WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It won’t be on the Big Ten’s proverbial postcard of great games. But Randy Gregory might find a fancy frame and put it above the fireplace.
Shaking off its own medley of injuries and miscues — including a potentially costly injury on offense and a questionable ejection on defense — Nebraska pummeled Purdue 44-7 in a stadium that was close to half-red at the start and almost empty by the end. A lovely day — seasonal temps, light breeze, cotton ball clouds hovering over campus trees daring to turn autumn yellow — didn’t get a crowd or a contest to match.
“That was one of the longest games I’ve ever been a part of,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said.
At the standard 3Ĺ hours, it really wasn’t. It just seemed like it. Fifteen combined penalties, 14 combined punts, five combined turnovers and at least that many injury timeouts can have that effect.
But it’s a Saturday Gregory won’t soon forget.
The 6-foot-6, 250-pound sophomore from Fishers, Ind. — who decommitted from the Boilermakers to play for NU — recovered a fumble late in the first half that led to a Husker touchdown and had two smothering second-half sacks of quarterback Danny Etling. The first of those sacks resulted in a safety.
Gregory left the spongy grass field at Ross-Ade Stadium to a throng of Husker fans chanting his name — “Gre-go-REE! Gre-go-REE!” — and family members waiting near the team buses.
“I’ve had this day marked down for so long,” Gregory said. “It was just real important for me to have a big game.”
It was important for the entire defense, which held the Boilermakers to 216 total yards and pitched a shutout until the game’s final minute, when Purdue scored on a 55-yard pass. Nebraska had its second- and third-string players in the game and clearly wasn’t expecting the Boilermakers to throw deep.
“That’s what happens,” Pelini said. “You let down your guard a little bit, you’re going to give up a play.”
By then, the Huskers (5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten) had long put the game out of reach despite a sputtering offense that lost top lineman Spencer Long to a knee injury on the opening drive and looked much sharper under Omaha Westside fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg than it did under redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong. Armstrong threw three interceptions and misfired on nine more passes.
Purdue used its bye week, Pelini and offensive coaches said, to revamp its defense in an attempt to harass Armstrong, who started his first road game in relief of an injured Taylor Martinez. Armstrong led NU to a touchdown on the first drive — darting 3 yards on an option play for his first career rushing score — but otherwise struggled to throw with or against the wind, or diagnose Purdue’s 3-4 defense. He finished with 48 yards of total offense.
“The front they played we didn’t practice,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “I don’t even know why we practiced. They completely did everything different. I thought our guys adjusted well. They kept their composure.”
Said Pelini: “They threw blitz after blitz after blitz. They were a lot of different looks. Having gone through that is a good experience for Tommy.”
If Armstrong got a lesson, Purdue’s Etling, a true freshman starting his first game, got an advanced degree.
In front of an announced crowd of 47,203 at Ross-Ade Stadium — a generous listing, helped by an estimated 15,000 NU fans — the Boilermakers tried to let Etling throw out of four- and five-wide receiver sets. Nebraska, having seen so many spread teams in the first month of the season, was ready, blanketing Purdue receivers and even forcing a first-quarter interception by safety LeRoy Alexander.
Nebraska had a hunch Purdue would run a spread offense, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, by reading area newspapers that cover the team. The Huskers were “pretty excited” to see it happen.
“I’d just as soon see someone try to spread it out and throw it,” Papuchis said. “Especially when he’s not a mobile quarterback. That’s good for the Huskers.”
NU’s four-man pass rush (and occasional blitz) consistently forced the jittery Etling to bail from the pocket and flit around, a bug caged in by white jerseys. He finished 14 of 35 for 184 yards and one interception.
“After the first couple times we hit him, I could see he wasn’t prepared for it,” Gregory said.
And yet Purdue trailed just 14-0 midway through the second quarter and had the ball at midfield after Nebraska corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste had been flagged and ejected for targeting a Boilermaker receiver with the crown of his helmet. Replays appeared to show Jean-Baptiste aiming lower than the head, but the ejection was upheld.
“I was watching the replay on the big screen,” Pelini said. “I don’t know. I was scratching my head on that one.”
But Purdue (1-5, 0-2) proceeded to welcome Gregory back to his Indiana home.
Running back Dalyn Dawkins dropped a quick sideways pitch from Etling, and Gregory scooped it up. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah — 20 carries, 126 yards — scored a touchdown on the next play with a 28-yard run. NU led 21-0 at the half. Kellogg — who finished 10 of 13 for 141 yards and a touchdown — led a third-quarter touchdown drive to pad the lead to 28-0.
Gregory stole the show later when he chased Etling backwards 17 yards until he corralled him. Etling fell into the end zone for a safety. It was one of Nebraska’s five sacks. Gregory got his second sack — an 11-yarder — later in the quarter. He had a third sack called back because of an offside penalty.
Nebraska’s defense is starting to find its rhythm, Gregory said, after a second strong performance against a Big Ten team. Granted, this Big Ten team ranked last in the league in scoring and total offense, but it’s a step forward from where NU was three weeks ago, baffled by South Dakota State’s attack.
“Everyone’s buying in, understanding their roles, understanding what to do,” Gregory said. “We’re listening. We’re trying to improve ourselves. That’s all our coaches really ask for.”
Said Papuchis: “Regardless of the storm that’s sometimes around them, they’ve just kind of stayed the course and kept working hard. You want to see the fruits of your labor — the results. And our guys, I think, are starting to see that.”
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Purdue game:
Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
Video: Husker fans at Purdue: