LINCOLN, Neb. – To be honest, linebackers coach Trent Bray tried hard to erase that game from his memory.
When defensive coordinator Mark Banker talks about it, he shakes his head and his voice gets a little softer than usual. Mike Riley doesn’t like talking about it hardly at all.
The Purdue loss last year, the 55-45 thrashing that kicked Nebraska to rock bottom, still hurts.
“It was, uh… it was a rough day for the Huskers,” Riley said on Tuesday.
Offensively, Nebraska was without its junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong and against the worst rush defense in the Big Ten, yet they only conjured 77 rushing yards.
But it was the defensive side of the ball that led Nebraska to lose six games before November for the first time in school history.
The Huskers gave up 55 points to the 94th best offense in the country at the time, a team that had only beaten two FBS teams in its past two seasons. It was the fifth-most points Nebraska had given up since 2008, behind losses to Wisconsin in 2012 and 2014, Ohio State in 2012 and Oklahoma in 2008.
Purdue quarterback David Blough threw for 274 yards and four touchdowns, and added 82 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. Eight different Boilermakers caught a pass, and three players caught more than five passes.
The floodgates broke open with that 56-yard touchdown run by Blough in the first quarter, Riley said.
“We gave up a bunch of big plays, that’s what stands out,” Riley said. “It started with a quarterback scramble run early and some big pass plays after that.”
After that, Riley said, Purdue kept Nebraska “really, really off balance.”
He counted. Purdue ran 17 misdirection plays that hurt the Huskers. A few paid off in touchdowns, including a 4-yard touchdown run by Domonique Young in the second quarter on third-and-goal.
And the 83-yard touchdown pass from Blough to DeAngelo Yancey in the third quarter on second-and-8.
“We didn’t tackle well and didn’t react very well,” Riley said.
Banker has a slightly different view of the game.
Yes, tackling and blown coverages were the tangible things that went wrong. But there was also a “complete and total” lack of effort.
“You never want to see the happen because that’s day one,” Banker said on Tuesday. “You don’t have to know anything about what you do schematically, but you can give effort, and all competitors give effort all the time.”
Banker admits Nebraska went into that game in a tough situation. Armstrong wasn’t healthy. A few defensive linemen weren’t 100-percent healthy either.
“But, whatever,” Banker said. “You go out and you compete anyway.”
There are two plays in particular late in the game that combine Banker’s frustration about effort and Riley’s frustration with tackling.
Trailing 49-38, Purdue was driving with a little more than two minutes remaining. After converting on a four-and-1, Purdue running back Markell Jones turned a 2-yard gain into a 16-yard gain with sheer effort.
Two plays later, Jones ran into the end zone from eight yards out, breaking two tackles along the way.
If Nebraska would have fought and played with pride throughout the game, Banker said, or maybe even just held Purdue to some field goals, it could have won. Instead, he said, the Cornhuskers rolled over.
“It as painful as coaches to have to watch the game,” Banker said.
What Nebraska now faces this Saturday is a chance at some sort of redemption. Some players, like senior safety Nate Gerry, say Nebraska “owes” Purdue a beatdown because of last year.
But Banker doesn’t want this to be a vengeance game. In fact, he’s told his players not to approach it like that.
“The bottom line is we need to beat the next team that we play, and that’s Purdue,” Banker said. “These guys know what happened last year and I don’t care if it was Purdue or Hobo-U, it happened and it wasn’t good.”
In a way, a lot of good did come out of that Purdue loss.
Bray said it made the team realized it needed to change the way it approached nearly everything, especially practice.
“We want to practice how we play, so we want to practice fast and get to the ball we gotta practice making plays,” Bray said. “And it took us some time to get them to do that, but that’s been the biggest difference for us is we practice so much better than we did a year ago.”
On Monday, Riley said he thought it might sound like he’s making it up, but maybe they found a better way to coach this team after that loss.
“Maybe we just got better, and we just built on that,” Riley said. “I think that the one thing for sure that I appreciate is that despite those circumstances a year ago at this game, everybody, the players kind of stayed with it and kept playing and working hard, and the coaches kept going.”
Since that game, Nebraska is 9-1, with wins over Michigan State, UCLA, Oregon and Indiana. The secondary has come together, and the run defense has tightened up.
Banker likes how far the defense has improved since then.
“This is a new season, thank God, and, hopefully, we learned our lesson from that,” Banker said. “That (game) should be something they carry with them all season for the whole season and every game.”
The game in 2015 was totally unacceptable, Banker said.
Now? Nebraska gets another shot.
“We need to take advantage of this opportunity,” Banker said. “It’s the only one we have.”