WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — There had been way too many big plays, too many passing yards, too many fourth-quarter fades. But when teams got inside the Nebraska's red zone, the Husker defense had actually been quite good.
Remember Miami. Making the Hurricanes kick four field goals and picking off a pass inside the 10 gave NU a chance.
But on Saturday against Purdue, the red-zone "D" slid south too. The Husker defense was done no favors by its offense, which had turnovers that four times started Boilermaker drives inside the Nebraska 22.
Even so, Purdue went a perfect six-for-six on touchdowns inside the Nebraska 20.
Nebraska still ranks 27th in percentage of touchdowns allowed by opponents in the red zone, keeping them from TDs 50 percent of the time. But here's the scary thing: Teams have been there 40 times. The Huskers rank 116th in red-zone defense attempts. Not … good.
For comparison, Michigan ranks No. 1 in red-zone defense attempts. Opponents have been there just 12 times. Teams have been in Wisconsin's red zone 15 times, Iowa's 17.
Yes, Nebraska has played one more game than some, but it still doesn't change how lopsided those numbers are.
Most disappointing for Nebraska, it had Purdue in tight spots on three third-and-goals. All three of those plays initially looked well-covered, yet Boilermakers made the play.
Sometimes the other guy does something special. But Nebraska’s defense coming up a dollar short on those plays has become too common.
Maybe the most underrated play in Nebraska's 55-45 loss Saturday? A third down in the third quarter. Nebraska had just cut it to 21-16. Purdue faced a third-and-6 from its 24. It felt like NU might grab the upperhand. The Boilermaker QB scrambled for 6½ yards. Move the sticks. So began a 13-play, 80-yard drive, the kind of drive that makes one side believe and the other side doubt.
Now, some more nays, and yays.
Coaches liked Lane Hovey even in the spring. With good speed and good size (6-4, 215), he seemed like he might be a key contributor.
But the junior from Adel, Iowa, took a step back in Miami in Week 3. A couple of costly drops. He drifted out of view.
So it was encouraging to see the wide receiver re-emerge on Saturday. He caught a couple of passes for 33 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown late.
“It’s been four years coming. My last touchdown was in high school, so it felt great to get in there, but at the same time, I have a lot of work left to do,” Hovey said.
While Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly are NU’s clear top playmakers at receiver — Westerkamp had 123 yards and Reilly had 88 — the Huskers are going to need more reps out of guys like Hovey and Stanley Morgan. You can't expect De'Mornay Pierson-El to come back quickly from what happened Saturday. And Alonzo Moore has missed the past two weeks.
Hovey, Morgan and senior Jamal Turner are going to have to make some plays down the stretch.
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After going minus five in turnovers on Saturday, the Huskers now rank 113th in turnover margin. They’ve given the ball away 17 times and taken it away just nine.
The turnover category was often a big bugaboo during the Bo Pelini era. You always wondered how things might be different for Nebraska if it ever flipped that stat. Keep wondering.
The five giveaways on Saturday jump off the page. The fact that Nebraska couldn't get one takeaway off redshirt freshman quarterback David Blough was almost as disappointing.
Safety Aaron Williams surely has a few plays on tape that will call for corrections.
But when you talk about individual bright spots, the true freshmen is one for this defense. Coaches like his football IQ. And he arrives at ball carriers with a purpose. He had two really big hits.
Maybe he stood over the ball carrier a little more than necessary after the second one, but frankly, this team needs more of that spirit.
After Saturday's game, Nebraska has now had 20 different starters on offense and 20 different starters on defense. That's a lot. Injuries, injuries.
Credit to Mike Riley and his staff. They haven't belabored that point. It's part of the game.
As pointed out on Twitter this weekend by broadcaster Kevin Kugler, the injuries have hit many Big Ten teams hard. Wisconsin, which is 7-2 and also hasn't yet had a bye week, has started 21 different offensive players and 17 different defensive players.
Others are dealing with it, too. But considering how thin Nebraska was at D-end and linebacker to begin with, the high amount of injuries this Husker team has suffered belong somewhere in the conversation of how this season has played out.
STAT TO GO
Undefeated Michigan State will roll into Lincoln ranked No. 6. So, you ask, what was the last Top-10 team Nebraska beat?
That'd be Michigan State — 2011. The Spartans came into Lincoln that year fresh off a Hail Mary win over Wisconsin ranked No. 9. Nebraska made life rough on Kirk Cousins. Rex Burkhead carried the ball 35 times. The Huskers won 24-3.
Since that game, though, the Huskers are 3-9 against ranked teams.