LINCOLN — Take out Nebraska’s first offensive series Saturday, and there wasn’t much to suggest what was about to happen when the Huskers started from their own 18-yard line with 8:26 left.
NU had held the football for more than six plays just once on its previous 12 possessions. Its two offensive touchdowns had come with the help of 45- and 72-yard pass plays.
Then it happened again.
I-back Terrell Newby ran for 3 yards, followed by quarterback Tommy Armstrong for 12. Then Newby again for 5, 5, 5 and 4 as the Huskers crossed midfield against Indiana.
“I knew when we’re kind of up in a situation like that, we want to be able to run the ball and kind of chew clock and move the ball down the field,” Newby said Monday. “I knew I was going to be called for a few of those plays.”
Nebraska didn’t completely finish it off, stalling at the Indiana 22 and settling for a Drew Brown field goal to bump its lead to 27-22. But the Huskers used 14 running plays to go those 60 yards, and Indiana watched 7:41 come off the clock and coughed up its last two timeouts.
If it looked familiar, recall that Nebraska inflicted a similar late-game slow burn on Illinois two weeks prior, running the ball and running the clock to close out a 31-16 win.
That ability to finish isn’t easily explained by coach Mike Riley, but it’s something he’ll keep taking as the Huskers have owned the fourth quarter during a 6-0 start.
“I think that we have actually worn some teams out and played better than them in the fourth quarter,” Riley said. “Is that because of the mentality of the team? Is that because of how good of shape they’re in? I’m not sure. But something’s there. I like that.”
In three Big Ten games, Nebraska has held the football for 32:09 of a possible 45 minutes in those fourth quarters. The final quarters of the last two games have included 150 total yards vs. Indiana and 149 vs. Illinois, with 36 of the combined 43 snaps being run plays.
Newby has been the biggest recipient of the work, running for 170 yards in the last two fourth quarters and averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
“I think a lot of that’s about Terrell Newby,” Riley said. “He’s a good football player. He’s a versatile football player, and he’s a tough-minded guy. I really like him. He’s been a man in the fourth quarter the last couple ballgames, and I really appreciate that.”
Newby isn’t exactly a power back who’s getting 30 carries and starting to reap the benefits of pounding on a team for three quarters. The senior goes just 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds.
But the combination of running hard and the offensive line taking over has maybe paved the way for what’s happening — and what NU hopes can continue when it starts seeing powerhouse defenses later in the season.
“I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. I feel like our whole offense is in pretty good shape,” Newby said. “You don’t see guys saying they’re tired at all. They’re not showing it.
“That’s what I love about our offensive line, especially. They’ll never show that they’re tired, no matter what. We’re going all the way down the field on an 80-yard drive, and they won’t show it.”
The three-touchdown surge against Illinois included drives of 18 plays for 75 yards and 11 plays for 59 yards. That kind of damage led to Newby eventually breaking a 63-yard TD run.
Riley said it could be as much mental as physical, with the result being that the offense has “tended to play their best ball at that time when exactly we need it.”
It might even include a little coaching, too, although Riley laughed about that part.
“Sometimes you wonder why it takes so long, but we find some stuff that looks like the best stuff to do,” Riley said.
After barely converting a fourth-and-1 with an Armstrong sneak Saturday, Newby would add runs of 13 and 14 yards as Nebraska moved into field-goal range — although he could have lived without the latter play being reviewed to make sure he was down before a fumble.
“I knew my knee hit, but it was kind of hard to see on the film,” he said. “It’s just a bad situation, but on my part it can’t happen, and it’s unacceptable.”
Newby wants to be why the late Husker drives keep going, not do anything to stop them. The 18-play possession against Illinois took 10:42 off the clock, the most time of any one series since at least 2000.
Nebraska has now owned an overall time of possession edge in all six games and ranks No. 13 nationally by averaging better than 34:24 per game. With just 45 seconds left to work with Saturday, a desperate Indiana threw an interception on its second play.
“I think it’s just our determination to finish,” Newby said. “That’s one of the things we always stress, to finish with the ball in our hands and leave it on us.”
Purdue at Nebraska
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday (Pregame: 9:30 a.m.)
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM