WEST LAFAYETTE — In order to get ahead, Purdue head football coach Jeff Brohm decided to go in reverse.
More to the point, the Boilermakers went with a reverse.
Sophomore Aidan O’Connell, Purdue’s third-string quarterback, finished off one drive with a touchdown, then engineered a 78-yard, 13-play drive that ended with David Bell’s 9-yard touchdown run on a reverse end-around with 1:08 left to give the Boilermakers a 31-27 Big Ten win over Nebraska.
“I am definitely proud of our football team,” Brohm said. “It was something that we needed. I think our guys came and competed and played hard and played to the end. That’s what we had to do.”
The game-winning drive started at the Boilers’ own 22-yard line. With O’Connell at the helm — he took over for injured Jack Plummer, who went down with a broken ankle after a 14-yard scramble a few minutes earlier — Purdue (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten) chewed up precious time and yardage en route to the end zone.
O’Connell was 6-for-6 passing on the final drive, finding tight ends on four of those completions. Brycen Hopkins had three of those catches on the drive, including a 26-yard catch at Nebraska’s 27 with less than two minutes remaining. He had a 10-yard reception two plays later that put Purdue in the red zone.
With New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on the sidelines cheering on his alma mater, the Boilermakers decided it was time to play for the win.
On a third-and-5 from the Cornhuskers’ 9, the Boilers faked a power run up the middle and O’Connell tossed it to Bell on an end-around. The freshman wide receiver went into the end zone untouched for the game-winning touchdown with 1:08 left.
“We were in field goal range and we could’ve definitely tied the game,” Brohm said. “But we wanted to take the risk. I thought it was a fairly safe play, even though it was a reverse and you’re tossing it in the air. … I felt good going into it.”
It was the 16th consecutive touchdown scored by a freshman this season, dating back to the Minnesota game.
Nebraska (4-5, 2-4) took over at its own 20-yard line with 1:01 remaining. Two incompletions and a 7-yard pass later, the Huskers faced fourth down. Purdue lineman Derrick Barnes tipped quarterback Adrian Martinez’s pass at the line and it fell incomplete to seal the win – the Boilers’ second straight over the Huskers.
The day didn’t look like it would go in Purdue’s favor early on. On the third play of the Boilers’ third possession — and trailing 7-0 — Plummer attempted a desperation shovel pass into the arms of defensive tackle Darrion Daniels, who returned it from Purdue’s 20-yard line to the 2. The Boilers forced Nebraska to settle for a 23-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Purdue got on the scoreboard with 7:04 left in the second quarter when King Doerue, who finished the game with 102 all-purpose yards on 20 touches, scored the first of his two touchdowns on a 3-yard pass from Plummer.
The Boilers took their first lead with just 14 seconds left in the half when freshman tight end Payne Durham hauled in a 16-yuard pass from Plummer for his first career touchdown. On that play, Durham broke a tackle at the 10-yard line and side-stepped/spun away from another defender at the 6 before stumbling into the end zone, giving Purdue a 14-10 halftime lead.
The teams exchanged field goals in the third quarter. Nebraska’s Barret Pickering had a 21-yard field goal while Purdue J.D. Dellinger belted a 44-yarder through the uprights — with plenty of distance to spare — that put the Boilermakers ahead 17-13.
Martinez put Nebraska back on top with a 2-yard run with 12:30 left in the fourth.
The injury to Plummer loomed large as the Ross-Ade crowd let out a collective gasp.
With Purdue trailing 20-17, Plummer was directing a drive deep into Nebraska territory. From the Huskers’ 25, he sprinted upfield on a draw, dodged a couple of defenders and dove forward as Nebraska defenders collapsed on top of him.
Plummer briefly got up, hobbled a few feet, then went back down to the turf. He was aided off the field by Purdue’s medical staff, clearing the way for O’Connell athletic heroics.
The sophomore had only thrown 15 passes in two games, but he finished off what Plummer started, capping the drive with Doerue’s 7-yard run with 6:50 left and a 24-20 lead.
Before his injury, Plummer was 25 of 34 for 242 yards, two TDs and two interceptions.
Martinez, who was 22 of 39 for 247 yards and an interception, put the Huskers back into the lead at 27-24 on a 4-yard run with 4:21 left in the game.
Hopkins finished with eight catches for 97 yards and Bell had seven catches for 23 yards, along with his game-winning 9-yard TDrun.
Ben Holt led Purdue’s defense with 10 tackles, while Jalen Graham had eight tackles and two tackles for a loss. Barnes and Kai Higgins each had two tackles for a loss, while Cam Allen had one tackle for a loss.
Purdue travels to Northwestern for a noon ET kickoff Nov. 9. BTN will carry the game.