WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It was midway through the second quarter and Purdue's defense hadn't shown one look that Nebraska players had practiced against during the week.
So offensive coordinator Tim Beck went off script. He called a middle handoff out of the I-formation that wasn't among the dozens of plays originally included in their game plan. The outcome ultimately defined the Huskers' afternoon.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong fumbled the snap, and a blitzing safety had a clear shot at Ameer Abdullah. But the athletic I-back escaped his grasp, found the open field and scored from 28 yards out to put the Huskers up 21-0.
It was that kind of day. Call it unconventional — almost uncoordinated — dominance. Nebraska scored six touchdowns and totaled 435 yards in a 44-7 win at Purdue, even though its offense never quite figured out how to attack a Boilermaker defense that broke its own tendencies almost every single play.
“The long touchdown run (by Abdullah): 'Hey, let's run this because this is what they're doing.' It was one of those,” Beck said after the win. “It wasn't even on the game call sheet.”
Beck expected some of this going into Saturday, certainly.
Purdue is committed to rebuilding for the future, and it had a bye week to alter strategy or perhaps make a few schematic adjustments. There were rumblings during the week that the Boilermakers might experiment Saturday with a three-man front, moving defensive tackle Bruce Gaston to D-end.
But what the Boilermakers did Saturday went beyond the typical week-to-week tweaks, according to Beck.
It felt like a chemistry test, he said. One that you didn't study for. One that you didn't even know you had to take.
He couldn't remember four quarters that were more mentally taxing on the coaches and the players.
“I'm proud of them,” Beck said of his players. “Let me tell you, it wasn't easy. I've coached a long time, and it was hard for me.”
The Nebraska players downplayed the mental whirlwind afterward.
To their credit, Beck said, the Huskers found a way to deal with the unexpected alignments and coverages from Purdue, and allowed their athleticism to take over.
That was especially evident when NU most needed a big play.
Nebraska converted 10 of its 21 attempts on third down, totaling 151 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
Senior quarterback Ron Kellogg found Jordan Westerkamp for 23 yards to sustain a scoring drive in the first quarter, threading a pass into a small window downfield despite Purdue dropping eight guys into coverage.
On the next possession, Armstrong bought time, rolled out of the pocket and found Westerkamp for 21 yards to move the markers.
Enunwa caught three third-down passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. He turned a short pass into a 35-yard gain in the second quarter, leaping over a defender, spinning out of a tackle and stiff-arming another guy before being forced out of bounds.
Those are the types of plays that validate Kellogg's third-down strategy. “Get it to my skill guys and let them go to work,” he said.
Kellogg actually embraces the third-down scenario, even when the defense knows Nebraska has to pass. The Huskers converted five of their eight third downs when they needed at least 8 yards Saturday — and two of the failed attempts were because of dropped passes.
“I love third downs,” Kellogg said. “When you convert on a third down, the energy from a defense — they're deflated.”
It didn't stop Purdue from mixing it up, though.
NU guard Mike Moudy was certain after the game that he'd seen every type of blitz in the book. It got worse when Nebraska would audible or look to the sideline for a play call.
“You'd identify it and then they'd (call) something else — because you changed the play and then they changed the play,” he said.
A chess match, Moudy said. Receivers coach Rich Fisher called it a “blitz-fest.”
At one point, Beck swears, he saw three down linemen with three linebacker-like players aligned about 5 yards directly behind them — while a hybrid guy roamed around and rushed from any direction. A variation of a 3-3 stack, Beck said.
“I've never seen that,” he said.
Beck said he was spending so much time dissecting Purdue's approach that he didn't realize until the third quarter that veteran guard Spencer Long hadn't returned to the game.
Offensive line coach John Garrison didn't watch a defensive snap.
“I made sure I saw the defensive coordinator (Greg Hudson) after the game. I thought he had some great ideas,” Garrison said. “He kept me drawing on the sideline the entire game.”
The Huskers plan to learn from it. Abdullah finished with 126 rushing yards, but it wasn't until the second half that Nebraska's offensive line started consistently clearing room for him. NU did call a couple of toss plays out of the shotgun to run away from the Boilermakers' blitzes.
Armstrong, in his third career start, threw three interceptions (one ricocheted off Enunwa's hands). There were clear instances of miscommunication, where a receiver read Purdue's coverage differently from the quarterback.
Junior Kenny Bell had one of those moments in the third quarter. Playing the slot position for the first time this year, he misread the safety and broke off his route. The ball sailed 20 yards over everyone.
But despite the issues, Nebraska never lost its composure, Beck said. In fact, his players made it look easy at times.
“We put enough points on the board and made enough plays when we needed to,” Beck said. “That's why you've got playmakers.”
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Purdue game:
Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
Video: Husker fans at Purdue: