Game Day: Nebraska vs. Purdue

Against all odds

The Huskers may be 3-4. They may be coming off back-to-back blowout losses at home. They may be an underdog Saturday night to Purdue, a decade-long Big Ten bottom-feeder. The media may be cashing in its chips on the Mike Riley era. Some of the fan base might, too. There’s a rare Frost warning in Florida, after all.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Purdue rush defense

Purdue’s run defense gives up 4.28 yards per carry, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers have also given up an eye-popping five runs of 40 or more yards. So Nebraska can gash this defense — if it sticks to it. But Mike Riley’s offenses at NU haven’t stuck with the run in two games against Purdue, so it’s questionable whether it will on Saturday. The Huskers seem interested in riding Devine Ozigbo, who’s running with confidence, and trying to grind out clock. But Purdue’s 3-4 scheme, coordinated by Nick Holt, will be aggressive against the run. Every defense has been so far.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Purdue pass defense

The Huskers can have success here. Quarterback Tanner Lee is starting to deal, and Purdue’s pass rush — owners of just seven sacks this season — has a hard time getting after the quarterback without using the blitz. NU isn’t deep at receiver, but it has three guys — Stanley Morgan, JD Spielman and De’Mornay Pierson-El — who could play for any team in the Big Ten. Holt’s defenses can occasionally give up the big play-action pass. Lee and Co. have to pop a couple over the top of Purdue’s coverage, which gives up 7.2 yards per attempt this season. That’s tied for last in the Big Ten with Illinois.

Purdue rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Boilermakers’ spread offense, developed by coach Jeff Brohm, has such variety. Though it’s rooted in a shotgun passing game, PU can get in a pistol formation and run downhill at opponents. Nebraska has to be ready for both styles, but if Purdue is able to run the ball — like they did in a 55-45 win in 2015 — the Huskers won’t have much of a chance. Against teams not named Wisconsin and Ohio State, NU’s run defense has been solid-to-good. Expect more of the same on Saturday night, as Purdue tries to run early, has middling success, and switches more to the pass.

Purdue pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Boilermakers like to play two quarterbacks — David Blough and Elijah Sindelar. Blough is smaller and more of a true spread quarterback, while Sindelar is bigger and possesses the stronger arm. Purdue’s top receiver, Anthony Mahoungou, is from Paris, France, and Purdue’s tight ends have a combined 27 catches for 480 yards and five touchdowns. Nebraska has generally defended tight ends well this season, but don’t be surprised if NU’s pass defense struggles, even with the return of safeties Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed. It’s been a soft spot all year — opponents complete a whopping 67.1 percent of their passes — and Brohm’s schemes work.

Special teams

Purdue struggles in the return game, ranking among the Big Ten’s worst in kickoff and punt returns. The Boilermakers have also missed five field goals and an extra point. Both teams like their touchbacks and unreturned punts, but NU is just a little bit better with JD Spielman and De’Mornay Pierson-El as returners.

Intangibles

Since Purdue started playing Nebraska in 2013, the Huskers have had their odd struggles in this game. Even the 44-7 win in 2013 and the 35-14 win in 2014 were uglier than the final margin suggested. Purdue pulled the 55-45 upset in 2015 and stuck with Nebraska last season. Purdue’s ability to create turnovers — 15 takeaways so far this year — should ring some alarm bells for the Huskers. Though it’s a night game at Purdue, which should draw a good home crowd, this is preferable to the rainy, empty stadium that greeted NU in 2015. Nebraska may actually feed off a decent crowd.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s offensive line vs. Purdue’s defensive front seven

The Huskers can take a page out of Michigan’s book and try some power football at the Boilermakers. Michigan did that and eventually broke Purdue’s back in the second half of a 28-10 win. Purdue has a much-improved defense from last season, but it’s still vulnerable to the big running play, and the longer the season goes, the more tired that bunch will get.

Our take

If Nebraska has any aspirations to play in a bowl, this is probably a must-win. A loss to Purdue may sink the Huskers’ confidence for good. The Boilermakers are favored, but that betting line is rooted more in NU’s stinky analytics and middling performances than its potential. If Purdue plays its A game and Nebraska plays its A game, the Huskers are the better team. But NU hasn’t been any better than a C+ this season. What happens in West Lafayette won’t stay there. With new athletic director Bill Moos watching, the Huskers pull one out in overtime and keep their heads above water.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 27, PURDUE 24

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