LINCOLN — Facing an already potent Purdue offensive attack, Nebraska’s defense couldn’t afford to be its own worst enemy.
Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, that was often the case in Saturday’s 42-28 Big Ten Conference loss to the Boilermakers at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska was penalized 11 times for 136 yards overall with its defense flagged for five 15-yard penalties, including a pair of roughing-the-passer calls.
“On both sides of the ball, we’ve just got to be a smarter team overall and that’s what Coach (Scott) Frost preached,” Nebraska junior cornerback Eric Lee said. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot. We had a long third down — third and forever — and then we shot ourselves in the foot with that roughing-the-passer (penalty), so we’ve just got to make smarter plays all around.”
Nebraska junior defensive end Khalil Davis had the first roughing-the-passer penalty, and another late in the third quarter called on Huskers’ senior Freedom Akinmoladun gave Purdue a first down on a third-and-20 play.
NU junior defensive end Carlos Davis — Khalil’s twin brother — said those types of mistakes were critical for the Huskers as they tried to rally from behind but couldn’t get enough defensive stops.
“I know where he was coming from, but it just wasn’t smart,” Carlos Davis said of Khalil Davis’ 15-yard penalty. “We can’t have that when we’re down points. I love him, but you can’t be doing that.”
Carlos Davis said he wasn’t sure if Akinmoladun’s roughing-the-passer penalty was the correct call.
“It’s a fine line now,” Davis said. “It’s very touchy. They’re protecting the quarterbacks even more, so you’ve got to be careful on when you can hit them and when you can’t because they’re going to call it if they think it’s malicious.”
The bottom line, Lee said, is that Nebraska’s players need to take responsibility for cutting down mistakes and penalties.
“Coaches can preach it all they want, but I had a coach before who said there’s nothing like peer pressure, so I think it’s got to be on the players,” Lee said. “We’ve got to hold each other to a better standard and just have a little better accountability. We can’t continue to (make) all these mistakes, so once the players start harping on it more, I think the penalties and stuff like that should definitely go down.”
Despite efforts to clean up the mistakes, miscues and poor judgment continued to take their toll on Nebraska as the Boilermakers converted seven of 16 third-down opportunities and piled up 516 yards of total offense. Purdue quarterback David Blough did most of the damage, completing 25 of 42 pass attempts for 328 yards and a touchdown.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we get into our different packages and make sure we execute those,” Lee said. “And the big thing is just knowing the formations because they’re a big indicator of what plays they’re going to run, so we have to make sure that next time, we study more and know the route before they run it.”
Every time Nebraska’s defense appeared to be on the verge of getting a stop, Carlos Davis said something always seemed to happen to give Purdue’s drives new life.
“Either it was somebody missed the call or somebody missed the tackle — there was always something on third down,” Davis said. “Fifteen-yard penalties and things like that hurt us, especially on third down. I can’t even explain it.
“It hurts, but if we’re going to win, we’ve got to fix that and that. That’s going to be a big point, going into next week, is not having those bad plays, those 15-yarders and those mistakes on third down. That’s big.”
Members of Nebraska’s coaching staff have said publicly that if players fail to execute properly and continue making mistakes, personnel changes would be made. That seemed to be the case on Saturday as Lee, who wasn’t listed on the two-deep depth chart, played most of the second half.
Lee said he thought he responded well and finished with five tackles, including two solo stops.
“I’ve been waiting patiently, just hoping my name gets called,” Lee said. “Today, my name got called and I just got to showcase what I was able to do. Hopefully I put enough on film to let me get more playing time. If not, I’ll just keep growing as a player.”
Lee said the biggest positive he can take from Nebraska’s 0-4 start is that he and his teammates haven’t quit. Far from it, he said.
“The biggest step that we showed is that we still kept fighting,” Lee said. “I think last year, a lot of us, when we’d get down we’d kind of roll over and (say), ‘It is what it is,’ but (today), definitely a lot of people still showed fight.
“The film speaks for itself. We could’ve easily rolled over in that second half and just called it a day, but we kept going and attacking and attacking. I think that’s the best thing I saw.”