringers the rest of the way. But Nebraska could manage only 157 yards on the ground against the leaky Boilermakers, and more than half of those yards came in the fourth quarter.

Coaches put the players on the field who they believe give them the best chance to win. Since Mike Cavanaugh used a gimpy Gates and Knevel as long as he could, it’s pretty obvious that quality o-line depth is at least a season away.

We learned earlier in the week that the fullback trap, which was one of the Huskers’ more productive running plays last season, has been taken off the table because NU’s pullers cannot get the job done. Saturday against Purdue, it was tough to find anyone who could block his man straight ahead one-on-one with consistency. That’s pretty unnerving going into back-to-back games at Wisconsin and Ohio State, who have two of the finest defenses in the nation. Armstrong could be running for his life.

Langsdorf was asked after the game if I-back Terrell Newby had trouble finding running lanes. “There weren’t any,” Langsdorf said, drawing a few laughs from the press corps. Then he assessed his linemen. He was forthright. “We had problems with one-on-one matchups,” he said. “Guys were getting beat.

“I think they’re battling,” he said. “I think we protected OK. We’re going to have to battle through bumps and bruises and we’re going to have to find a way to run the ball.”

Thank heaven for the Blackshirts. They leaked early, giving up two long touchdown drives and 239 first-half yards, including pass plays of 44 and 88 yards. Then they tightened the noose on Purdue, allowing only 94 yards in the second half. They nailed it down, giving Husker fans a chance to celebrate one more elusive October victory.

Kirk Herbstreit and his GameDay buddies on ESPN really don’t need to smirk and raise questions about whether Nebraska is Top Ten-worthy. The Husker offensive line is doing it for them. Can they turn things around and make their critics shut their mouths?

Up through the Illinois game, the long slow improvement of the young Husker offensive line was right on schedule. In fact, it could be argued that it was slightly ahead of schedule. But last week at Indiana, the o-line started regressing. It fell back even further against a bunch of Boilermakers who had been allowing 34.3 points per game (No. 108 in the nation) and 264 rushing yards per game (No. 124 in the nation).

Newby deserves a lot of credit for hammering out 82 yards rushing, considering the level of line play he had to work with. About one of every four Husker running plays went for negative yardage. Tommy Armstrong and one of the best groups of wide receivers in the nation also deserve credit for piecing together 27 points with only marginal pass protection. Armstrong completed 17 of 31 passes for 252 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, which is not bad when you consider that he was sacked once and avoided several others with his scrambling ability.

The most disappointing thing about Nebraska’s offensive struggles was that until just before halftime, Nebraska played penalty- and turnover-free, and still trailed 14-10. In fact, for more than half the game, Purdue’s defense looked more athletic than the Husker offense.

Ever since Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury at West Lafayette in 2013, Nebraska has struggled with Purdue far much more than it should. Had it not been for a gift touchdown in the opening minute after the first of two Kieron Williams interceptions, NU likely would have lost to Purdue for the second consecutive season, because the Boilermakers, who are tied for last place in the Big Ten West, and their interim head coach could have played an ultra-conservative second half and avoided giving the Huskers good field position. That might have been enough to eke out a win.

Good thing the young defensive line is showing steady improvement, and the kicking game is stabilizing. The Huskers will need all the defense they can get, and a clear edge in the kicking game, to get out of Madison with a victory.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.

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