WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Tanner Lee had been waiting for an opportunity like this one.
The redshirt junior quarterback surely remembered the previous pair of fourth-quarter drives he and his Nebraska teammates set out on earlier this season.
Against Oregon on Sept. 9 and against Northern Illinois a week later, the Husker offense took the field in the game’s waning moments with a chance to take the lead or tie.
Both times, Lee was intercepted. Both times, the opponent celebrated.
The program could ill-afford the same result a third time when Lee trotted onto the grass at Ross-Ade Stadium trailing by five points with 1 minute, 22 seconds remaining, no timeouts at his disposal and 70 yards between his offensive line and the end zone.
Instead of misery in the two-minute drill, though, Lee delivered mastery.
The quarterback completed 7 of 8 passes to five different receivers to move the Huskers into range.
After feeling pressure and missing JD Spielman on second down, Lee fired a 13-yard strike to Stanley Morgan for the game-winning score and the Huskers escaped, 25-24 over the Boilermakers.
“I’ve wanted one like that,” said Lee, who completed 32-of-50 for 431 yards and two touchdowns. “You don’t want to win that way, but we practice it every day — every day — and we finally had a chance and an opportunity to use what we’ve been practicing and everybody did a great job of protecting and getting out of bounds.”
The Huskers needed it badly.
A third straight loss would have sent an already-warming narrative about Mike Riley’s future with the program into a frothing boil. It would have been the second loss at Purdue in as many trips for the third-year head coach. It would have dropped NU further into the dust in the Big Ten West.
Instead, the Huskers are 3-2 in league play and 4-4 overall. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative.
“It says we want to play for this coach,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “We’re going to fight for him, we’re going to fight for the guys in the locker room. I know us seniors, we’ve got four games left together. I’ve got four games left in my college career. That’s my button I’m pushing to fight. Even during the bye week and this week guys were practicing hard, and good things are going to happen (when) that happens.”
The Blackshirts got the one they needed when they stopped Purdue’s last offensive drive. Riley said he was mad at himself for burning a timeout earlier in the half and leaving the Huskers with just two when the Boilermakers took the field with 3:44 remaining.
D.J. Knox picked up a first down with carries of 7 and 5 yards, but then Richie Worship gained just 1 and NU used its first timeout. After quarterback David Blough ran for another yard, another timeout. Junior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg helped wrestle down Worship 4 yards short on third down and Joe Schopper’s 37-yard punt gave Lee and the Huskers the ball at their own 30 and 1:22 remaining.
First was a check-down to junior tailback Devine Ozigbo, who made a tackler miss and stepped out of bounds. Then, a high, perfectly placed ball for senior tight end Tyler Hoppes, himself working on a career night (five catches for 105 and a touchdown). De’Mornay Pierson-El took a short out route for 11 and stepped out. Then Ozigbo for 6 more. Now the Huskers were inside the 30 with a full minute remaining.
Lee felt pressure on the next snap but hit redshirt freshman JD Spielman for 10, a play Riley lauded as, “big, big, big-time quarterback play. Very exciting.” Ozigbo couldn’t get out of bounds on the next play, but Lee’s quick incompletion stopped the clock.
That set up Morgan’s route, against cover-2. The Huskers had the perfect call ready for just the right moment.
“Stan had been running a lot of corners, a lot of out-breakers throughout the game,” Riley said. “It was a nice call, a change-up, curveball call. In the coverage they were playing, the ball had to be thrown quickly and on-time before they could overlap that middle-of-the-field player.”
Added Lee, “(Morgan) can run it a few different ways depending on coverage. We’ve been coached up on that play tirelessly and we finally had a chance to make it work.”
Morgan finished with six catches for 112 yards.
Lee provided the kind of lift that members of this program have been adamant he could and would deliver.
“T-Lee is like a coach on the field,” Morgan said. “When I get into the huddle, I’m at attention. ‘Yes, sir.’ He was fighting the whole game. Even when we came in at half, he was ready. Before the game, he was ready. He’s very calm. He don’t get too hype, just a very calm guy.”
The feeling on the visiting sideline was anything but calm early on.
The Huskers looked listless offensively into the third quarter and were only within 24-12 of the Boilermakers with 14:23 remaining because senior kicker Drew Brown made all four of his field goal attempts – from 44, 21, 37 and 25.
“Thank God for Drew Brown,” Riley said. “He has had one of the most consistent years, and I’m talking day to day in practice, that I’ve ever been around.”
In the first 30 minutes, Nebraska ran for just 8 yards on 15 carries. They converted just 2-of-9 third-down tries, not exactly surprising given the attempts averaged an untenable 8.1 yards per.
Outside of the completions to Morgan and Hoppes, the Huskers managed just 76 first-half yards on 33 snaps (2.3 per).
The Huskers did pick up a fourth-and-inches from their own 34 on a Lee keeper on the last play of the first quarter, but failed on a fourth-and-1 Luke McNitt carry later in the same drive from their own 45.
Set up with a short field, the Boilermakers covered the distance in six plays. They nearly did it on the first when Isaac Zico beat Chris Jones to the post, but he dropped a perfectly thrown ball from Blough. No matter; a 23-yard completion and a pass interference on Jones moved Purdue to the 4 and then Worship barreled in.
D.J. Knox supplied the big run on Purdue’s 86-yard scoring drive just before halftime, running over sophomore linebacker Mohamed Barry in the hole and rumbling for 30 yards to the 15. Blough picked up 9 on the next snap and, one play later, executed a read-option keeper perfectly for a walk-in score and a 14-6 lead with 24 seconds remaining in the half.
In the second half, though, the Huskers scored on four of their six chances and put the game on Lee’s right arm.
He completed 19-of-32 for 288 in the final 30 minutes. Both of his touchdown throws came in the final 11:03.
“There was some point in there, I don’t remember exactly when it was, where I said, ‘We’re going to have to stop running on first down,” Riley said. “We’re going to have to start stretching these guys out a little bit. They were all crowded up in there that we needed it.”
Nebraska needed it and Tanner Lee had it. On Saturday night, that was enough to turn what looked like the makings of an ugly loss into the signature moment of Lee’s career to date. Only time will tell if it’s also a launching point.
“I think a win today, in any way, is what’s going to be huge for us going into this last stretch of the season,” Lee said. “I’m really glad it happened and I think we’ll be excited to get back to work.”